Archive for February, 2016


My copy is already a bit beat-up. Lots of dog-eared pages as well.

I was really excited to get my hands on this book, and remain excited about it having just finished reading it. Before I get into more depth (though honestly, this will be a relatively shallow and overwhelmingly positive review), let me note that I recommend this book to a wide variety of folks: those of you interested in creating languages of your own (the obvious target audience, but I would say it doesn’t have to be the only audience); those interested in an accessible introduction to the basics of linguistics (I wish I’d had something this engaging and easy to follow when I was in undergrad); writers/creators who don’t plan on creating their own languages, but might consider hiring a conlanger to create one (the conclusion of the book contains a special appeal to you); fans of Game of Thrones, Defiance, or any of the other franchises Mr Peterson has created languages for (it’s an opportunity to dig into worldbuilding, which everyone seems to be interested in now); fans of fantasy and sci-fi in general (again, if you are someone into the worldbuilding side of things); and those just interested in an very unusual angle on language itself (whether language as art, or language as something we can play and create with in a very different way than what we already do in poetry or prose). Now, on to the book itself…

Peterson‘s book is an introduction to conlanging, or the creation of constructed languages. While the term “conlang” is recent, most folks are aware now that this was a big element of JRR Tolkien’s creative work, his creation of the Elvish languages predating or contemporaneous with his initial creation of the myths and legends that lay behind the world of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and people are generally aware of the language construction that went into Star Trek (Klingon) and Avatar (the blue folks, not the airbending guy)–and now most folks know of Game of Thrones and other franchises that have brought Peterson on board to add some linguistic depth to their projects. In-between Tolkien and Peterson, and in particular with the rise of the internet, various conlang hobbyists coalesced into a community–I’d run across them once or twice online, but I’m afraid I was always too shy about joining groups, so I missed out. Due to some changes in how folks currently use the interwebz to stay in touch, more recent hobbyists have started constructing languages on their own without awareness of or ready access to this community and its resources, and in his very nice introduction to the history of conlangs Peterson sets his own book up as an attempt to remedy this, providing the new generation of hobbyists (and potential professionals, now that you can get paid for this) with a quick guide to some of the basics.

After his more historically minded introduction, Peterson’s book is essentially a very brief and easy-to-follow introduction to Linguistics, with special notes relevant to the conlang practitioner. There are four large chapters: Sounds, Words, Evolution, and The Written Word. Each chapter is itself subdivided into subtopics in logical sequence, followed by a case study from one of Peterson’s now-famous languages. For example, Chapter 1: Sounds is divided into Phonetics, Oral Physiology, Consonants, Vowels, Phonology, Sound Systems, Phonotactics, Allophony, Intonation, Pragmatic Intonation, Stress, Tone, Contour Tone Languages, Register Tone Languages, Sign Language Articulation, and Alien Sound Systems, followed by a case study on the Sounds of Dothraki (one of the languages Peterson constructed for Game of Thrones). You should remember that, however helpful these sections are for getting across the essentials of a topic (especially what is essential for a conlanger), they will not cover absolutely everything–for example, Chapter 2 on Words covers nouns, verbs, and word order–nothing in there about, for example, conjunctions specifically. That said, nouns and verbs were the obvious and most complicated things to focus on, and as far as I can tell (being a Norse mythologist rather than a linguist) he does a great job of succinctly showing just how varied these things can be in different languages. I especially enjoyed his chapter on evolution, as I have been trying to read up a bit on historical linguistics on my own time (I’ve got a decent understanding of what goes on with the Scandinavian languages, but I’ve never been formally introduced to Historical Linguistics as a topic in its own right), and my take on that chapter is pretty much my take on the book as a whole–it’s a great, concise, and accessible summary, and it will set you up nicely to continue on to more specialized introductions (in, say, historical linguistics–I’ve been reading Lyle Campbell’s intro lately–or phonology, or morphology, or, to really get a picture of the potential for variety, Typology–I got my hands on a used copy of Whaley’s intro to the topic recently, hope I can find time to work through it).

