The Words in Science Fiction

by Larry Niven

It's the ideas that make you want to write. They take root in your brain; from simple seeds they expand forward and backward in time until they are complete stories that have to be told.

But the words keep tripping you up.

Bad enough if you'd chosen straight adventure stories. Mickey Spillane tells you you're in a bar and goes on with the story. You and I have to decide whether the bar has holographic walls, or booths fitted with anti-gravity, or special, dangerous chemicals for aliens, or robot waiters, or automatic drink dispensers.

And every so often you'll come to a jarring stop. It's there in your head. You can describe it: an inductance beam for stimulating the pleasure center of a victim's brain. But what the futz are you going to call it?

Maybe I can help.

Nonsense

Eleven years ago I sat in an economics class at UCLA and wrote nonsense words instead of notes. I wrote:

racarliw kzin (kzinti)
viprintnuctip (tnuctipun)
kzanolthrint (thrintun)
gnal

E. R. Burroughs created scores of nonsense words to name Martian (excuse me, Barsoomian) plants and animals and units of measurement. Subsequent writers have continued the tradition, which, after all, is a legitimate part of any attempt to predict the future or describe an alien environment. Many of my own nonsense words became names of alien life forms.

Creating new words is one of your basic skills and is probably the easiest of them.

After all, if it's alien, it probably has an alien name. If it doesn't exist yet, it will need a new name when it does exist, and that word may well be gibberish to you and your present-time readers. Laser, tachyon, quark: what would these have seemed to you twenty years ago?

One should not be too free with nonsense syllables. Your reader has to remember them. Too many may confuse him, cause him to lose interest. Another danger is that you may be naming something that already has a name. Black holes, Bussard ramjets, antigravity, ullage jets and other equipment used in spacecraft, three-dimensional pictures: all have names. That needn't stop you from renaming them if you like, but you should know you're doing it

So you need a word for your new concept. What is it you want to imply? What kind of a thing is it? Basic as it seems, there's more to this art than writing down letters at random and then crossing out the ones that don't pronounce. Consider the following:

cziltang brone Eye of Kdapt
Halrloprillalardroud and plug
Phssth(pok)slan
tasp

All are different, meant to carry different implications.

Cziltang brone is straight nonsense but euphonious: probably meant to fit a human mouth. Why two words? Well, "brone is an adjective, probably insulting."

Halrloprillalar is a woman's name. Clearly it has no relationship to English names or words; the girl evolved on another world. At first glance her name looks unpronounceable, as I intended. But try it. You can say it, and furthermore, it's pretty.

Phssth(pok) is an alien's name. The sibilant first syllable is a function of its mouth structure: rigid, the lips immobile and beaklike. The (pok) is a clacking of the beak.

Tasp is short and easy to say. Such words give away the fact that they are in common currence throughout a culture, like lamp and pan and pen. Insults in particular tend to be short, ugly words (like Mack Reynolds' nardy flat!).

Eye of Kdapt was a simple expletive the first time I used it. In context it is obviously a swear word, obviously religion-based. Years later I actually described the religion founded by Kdapt-Preacher (a kzin, born half noble, since he was entitled to a partial name; I established this early in the known space series of stories). Kdapt-Preacher believed that God had made man in his own image, and that was why humans kept winning wars against kzinti. Kdapt-Preacher's disciples prayed while wearing masks made from human skin.

Droud and plug—part nonsense, part English. Clearly we're talking about a moderately common human tool. In this case, the plug goes into a wall socket, and the droud goes into the socket fitted into a man's skull. It's a modulator for the current going into the pleasure center of his brain.

Incidentally, droud was a typographical error I kept making for "crowd, " as the shisp in hachiroph shisp was a typo for "ships." I kept making the same mistakes until I used them in this fashion, and that got me over it. Use your typos.

Slan—same remarks as for tasp, except that you probably know the word. The slans were van Vogt's version of the next stage in human evolution. You know the word because he wrote about them brilliantly. Keep it in mind as you read on; the concept and the telling are what make a story great, far more than the tag you put on it.

Out of Stock

Certain concepts in science fiction have certain stock names.

FTL, hyperdrive, hyperspace, subspace, all refer to means of traveling faster than light in an otherwise relativistic universe. A hyperdrive is the motor that gets you in and out of hyperspace. Hyperspace is a mathematical term. Its use here implies a more generalized universe over ours, in which more general laws apply. One such law may be that ships can travel faster than light, or that lightspeed can be arbitrarily high. Or our universe may have a shape like a crumpled Kleenex when seen in hyperspace; points very distant in our native geometry might be very close via a hyperspace path. Subspace is another borrowed mathematical term, but its use here seems silly to me. A subspace of our universe would obey more restricted forms of our own physics. FTL means faster-than-light; your use of the term commits you to almost nothing.

