Slang: Using Language to Flavor Your World
by Susan Kaye Quinn
In every story I’ve written, I’ve played with words. I don’t mean the usual writerly craft of using descriptive language to bring scenes alive or move readers to laughter or tears. And I’m not a dealer in the fine art of diction, as some writers are (like my friend Bryan Russell, who crafts a sentence so beautiful it makes you want to cry). No, I play with words from different languages, or straight make them up.
In my first published novel, Life, Liberty, and Pursuit, a teen romance, my young sailor boy protagonist is a linguist. That was really just an excuse for me to dabble in some different languages. I made him Polish, and lucked into having a critique partner who was fluent in Polish and could help me get just the right nuance to the few Polish phrases that I threw into his speech.
"Ty jesteś piękna," he whispered in her ear. He smiled as she turned back to face him.
"What does that mean?" she asked, entranced.
"It means you're beautiful, in Polish. But I'm fairly sure you are beautiful in any language."
Yes, I’m a hopeless romantic as well.
For an (unpublished) middle grade science fiction story, I wanted to use Galactic Mandarin as the common base language, which required seeking out friends-of-friends to find someone who would consult on the proper use of the language. Facebook is exceedingly helpful in connecting with all kinds of people who know all kinds of things. This allowed sprinklings of Mandarin to spice up my worldbuilding:
"Duncan, wo zui hao de peng you! Ni hao?" Walid asked in Galactic Standard Mandarin, which roughly translated to Duncan, my most good friend! How are you? but which Duncan took to mean Duncan, Dude! What's up?
"Wo hen hao," replied Duncan, indicating he was fine. "Just finished Early Peacedom History," he continued in Mandarin.
(Note: Google translate is my friend.)
For Open Minds (and other stories), I decided to skip right over languages that were already developed and make my own. For this, I flailed around for a while, then consulted Ninja Language Master Adam Heine for tutorials in creating slang and jargon (yes, they’re different; no, I had no idea either). With his help, I started with a root language (Latin) that I wanted to build off, then fabricated words that could substitute for commonly used words (slang) or new technological developments (jargon) in my futuristic world where everyone read minds.
It made sense to me that a slang language would evolve for this entirely new type of communicating, and that it would flavor even non-mindreading aspects of the world. Sometimes these words were direct descendents from a Latin base (which, not coincidentally, would make them easier for the reader to pick up meaning from context). For example, people who were driven mad by the adolescent change in their brains that turned them into mindreaders were called demens, a (pretty obvious) derivative of the latin word dementare (“to drive out of one’s mind”), which gives us the modern word demented (here Etymology Online is also my friend). Others were less obvious and took longer to come up with. I spent half an hour coming up with one word (scrit, which means “to send messages via the phone” i.e. text) and went through two dozen alternatives before I came up with just the right one.
Creating words is tricky business, it seems.
Overall, I don’t really have a tremendous amount of slang and jargon in Open Minds. Keeping the story accessible to readers who weren’t fans of complicated fantasy language was also important to me, so I saw these dabblings in language like the spice in a pumpkin pie—just enough to make it tasty, but not so much that the reader choked. Taking care to craft words that made sense, that fit with the story and the worldbuilding and could be plausibly linked to one another in a cohesive whole, has paid great dividends. Not just in the story (which is fun in itself), but in the reviews and feedback from readers. There’s nothing quite like having someone feed back your own slang to you in a tweet:
So mesh indeed.
You can find Susan at her website, Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.
Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn
When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can’t be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf’s mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she’s dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.
Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy) by Susan Kaye Quinn is available for $2.99 in e-book (Amazon US (also UK, France and Germany), Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iTunes) and $9.99 in print (Amazon, Createspace, also autographed copies available from the author).
Susan generously offers an ebook copy of Open Minds to a lucky commenter.
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