How Linguistics Can Help You Part 3: Syntax

After a bit of a break, I’m happy to bring you the continuation of my series, which is intended to make Linguistics user-friendly for writers by relating linguistics topics to the use of created languages in science fiction and fantasy.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the word “syntax,” if not in grammar contexts then perhaps in computer programming!  Syntax is the study of how sentences are put together.

Part of syntax is word order. This is the one everyone fears because it often involves diagramming sentences. Actually, one of my most intense and wonderful classes was Syntax 1 at UC Santa Cruz. We put together a set of rules for how to create the sentences of English, based entirely on example sentences given to us by our teacher, Professor Sandy Chung (who totally rocks, by the way). Each time we thought we had it, she’d throw us another sentence that didn’t fit, and the rule set evolved.  While this doesn’t reflect the most advanced theoretical knowledge on syntax today, it certainly acquainted us with critical questions in the study of syntax.

So how is syntax useful for science fiction and fantasy writers?

First, consider Yoda. He doesn’t use typical English syntax. We know this. Yet we can still understand him. I always figured he was a native speaker of some other language and that affected how he could speak the common tongue – but my husband says he never thought of that, and he thought Yoda was just quirky.

Be that as it may, one of the things you can do by altering syntax is give a feeling of dialect, or of a foreign accent. The key here is to keep it all consistent. If it’s inconsistent it will feel weird, and might be construed as an error.

So how do you keep it consistent? Track your subject/verb/object order, and track your phrase types.

In English we use SVO (subject-verb-object) word order: I hit him: I=S, hit=V, him=O.
In Japanese they use SOV (subject-object-verb) word order. boku ga kare o utta : boku=I (for boys)=S, kare=he=O, utta=hit=V

World languages have quite a variety of orders.  The Atlas of Languages gives the following list:
SVO: English, Finnish, Chinese, Swahili
SOV: Hindi, Turkish, Japanese
VSO: Classic Arabic, Welsh, Samoan
VOS: Malagasay (Madagascar), Tzotzil (a Mayan language of C.Amer.)
OSV: Kabardian (Caucasus)
OVS: Hixkaryana (a Carib language of N. Brazil)

All the permutations are there, though the object-first languages are definitely fewer.  There are even twists to this pattern, in that some languages don’t conceptualize parts of speech the same way, for example treating adjectives the same way as verbs.  For alien languages, who knows? They might not even conceptualize subject and object and verb the way we do – in which case it might be tough to write out their language in the story!  If your protagonist is a human and is allowed to be confused, this may not be a problem.

Some languages have freer word order than English. Take for example Latin or Japanese. This is a place where phrase syntax (in the Japanese case) or morphology (in the Latin case) can allow you greater freedom.

In Japanese, the subject and object are marked by particles, special words that come directly after the nouns they apply to and tell you their role in the sentence. With your words marked like that, you can scramble the phrases up a bit and still get meaning out of it.

In Latin, morphology provides case suffixes. Case suffixes essentially play the same role as the Japanese particles, and by labeling the word’s role directly, allow more freedom for altering word order.

Play around with it. Yoda shows us that we can understand a lot of different ways of putting a sentence together, provided that we know enough to track each noun’s role in the action at hand. You might also want to run it by your friends to make sure it’s comprehensible!  When I work with alien languages I very often play around with syntax to give my English an alien-language flavor – but with each of my two most recent stories, I’ve had to do a round of revisions in which I took my alterations and made them more user-friendly.

At this point you may notice that I’ve been talking about altering English syntax within a story to imply the structure of another language. I do this a lot because I like to write in alien point of view, and yet the story has to be written in English if I want people to enjoy it.  The same syntactic principles apply if you want to write sentences in a created language – but I’m guessing this is going to happen less often in writing a story than will the use of English for implication. I have written a song in one of my created languages, but I don’t imagine it will do more than sit in an appendix, since putting the entire thing in the story as Tolkien did isn’t quite my style.

Now, go forth and have fun with syntax!

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