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Ask me about linguistics, conlangs, and the social use of language

Discussion in 'Research' started by Maria Heath, Nov 30, 2020.

  1. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    Are you writing a story in which characters use language to communicate? Then you may need to think about linguistic worldbuilding!

    (While I debated about whether to post this here or in Worldbuilding, I think here is more appropriate, since I intend to draw on my knowledge of a real-world subject I have a degree in and help people apply real social and linguistic theory to a fantasy setting. Mods feel free to ask me to move the thread if appropriate)

    As a PhD candidate in linguistics, I am always disappointed when reading an otherwise good fantasy story where very little thought has been put into language use in the world, especially when harmful stereotypes crop up. Since linguistics isn't a very commonly taught subject, I want to offer free advice on how to make the use of language in your world realistic and appropriate. Having well-thought-out language use in your story can help a lot with your general worldbuilding as well, such as tying in history and culture. Feel free to hit me up with questions about language use in your world, big or small!

    Here are a few examples of the kinds of things I can answer questions about:
    • Conlangs and the development of phonology, grammar, orthography and other technical aspects of a fictional language
    • Dialects of major languages in your world and how they might reflect social structures
    • Registers and the systematic use of particular styles of language that characters might use based on context
    • 2nd language use and accents that realistically reflect what it might be like for a character to communicate in a non-native language
    • Language boundaries and how strict or flexible the boarders between different languages might be in different parts of your world
    • Signed languages and how to incorporate them realistically into a world
    • Translation, especially between different species or groups with very different modes of communication
    • How to write vernacular dialects without falling into harmful stereotypes
    • Historical language and how to represent language that has changed over time
    Ask a question and I'll do my best to point you in the right direction by giving you examples of real world linguistic situations that might work as good models to draw on!
     
    S.T. Ockenner, Malik, pmmg and 3 others like this.
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I definitely have questions for you, but it might be a bit before I'm ready to tackle that area of the world. Thank you for posting this.
     
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  3. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    Awwww, yeah. The conlangers have a home.
     
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  4. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    Yes, bring me your conlangs! I'm experimenting with building my own, but I really want to help others start or polish their own conlangs!
     
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  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Okay, so, I have maybe a half page of notes on how the seelie language might work. I don't know if I have specific questions so much as it's, "OMG here's what I have... what the hell am I doing?"

    Two things in particular, the first is sentence structure:

    He (subject 1) did (tense 2) walk through (verb 3) the grassy (adjective 4) park (object 5), fast (adv 6), breathing heavy (adv 7), breaking a sweat (adv 8), tiring his legs (adv 9), and with bellyfat wiggling (adv 10).

    The main idea here is that the language has very few, simple verbs. There's only walk, no strolling or sauntering or even running. But you'd be expected to follow it up with a string of highly descriptive adverbs which make the bulk of their language.

    Also verbs don't conjugate, instead there's a separate word that establishes the tense. There's specific tenses that apply to, for instance, things that happened in certain periods of history, or a tense for the schemes you're going to pull on a mark (they're pranksters sometimes). There's also an "I'm being serious here!" tense.

    I have a note that they use a whistle-bell-type musical sound the way we would use emojis in chat, but don't know if I'll use that.

    The other thing I have here is about their signature. The idea here is that, instead of writing two or more names with a Mr./Ms., they would write their one name, like Aliffe, but they would also stroll the pen outside the name to write symbols, like a symbol for leadership, or humor, or a placename. So it'd be like, Aliffe the leader, with a sense of humor, from Falina Cairn, all written like somebody might write their name with a heart in the "O". And if you wrote the symbols in serious or a lazy kind of way it could change the meaning a bit (leader? Ha!).

    One minute I think all that is great and the next I think the opposite, so help me out.

    Also, as kind of a side note, I thought maybe they'd have a greeting or a proverb that sounds wrong when it's translated. Do you have any real world examples of those? Sometimes it's hard to find inspiration.
     
  6. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    First, I would say that having few verbs and robust adverbs is more of a lexical feature than a grammatical one. If you want to think about how this might fit in to the culture, this kind of structure would suggest that they value creatively descriptive language and make lots of fine-grained distinctions in the manner of doing something, maybe even thinking of manner of doing as being a broader category than the actual activity they're doing. This could be an interesting way to tie a slightly technical description of this language feature into the story as a way of showing something about their culture. Also, a real language would probably have a strict ordering for adverbs, such as speed always before trajectory, or something like that. You could also simplify the grammar by having the adverbs come right after the verb, or even be attached to the very as suffixes. For example, you could have a SOV language that read something like "He (subject) the grassy park (object) walked-through-fast-difficult-tired-wiggling (verb+manner). Lots of ways you could do this!

