Saturday, April 23, 2011

You Can Learn Ratspeak! (or, the development of a fictional language)

Writing was a little slow today. Only managed a little under a thousand words, not the 2k+ I was hoping for. Still, I got a couple of pivotal scenes out, and soon the rats will be out of the cage and into the open, where all the fun starts. It's seriously tedious writing 10k about a large cast crammed into a tiny space.

Anyway, the low word count for the night is due in part to my having to take a moment to stop and re-build my vocabulary list, as I lost the original copy sometime after nanowrimo. And, because the language is probably the thing I'm most enamored with myself for creating in this book, I thought I should share it. I really thought it was quite clever.

I've always admired books that make up their own language. I've especially admired books with a made-up language that was accessible enough that you could learn it and apply it to your own life, if you chose to be so geeky.

Now, I don't know how other writers come up with their languages. I'm certainly no linguist, so don't expect any great Tolkien-esque feats to come of this. I just needed something quick and dirty that I could make work on the fly -- and be both flexible and consistent so that I could make up new words as I thought them up.

I'm very slightly familiar with the Cherokee language, and that was a major inspiration for Ratspeak. Cherokee is a syllabry, and due to the linguistic laws of it, new words can be created by stringing together existing words. It's kind of messy, but it's very creative and kind of playful -- and that seemed like an excellent model for a language spoken by rodents.

I started by choosing a few words. I knew going into it that the wild rats in the story would have names in Ratspeak, to highlight the difference between them and the domestic rats (whose "names" are just the referential nicknames the humans have referred to them as, throaway monikers like "Bitey" and "White One"). So I went to my favorite fantasy name generator and randomly generated a bunch of words that sounded like things rats would "say" -- giving the generator rules to provide names with lots of "S", "Z", "K" and "CH" sounds, like hissing and chittering and squeaking noises.

After I had a stack of words that looked promising, I determined roughly what I wanted them to mean.  Usoothe (three syllables -- oo soo thie) I decided would be the name of my sage/psychic character.  Ukeki I decided was a good name for a warrior.  And so on, until meanings had been assigned to all of them -- or if not meanings, at least a rough idea of meaning.  As far as meaning went, I tried to keep in mind what sort of things would be most important for a rat to have a word for: things like food, burrow, and rank since they're pack animals.

Once that was done, I divided all of the words up into syllables and write these lengthwise down a piece of paper.  I looked at everywhere where a syllable showed up in more than one word, and figured out what the common meaning was amongst all those words.  For example, I had two words that started with "U" as its own syllable, and in both cases it was a proper name for a character with some clout and authority -- so I decided that "U" (along with the other single-letter prefixes I discovered, "A" and "O") denoted rank; in this case, placing "U" before any word gives the connotation "one of power who does __".  Once all the overlapping syllables were assigned meaning, I went back over the list and gave meanings to the other syllables to make sense of the words.

One of the cop-outs of writing Ratspeak as opposed to speaking it, of course, is that I make it clear that a tremendous amount of meaning is conveyed nonverbally.  That is, any given syllable may carry multiple meanings, and it's up to context, tone, inflection, and body language to make meaning perfectly clear.  Was this cheating?  Totally.  But I also think it's convincing in the setting, and the multiple-meaning system isn't totally arbitrary.

For example.  "Ke" means teeth; it also means bite or gnaw, which are things one does with teeth.  "Sim" means ground, but can also mean crawl or burrow, which are things one does in the ground.  And so-on.

Now that my syllabry was completed, every time I needed a new word all I had to do was madlib together syllables until I came up with something that could plausibly mean what I was trying to get across.  And because all syllables in Ratspeak can be all parts of speech dependent on inflection, I don't have to worry much about sentence structure or word order -- I can just piece things together in an order that sounds good.

For example.  In writing the new draft I realized I needed to create a word that didn't exist in the first draft -- the Ratspeak word for "alpha" (which, come to think of it, is a pretty huge word).  Now, of course, the wild rats had their own name for their alpha -- Ukeshu -- which means basically "(one in power) who bites enemies".  That's an ideal name for a warrior king, but it doesn't work for a peaceable group of cage-farers.  So instead I came up with "Usim-li" which means essentially "(one in power) who keeps a good burrow" ("Li" being good and "sim" being ground or burrow).

Ratspeak is a language of connotation and shades of meaning, and I draw attention to it in a few places throughout the story, as it's a language even native speakers sometimes need to parse in order to understand what's being said, and quite often a character will have to make up a word entirely in order to convey meaning.  Language for the rats is a creative process just as much as it is one of communication. 

Anyway.  For the curious, here's my full syllable list, followed by the basic words that started the whole thing.  Have fun making up Ratspeak words!

A - Rank; denotes fleetness or skill/expertise
Lay - Chase/explore - to run or scamper in a happy way or for good cause (rats have two words for run)
Si - Smell/sniff/scent.  Also odor or nose.
Bo - wounded
Zu - death.  Also, spirit/soul
Chu - Food, eat, eating.
Sim - Ground/underground.  Also burrow or crawl.
Chur - Gone, absent - in a good way.  Beyond (as in, where the humans live)
Jisk - play, joke
Jask - child/infant
Ke - teeth; bite or gnaw
Shu - Enemy, danger
Li - Good, pleasing.  Also, "Yes".
So - Touch or find.  Also paws.
No - Licks.  Also tongue.
Sa - running - in a bad way, in fear. 
Tak - Safe
U - Rank; denotes authority or power.
Ki - claws.  Scratch.
The - much, lots. 
O - rank; denotes weakness or disapproval. (also used to predicate refusals or when a statement is disagreed with -- as in "I don't want to do ___" where O is the prefix to the word ___)

Allaysi - head scout (one who explores and scents well)
Bozu -- Fatally wounded
Chusim -- Food stash, where one keeps food for later
Churzu -- "gone beyond" or adopted; literally "beyond death" (the pet store rats believe being adopted by humans grants them immortality)
Jiskjask -- fool; "one who plays like a child"
Keshu -- Guard; bites enemies
Ushu -- particularly strong enemies, enemies to be feared (predators)
Liso -- Well touched! (a general compliment, like "good job"; also means a particularly good discovery such as of good food)
Uchu -- Good food; food of the highest quality
Nosobo -- nurse; one who licks and touches (with care) the wounded
Sazu -- to run from death; running for ones life.  Also, survival in general
Taksim -- safe place; home burrow.
Keki -- warrior; bites & scratches
Usoothe -- sage/psychic; "one who sees much"

Usim-li -- "(one of power) who keeps a good burrow" (alpha)
Ushuzu-sim -- Snake; literally "(powerful) deadly enemy who crawls" or more poetically "crawling death-bringer"
Shujisk -- Ferret; "predator who plays"

See how it works?  It's very easy.  Now go forth and enjoy your Ratspeak (but of course, if you use it anywhere public, please give me credit.)

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