by Elizabeth Barrette

  • Cherryh, C.J. The creator of the “Chanur” series, Cherryh uses a couple of interesting motifs in The Pride of Chanur (DAW Books, 1981). One is a pictographic translator machine which allows hani aliens to communicate with a human; another is the peculiar “grid” of words representing a t’ca translation of knnn message.
  • Crispin, A.C. Her “Starbridge” series focuses on communication between humans and aliens. The first novel, Starbridge (Ace, 1989) features multiple first contact sequences and a couple of characters who put considerable energy into learning each other’s languages; there’s also some intriguing interaction with a telepathic alien. Silent Dances (written with Kathleen O’Malley; Ace, 1990) features characters – human and alien both – who converse in sign language. Silent Songs (Ace, 1994) is a sequel to Silent Dances and adds two more alien races, one vocal and one telepathic, with which humans must learn to communicate.
  • Elgin, Suzette Haden. A professional linguist as well as an author, Elgin has written a number of relevant books including the novel Native Tongue(DAW Books, 1984) which features a culture of linguists and a language designed by and for women, and the nonfiction book A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan: Second Edition (SF3, 1988) which features one of the most complete science fiction languages in existence. Her nonfiction pamphletLinguistics and Science Fiction Sampler (OCLS Press, 1994) is an essential resource for writers.
  • Friesner, Esther M. Her novel The Psalms of Herod (White Wolf, 1995) offers an excellent example of how to morph English so as to suggest a later time and a very different culture.
  • Harrison, Harry. His “West of Eden” trilogy posits humans interacting with sentient dinosaurs. Winter in Eden (Bantam Spectra, 1986) provides a lavish guide to the cultures of that world, including the saurian Yilanè who use not only words but also postures and changing colors to communicate.
  • Kagan, Janet. This talented writer brings us Hellspark (Tor, 1988), the quintessential novel about human polyglots in a star-spanning society. It also features exquisitely developed interactions between people of differing cultures, and a terrific first contact dilemma with aliens who communicate by ruffling their feathers.
  • Lackey, Mercedes. Many of her stories feature colorful tidbits of fantasy languages. The novel Oathbreakers (DAW Books, 1989) has a Shin’a’in dictionary in the back. Some words have direct English translations, others don’t; altogether the language does a good job of conveying the Shin’a’in worldview. The novel Magic’s Price (DAW, 1990) includes some tidbits of the related Tayledras language, plus a note that the Tayledras wordshay’a’chern (meaning “homosexual” but with a positive connotation) evolved into the Valdemaran shaych – both terms having gained some popularity in fannish circles.
  • Lichtenberg, Jacqueline. In cooperation with Jean Lorrah, she created the “Sime/Gen” novels – arguably the best science fiction series nobody seems to have read. It’s one of the rare cases where there is no way to tell the story without resorting to the characters’ own vocabulary, because English has no words to describe many of the relevant experiences. Unto Zeor, Forever (Playboy Press, 1978) offers a guide to characters and a list of vocabulary.First Channel (with Jean Lorrah; Playboy Press, 1980) features a chronology and a Sime legend. Zelerod’s Doom (with Jean Lorrah; DAW Books, 1986) also has a character guide and glossary, along with a map of the territories.
  • Lindskold, Jane. This author often writes in the first person, present tense – an unusual and dramatic mode that she handles exceptionally well. In the novel Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls (AvoNova, 1994) Lindskold combines this with a character who can communicate with inanimate objects, but who can speak to humans only by quoting things she’s read previously, like Shakespeare’s plays. The novel Marks of Our Brothers (Avon, 1995) features several alien races, one of whom the humans consider nonsentient because they are telepathic and telekinetic rather than verbal … and who, conversely, consider humans unintelligent for constantly yapping and grabbing things like puppies.