    There are many world languages with verbs that don't conjugate, like you describe. The one I'm most familiar with is Mandarin Chinese, which you could look at for more ideas on how that works. What you're talking about with schemes or being serious isn't actually tense, but there is a term for it! Look into "grammatical mood", which is also a common feature of many languages.

    Here's another fun term to look into: discourse markers/particles. Essentially, they're short words that are often added at the end of a sentence that don't change the meaning of the sentence, per se, but play a role in discourse flow, mark speaker attitude or mood, compare ideas, or other features. Some argue that emoji serve this function sometimes in English writing, but English in general doesn't have a very robust system of discourse markers. However, languages like Chinese and Malay use them a lot. Check out Singaporean English for an example of an English dialect that has borrowed discourse markers from other languages. I'm imagining that your whistles could serve this kind of function. This would be especially interesting if someone was trying to learn their language and didn't realize the whistles were part of the sentence, and so could never get things quite right!

    What is the writing system like for them in general? Are you suggesting that they write in and alphabet and then have ideographs for these other concepts that can be combined with the alphabetic part? This is not something I know of any real language doing, but it could be interesting! Alternatively, you could make the writing all alphabetic (and these extra bits could be spelled out and function as titles or nicknames) or make the whole writing system ideographic, especially if you want to suggest that their names have a meaning in their language. For example, maybe Aliffe means "oak tree", and so their name is [oak tree symbol] [leader symbol] [humor symbol] etc.

    Oh so many! Such a large portion of language is metaphoric and we don't even realize it, so pretty much any idiom, when translated literally, will be meaningless. You can just look up literal translations of idioms for lots of examples. You can also just try to think about all the metaphorical language we use in English and how it would sound if translated literally. Kick the bucket? Cat out of the bag? Even seemingly uninteresting phrases like "turn on/off the light" (Chinese uses "open/close") or "tidy up" (up where?) or "fall in love" all could sound very weird if translated literally to a language that doesn't have the same lexical connotations.

    This is a great start for language building! My main advice would be to think about how this language reflects the culture and ideals of the people who speak it. In this way, if you have other characters from different backgrounds interact with them, the linguistic issues (mistranslations, difficulty learning the language, misunderstandings based on different norms) can be tied to the cultural issues, which will allow you to share information about the language with your readers without boring them with technicalities or requiring them to learn a bunch of words from the language. I hope this all helps!
     
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  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Thank you a ton for the thoughtful answer! I'm on a computer that can't open my notes (my son's school-issue with everything blocked), but I'll be sure to process all this in the next day or two.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'd like to hear what you mean when you speak of the social use of language. I don't have any interest in making a conlang, but I am very much interested in the interplay between language and culture and social interactions.
     
  9. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    Thanks for asking about this! I feel like this topic is one that deserves more attention, since it's relevant in any story, but that people don't often realize is even something they should consider. There's a lot to say about this topic, so I'll just give a broad overview of common issues, but if you have specific questions relating to a specific story or writing project, let me know!

    A common myth in linguistics is that language affects the way people think. While there are some small ways that this might be true (mainly related to how people prefer to organize concepts), the truth is that language is largely a reflection of how people think. The types of linguistic choices a society makes is a result of what kind of things they value and how they view the world. In other words, language is inextricable from culture, and when building a fictional culture, you should think carefully about the linguistic choices you're making, even if you're doing it all in English. But people also aren't truly limited by the language they speak, otherwise it wouldn't be possible to learn another language. This is also why language is constantly changing. So in the same way that people might accept or reject certain parts of their culture and interact with other cultures, people can also accept or reject linguistic norms and change a language to better reflect their personal worldviews.

    Most importantly for those who are writing in a single language, what is the relationship between different dialects and styles of speech in a culture? Are any of your characters going to "speak" a non-standard dialect? If so, how are you going to represent that in writing? For example, is it really important for you to write a word with a non-standard spelling to represent a pronunciation difference, or are you just implying that a character is uneducated? Non-standard dialects often carry with them lots of stereotypes, and so writers sometimes use "accents" to say something about a character's personality, when in reality, an accent only says something about where a person is from or what community they grew up in. So a careful use of dialects and accents in a story can be a way to indirectly show a culture's subdivisions by region, social group, or status/power. A careless use of dialects and accents can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

    Not to mention the interaction between different languages! If you have a world where different species of people speak different languages (elves, dwarves, etc), what happens in a city where many species live together? Which language becomes the dominant one of the society and why? Who has to be multilingual and who gets to be monolingual? What kinds of borrowing and language mixing will happen? All of these choices say something about the social organization of a society, and how different groups of people view each other.

