My Favourite Bits…Vokhtah

It’s that time. Sorry. Rather than posting an excerpt from Vokhtah today, I want to talk about language, and how it is the true, living history of a race or culture.

Think about Shakespeare. The Bard died in 1616, yet many of the words he made up…yes, made up…are still in use today. According to litcharts.com there are 422 words that almost certainly originated with Shakespeare. Many are nouns turned into verbs, or two words smooshed together, but they did not exist in that form until The Bard made them so. Want some examples? Here we go:

https://www.litcharts.com/blog/shakespeare/words-shakespeare-invented/

You can find the complete list by following the link to litcharts.com, and I guarantee you will be surprised.

Yet why should we be surprised? We know that jargon/slang changes from generation to generation. Who would have known 30 years ago that ‘my bad’ could mean ‘I apologise/I’m sorry/I was wrong’? Language always changes to reflect the needs or concerns of the time. It’s just a different way of looking at history.

So why am I making such an issue of language? Well, it’s because one of my favourite bits of Vokhtah is the language I created to express who and what the characters are.

There’s a Vokh-to-English dictionary at the back of the book, but in reality I didn’t use many of the words in the actual story. Readers quickly work out that ‘ki’ means ‘no’ and that a wingspan is fairly wide in relation to the size of the body. Fingerwidth is pretty self explanatory too, but the pronoun ‘it’ is where the conlang [constructed language] becomes most noticeable.

Remember how I explained that all Vokh and iVokh are hermaphrodites? Well, how can you use ‘he’ and ‘she’ when the character is both? Take away the gendered words and all you have left is ‘it’. Once you start using the word ‘it’ though, other words become problematic…like ‘I’ and ‘you’.

I solved that problem by using ‘one’ or ‘self’ instead of ‘I’, and just for fun I turned the word ‘you’ into a very nasty swear word. But then I really started to dig myself into a hole. How on earth could I write dialogue without pronouns? Try it. ‘Tain’t easy, and sounds really…ugly.

I’m not a linguist, but I do speak a smattering of seven languages [only two properly!], so the sound of the language was really important to me. I was seriously thinking about not having any dialogue in the story at all when Hungarian, and to a lesser extent Japanese, came to my rescue. Pronouns do exist in both languages, but who is speaking is often obvious simply by the form of the verb.

This is what the present and past tense of the verb ‘To Go’ looks like in Hungarian:

https://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?&D1=121&T1=megy

For more on Hungarian grammar, please follow the link to the website.

Hungarian is my mother tongue so I’ve always known that in common speech, you almost always leave off the pronoun because it’s obvious from the form of the verb. In the graphic above, if you ignore the pronouns [shown in green] and just look at the verb forms, you’ll see that the verb changes… for each pronoun. In fact, the form of the verb is unique for each pronoun.

Thus, if I wanted to ask where you [plural] are going, I’d say:

Hova mentek?
[Hova is ‘where’. Mentek is the plural form of [you] go because the ‘you’ is known from the verb form itself]

From there, it was a fairly easy step to reach: ‘”Where going?” it asked.’ The number of iVokh ‘going’ is understood from the context of the paragraph. If you’re talking about multiple iVokh then the question implies more than one. If only one other iVokh is present then the question implies the singular.

From the Japanese, I borrowed the short, sharp form of the men’s language to allow for commands. Thus: ‘”Hold!” it cried.’

And then, because I’m a bit of a masochist, I added a bit more biology in the form of the cilia. Cilia are like tiny pipe organs, and they are how my aliens breathe and speak [the mouth is used only for eating].

But what is the most noticeable thing about pipe organs? It’s that they play chords – major [happy], minor [sad] and variations on discord. Thus the words are automatically coloured by an emotional element, making it unnecessary to say “Self feeling sad” etc.

Finally, I added one more bit of biology – scent glands at the base of each cilia. I blame Golli for this one. Golli is a cat, and when I pick him up for a cuddle, he always rubs his cheek against my shoulder. Yes, it’s a sign of affection, but it’s also his way of scent marking his territory via the scent glands in his cheek. So he’s really saying “I love you, and you’re mine!”.

The Vokh and iVokh never show signs of affection, but those scent glands do produce cues that sometimes ‘leak’ into the air as they speak. Think a whole range of sneaky farts that all ‘mean’ something different. So the spoken language of Vokhtah – the actual words used – can be quite rudimentary because two other emotional cues provide richness and context.

On the cultural side, I decided to make life even more difficult for myself by not having public ‘names’, only titles or ranks. There are strong biological and cultural reasons for this, but I can’t tell you what they are because the published story hasn’t revealed them yet. Suffice to say it’s all because of the big, nasty Vokh. 🙂

The cover of Vokhtah, book 1 of the Suns of Vokhtah series

One of the very first people who read Vokhtah said that I should change the dialogue into everyday English. I did think about it, for about five, very unhappy minutes. Then I realised the obvious: Vokhtah was going to be a difficult book to read no matter what, so asking Readers to get used to the dialogue was peanuts. And really, how could I change the language without changing the very core of the story?

Inevitably, this begs a whole slew of uncomfortable question: why bother creating such unappealing, difficult aliens in the first place? Why go to so much work and effort to write a story only a handful of people are likely to read? Why not use the tried and true trope of having a human main character who could ‘explain’ the bits that really needed explaining?

