"The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to. The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships. [...] Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places."—Ursula K. LeGuin, _Steering the Craft_, p. 19

(this is a lovely passage and also incredibly useful to me rhetorically at the moment, thank you for everything once again ukl)

the paper where I found this quote* uses "Aslan" (from those Narnia books) as a prototypical example of onomastic neologism having just such an effect on children ("At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside"). but that makes me worry about this argument because so much of what appears to be evocative "nonsense" in western literature (from fantasy to the avant garde) turns out to be only lightly-veiled orientalism. ("aslan" of course being turkish for "lion")

(not accusing ukl of doing this, but not letting her off the hook for it either necessarily. I just wonder if there's a way of squaring this—when [white] authors are arguing for the wonders of sound symbolism are they actually just finding a way to excuse racism?)

* Robinson, Christopher L. “Childhood Readings and the Genesis of Names in the Earthsea Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Children’s Literature, vol. 38, no. 1, May 2010, pp. 92–114. Project MUSE,

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Growing up between languages I always rolled my eyes at special-sounding words. I mean, it's funny that "seal" in French is "phoque" - if you're thirteen, maybe. But taking seriously the sound and rhythm of words? How can you when they're so different between cultures?

As for the Orientalism stuff, well, all those apostrophes in F/SF names? The consonant clusters and gutturals? Lots of them are found in Arabic alone.

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@aparrish Julia Kristeva says that there is a lot of violence implied by the break between pre-linguistic sounds, what she terms the Chora, and the roles and restrictions imposed by systems of signification supplied by the imaginary and symbolic order. So it is very compelling to consider the sublime-uncanny-abject affects of onomastic neologism in relation to the orientalist manner of depiction.

@aparrish Ha! Interesting. I didn't know the Turkish origin.

I guess he got it from Arabian Nights.

<< As far as the name "Aslan" is concerned, Lewis explained this directly in response to a letter asking this very question:

Dear Miss Jenkins,

It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane's Arabian Nights: it is Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it as Ass-lan myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. >>

@natecull I'm not in any way a C.S. Lewis scholar, so I can only speculate on where he got it from—for me there's an echo of turquerie in this kind of choice. regardless I think a lot of the "energy" of the word's sound comes from a sensation of "otherness" and I don't think that can be separated from the politics of colonialism etc.

@aparrish I have really enjoyed being married to a Chinese speaker and learning (very slowly) how to decode place-names etc.

A thing that amuses me is how many so-foreign-and-poetic sounding Chinese names are *exceedingly* utilitarian.

Sichuan - 'Four Rivers' (though actually it was 'Four Administrative Circuits' originally)
Beijing - 'Northern Capital'
Shanghai - 'On-the-Sea'

but I guess that's so with everything.

@natecull @aparrish
Bridgeport, Long Island, Key West... just a few that pop to mind. :)

@ross @aparrish

New Zealand's North Island and South Island are also strong examples of 'we were literally too lazy to name this place but we're gonna claim it for the British Crown anyway'

@natecull @aparrish Meanwhile the Maori are like "uhhh, we have some names for them?"

@ross @natecull I grew up in Centerville, just to the north of Salt Lake City

@aparrish @natecull Connecticut just means "Long River" in Algonquin, apparently.

@aparrish @natecull But when was Turkey a colony? In C.S. Lewis’s youth, it was an empire, actually.

@wrenpile @aparrish And its former possessions became European colonies after 1918, I think?

@natecull @aparrish More or less.

And you could make a case for the Ottomans as better colonists than the Brits or French.

@wrenpile @natecull "colonialism" is probably the wrong word here, except inasmuch as the idea and practice of colonizing was part of the mission of british (and more generally european) imperialism, as I understand it. I wish I knew enough to make this argument more specifically and effectively, but I don't think there's any way to seriously object to the idea that western europe and britain held deeply orientalist views toward turkish culture during the time period in question

@wrenpile @natecull the argument wasn't so much that there was a power difference that was being exploited in c.s. lewis's lifetime, but that the way that "otherness" in general is constructed (animated by nationalism, capitalism etc) is part of what contributes to the existence of an "exotic" aesthetic. you can't separate the way that "Aslan" works from that political context

@aparrish @wrenpile I agree.

I was very disappointed with Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs' because of its ridiculous treatment of Japan as a series of self-mocking stereotypes, which wasn't so much offensive to me as just... aggressively stupid. Really, why? It just makes Americans look dumb.

So much of what we grew up being taught was 'inscrutable' and 'alien' often turns out to be just... not caring enough to notice things.

@aparrish @wrenpile

How increasing knowledge of non-European cultures affects European science fiction and fantasy is still being worked out, I think.

Much of the charm and appeal of the 'sense of wonder' in SF/F is kind of... just colonialism with a silly hat on, really.

It doesn't have to be! But like bad Dan Brown style pulp thrillers that you can tell were written entirely from tourist guidebooks, a lot of classic SF/F now feels similar.

@aparrish @wrenpile

Of course it works the other way too. It's not just European SF/F that is problematic. Reading Liu Cixin's 'Three Body Problem', I was struck by how deeply (what would be in the USA) right-wing and xenophobic it was. Environmentalism is entirely an alien conspiracy to enslave Earth. Every race must fight to the death against every other. Very bleak.

it felt like reading a mix of Asimov, Heinlein and ... maybe John Ringo? somewhere in that space.

@natecull @aparrish It isn’t whataboutist to say there’s tribalism in all of us. There are probably evolutionary reasons for this.

That doesn’t mean we should just give in to it, of course…

I figure this could probably be empirically tested: get statistical samples of nonsense, & see if there are patterns to how kids react that don't map to similarity to familiar words.

@enkiv2 @aparrish

I know I *loved* making 'generative nonsense' as a kid by eg swapping syllables or phonemes. Used to drive adults crazy, crave adults drizy, drize avults crady, etc.

@natecull @enkiv2 me too. then again, one of the first real programming projects I made was a C program called "nonsensei" (made up imaginary japanese-sounding words by recombining from a list of valid japanese syllables. I am not japanese nor have I ever spoken japanese)

@aparrish @enkiv2

Last week I coded up a Markov chain nonsense generator of the kind I used to make back in the 80s. It was fun!

Tokenise a file by words or characters, count frequencies of chains of tokens, then generate probabilistic nonsense based on frequencies. It still amuses me.

I guess neural networks improve on this, but they cost vastly more processing power.

@natecull @enkiv2 neural network-generated nonsense is pretty much my day job at the moment 🙃 (and it's why I'm doing all this reading on nonsense in the first place—trying to contextualize this kind of work that i'm doing

@natecull Just recently my thoughts returned to Markhov Chains as I was contemplating my name generator (currently based on picking random syllables from a list, like the old Elite name generator did). @aparrish @enkiv2

@natecull you would love ‘verlan’ in French then :) (do a search for some examples)

@enkiv2 I think it probably could! but I also don't want to downplay how early and how thoroughly kids learn that foreign-sounding speech is bad (then, taboo, then enticing, then evocative)

Right. What I mean is that you can see if they're more excited by certain kinds of morphology. Even a pretty naive person can distinguish between "sounds like a nonsense syllable" and "sounds like a nonsense syllable with the shallow characteristics of some particular group of notionally-related foreign languages".

If what's exciting is the novelty, we'd expect to see patterns that sound vaguely like some particular language as less exciting. If what's exciting is the taboo of foreign speech, then we'd see the opposite.


It's been years since I looked at the book, but... whoa. So a candy called Turkish Delight was nearly the downfall of one protagonist but his staunch ally also had a Turkish name. I guess you're never too old to learn new things. :)

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