In addition to using this book as a springboard into more thorough introductions to various linguistic topics, think of it as inspiration to start learning more languages yourself, whether at a conversational level or just skimming a wikipedia summary–if you want to get a feel for what languages can do, in all their variety, there is nothing for it but to get your hands dirty. Looking at my own conglanging experience (small as it is), I have at times been too conservative, not pushing far enough outside the “box” of the languages I knew, and other times have been just plain silly, trying things that were ridiculous and could not make for pragmatic communication (which is fine–you have permission to be silly–but once you discover something isn’t working, you put it away). Taking courses in linguistics is a no-brainer, if you are in college, and I really wish I had stuck with that myself, instead of being super-intimidated by my first linguistics course (this was about 15 years ago now). And while I definitely prefer Peterson’s book as a general introduction, you can also read Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction and Advanced Language Construction for another introduction to the art (Rosenfelder’s book feels more like a checklist–“Do you do this in your language, or that?”–than a general introduction, but it seems like it can be taken as nicely complementary to Peterson’s. Rosenfelder covers conjunctions for example).

I got sucked into the conlang world (though I wasn’t aware there was any sort of community–and at the time maybe there wasn’t) when I was just a kid, after deciding (in 3rd grade) to become a novelist. It was not long before I discovered Tolkien and decided I wanted to be Tolkien. Since Tolkien was an academic, this is largely to blame for my going into Scandinavian Studies, and more specifically Old Norse language and literature. And of course, I discovered early on (before Jr Hi, I think) that Tolkien had invented languages as part of his worldbuilding, and of course I had to do that too–the only problem was, I had never learned a foreign language, and when I started (in High School Spanish) I felt completely lost. I think I had some abortive attempts at a fantasy language in high school, back when I first started creating the world that (though it is very different now) I am still writing in. The next attempts, and the most serious ones for a long time, were in early grad school, creating languages for two of the different human cultures involved in my stories. Honestly, I still didn’t really know what I was doing–I had learned a variety of languages by then, but I’ve always been better at learning to read a language than I have been learning to think systematically about it. Not that these were total losses, but I’m currently revisiting these and trying to figure out what can be salvaged (a decent amount, I think–it seems to mostly be a matter of filling in gaps and reframing what I’ve already done). While I find it a lot harder, I get the same sort of kick, or buzz, out of creating languages that I do out of writing–both feed my soul in a way that my academic work, rewarding in one way, and my non-verbal creative work (art and music), rewarding in another way, do not quite cover on their own. Now if only I could get rid of that feeling that tells me “shouldn’t you be doing something more practical or career oriented right now?” whenever I try to do what I love…

Bonus link: Watch a conlang being made right here! Demonstrates nicely that screwing around with language creation can be the work of an afternoon–sure, if you really want to make something of it you will have to put a lot more in, but honestly, it makes me feel like sitting down for a couple hours and just hacking together a quick grammar and vocabulary and seeing how it goes–no pressure, after all (unless you are doing it for HBO I guess…)

And another (added more recently)–check out this interview with Rose Lemberg, a professor and specialist in sociolinguistics (among other things), who discusses some aspects of her own conlang history early-midway through the interview.

Check out Peterson’s tumblr as well, and his youtube channel!

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Oddfits Authors CopiesMy friend Tiff’s novel The Oddfits (or the first in the series anyway) is out today! I was able to read it ahead of time on Kindle via my Amazon Prime membership, and I really enjoyed it! (and you can check out other early reviews on amazon, or if you want a summary of the good and the bad, check out her blog). Be warned, it is indeed a very Odd book (haha… OK, I’m not the first to say that…)–whether this is a taste that can be acquired or not I don’t know, but it is certainly not going to sit right with everyone, while others will love it–according to the reviews, some have loved it despite not having any idea what in the world they were reading…

Set in Singapore, the book follows Murgatroyd, son of a pair of not-really-the-best British parents, persecuted, to all appearances a bit “touched in the head,” but still a massive sweetie, really, and with something special (not in the derogatory figurative sense, despite my “touched” comment) about him that comes to fruition (just in the nick of time) over the course of the book. The book is heavy on local color, and I enjoyed the glimpses of “Singlish” throughout. TLDR: loved this book, you should definitely go out and buy it, but it is “weird” and I realize there are some Stucks (see the book for the reference) out there who may just not be into it. On to more in-depth notes…