I guess the most honest answer to all those questions is the same as for the question: why climb Mount Everest? It’s because I wanted to.

Like almost every speculative fiction author I know, I wanted one shot at creating something new. Something that hadn’t been done before. A world that was not Earth, and an alien that was not human.

There’s a lot of ego involved in trying to climb the writing equivalent of Everest, but it’s also a rite of passage because it’s hard, bloody hard. For that reason alone, Vokhtah will probably remain the best thing I ever write. Also the least commercially viable. C’est la vie, n’est ce pas? [That’s life, right?]

Thank you for following me down this linguistic path, and if you know anyone who might be interested, Vokhtah will be free for five days starting on March 16, 2021 [that’s not until tomorrow for Southern Hemisphere readers]. I’m not expecting to make money out of Vokhtah, but I would dearly love to see one more review to bring the total up to 20.

Okay, that’s enough honesty for one day! lol

Much love,
Meeks

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

24 responses to “My Favourite Bits…Vokhtah

  • Yorgos KC

    Wow! Some of the words in the list I wouldn’t imagine there was a time they didn’t exist. Although, “aerial” did exist before Shakespeare (in Greek 🤣)

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Aaaah. Now that is interesting. A geek friend pointed me to some new modelling done on the Antikythera device yesterday, and it reinforced how /much/ we owe the ancient Greeks. Shakespeare is modern by comparison. lol

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yorgos KC

        Oh, yes, the ancient Greeks were amazing. Us, modern Greeks, do nothing to continue their legacy 😒

        The Antikythera device is indeed a wonder of science and technology. One of my Astronomy professors was part of the initial team examining it (he is retired, now, and I don’t know if he is part of the new developments, but didn’t read his name in the article about those, so, probably not) and he was telling us what they knew it was capable of and what they thought it might also be capable of. It is amazing that they now found proof that some of those assumptions were right, and also, found how the hell this ancient computer worked (pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but not as many as a few years ago, apparently).

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          Don’t feel bad. I’ve sometimes thought the ancient Greeks were Supermen. Seriously. Think about everything we owe to them, including the very idea of democracy?
          I loved the bit in the video where they showed the result of the MRI or whatever it was. Seeing those ghostly gears was incredible. Maybe in another 20 years time we’ll have something new that will give us even more info.
          For my money, the Antikythera device is one of /the/ wonders of the world.

          Liked by 1 person

  • ChrisJamesAuthor

    Fabulous explanation, thank you for posting. I once had a lively discussion with a young Hungarian lady who was in one of my classes in Warsaw many years ago: whose grammar was more complex, Polish or Hungarian?
    We both belligerently wrote out the conjugations of “to be”, she in Hungarian, me in Polish, and if memory serves, third person past in Polish had one more ending than Hungarian (I think Polish has one ending for a group of men, one ending for a group of women, and another for a group of mixed sex, whereas Hungarian only had the first two).
    Either way, the grammar of both languages is absolutely brutal!
    Keep going with the next book, please. Lots of us out here are waiting patiently 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  • TermiteWriter

    It’s a difficult book, all right – I had to read it twice before I could grasp the entire plot. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. As for the language issues, conlangers like myself won’t object to any of that.
    I had the same problem of gender with my termite people. The Worker and Warrior Castes are neuter – only the Alates (which give rise to the reproductives) are either male or female. So I had to use “it” for all Workers and Warriors and “it” can get a little confusing. (Note the use of “it” in that sentence. English has a quirk where “it” has that vague generalizing use such as “Did it rain yesterday?” Keeping the antecedents straight can get very confusing – “Did it say that it rained yesterday?”).
    Also confusing is the fact that my termite people communicate by sending EM waves directly between their antennae into the brain – no oral language (they are all deaf). Hence, I couldn’t use the words “listen” or “hear” – I had to substitute “perceive” – (“I perceived it to say they were coming). That can get really awkward and hard to keep consistent.
    I do use a human to interpret, since the whole premise is that my main character from “The Termite Queen” is translating and annotating the document composed by my termite Bard.

    Liked by 4 people

    • acflory

      LMAO! I really have to read this one. Some of the iVokh have mindspeech and ‘send’ to one another, so I absolutely know where you’re coming from. And yes, ‘it’ is such an awful word. I know a few people use ‘en’ but somehow that’s always felt even less comfortable to me.
      High five to all conlangers! By the way, I had no idea that conlang was a thing until I read it in one of your posts so thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  • Berthold Gambrel

    I love this book. Such great world-building. Thanks for this glimpse behind the scenes.

    Liked by 4 people

  • DawnGillDesigns

    Cat lovers always say that’s what the cat is saying. How do you know it’s not saying, ‘ooh, stinky, let me make you a bit less so, and more like me?!!’

    And thank you for your language explanations. I have no affinity with languages of any kind (spoken, math, music) and am always rather in awe of someone who has any level of language skill. I really enjoyed Vokhtah as you know and am looking forward TO PAYING FOR book 2 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  • davidprosser

    the faith you have in this book is warranted. It’s a masterpiece of World Building invested with an alien species that nightmares are made of, and what might be a subspecies who occupy this alien environment.
    I hope you get the readership this deserves and reach your hoped-for reviews.
    Hugs

    Liked by 4 people

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Hope you have readers who get and appreciate that kind of deep work. It is highly specialized – and non-trivial.

    Liked by 2 people

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