Tag Archives: foreign languages

Thoughts on Writing – Trademarks and Evolving Languages

Yesterday at the writing group my husband and I usually attend, one of the writers made a comment about how English is a growing language. They pointed out that it constantly shifts and adds new words, whereas other languages are stagnant and are ruled by a constant number of words. This caught my interest, so I thought I’d do a little bit of research on the topic.

Though my research didn’t go quite the way I anticipated, I focused on new influencers to a language.

The National Science Foundation website mentions in their article on language and linguistics that there are a few things that can influence a change in language. For example, the invention of new technologies can bring with it new words (or specifically, the new use of words). The article says, “Plastic, cell phones and the Internet didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.” Which, if you think about it, means that time period wouldn’t have had a need for those words.

But what happens when those new technologies develop? The new words have to come from somewhere.

In an article from The Atlantic, they explain the origin of the term ‘cell phone,’ or more accurately, cellular phones. At the time, the word cellular referred to biological cells (still does). What does that have to do with phones?

The network for sending signals to each phone was conceived as being of a cellular nature (check out the article for a diagram). As such, a cellular phone would use a cellular network, and the term was later shortened to ‘cell’ phone.

(As a side note, if you are developing a magic system and your story spans over many years, you might consider what developments might influence that magic. For example, in Isaac’s and my Distant Horizon universe, one of the characters has techno sight… the ability to manipulate (digital) technology with their mind. If you go backward to the Multiverse timeline, there aren’t any computers (at least, not that don’t use artificial spirits), so those characters don’t have the techno sight power. Or they might, but it would basically be an unknown power that doesn’t get used, even if it’s in their bloodline for future generations)).

New technology can impact how a language evolves, especially as new terms are needed.

However, when new technology gets involved, so do trademarks. And that’s where things get interesting. For example, look at the the Xerox photo-copying machine. How many people might say “I’m going to xerox that…” turning Xerox, a trademarked brand name, into something generic… (despite attempts to keep in it in their grasp).

If you look at the name, Xerox is the brand, whereas their product is a photo-copying machine. Note that photo-copy is a combination of two words to describe what the product does. But as people became familiar with the product, they turned Xerox into the verb, and thus a new word (or at least a new meaning to the word) was born. HighNames has an article regarding the origins of Xerox, and it turns out that Xerox pulled their name from a combination of Greek words… xeros (dry) and graphia (writing). If xerox, from xeros, now means ‘to photocopy,’ we can see how influences from other languages, plus the change over time, shaped a new word. (Read more about generic trademarks here).

Even now, companies fight to keep their trademarks intact. Google (to use a search engine, originally pulled from ‘googol,’ the number ‘one’ followed by a hundred zeroes). Kleenex, technically a brand name, but now often used to mean a tissue. (“Go grab me a kleenex.”) This is yet another example of a company having to work to keep its trademark intact (This article from The Atlantic has some great examples of companies trying to protect their trademarks). Yet another example of how a trademarked brand has become (or is on it’s way to becoming) a common word is Coke, in which a Concurring Opinions article mentions people asking for a coke (referring to soda in general) and restaurants must distinguish between a Coke or a Pepsi due to trademark legalese.

If you are interested in more information about the evolution of language over time, TED has series of videos about of “How Language Changes Over Time.” I haven’t watched these, but having watched a few TED Talk videos before, I imagine they could have good information.

So how does all this apply to fiction?

Well, if you include conlangs (constructed languages) in your stories, especially over a period of time, you could have fun with changing the language across the generations. Perhaps it’s a company trying to protect their trademark, if you want to stay with the trademarks theme. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding in general. Perhaps there is confusion, if someone from the future tries to explain something to someone from the past. Or perhaps its the opposite. Someone from the past, using an older variety of an evolving language, has a hard time being understood by someone whose updated language no longer sounds the same. (Refer back to the National Science Foundation article for a good example of having a hard time trying to understand an older language).

There’s all sorts of things you can play with, both with fictional languages, and with real languages and real history.

Alternatively, maybe you have a language that is stagnant. One that has only a specific list of words, and that’s that. How do your characters and your society deal with the changes of time? Do they smash words together? Do they struggle to explain technologies? Do they refuse new technology altogether?

Given the way I’ve currently addressed Cantingen word magic in the rough draft of The Shadow War, I suspect their language will be fairly stagnant, with some interesting combinations when trying to explain an object that doesn’t have a specific name or translation.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. 🙂 Have you thought much about how languages evolve, and how you can use that evolution in your fiction?