Time machines are vehicles for moving into the past or future. You should know the basic time-travel paradox, the grandfather paradox: what happens to your character if, via time travel, he kills his grandfather before his grandfather has sired his father? He will never have existed. But then there's nobody to kill his grandfather. You cannot write a time-travel story without making some decision regarding the grandfather paradox and sticking to it.

Multiple time tracks are other, parallel lines of history, presumed to be just as real as this one, in which (for instance) Napoleon conquered all of Europe and held it, or Lincoln recovered from that gunshot wound, or Adolf Hitler migrated to America after World War I, became a science fiction writer, and is now writing this chapter under the pseudonym Larry Niven. (Think about it. Have you ever seen them together?)

ETs or XTs are extraterrestrials, beings native to other worlds. Use of these terms rather than something more specific would indicate a large interstellar community of varied life forms.

Teleportation is instantaneous transportation. It may be a psychic power, the ability to wish oneself from place to place. It may be a machine or system of machines to power magical doorways or telephone booths.

TK (telekinesis) is another psychic power: matter moved by mind alone. Telepathy and ESP are psychic senses, the ability to sense an-other's thoughts and to sense actions at a distance, respectively.

The thing to remember is that none of these terms is binding upon you. Once brought into existence, these things or powers or concepts may acquire other names. It happens in real life:

Seetee (contraterrene matter) was a science fiction concept. Once physicists had located all of the components of seetee, they called it antimatter. Today, so do we.

Heat ray, death ray, ray gun all became laser and gain powers nobody thought of.

Rocket ships come in breakaway parts, and each requires a technical name.

We can rename things that don't exist yet. For instance -- and all of these have been chosen from published stories -- chronokinesis is a big word for time travel. An extension cage is the part of the time machine that does the moving, while the rest stays in the "present." 'Vaders, Larries (Llaryans), Outsiders, and Old Ones all refer to specific aliens. The Alderson Drive is a rigidly worked out FTL drive. Displacement booths, transfer booths, and stepping discs are all teleportation systems from my own writings, all different. Plateau eyes is a psychic power not yet evolved.

There are rules of convenience for choosing these names.

1. Brand names. JumpShift booths, Alderson drive, the Outsider hyperdrive, waldo devices, Bergenholms.

2. Portmanteau words. Slidewalk, ramscoop, wirehead, singleship.

3. Portmanteau phrases. Boob cube, touch-sculpture, flash crowd.

4. Simple description. Torch drive, duplicator, flying belt. Dolphins' hands and telepathically operated tools on tractor treads. An ecstasy peddler is the surgeon that puts the wire in your brain, to fit your droud-and-plug setup.

These rules actually describe what happens to languages. We need one more:

5. Languages evolve.

Words used today will have different meanings tomorrow. "Screw" and "tart" didn't always have secondary meanings. Every euphemism for night soil, for a toilet or a chamber pot, eventually requires a euphemism of its own (and now look back at the words I used!). Some words change because their meanings become obsolete. Greek "atoms" had no interior structure; "essence" was a precise technical term to an alchemist.

We use that in our writing. In one of Alfred Bester's futures, "jaunt" had become the word for psychic teleportation. Cordwainer Smith caused "scanner" to become a specialized profession. Heinlein makes "hotel" into "hilton." "Cars" usually fly in my stories.

Often you will want to get on with the story rather than deal in detail with some stock concept. You still don't have to use a stock phrase. Teleportation, time travel, spaceflight -- such basic ideas all come across if you simply describe what's happening to the character.

Lost in Translation

This business of alien languages is tricky. Given that an alien word may not sound like English; it may be unpronounceable. (We will never speak dolphin. There's too much supersonic in it.) Your characters then have three choices:

Try to pronounce the word. But doing it wrong may offend the alien.

Make up their own words. This may be especially apt if there are mechanical translators available.

Translate the alien word into English. Results can be amusing:

Overspeak and the Hero's Tongue are the thrintun and kzinti languages, respectively.

Sunflowers are plants gene-tailored by the tnuctipun. Their petals are solar mirrors. A field of sunflowers can blast nearby animals for fertilizer, or blast an airplane in flight. Tnuctip-designed air plants recycle the air in a spacecraft. Real plants!

