Today’s 356 Days of Writing Prompt: 2100 – The language of the future: what will it be like? Write an experimental post using some imagined vocabulary — abbreviations, slang, new terms.
Because I have a little more time to spend on today’s prompt (Yay, Friday!), I’m going to first discuss my reactions to it. My first thought was how I really didn’t like this prompt, which is odd because I’ve studied multiple foreign languages and can still speak one of them (Yay, German! One day I’ll use you!). For my own writing, I spend a lot of time considering the voice and speech patterns of my characters. How would they sound and what slang would they use based on their upbringing, current social status, and surroundings? One of my favorite novels is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I once wrote an essay about how it was the first great American novel because of its extensive and integral use of real American dialects to characterize the story’s players. (Side note: The horrendously high word count for the N-word was intentional and satirical.)
However, I think when author’s try to create their own language (and to a lesser extent a new dialect of an existing language) for a novel, they’re wading into a quagmire. Language evolves organically overtime from the interactions of many groups of people who interpret and use words differently, from historical events that favor certain words over others, from pop cultural word invention, etc. So IMHO (see what I did there?), to create a new language means you also have to create some historical context for how that language evolved, if not an entire history. J.R.R. Tolkien did it right, and that is why he is awesome.
This is something I hem and haw over in my writing all the time. The story I’m working on (and mentioned in this post) takes place in modern times but is set in an alternate reality where witches and wizards are not only real but were sinisterly involved in World Wars I and II. So while many of the historical events we’re familiar with still happened (the Wars), there’s an additional twist that’s affected the subsequent years. Often times I find myself about to type an idiomatic phrase and I have to look it up to see if it was invented before or after point in history when my story significantly diverted from reality. If it happened after, I sit there and try to think about how might a similar phrase have come about based on the history of my story, and how can I structure the idiom so that my readers can actually understand its meaning. For my story, it’s a lot of fun. For a short post, not so much.
I’m curious, is this something other writers fret over? Has anyone reading this post tried to pull a Tolkien and create an all new language for their story?
And without further ado, my cop-out story that sidesteps the future-ness of this prompt! I’ve combined it with a visual writing prompt from Rachael Marek’s A Writer’s Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales, since I wanted to write a story using this picture but she first posted it during my Great Laptop Drowning of 2014.
Gemma crept to the edge of the stone stairwell and allowed her eyes to drift downward. A patch of moss dislodged and plummet to the stone mosaic below without releasing so much as a terrified squeal. If she lost her footing, she’s die of asphyxiation before her ker-splat. The folks in every town in a five mile radius will know she fell to her underground doom. And her ghost would haunt the stairwell for centuries if her impact didn’t get a crisp echo. Twenty solid seconds, at least.
“You goin’ down?”
Gemma shrieked. She teetered in her sturdy hiking boots before intentionally flinging her weight backwards so she fell on thehard, but considerably closer, stone walk behind her. Dean crouched over her, smiling, a streak of dirt carelessly wiped over his forehead as if he’d just been baptized by the forest. Knowing Dead, his baptism had been prenatal. Gemma scowled at her younger brother, shoved him out of her way, and climbed onto shaking feet. She, being civilized and whatnot, wiped the dirt from her jeans and elbows.
“Shouldn’t you be at school?” she frowned.
“Senior skip day. Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“This is work,” Gemma said, raising her chin high as she dropped her book bag and pulled out the syllabus for her course. “Cryptoanthropology 498X: Culture, Language and Identity Among Hidden Civilizations.”
“Bleck.” Dean let his tongue hang from the corner of his mouth to emphasize his disgust. “I’m never going to college. What the heck are you even taking that class for?”
“I’m the course TA– that means teaching assistant. The professor wants me to visit potential access points for…” Gemma grinned, leaned close to her brother and dropped her voice, “Hidden Civilizations. To see if they’re worth bringing the class to any for field trips. You know what this means, right?”
“Nope.” Dean dropped into the moss, shifting on the springy plants and probably grinding green stains onto his uniform pants. He let his legs dangle into the stairwell and reclined with his hands behind his head. “And I don’t care.”
“Fairies, Dean! How can you not be interested? You love everything else about nature, Mr. Most Likely to Sell All His Possession to Live in a Commune Somewhere in Montana.”
“Fairies are not natural.”
“We live three miles from a verified fairy circle, with another ten suspected circles in the tri-county area. If one of these turns out to be a real access point hiding a real fairy circle–Do you have any idea how big that will be?”
Gemma swung her hands around wildly until she flung the syllabus away. Like slapstick cartoon character, she clawed for the papers before they could fly into the stairwell. Dean snickered until she konked him in the head with her toe.
“People will want to come see it,” she said she returned the syllabus to her bag and straightened out her clothes once again. “There will be news crews. They’ll probably interview me. Oh my god, I could apply for so many scholarships!”
“News crews?” Dean raised his eyebrow. He rose onto his elbows. “For real?”
“Ugh, that’s all you care about.”