    Like I said, this is just a broad overview, but I hope it inspires you to think more deeply about the linguistic landscape of your world! If you give me specific examples of the culture and societal organization of your world, I can draw on real-world examples to help you figure out what kind of realistic linguistic landscape might arise from that kind of situation.
     
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  10. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    I'm a strong Sapir-Whorf adherent, though I think it's popularly misconstrued. I agree that language is a reflection, not a limitation.

    When I built the conlang for my elves, I used a variation of English known as E Prime, which lacks the verb "to be" in any form. Since they live for thousands of years, their language has evolved to describe everything as transitory or somehow provisional, rather than making any definite pronouncements on nature and belonging. Nothing, to an elf, ever is; things simply appear a certain way given the information available and the point of reference at the time. Their language reflects this. An elf won't ask "how many are there?" but instead, "How many did you see?" "How many did you bring?" "How many does the bag contain?" and so on. She won't ask, "What are you doing?" but instead say, "Explain this."

    I ended up throwing out the conlang and just writing the elves in English, but I kept this syntax glitch. It's possible for an elf and a human to talk about the same situation or experience and describe it completely differently. In this way, I keep my elves from simply being pointy-eared humans. They don't think the way we--at least, we English-speakers, the majority of my readership--think, and their language reflects this.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I heard a story a few months ago about the subjunctive. The person interviewed said there was no subjunctive tense in Korean. Little shifts like that, or like with Malik's elves, can go a long way to making a non-human race feel non-human.
     
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  12. SundryHen

    SundryHen Scribe

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    I love reading about linguistics, how languages are formed and don't get me started on morphology! My heart's fluttering just thinking about it. Anyway, I actually do have a question for you.

    I am writing a high fantasy novel. The world is our own, the time is our own, but the continent where the story happens is hidden from the rest of the Earth. Inspired by the mythical Hyperborea. They have strictly limited contact with Earthlings, on a need-to-go basis, to collect information and such. But some of them do know and understand all the major languages.

    Now, since I'm writing in English, they are all speaking in English, but I do see them as having their own language. In ancient times, a select legion of exceptional people from all around the world was selected and they were given a sacred duty to go live on this secret continent and protect something. This means that their language would be an amalgamation of Slavic, Latin, ancient Greek, Old English, Old Chinese, Uralic languages, etc. Plus add to that their modern developments. Not to mention the languages of the non-human beings living on this continent. I don't plan on developing this into a conlang because it would probably be impossible and also ridiculous to have everything written in a made-up language, wouldn't be readable and stuff.

    But, the toponyms keep the essence of their language. For example, one peninsula is called Cythraul Vakor (for the life of me I have no idea where I got Vakor), or a city E'leset Lakul which means Lake Fall, or the town of Medya (medja/međa - border) or how they call the magic users based on what they can manipulate (e.g. zemyed - the one who eats earth). They also have an ancient language that is used in the novel, but so far only in two lines of dialogue, so I didn't develop it further than just come up with words I need and jam them together in a sentence. It just goes: 'Sacrifice before the doors' and 'Mercy (from) Gladiiheam'. (Gladiiheam is not translated as it's a name for a God of Swords). Does this all sound plausible?

    And one more important thing, closely related to the actual quote (I got carried away). There is a special type of being called 'daeman' created when certain humans procreated with beings they shouldn't have procreated with (oops!). And they brought magic to this world. They are deeply passionate and at times can become obsessed. And for some reason, as I wrote them a familiar dialect popped up, so they sound like this:

    Lex almost hit a wooden column walking toward the bar. This made the bearded daemen cease their humming and look at the newcomers. The daemaness scoffed.
    ‘Look who’s ‘ere, laddies. The Childless Prudes,’ she said.
    Everyone perked up. Beards shook from a chuckle. Albax kept her gaze locked at the tavernlad. Lex stayed behind.
    ‘What’yu lookin’ at?’ the daemaness said.
    ‘What were you humming? Just know – that tune. What was it?’ Lex asked.
    ‘Oh, wouldn’t ya wanna know! Come on, lads, let’s show ‘er.’
    And there are deamans who don't have such a pronounced dialect. In your opinion, could this be considered a careless use that can 'perpetuate harmful stereotypes' as you said? Because I want to make sure that is absolutely not the case.
     
  13. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    Out of curiosity, in what sense do you think it's misconstrued? My understanding is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does suggest that language is a limitation, which is why most linguists reject all but the very weakest versions of it (linguistic relativity).