While I dislike referencing Joseph Campbell (he’s not particularly in-favor in the academic circles I run in), this first book in the series is essentially a drawn-out dramatization of the Call to Adventure (first step on Campbell’s Heroic Journey). We do get to see the world of the adventure in question in this book, it’s just that the conflict in this volume centers around the main character’s discovery of his “specialness,” his initial rejection of the call to go away, and… well, I guess I shouldn’t spoil things too much…

I’m teaching a course in Other Worlds right now (though in Scandinavian literature, not SE Asian or Australian literature…), and one of my favorite things about this book is the nature of the other world in question. I think I would describe it (and the book as a whole) as a mixture of Wrinkle in Time (with the tesseracts, by which one can apparently interact in a very non-normal way with the space-time continuum simply by learning to perceive that continuum in a more all-encompassing way–or something like that…), Harry Potter (with the parallel world of special people, as well as the wish-fulfillment premise of “oh, I’m the one!”), and the absurdity and whimsy of a Roald Dahl novel–well, except this isn’t a children’s novel. It could probably pass for a YA novel (I think I may remember Tiff originally marketing it as such), but with a 25 year old protagonist, with (as far as I’ve seen) nothing explicitly noting this book as a YA novel, I take this as an adult fantasy novel written to those who miss the whimsical and surreal flavor of some of the best children’s lit. It feels like part homage, part satire–I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, which, for me, is one of the reasons I like it. One reviewer (who did not like it, apparently) called it “miscategorized children’s lit,” and there will be others who have the same impression–it’s an intentional mish-mash, and those who don’t like mish-mash of this sort will probably not like this. Hm, maybe imagine all the influences (L’Engle, Rowling, Dahl) I mentioned above combined into a Wes Anderson film… except it’s a novel, not a film. But that may get across a bit of the impression the book gives, the artifice of the fiction laid bare and the characters (at times) larger-than-life caricatures. It’s part of the fun! And within adult fantasy and science fiction, I think we can loosely compare Tiff’s novel to the sort of odd, satirical fun we find in Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett’s work–I don’t want to compare them too closely, since Tiff leans more towards the “creating a new world/high concept” side of things than the “pure satire/comedy in a clearly derivative world” side of things, but I think Adams and Pratchett provide a couple more points with which to chart out the literary space that the Oddfits falls into.

All this surreality and absurdity is carried by Tiff’s beautiful prose, which is well suited to this particular task. I’ve only gotten to read Tiff’s work the last few years, after knowing her… yeesh, I think a decade now (has it been so long?), but after reading a short story of hers (reviewed here a couple years back) and then a novel in progress (not the Oddfits) I have come to really enjoy this unique voice that she brings to her work–and which, again, fits perfectly with what she is doing here. I initially had some complaints about the editing, as it felt to me that there was some occasional redundancy, typos, etc that should have been caught, but in retrospect I don’t think it’s any worse than any other book out there (while reading Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free I ran across the line “…which pretty much failed to revolutionize the world the way its investors had claimed it world.” I world find more if I had the time), and one of the examples I cited (where the word “repulsion” was used where I would have expected “revulsion”) seems to actually be a dialectical variance rather than an actual typo. Honestly, my mistake was not realizing that I had my editing glasses on still, as I’ve spent a lot of the last year or so in self-editing mode (with the translation I’d been working on and more recently with my own stories), and that’s not the way to read something finished and published–not if you want to enjoy yourself. I’ve got a copy of the audio book now (the narrator seems really good, and quite competent with the Singlish portions and all the SE Asian accents–it was fun to recognize the rhythms of Malaysian English, as I’ve got a good Malaysian friend who moved away from CA about a year back), and I’m looking forward to working my way through again!

All in all, this is a very original bit of work, and I’m glad to see that there are many out there who are enjoying it–even (or especially?) those who just couldn’t figure out what the heck they were reading but couldn’t put it down anyway. Looking forward to reading the rest! And will try to get around to getting up reviews of novels by other friends of mine–my nieces loved Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief novels, and I’ve had a few other friends getting published whom I really ought to read…

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