  • Lisle, Holly. Another writer who juggles multiple languages within a single setting, Lisle has a wry and often dark sense of humor. Her novel Bones of the Past (Baen, 1993) includes a glossary drawing from several languages. One notable entry is the Hoos word kyadda (which can mean anything from “yes” to “thanks” to “everyone is still breathing” – rather like the Russian pozhalsta) that she describes as a “useful linguistic noise” which itself is a handy term. There is also an illustration of First-Folk writing.
  • McCaffrey, Anne. Along with Margaret Ball and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, she has told the story of Acorna the Unicorn Girl. The fourth novel, Acorna’s World (Eos, 2000), provides a glossary of terms and names plus some notes on the Linyaari language.
  • McCarthy, Wil. This author takes a rare look at the challenges of translation in the novel The Fall of Sirius (Roc, 1996). The main character winds up facing three quite different translations of a conversation, adds a fouth to mediate, and finally demands a concensus translation.
  • McKiernan, Dennis L. A modern master of xenolinguistics, he is best known for his epic novels of Mithgar. The Darkest Day (Signet, 1984) offers a glossary spanning eight languages, and it includes a fascinating grid on how monster names shift from one language to another. Other books expand on this and offer a look at some other cultures.
  • Okrand, Marc. He developed the Klingon language for the “Star Trek” universe, and it has become one of the most popular constructed languages people actually attempt to learn and use. The Klingon Dictionary (Pocket Books, 1985) gives a pretty comprehensive introduction to this language and its unique motifs. There is also a Klingon Language Institute which publishes a newsletter.
  • Pinker, Steven. His nonfiction book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language provides a splendid discussion of practical linguistics, comprehensible to the non-expert. It is as entertaining as it is accurate.
  • Schmidt, Stanley. His novel Lifeboat Earth (Berkley, 1978) contains a hauntingly plausible conversation with a dolphin. He also wrote the nonfiction writer’s guide Aliens and Alien Societies (Writer’s Digest Books, 1995) which covers language in some detail, and also has a great bibliography.
  • Slonczewski, Joan. Her novel A Door Into Ocean (Avon, 1986) explores an all-female culture and its unique language heavy in “share” verbs.
  • Stirling, S.M. Together with Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein, he developed the “Fifth Millennium” series. Saber and Shadow (with Shirley Meier; Baen, 1992) relates the meeting of Megan Whitlock and Shkai’ra Mek Kermak’s-kin. The back matter gives not only a glossary of terms but a rather detailed explanation of how the book’s languages evolved from current languages, along with a general discussion of the making of the Fifth Millennium.
  • Thomson, Amy. In the novel The Color of Distance (Ace, 1995), a human explorer becomes stranded among aliens who communicate by flashing colored symbols on their skin. Teaching her their language first requires them to modify her body so that she, too, can change the color of her skin (and also to keep their homeworld from killing her). She later reciprocates by teaching them her own language, in written form since they can’t manage the vocal sounds. Both The Color of Distance and its sequel Through Alien Eyes (Ace, 1999) include a brief glossary of Tendu terms; Through Alien Eyesincludes a supplement noting a few other terms as well.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Perhaps the greatest xenolinguist of all time, he wrote many tales in which language played a small or large part. For example, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977) contains an index of names and an appendix of elements in Quenya and Sindarin names. Other writers have since amassed a number of resources about his writing, including The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth by Ruth S. Noel (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974) and An Introduction to Elvish by Jim Allan (March Press, 1978).
  • Weber, David. The latest of the “Honor Harrington” novels, Ashes of Victory (Baen, 2000), has a minor but intriguing plot thread in which a human linguist endeavors to teach sign language to the alien treecats, and this includes a thoughtful discussion of why it could prove difficult or impossible for these telempaths to learn a human-style language based on discrete concepts.
  • Young, Janine Ellen. In her novel The Bridge (Warner Aspect, 2000), she describes the traumatic first contact between humanity and Kasarans, a race who communicate through colors … and viruses. Imagine how you’d feel if you said “Hello!” and most people who heard you died.