Elven Grammar

I wrote a series of posts explaining grammar for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2004 and 2005. They were not actually about Elven Grammar (no surprise there) but about English grammar from a perspective that suited science fiction and fantasy readers. I wrote them as ‘Philologa Majora’. I never finished the series, because there was no longer a need for them. For years afterwards, people who knew who Philologa was asked me about what came next. This is a part of what came next. For the rest, I have only notes. I keep telling myself that the world needs another introduction to grammar, but something always gets in the way…

This did, however, lead to me teaching grammar for years and years to all kinds of writers through the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Now you have the basic pure and perfect grammar. But most languages do not use pure forms in everyday speech. Learn a lovely literary English, and try to use it to buy a pair of shoes. Elvish needs to distinguish between literary forms and everything else. For the sake of brevity this article is even more oversimplified than usual, but we can distinguish between literary language, purely grammatical language, and the language as spoken by different groups in the culture (eg a lawyer as opposed to a brickie as opposed to someone terrifyingly fashionable).

The first step in creating the different styles of language as used on different aspects of a culture is to develop a simple popular dialect, which will contrast straightforwardly with the “educated” version of the language. Mercedes Lackey does this in her novels quite frequently: just two dialects to suggest a host of subtle differences.

To create the popular language your first step is to dump some of your carefully created grammar. Make your users sound a bit slack or informal. If two endings sound very similar and if conflating them won’t cause mass confusion, then conflate them. Have people speak in less than whole sentences. Contract words (“it is” to “it’s”). That sort of thing.

Remember, however, that when Latin got too Popular, it became French and Italian and Spanish. In other words, don’t overcomplicate this step. You want to keep enough links with the original language so that people see it as a debased or popular version of the original language, and not as entirely new language.

The next important step is to clearly distinguish your dialects or users groups by the sort of words they use. The strongest way of doing this is probably to first work out your insults and impoliteness. While this is more social custom (word origins again) than grammar, it is very, very handy as writer’s tool. Placing these insults realistically into your invented language takes a bit of thought. When someone says “You bloody drongo,” it does not mean the same thing as “On quiet reflection, I rather suspect you might be a drongo.” The latter contrasts idioms; it uses the popular with the formal to make a point. The former is insult direct.

Idioms are important. Create idioms that reflect the underlying culture. It might be its culture heroes (“Up there Cazaly”) or it might be its earthy sense of humor (all examples expurgated to meet the needs of a family readership). You don’t need to overload your speech with them. In fact, you do not want to overload your speech with them. Imagine entering a pub in rural Somerset – it is very hard to understand the natives. But by giving your characters just a bit of idiom and just a flavour of the underlying stuff of their dreams and beliefs and daily lives, you can communicate their reality to your readers without jeopardizing understanding. Just as, by having a popular, grammatically different version of the language, you can instantly show how educated the speaker is, or if they are adapting to local ways.

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