    I did look into E Prime, out of curiosity, and it strikes me as being more of a psychological thought experiment than a linguistically-supported idea. I definitely see what you mean about wanting to show that immortal beings would think differently than mortals, but I'm not sure getting rid of "to be" would really do this, because it serves so many grammatical functions in English besides just making statements of identity or truth. My suggestion would be to not dispense with "to be" entirely, but to build a more robust and obligatory system of evidentials for this culture ("it seems", "I saw", "I believe", "it appears", "I suspect", etc). While English does have evidentials, it's not as robust as in some languages, but making it obligatory might serve to show how these people are less concerned with objective "truths" and more concerned with how someone acquired the knowledge or how they experienced and event. Maybe it's not what you're aiming for, but it could be interesting to consider!
     
  14. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    This is where keeping in mind the social implications of language is important, even when you think what you're talking about is structure. I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, but it sounds like you're suggesting that Korean is so exotic that it's practically non-human. This is a very common linguistic trap people fall into, thinking that their native language or languages they've learned are "normal" and anything different is "exotic" and therefore somehow deviant, which is clearly not the case. In fact, English doesn't really have a subjunctive tense, or at least not a grammatical one! If you're certain that a language feature is not used in any human language, then it might be a good candidate for an "alien" language, but be careful that you don't just pick things that feel "alien" to you, but are really just reflections of your own linguistic biases (which we all have, so no accusation meant, but just make sure to be careful).
     
  15. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    I love this! Very cool, and it sounds like you have a lot of good ideas. Yeah, there's always the difficulty with storytelling in one language about a group that presumably speaks another language, but I think you're right that the best way to deal with this is to have names and a few important words from the language used, and perhaps some meta-comentary about the languages. Inventing a conlang is definitely not always the way to go!

    This is all very neat! I can see where you're getting the inspiration for some of these words from, and it sounds like that's important to helping your readers understand that their language is derived from common ancestors of modern languages. I don't think you need to worry too much about the technical details of historical linguistics, but if you look up some common words from modern languages and change them a bit, as if they developed differently, I think your point will come across. Another fun thing could be to mix languages! For example, English has a lot of words with roots from both Greek and Latin that got mashed together. I would also take a little bit of time to consider what writing system this culture would use. You could either go with the Roman alphabet, to make things easy, in which case you'd want to think about how spelling might have developed over time, or you could pick another writing system that was widely used at the time of the language-mixing, in which case you could just spell the words however you think they'd be pronounced, but you could mention that the writing system represents them differently. Just a little texture element you could throw in!

    Good catch, checking in about this, because I do see some red flags here. One is the use of what's known as "eye dialect", which is when you spell a word in a non-standard way to represent that the speaker sounds "different" somehow, but the non-standard spelling actually doesn't change the pronunciation. For example, you used "yu" for "you", and even "ya" for "you" is not an abnormal way to say it in fast speech in most English dialects. The danger here is that you're indexing "otherness" and possible "lack of education" without actually adding anything to the reader's understanding of what the character sounds like. On the other hand, dropping the "h" in "here" and "her" is safer, because it actually clarifies a pronunciation difference. You should still be careful, even with this though, because it's hard to escape the association of "non-standard spelling" with "lack of education" in fiction, especially if they're supposedly all speaking in a non-English language anyway. What does it mean that you've given this dialect to some characters and not others? Well, it means you see this dialect as abnormal in some way, and presumably you associate it with daemans. It's a tough issue, and there's no one right answer for how to portray different accents in writing, since you have to count on your reader to fill in the blanks, but it's worth thinking carefully about. At the very least, make sure to run it by a speaker of the dialect you're using to make sure they don't find it offensive or horribly inaccurate. When in doubt, sensitivity readers are a great resource!
     
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  16. SundryHen

    SundryHen Scribe

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    Thank you! Glad you found it interesting.

    Yes! This is a great idea. Haven't thought about the common tongue's writing system at all. :LOL:
    And yet I have imagined and plan on partially developing a sort of sign language/only written language that is used by beings who are half human, half fish basically. And considering their social ways, plus the fact that they spend most of their time underwater, a spoken language is not something they ever had a need for, so in the early days they developed a sign language to easily communicate under water. Perhaps I could throw in some clicks like dolphins would use. Later, when they started living on land a bit more, this sign language was developed into a written form by just transferring a sign into sort of a hieroglyph. (they do speak the common tongue, tough, as they do have a working speech system)
    But definitely, I will give some thought to the common tongue and how it would be written. Thanks!

