Inventing Languages

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently read The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean Telt by Hisself, written by acclaimed children's author David Almond, best-known for Skellig. It's a suspenseful story, as told by a strange boy who's been kept in solitary confinement for all of his life. It's a challenging read, as the boy expresses himself phonetically, in a way that comes across as a new language. It takes a while to get into the swing of it, and even then, I found myself re-reading sentences:

This tym its her tuch that draws me back. I feel her fingers & her thums on me. They hold my hed & tilt it. They stroke my hare & lift it to feel the lenth of it & then the cowm moovs throu it & I feel the teeth of the cowm agenst my scalp. I here the sownd of the sissors snipping snip snip. And her voys sings in my ere & her breth is on my skin. And the cuttas sweep up from the bak of my nek towards my hed & they sweep ova my templs.

One effect of the awkward style was that I concentrated more than I normally would to make progress, which has made me realise how much I instinctively scan ahead while reading conventional English.

I use colloquialisms and local expressions in my Cornish Detective series, but not to the stage where the reader has to slow down to interpret the meaning. Local expressions such as dreckly (for directly or sooner or later), as in "I'll get around to doing it dreckly" or giss on for "Are you pulling my leg?" add to the atmosphere of the county—as well as helping to differentiate between the born and bred locals and incomers from up country.

There are several classic novels famed for their alternative languages, such as Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. J. R. R. Tolkien invented many mythical languages, the most developed of which was Elvish.

More recently, several novelists have constructed stories expressed in dialect that's so thick as to be awkward to negotiate. These include Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh whose Scots dialogue is spelled phonetically. I just tried reading a highly-praised debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth. The Wake is written in an invented language that owes much to ancient Anglo-Saxon, as it's set in 11th-century Lincolnshire. Even though I studied Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and ancient Greek and Latin at school, I still found The Wake very hard going—to such an extent that it really got in the way of understanding (or caring about) the story. Here's an example:

loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mynd. there is those now who specs of us and what we done but who cnawan triewe no man cnawan triewe but i and what i tell i will tell as i sceolde and all that will be telt will be all the triewth. triewth there is lytel of now in this half broc land our folc wepan and gretan and biddan help from their crist who locs on in stillness saen naht as they weeps. and no triewth will thu hiere from the hore who claims he is our cyng or from his biscops or those who wolde be his men by spillan anglisc guttas on anglisc ground and claiman anglisc land their own

(That made my spell-checker explode!)

Do any of you invent languages for the worlds you write about in your stories? Are they based on conventional and comprehensible speech—or are they wildly different?

The excerpt quoted makes me think of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, written in an mostly invented medieval dialect with what Hoban thought of as phonetic transliteration of a pre-20th-century Kentish accent. It took me a while to get used to it and then I loved the book, the half-knowing and deciphering. Like Burgess' Clockwork Orange, the repetitions are there to imprint the new language so you learn faster.

Eimear McBride's novel is mostly Joyce, punning, multi-linguistic and pre-linguistic in places. I thought it marvellous and after a while I realised what was going on, the tremendous pathos of a girl protecting her younger brother. And all kinds of other stuff going on -- very Irish and orchestrated for antic sonic. If I listened to the sounds, it made more sense than just reading visually.
I've had to invent a little New Zealand Draconic. Mostly swear words. My beta readers have mostly beaten any non-standard English dialogue out of me, though I usually don't mind reading it in other's work--it helps me hear the person's voice in my head as I read.
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