"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
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, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/380762.
sf/f, race, pol
I just borrowed Tolkien's _The Monsters and the Critics_ from the library and of course there in the first paragraph of "The Secret Vice" (Tolkien's essay on conlanging) he praises Esperanto as "necessary for uniting Europe, before it is swallowed by non-Europe" and of course I'd considered Tolkien's racism before but that way of phrasing it ("swallowed by non-Europe") made me realize that he'd probably be wearing around a red cap of one kind or another if he were alive today.
sf/f, race, pol
... which reminds me of the time when I subscribed to the CONLANG mailing list and someone wanted to do a t-shirt with the slogan "Fight language extinction—invent a language!" or something similar and I was like... that is an awful idea. language extinction is an actual problem that affects actual people often resulting from racist violence. it's not okay to say that making up new languages addresses this problem, even as a joke. (I don't remember if they made the t-shirt or not)
sf/f, race, pol
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I am not here for people using a simulacrum of "exotic" language as a means to erase or wrest power from the people being exoticized, which seems like an obvious point. but I feel like the past two hundred years of scifi/fantasy and avant-garde poetics have been dominated by people who did not understand this, and by critics who don't understand it either
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.
sf/f, race, pol
@aparrish love this thread, thank you. And fffffffuck what a frustrating idea for a tshirt 😑
sf/f, race, pol
I like it too. I had some knowledge about the topic but the perspective is a new one for me. But I think that's one of the reason I like firefly. (The SciFi series). A bunch of white and black characters using Chinese as the remaining human language. It is somewhat realistic.
sf/f, race, pol
@aparrish This is a qualm I have with so much fantasy/sci fi and was in fact just now mentioning (albeit in visual-equivalent way) in an application!
But yeah, that Tolkein quote isn't surprising really. It's so often that the inclusion of other cultures/languages, both visually and contextually, exist to orbit and interact with some stable crux of whiteness/eurocentricity, and provide that sense of outsiderness
sf/f, race, pol
@aparrish I find Tolkien an interesting example of racialism: on the one hand, his world seems a thinly-veiled white people vs the uncivilised; on the other he was scathing of Nazi fixation on Aryan lineage.
So, he seems to hold a twisted mean between accepting people as people and considering only certain races as true people.
It seems on the face of it a similar division to folkish trends in Asatru and other Northern European recreationisms.
sf/f, race, pol
Given he was a scholar of Northern European literature first, makes me wonder if his beliefs were partially shaped by the treatment of race and lineage in the sagas.
There are mentions of people being descended from the gods, but also people who were heroes but not descended from the gods, or even heroes without worshipping.
So, there seems to be a mid-ground that holds only Northern Europeans can be Asatru but other people can be virtuous.
@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.
@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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://mastodon.social/@aparrish/101467062291757122)
@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. :)
Server run by the main developers of the project It is not focused on any particular niche interest - everyone is welcome as long as you follow our code of conduct!