    Thank you! I will do this, for sure.
    Although, now that you clarified that 'ya', 'ye' can be understood as a way of presenting 'otherness', I will take it out, as this is not what I want. I imagine deamans to generally be just more nonchalant and, as they are passionate about things they care about, they talk fast to say as much as possible, so they shorten the words and change the accents a bit to accommodate the speed. Also, they have been living in a more or less isolated areas of the world and had little encounter with the way humans speak the common tongue, except when they were being addressed by royals or the members of the royal senate, who did tend to speak slower, and more clearly. So, deamans' use of the common tongue had time to develop into a specific dialect.

    Can you suggest a way for me to show this through their speech with more than just shortening 'him', 'her', 'here'? I don't want them to sound uneducated, just quick in their expression.
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >it sounds like you're suggesting that Korean is so exotic that it's practically non-human.
    Nope, didn't mean it that way.
    I know we don't have an actual subjunctive tense, but we do have ... I think it's called mood? Anyway, that radio spot was interesting because the guy was talking about how his parents wouldn't talk in terms like "if I were him, I would not have gone" or similar. It was simply a way of speaking that didn't exist. I'm relying on memory here, so I'm probably not expressing it as fully as I should.

    In any case, it got me thinking about how to write dialog in such a way that certain expressions weren't expressed, or had to resort to circumlocutions. Which is what Malik's elves do. It struck me as a nice way to distinguish non-human dialog from human dialog in ways that were not obtrusive while at the same time being consistent among all members of a people. It doesn't have to be grammatical. I recall Harry Turtledove having a character note that in English our swear words often have to do with scatology or sex, while French will have to do more with God and the Church. I hasten to add this was a character saying this, and that it was specific to 19thc.

    To me, small grace notes like that can go further than a full-blown conlang.
     
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  18. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

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    Sign languages are an under-used and often misunderstood type of language, so it's cool that you might use one! Make sure you look into some of the basics of how signed languages work (there are a lot of them, but they often share general features such as inclusion of facial expression or body position). For a species that's half fish, you could definitely play with the idea of them having significant biological differences from humans that might effect their signing (number/type of limbs available to use, differences in vision underwater, etc.) or speech (if they normally breath underwater, do they have the same lung/mouth shape as humans, or are there slight differences that make it impossible for them to produce certain human sounds?). A signed language could have a unique, dedicated writing system, which would definitely not be alphabetic or syllabic (since those are based on speech sounds), so ideographic/hieroglyphic is a good choice. If the common tongue is also written ideographically, that might make it easier for these fish people to learn and offer a better starting point for them to be able to learn human speech. Lots of possibilities here!

    This is tricky, and the safest (though probably least satisfying) answer would be to narratively describe how their speech sounds. I.e. " '...' the deaman blurted in that quick, half-pronounced way deamans always seem to talk." Since every aspect of language is relative (surely the deamans don't think of their own speech as being fast, but of everyone else's as being slow), you can do a lot by being explicit about how other characters perceive their speech style.

    If you want to incorporate something more specific to show how they speed up their speech, I would suggest maybe abbreviations (you could come up with some really interesting ones), contractions, and dropping syllables/vowels might be a better way to go. Dropping the "h" in "her" makes the word look shorter, but phonologically, it has more to do with flow than with the actual duration of the pronounced word in rapid speech. If you start dropping syllables, on the other hand, you'll definitely be able to fit more speech into less time. And while there are definitely abbreviations specific to real social groups that could be a bit stereotype-y on their own, if you systematically make an effort to drop as many syllables as possible and invent your own unique abbreviations for them, it will seem less like you're basing them off of a real group and more like they're a unique, fictional culture that you can build up from scratch and have more control over. And coming up with all the abbreviations could be a lot of fun, especially once you get them interacting with characters who speak other dialects and have to try to keep up, along with your readers! That would be my suggestion to easily avoid possible stereotyping, though I'm sure there are other options as well.
     
  19. SundryHen

    SundryHen Scribe

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    Great suggestions. I will make sure to research signed languages. And I will rethink how their body is built, to make sure it's clear that they can both breathe under water, by filtering oxygen from water, and breathe on land through nose slits, etc.

    I see what you mean, though the common tongue is written alphabetically. I pretty much just want to make the written hieroglyphic part of these creatures' language, because fun! I don't yet know how detailed it's going to be, or how important these creatures might become in the story. Now that I think about it, I don't have an idea for the third part of the story, so these creatures will be worthy to explore there.

    Thank you, this is great!

    Yes! So true.

    Well, lots of work to do. Thanks for your help.
     
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