Kzinti of the lower class are named for their professions. A kzinti ambassador to human space almost got into a duel by tactlessly translating his name: Speaker-To-Animals.

Translation involves confusion even in human languages. Pueblo means town -- almost; it actually means the people of the town. Pravda means truth -- the official version of the truth.

Yet if we (or our characters) wish to talk to aliens, we (they) must translate. The kind of language that passes between human and alien becomes, in our hands, a guide to the differences between man and alien and a guide to how long man and alien have been in contact.

There are phrases to characterize most of the aliens I have created. This was unplanned. But I did my damnedest to build each alien into a self-consistent being different from human. The result is that I can now pick out snatches of dialogue:

Kzin (on dueling niceties): "You scream and you leap. "

Outsider: "That information will cost you -- "

Motie Mediator: "God damn it to Hell," said Blaine's Motie. (She's studied Blaine to the point that she uses his own phrases and gestures, unselfconsciously.)

Puppeteer (on humor): "Louis, no properly cautious being ever interrupts a defense mechanism."

Brennan, a super-intelligent protector-stage human, throws ideas and concepts in double handfuls. It's almost impossible to follow him. Near the end of the novel Protector it's difficult even to follow the story. The author-of-record turns out to be another protector, and he's been over-estimating your intelligence.

Poul Anderson's flying-squirrel aliens (War of the Wing Men) consider children expendable. Heinlein's Martians consider sex as pleasurable as a sneeze; to Martian-trained Michael Valentine Smith, sex is a stunning surprise.

Think like your characters. Even your alien characters. The dialogue follows naturally.

The Naming of Names

Place names: where do they come from? In a story they will come from you, of course. The worlds of the solar system are already named. All other planets are not. Likewise extraterrestrial cities, topographies, even constellations. (I remember a constellation named Marilyn Monroe, in an otherwise forgotten story set thousands of light-years from Sol.)

By your choice of place names you can often indicate who the colonists were, what they were like.

Stolid types name their worlds New Eden, Nova Terra, New Chicago. Classicists continue the tradition of naming worlds after gods, going to Asian or American Indian pantheons for sources. Religious outcasts choose Felicity, Harmony, Peace. (Or do they? Salt Lake City?)

The worlds of human space, in my own future history, are: Jinx (they kept losing ships, and the planet was no prize, except in size). Down (egotism, or the temptation to name the colony city Downtown?), We Made It (it must have been an interesting trip), Wunderland, Gummidgy (human pronunciation of a kdatlyno place-name), Plateau (uninhabitable but for a single mountaintop), and Home. My Uncle Pat accuses me of irreverence. Not so! I invite him, and you, to check some original California place names. Bitter Water, Dead Mule...

What kind of people first came to your worlds? A massive colony project breeds stolid names. Religious outcasts will choose hopeful names. So will real-estate developers (and in both cases you imply easy space travel). Lone scouts may well indulge themselves. A scout who was hooked on James Branch Cabell`s writings named the worlds of the Léshy Circuit: Horvendile, Sereda, Koschei, etc. Others would name their discoveries Birksack's World, Birksack II, or Marcie Is Waiting, or The Admiral's Ass . . .

And anyone, stolid or lyrical, may name a world or feature thereof for its chief characteristic: Tabletop (a world of plains), or Dragonback (for the long, narrow chief continent and its spinal ridge of mountains), or Winter (cold), or Plateau. Remember Salt Lake City.

Names of aliens? You get three choices:

1. The alien's own name, rendered phonetically. Nonsense to you, but you must decide whether it should be pompous and complex, whether it should include gestures or other signals; and remember the alien's mouth structure.

2. A human-chosen name may derive from the alien's appearance. Snakes, or Blobs, or Wogglebugs: such names may well be insulting. But the two-headed Pierson's puppeteer was named for the brainless heads whose mouths had evolved as hands: like two Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent puppets.

3. A bright alien -- brighter than human, or one assisted by a bright computer-translator -- may choose his own name. Puppeteers prefer the names of legendary centaurs: Nessus, Chiron. Jock and Charley were female Motie Mediators contacting a male-oriented society; their sex was not obvious, and they chose to imitate male voices.

This subject can get arbitrarily complex. Let us consider, in detail, the Crazy Eddie symbol from The Mote in God's Eye.*

Within the Motie culture there is a form of silliness so common that it is represented by a legendary being. A Motie goes "Crazy Eddie" by trying to keep things as they are when they are clearly about to change. He sacrifices long-term for short-term goals.