Further Reading:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/use-it-or-lose-it-why-lan/ – Talks about the frequency of a word compared to how fast it evolves

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/mobile-phones/11274292/Do-you-understand-text-speak.html – Text speech (In this case, also slang, not specific to text) and trying to translate text speech

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/9966117/Text-speak-language-evolution-or-just-laziness.html – Debates whether text speech is language evolution or a lack of proper teaching (leans toward the latter, but does bring up points regarding text speech and ease of communication that would have been interesting had they been developed further

http://knowledgenuts.com/2015/10/10/text-message-slang-goes-back-to-telegraph-operators/ – More or less a counter-argument to the above complaints about text speech, which points out that it got its start with telegraph operators

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/verbing?s=t – A Definition of ‘verbing’


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Thoughts on Writing – Using Foreign Languages In Your Stories

Recently, I’ve been making edits to The Multiverse Chronicles. It’s a pseudo-steampunk fantasy story, and it’s very much not historically accurate. We’ve got dragons, dinosaurs (all right, all right, I know pterosaurs technically aren’t dinosaurs, but still), dirigibles, magic powers, a dragon queen who rules over Britannia, an Industrial Union of Prussia that makes automatons… The list goes on.

Still, we want to have occasional nods to reality, and it’s nice to know which parts of history we’re butchering before we actually butcher it. Since the world is supposed to (vaguely) resemble our own world, we’ve been trying to add flavor through various means, and our latest method has been to insert little snippets of other languages where appropriate.

For example, one of the end scenes of the Multiverse episodes involves a group of airship pirates. The name of their dirigible is mentioned, and the name is supposed to be in German.

Of course, neither Isaac nor I know much of anything about the German language, which is a recipe for potential issues.

In this particular scene, Isaac wants the name of the ship to roughly translate to, “The Spirit of the Iron Vulture.” The first step to renaming this in German was to use Google Translate.

However, from our experiences with Spanish classes in college, we know that online translators aren’t necessarily that reliable. So, whenever I try to name something or use a word that isn’t English, I may use an online translator to start with, but I will usually run it through multiple translators, and then take that translation back from the target language to English to make sure it translates correctly both ways. (I’ve had a few interesting translations when I tried that particular method, as the translator might have had the right word, but not the right meaning). I also try to look up whether words should go before or after one another, if there might be any changes to how the word looks based on what it’s modifying, and anything else that might be different in that language.

For Spanish, this isn’t quite so difficult because I’ve had a few classes, which helps me know what to look for. Even then, I’ve had a beta reader correct my Spanish grammar, and that was helpful to getting the sentence right (I had the wrong verb form).

For German… well… I don’t know German.

I’ve picked up a couple words here and there from Hogan’s Heroes. (Not exactly conducive to knowing how a language works).

I really wasn’t sure what we were looking for in naming conventions, especially since the name we wanted had the “of the” portion. Then I remembered that a friend from college had studied German, so I figured he might be a someone to ask. I sent him a Facebook message, and he was able to offer quite a bit of help.

When in doubt, ask someone with more experience than you.

When Isaac first chose the name, he ended up with “Der Geist Eisengeier.” (Note: If your ship’s name has “the” in the beginning of it, don’t forget to translate that as well). With a bit more checking, I ended up with “Der Geist des Eisernen Geier,” but it seemed a bit of a tongue twister (which I probably pronounce wrong, anyway, since I don’t know German pronunciation rules). Anyway, we asked if it would be feasible to shorten the latter to the former, but our friend pointed out that without “des” (of the), we would end up with a really long, run-on noun. He suggested “Der Geist Des Eisengeier” as a compromise, though he pointed out that German ships would often have longer names.

Isaac and I chose the compromise (Der Geist Des Eisengeier), though knowing about the longer names factor definitely makes using the full name a more feasible option.

As a writer, half of the process of story research is knowing what to look for. In this case, I suspected the language rules might be different from English, but I didn’t have enough knowledge on the subject to know where to begin. At this point, asking someone who does know (or at least has more knowledge than you) is a good way to find a decent starting point. This can be used for language, culture, special procedures, technology… anything. Of course, the more you read, the more you know when you should conduct research, and the more likely you’ll catch where you might have problems before a reader does.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. 🙂 Have you ever had issues with adding words from another language into your manuscript?

(Another good example of doing writerly research can be found at Thrill Writing, a blog where the author interviews various experts about specific topics which are helpful to fiction writers.)



Filed under Writing