Gemma grabbed her backpack and walked toward the entrance to the staircase.
“How do you even know this is an access point?” her brother shouted after her.
“What else could it be? Why would someone build an elaborate staircase into the ground in the middle of the woods?”
As soon as Gemma passed the first floor of the stairwell, she regretted not
forcing inviting Dean along. Despite the sunlight dancing around her, she felt as if she were walking into an iceberg. Once she was under solid, stone roofing, the archways on the side of the stairwell continued to usher in enough light to make her way clear, but she did not feel well-guided. The stones beneath her feet were beautiful carved with ivy designs that cultivated moss for subtle coloring, but the same attention to detail had set them up for easy wear-and-tear. She could feel them crumbling under her careful footsteps.
Beyond the scrunch of her boots on moss and loose stone, she caught a strange hissing noise. Higher pitched than a snake (which she would not have been happy to meet in the confined stairwell). More varied than the steam from a tea kettle (Who would be brewing tea in an underground stairwell in the forest?!). When she realized it sound like a thousand tiny voices, she resolved that it must be some trick played by Dean. He probably had a recording device stashed somewhere. Still, that couldn’t quite explain the fact that she could feel the voices reverberating in her bones far easier than she could hear them echoing in her ear drums.
The mortar between the stones channeled gray water that repelled her from using the walls to steady herself. The liquid tendrils seeped into the gaps in the stairs and further threatened its structural integrity. Gemma grabbed onto a thick pillar along the inside of the stairs and pressed herself against its marginally drier surface. After a pronounced gulp, she shimmy into the archway and looked down. Fifth flights already walked, many more to go. By this point the sunlight had dimmed and yet the mosaic at the bottom glowed brighter than ever as if in direct noonday sun. She saw the design clearly now: a lotus flower inside a raging sun.
That has to mean something, she thought as a way to convince her legs to keep moving. This trip would be worth it in the end.
Rather than echo as they should, her footsteps sounded dull against the polished stone. She crossed over the fiery outer image of the sun and knelt down over the pearl white lotus design. Fairies loved flowers, right? She brushed her fingertips over the sleek marble and gasped when the petals actually moved.
Relax, Gemma, it’s just a loose stone. No magic.
Carefully she removed the loose petal stone from the design. Her breath was far more controlled when she saw the tablet hidden inside. Her fingers trembled as she pulled it out and blew off the excess dirt. In a whisper, she recited the engraving left in what she hoped was just red paint.
Oh ye, wingless Groundflyers,
Wishing entrance to the Fairy Weefolkdom
Submit to Chaos
And find Salvation
Here in your eternal grave
Gemma’s screech was like no sound she had ever made before. The stone tablet shattered against the lotus as she crabwalked backwards. Dirt fell from the ceiling as something finally echoed at the bottom of the cave. Her screams blared until she was blue in the face and were then replaced by the high squeals of breathless vocal cords.
“Oh my god, I cannot believe you fell for that!”
Gemma lurched around. She didn’t bother wiping anything from her pants as Dean sauntered over to the mosaic clapping. She was too shocked to be mad at him. The fury would come later. He better keep an eye on his dinner plate…
“I didn’t think you’d fall for it! I saw your syllabus weeks ago and planted those tablets at all these stupid ‘access points’ around here. Come on, Gemma, you don’t really believe fairies are real. You’re supposed to be the older, mature one. That fairy circle they confirmed with a couple of photoshopped images. If fairies actually were real and made this staircase, don’t you think–“
“Wha’ shoul’ we do with ’em, these jabberlipped groundflyers?”
Gemma started at the question, asked in the same hissing tone that haunted the staircase. Dean’s giddy laughter subsided.
“Rootbind ’em within yer tarrow. Don’t ‘en ye swilly yer hautigeist. They be not but little ‘uns. Wrap ’em two-flap.”
“Ge-gemma, what’s going on?” Dean tiptoed over to his sister as she stood up. Was it there imagination or were the shadows creeping toward them? Shaded fingers crawled across the ground to their feet.
The siblings pounded up the staircase faster than it could crumble beneath them.
“Aw, ye scared ’em flightsure within yer talk of two-flap binds. One-flap’d hold them rootbound good enough!”
“Don’t ye benaggle me within yer flippertygob. There’ll be another ‘un before the next shadowfall. Then we can escape flightswift.”
Gemma and Dean said nothing as they pounded through the forest and to the safety of their decidedly un-fairy house in the center of their thoroughly un-fairy town. With a red pen, Gemma drew a violent X over the coordinates of the stairwell access point.
“Just ye wait tight. More groundflyers will find our glamourtrap. Then we’ll be skybound.”
Since I didn’t want to spend words actually defining random, made-up fairy vocabulary, I tried to create kennings that would convey the intended of the words that sort of matter. (Side note: Kennings are awesome.) Hopefully they worked, but if they didn’t, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Also, somehow my fairies ended up as hillbillies… Is that a first?
The moral of this story: Don’t go down creepy, inexplicable stairs in the middle of a forest. It can only end badly.