Frood, do you frelling grok me? The Language of Science Fiction
There are some key differences in the language of science fiction and the language of fantasy. The two are trying to accomplish different things, and the audience (readers, viewers, consumers, etc.) expects, and accepts, different things from them. As Gwyneth Jones demonstrates in fantasy “the taxonomy, the architecture, the costumes, the propers names of the fictional are adopted for the sheer romance of it,” readers will accept ‘liplop’ as the name of a rabbit like species, whereas similar terms do not work in science fiction (Deconstructing the Starships, 11). An example of this is in the A Song of Ice and Fire series: sirs become sers, masters – maesters, Peter – Petyr. These are all ‘fantasical.’ They don’t fly in scifi.
Now I think I need to draw a few distinctions. For science fiction that is on screen, big or little, writers need to create a way to swear without raising any red flags. Thus the invented curse words are introduced, either ones that sound similar to their English counterparts (frell, frak etc) or, like Firefly, they use other languages than the main narrative. The other type of language are the words which stand for concepts, technology and so on which do not have parallels in our vernacular. Like grok. And cyberspace. (Then there is another category of ‘constructed’ languages, which include alien langues, that have not evolved from existing languages which are being completely ignored in this post. Maybe I will come back to this another time.)
In science fiction Jones continues, invented language should be limited to ‘explaining and complaining’ introducing the foreign concepts and then “need penetrate no further” (11). It shouldn’t invent terms because it can, but because it has to. Which is a big distinction. Much of science fiction is a possible future, so it needs to connect – in this case linguistically – in some way to the present, where this isn’t an issue for fantasy.
While I do prefer when my science fiction is not a vocabulary lesson, especially when it complicates the narrative making it difficult to follow – it is part of the reason I could not get through A Clockwork Orange, but I do like when it used language as a way of establishing the world. I believe Heinlein manages to balance the two. In Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he introduces new concepts, and creates a dialect/speaking pattern for his Moon colony. It helps to flesh out the culture, making it distinct from Earth, but it is not over the top. It takes a while to realize that they do not use the same linguistic formula. Science fiction can use language as a tool to differentiate worlds, but please no smeerps.
So what are your thoughts? Are there ‘laws’ of language science fiction needs to follow? Does it help or hinder the narrative to have unnecessary introduced terms?
(Feature image from xkcd.)