m. c. de marco: The Accidental Conlanger

Someone has a curiosity for you: The Illusion of a Language

I recently encountered a purported alien language, Ruanja in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. If you have not read this 1996 book, read it now. “There are books born to win prizes and this is one of them,” said one reviewer.

The prizes, however, were not for linguistics. That anyone could say linguistics was the hardest science in this book only shows the low level of linguistic awareness in the reading public. The asteroid spaceship moving at near light speed was more believable than Ruanja. There was no phonetic or morphological difference noted between Ruanja and human language despite the physical and mental differences between the aliens and us. The indirect pronouns (as in “Someone has a curiosity for you,” which was a statement in the first person) and a spatial gender system (in the linguistic sense, which includes animate/inanimate and other distinctions) make the language interesting, but hardly alien.

And yet the book is wonderful and Ruanja is sufficient for the story’s conlang needs, just as the all-amateur spaceship crew and the edible alien flora and fauna were sufficient for the story’s technological needs. A truly alien language would be as difficult to write about as the Singularity. The Sparrow is about religious belief set against a background of first contact; there’s no room in it for a linguistic Singularity.

The lesson here is, as always, to conlang as little as possible in order to create the illusion of a language—but not the language itself.

September 16, 2008