When a city is so heavily populated that all available vehicles are engaged in moving food and water in and garbage out, and none are left even to evacuate the inhabitants, then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions.

Crazy Eddie fights population pressure by killing off all the nonsentient Doctor forms -- except that Masters who hid their own Doctors will afterward find them priceless.

Obviously the Moties have their own name for him. But when speaking to humans, the Mediators called him Crazy Eddie.

Robert Heinlein was kind enough to suggest numerous changes in this book. Jerry and I owe him a great debt: we followed most of his suggestions and thereby improved the book immensely. But I instantly rejected this one:

"Since this name must be alien, why not make it something clearly alien. Yddie? Waddie? Kuddie? Something else? Certainly you want to keep the scansion -- but any two-syllable word accented on the penult will do as long as it doesn't shout that it is a human name."

Wrong! I, being without false modesty, saw fit to lecture that great man for a page and a half on this trivial subject. He says I convinced him.

The trick is to think like an alien.

The Mediators are frighteningly good at learning languages. They won't teach humans to pronounce Crazy Eddie's true name. It probably can't be done anyway. Instead, they translate.

Is there any point in their making up a clearly alien word pronounceable to humans? I don't see one.

Well, what are they trying to convey?

1. Crazy Eddie is a form of insanity. Hence, "Crazy." "Foolish" isn't emphatic enough, "insane" is less common and has the wrong rhythm.

2. Crazy Eddie is ubiquitous. He's always been there, throughout the culture, back to the dawn of time. We choose a common name. (If the battleship Lenin had made the contact, Crazy Eddie might have been Crazy Ivan.)

3. His intentions are always good. Crazy Eddie is not a monster, and his existence is tolerated. We show that half-amused tolerance with the diminutive of a common name.

4. The human Empire is male-oriented. We choose a male name.

5. We keep the scansion. Not "Crazy Maurice" or "Crazy Jack" but "Crazy Eddie."

Complexities

You can imply a lot about a human culture with a well-constructed word or phrase. Consider: Corpsicle.

Fred Pohl derived that word from popsicle to describe the frozen dead, people who have had their bodies frozen in the hope that someday they may be revived and cured of what killed them. Given that the word is common throughout a society, we can deduce:

1. There are a lot of them.

2. They are not highly regarded.

Consider: thumb runner and organlegger.

Both describe the same animal: a man who sells, and murders to acquire, illegal organs for sale as transplants. Organlegger is mine. Thumb runner belongs to Alexei Panshin.

We discussed these phrases once. I'd like to enlarge on Alex's comments:

Organlegger derives from bootlegger. Bootleggers were named for one manner of smuggling their illegal liquor. Thumb runners would be named for their own mode of operation -- and it is reasonable that they would call their transplant stocks thumbs, an oblique and contemptuous reference to their origin.

Villain to helpless heroine: "You're going to be thumbs, my dear." It was a bone-chilling line, because Alex set it up right.

Alex was writing of the far future. I wrote of the near future, when people might well mutilate bootlegger to describe a vaguely similar crime. But if I'd thought of thumb runner I'd have used it.

I needed a number of new words and phrases to describe the social development in Flash Crowd, a novelette based on the development of cheap teleportation in the near future.

1. Newstaper. The reader is told that the main character is a roving newstaper. Already he can guess that:

A) He's a reporter. He probably uses a videotape camera.

B) Newspapers are dead. Otherwise the word newstaper would be confusing. It would have been dropped for something else.

2. I called the teleportation links JumpShift booths (for the JumpShift Corporation) or displacement booths. Transfer booths would have been equally reasonable, but I'd already used that one in a different line of future history.

3. I don't believe in bending space to order, and I wouldn't ride in a machine that annihilates me here, then beams away data that allows me to be exactly recreated somewhere else. Both are common fictional methods of teleportation. But I needed a theory that would allow instantaneous transportation and would still leave a passenger intact. What I came up with was a kind of super-neutrino. The displacement booth converts its cargo into an elementary particle of no rest mass, a relativistic mass equal to the weight of the cargo (for conservation of matter), an internal structure complex enough to carry the quantum states of every elementary particle in the cargo, and a neutrino's ability to penetrate almost any barrier. I called it a transition particle. Cautiously phrased and polysyllabic, transition particle implies a theory without committing the user to specifics. It is just the phrase a theoretical scientist would use when talking to his peers.

