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[personal profile] damselfish

Serious question for fantasy and science fiction readers: are apostrophes ever acceptable in a constructed language ("conlang")?

I've known pretty much from the get-go that they're verboten and a sign of a try hard, but I was jarred recently when I read a conversation on io9 about how authors shouldn't use apostrophes because it's stupid and meaningless and just use English letters already. I went from having no real opinion on conlangs with apostrophes in them to reading them as necessary in certain contexts.

Mostly because I've been reading about cultures, and fiction set in those cultures, where the languages have apostrophes and I became quickly accustomed to this integral part of the word. e.g., Hawai'i sounds worlds apart from Hawaii. It's another syllable longer. It's two sounds longer.

The 'okina is a perfectly natural part of a word to my eyes, and it has no readily understood English corollary.

The English language isn't necessarily limited in its phonemes, but it (like most languages) lacks the potential for the wide variety of sounds humans can make (English has between 40 and 50 phonemes, a few languages can have as many as 100 or more). I think about this constantly when I wonder "how would I pronounce this? How would the reader pronounce this?" 90% of the time I don't care, I want what looks pretty on the page. That other 10%, though....

My writing often takes me into languages I can't transcribe and sometimes it's nice to just slap down a fake language instead of attempting to describe whale song (why did I write a book about whales!?), and I am occasionally stymied by how I want this conlang to sound. I am an anthropologist, but not a linguist, and come to conlangs as a fantasy reader, so I'm further stymied by the way my eyes glaze over when I attempt to read about linguistics.

Usually I get away with this because I have a penchant for ugly-pretty words that make perfect phonetic sense to me (there is only one way to pronounce "Njaht"!) and I understand they don't make sense to other people but they're at least consistent on the page.

Sometimes I need, absolutely, to let the reader know that this word is very much unlike that word and I've grown accustomed to certain tools that English simply doesn't have. Sometimes it's sounds I transcribe and admit some readers likely can't pronounce ("ryu" is one letter/phoneme in Japanese and it's devilishly hard to say if you haven't studied the language, as I learned when I went to Japan with not one but two guys named Ryu.) I find myself occasionally itching for an apostrophe, to neatly slot them into a linguistic system that I guess I could use another letter for--tare instead of a're--but it doesn't have the same pleasingness to it, that pause, the emptiness between the voiced sounds (also it draws more attention to the pronunciation, more people would read that as "ah-rey" vs. "are"). Another letter feels far more ambiguous than a well-deployed glottal stop for pronunciation.

I know some translations use hyphens to denote glottal stops or similar pauses, but my western eyes don't like to see those as single words. Hyphens are two words! Even if we actually use hyphens for the same purpose, visually they don't look like a single word. Quick, is "uh-oh" one word or two?

Obviously it's fantasy and an author can do whatever they want, but what do you think? Is it a silly blanket rule, or is it something that turns you off as a reader right away?

Date: 2014-09-11 11:35 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] foxfinial
Well, ' represents a letter in some languages, so denying its use entirely in English-language SFF is incredibly Anglocentric. It's also not that frequent a letter in any language I've encountered as it is in bad conlangs, so reality-based usage shouldn't look absurd.

Date: 2014-09-11 01:22 pm (UTC)
genarti: Knees-down view of woman on tiptoe next to bookshelves (Default)
From: [personal profile] genarti

I've spent more than enough time studying Arabic to usually parse ' as a glottal stop. (There are two Arabic letters it can theoretically represent, but never mind; if I were trying to use it in a conlang to denote the ع sound I would assume that most people would read it as a glottal stop, because monolingual Anglophones can't generally hear or pronounce ع unless they've worked on it a while.) So if the apostrophe seems to consistently represent a glottal stop or similar, I wouldn't object to it at all. Or if it clearly represents a dropped letter/phoneme the way it does in English writing. What I object to is the "scatter silent apostrophes like buckshot" approach where it's not clear how one is supposed to read it other than as A Sign Of Fantasy.

I do suspect that by using apostrophes you'd be risking kneejerk reactions from some readers who are sick of the Fantasy Apostrophe, but sometimes one has to.


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