4. The better the news coverage and the better the transportation, the bigger the crowd that gathers around anything interesting. With a teleporting society patrolled by roving newstapers, you get instant mobs that expand further as publicity hounds, pickpockets, and looters teleport in. (I said flick in. Teleport gives way to a shorter slang word.) I called these flash crowds, using short, common words and a phrasing that is cryptic until the reader is given more detail.

5. In the story I had continuity clubs forming as a guard against culture shock, epidemic in a teleporting society. A continuity club is a chain of clubs with every building in the chain identical down to the furnishings and the uniforms on the waiters. One's club is a piece of home he can take with him. Continuity club is clumsy. It hardly matters, because the average citizen would talk about individual clubs rather than the aggregate. But I wish I'd thought of a better wording. You try.

Showmanship

A course in semantics can't hurt you a bit. There is plenty of opportunity to show off your knowledge, or use it to deepen and broaden the background of a story.

Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and The Ballad of Beta-2 are whole novels based on semantic concepts. Anthony Burgess drastically altered the English language for A Clockwork Orange. So did Robert Heinlein in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (No, you don't have to create an entire language. You decide what has happened to English: changes in grammatical construction? Dropping of articles or past tenses? Borrowed words from other languages? You lay down the rules of grammar, you choose the borrowed words and decide how they are spelled, and you stick to your own rules. The rest is implied.)

Or there are little touches, like the moon jeeps called "Baba Yaggas," after the many-legged mobile homes used by Russian witches. (Fritz Leiber, The Wanderer.)

This one I haven't seen in fiction yet, but it illustrates what I'm getting at. Black holes, also known as collapsars or hypermasses, are called frozen stars by the Soviets. In the presence of Soviet scientists or astronauts, Americans will use that phrase, if they are being polite, or will say black hole, if they are being rude. With these phrases you control U.S.-to-Soviet relationships in your story. Why? Because in Russian, black hole is a specific physiological term that means just what you think it means.

The "Newspeak" of 1984 was a language so designed that certain thoughts would be unthinkable in it. One must wonder if certain thoughts, crucial thoughts, are unthinkable in English, or in any human language, including mathematics.

Maps of Reality

A language is a mapping of the way people think, of the way they believe the universe works, and of what they consider to be important in that universe.

Four of the Ten Commandments relate to one's duties toward God.

Most primitives use a word that means "people" (themselves) and a word that means "barbarian" (foreigners). In my own language I am an "American," and I am aware that there are other people around. Progress!

Languages change. Sometimes the changes reflect new knowledge. My translation of Dante's Inferno is jammed with footnote lectures on Thirteenth-Century cosmology.

Sometimes they don't. "Bastard" was once a legal term meaning "One whose parents were not married in the Catholic faith prior to conception." Later, marriage within certain other churches was considered sufficient -- though never by Catholics. Later still, "bastard" meant "untrustworthy and/or ill-mannered." How did that happen? Common usage as insult, plus Shakespeare's King Lear?

In the ten years since I started writing, "black" has replaced "Negro," by popular demand. This may have been a poor idea. Human children tend to be afraid of the dark, with the result that "black" is a poetic simile for "evil" in every language I'm familiar with.

I use the same word "my" to indicate my car, my wife, my elbow. Could this have something to do with the way I defend my property? I got burgled twice within six months five years ago. I reacted as if I'd been raped. The bastards took some irreplaceable things -- but I wouldn't have been any angrier if they'd notched my ears.

A baby has some trouble figuring out where he ends and the universe begins. An alien might never suffer that confusion.

When a Fifteenth-Century father spoke of "My children" and his King spoke of "My people," they meant it. Possessions.

Science fiction writers, and readers, have this in common: the sense that there are other ways of thinking than their own.

There is vast variety in a human being's picture of the universe.

In Eskimo there are several words for different states of snow: falling snow, powder snow, packed snow, wet snow.

In a certain African language there are words for a field seeded with yams, for young yam sprouts, for ripe yams; but there is no continuity among them, no sense that one produces the other.

There is a group of tribes -- African, again -- whose languages have no expression for "death by natural causes." Death comes through violence or through witchcraft. For every "natural death," a witch must be found and killed. They're exterminating each other down there.

There are girls in American slums who do not believe that sexual intercourse produces babies. They've been told so. But in their lives they've heard so much obvious crap...

In Spanish, adjectives may denote temporary or permanent states. The words for "rich" and "poor" take the "permanent" configuration.

If the human concepts embedded in human languages can get that weird, what about star-going humanity? What about aliens? The differences would infallibly show in their languages.

I. What words are untranslatable?

The "game" of shifgrethor is terribly important to the natives of Winter (Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness). It seems to be a game of one-upsmanship, played for social standing; and beyond that, you have to read the book to get even an inkling. One clue: the natives of Winter, otherwise humanoid, are sexless most of the time. Sex would thus not enter into shifgrethor. Another clue: one does not play shifgrethor with an inferior.

Fyunch (click) was the only word the Moties never tried to translate (The Mote in God's Eye). Even for Mediators it would have required an hour's lecture. Essentially the Fyunch (click) relationship was "I am the Mediator assigned to you. I intend to learn you from the inside out, not just your words but your nonverbal signals too. When I know your language to my satisfaction, I will read your mind better than you do."

The untranslatable concepts mark the greatest differences between your reader and the society you are trying to show him.

II. What words are missing?

A Tralfamadorian (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse Five) would have no word for guilt. In their universe there was no cause and effect. They could travel up and down time, and they found the future as rigid and senseless as the past. Things happened because they happened.

Postulate a species whose reproduction is really cryptic. They black out for a time. A few days later they wander back to the village, recovered. New members of the species eventually show up from the direction of the seashore. Such a species would have no fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, family trees, birthrights, inherited titles, trust funds, bastardy. For them there might even be no posterity. Given the technology, they would use up the land with no thought for future generations.

III. What words are hardly ever used?

(What, never? Well, hardly ever.) What phrases are insults?

In Empire Star (Delany), one insult word was "dew-water": very precious, but hated for its scarcity and the difficulty of collecting it.

In Stand on Zanzibar (Brunner), "bleeder" had replaced "bastard." People with genetic deficiencies were not allowed to have children.

In "Flatlander" (Niven, If Science Fiction, March 1967), a flatlander was either (1) someone who through cowardice had never traveled off his home world, or (2) an Earthman. Earthmen found the term irritating.

A language where "coward" is an insult marks a possibly dangerous species. (Damn right I include humans.)

Predators tend to avoid their own excrement. It gives them away to their prey; it smells. But picture something that lives in the thick Jovian atmosphere. Those terrific winds would whip away anything that came out of such a beast, gaseous or otherwise. He wouldn't have words for his own waste products, unless they were technical words. Humans do not consider "carbon dioxide" insulting.

And an armored herbivore might not give a shit. In fact, staying near his own excrement might be a great way to warn off rivals.

Again, human breeding habits are far looser than those of most species. We would expect an alien race to be guided here either by sheer instinct, or (if advanced technologically) by its own intention to stabilize or improve the breed. There would be no insults to denote incest, bestiality, homosexual relations, etc.

IV. What group of words translates to one word in English? And vice versa?

In Dune (Frank Herbert) it was sand. Drum sand would carry sound for miles; you'd stay off it for fear of drawing the giant earthworms. There was sand that would slide and bury you; there was windstorm sand that would flay you; there was good stable stuff you could walk on.

For the Jovian beast there might be many kinds of wind, each with its own name -- more names than we have, and we have a good number. For a space-dwelling creature, all of those words would translate to air. Air is what turns his ship, or his shell, red-hot.

In the European languages there are scores of words for mating relationships: married, girl friend, fiance, virgin, dating, concupiscent, good or bad lay, old maid, divorced, etc. A normal species with straight-forward mating instincts, like the dolphins, would find this most amusing.

My guess is that the dolphins have one word, and they use it a lot.

The Ballad of Beta-2 is a wonderful study of changes in a language. The people of the starship Beta-2 had been in space for many generations. For them, "over" and "under" and "between" had come to have the same meaning, and "arms" and "legs" had become interchangeable -- all because they lived in free fall.

The untranslatable words, the missing words, the insults and their surface meanings, and the short alien words that require phrases or lectures in English: these measure the differences in the thinking of an alien culture.

Even human cultures are very various; and, Star Trek to the contrary, aliens are not men in funny suits. Designing a truly alien alien can be a hell of a lot of fun, and it can get as complex as you like. Poul Anderson did a thorough job on the Hying Ythri; see The People of the Wind, and pay attention to his treatment of the language.

One Last Thing

Writing science fiction is for fun. It has to be; you'll be at it ten years before there's any money in it.

Some of us get a kick out of playing games with languages and language concepts. But it's easy enough to avoid situations where this is necessary. I'm not trying to talk anyone out of writing.

Assigned Reading

The Demolished Man and any short stories by Alfred Bester

The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein and any of his "juveniles"

The People of the Wind by Poul Anderson

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle


*Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye. (Simon and Schuster, New York 1974; Pocket Books, New York.)