English: An Open Source Language – A Ramble

Well, the night before I wrote this article, I happened to read some fascinating BBC articles about the inconsistencies in the English language and about how handwriting can vary from area to area. So, I thought that I’d talk about the English language today.

One of the really interesting things about the English language is the way that it evolved from several different languages (eg: Old English, Norse, German, Latin, French, Greek etc..) and how many English words are phonetic transcriptions of random words from various languages (eg: the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kohl”, a term that originally meant “the eyeliner”).

This evolution also added depth to the language by giving English formal and informal vocabularies, based on different linguistic origins. Generally, words that are considered informal tend to come from German and Norse and more formal words tend to come from Latin and French. For example, most current English profanities are just Anglicised German/Norse words for the “polite” words a Latin speaker would use when talking about copulation, anatomical organs and bodily secretions.

This has also led to lots of other interesting phenomena, such as the fact that there are different “standard” English spellings in Britain and America – with standardised spelling itself being a relatively recent invention (before dictionaries were created, people just spelled words however they thought each word sounded).

Likewise, the evolution of the English language also means that if you’re an English speaker and you travelled back in time more than a couple of centuries, you would have a difficult time understanding the English language. I remember having to look at a medieval Middle English text when I was at university, and one of the things that surprised me was that the English in the text was barely recognisable or comprehensible by modern standards.

Unlike, say, the Académie française in France, there is no formal body that controls the English language. In addition to being a brilliant way to wind up people who are ultra-pedantic about grammar (and, yes, you can split infinitives and begin sentences with “And”), this lack of an official body also means that the language is free to evolve quickly and naturally through common usage, and to adapt the best parts of other languages.

In short, the English language has a lot in common with open-source software. In other words, it is something that people can freely adapt, alter and use in different ways. It is something that belongs to everyone who uses it rather than to any specific organisation. And this is one of the language’s greatest strengths.

Generally speaking – rules, words and spellings that actually serve a useful purpose tend to stick around (eg: the order of words in sentences) whereas those that don’t tend to fall by the wayside. For example, the term “pen” apparently used to just refer to the nib of a pen, with the whole pen being called a “pen and pen-holder” or something like that. Of course, when pens became more available and widely-used, it became easier to just use the word “pen”. So, like open-source software, the English language is optimised for efficiency.

So, why have I spent so long talking about English? Simply put, to show the utter absurdity of being too uptight about things like grammar. If you love the English language, then you should love the fact that it is something that is constantly changing, adapting, optimising, expanding and improving itself. After all, the only true authority on the English language is however the vast majority of speakers are using it at any given moment.

Not to mention that it’s even sillier when people use the English language for the purposes of nationalism. If it wasn’t for words derived from other languages, English would be a very limited language. English is such a rich language because it is an open language.

So, yes, English is an open-source language, with no owner other than the millions of people who speak it. And this is awesome 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Linguistic Gimmickry In “Spartacus” – A Ramble

2017 Artwork Liguistic gimmicks article sketch

Although I probably won’t write a full review of it, I’ve been watching a really interesting TV mini series on DVD called “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena”. Anyway, it contained a very interesting linguistic gimmick in the dialogue which I thought that I’d discuss here.

Even though this show has the classic “it’s ancient Rome, and most of the characters have British accents” thing, the writers have made the main characters speak in a very clipped and grammatically-different way (often leaving out the word “the”), presumably in order to mimic Latin grammar. I don’t speak Latin, but the few Latin phrases I know all use a different type of grammar to English.

It’s a very imaginative linguistic experiment, although it often doesn’t really work that well in practice. Sometimes, it sounds authentically “Roman”, sometimes it sounds like broken English and, other times, it just makes the characters sound melodramatically abrupt. Even so, I can see why they tried to do it.

When it comes to writing dialogue in comics, fiction etc… there has to be a balance between realism and making the dialogue understandable to the audience.

After all, people in Ancient Rome spoke Latin with Italian accents, rather than English with modern British accents (historical British accents sound very different). But, the show was produced primarily for American audiences (even though it was also released on DVD here in the UK) so it makes sense that the characters would be speaking English instead. So, I can see why the writers compromised and tried to include some Latin-style grammar in order to hint at the fact that the characters would have been speaking Latin.

Getting the language right in unusual settings is often a bit of a complicated thing, although I’d often argue that you should lean heavily towards understandability, even if it comes at the expense of realism. Plus, as I mentioned in this other article, there are a lot of subtle things that you can do in order to make the dialogue fit in better with the setting.

Although my other article talks more about how language evolves in fictional settings, there are obviously several ways that you can make the language used in historical settings sound more authentic, without making it seem incomprehensible. The classic trick is, of course, to use lots of posh-sounding words like “aye”, “verily” and “forsooth” (and I sort of did this in at least one historical comedy/sci-fi comic), but the opposite to this can often work considerably better.

For example, like with HBO’s “Rome” TV series, one thing that “Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena” nails perfectly is the grittiness of the language used. Thanks to Shakespeare, past film censorship and other such things, there’s often a false impression that people in the distant past were a lot more sophisticated and polite than people are these days.

So, the liberal use of four-letter words in these TV shows is probably a lot closer to how people used to speak in Ancient Rome. A time where people had fewer puritanical hang-ups about the human body, sexuality etc… A time where, instead of peacefully playing violent videogames, people entertained themselves by watching gladiators literally fight to the death.

In this context, eloquent and polite Shakespearean dialogue would seem vastly out of step with the world that the characters live in. So, this was a very clever choice on the part of the show’s writers -even if, ironically, it also makes the show seem a bit more “modern”.

So, yes, keep any linguistic gimmickry in your stories, comics etc… fairly subtle and your audience will appreciate it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Language And Worldbuilding

2016 Artwork Language And Worldbuilding

Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a very quick look at one of the more basic rules for making fictional “worlds” seem more immersive and realistic. This is because I happened to see an absolutely perfect example of this rule in action fairly recently.

So, what is this particular rule? Well, the rule is that the language in your story or comic should reflect the area that it has developed in. Whilst your story or comic itself should obviously be written in your own native language, a lot of linguistic changes can be shown through things like expressions and idioms.

A good example of this can be seen in the ninth episode (“Civilization”) of the first season of “Star Trek: Enterprise”. In this particular episode, the crew of the Enterprise visit a long-lost human colony on another planet. For a variety of environmental reasons, the inhabitants of the planet have ended up living in a vast network of underground tunnels and caves.

Although these characters speak a slightly more basic version of English, their language has still evolved slightly to reflect the fact that they’ve lived underground for several generations.

For example, when they want to emphatically point out that something is untrue, they’ll use the word “shale” in pretty much the same way as we would use the expression “bullshit” and/or “bollocks”. The word is said with exactly the same tone and emphasis and it still somehow carries the same dramatic weight.

But, you might ask, why does this work so well? It works because it actually seems like an expression that the characters would have developed of their own accord. After all, shale is a fairly weak type of rock that is prone to breaking and splintering. So, in the context of spending your entire life around rocks, it makes sense that it would be used as a synonym for falsehood.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of language reflecting the world that the story is set in. With this one simple expression, the fact that these characters have lived in rocky caverns for their entire lives is emphasised to the viewer.

This mirrors how real languages develop. For example, the verb “to Google” didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago. The only reason why it has entered the English language is because Google happens to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) search engines in the present day. In the times before the web became popular and before Google was started, the verb “to Google” probably wouldn’t make sense.

So, when creating fictional worlds, it’s often a good idea to come up with expressions that have evolved from everyday life within the world you’ve created.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Writing Futuristic Speech

2015 Artwork Writing Futuristic Speech

The English language is a constantly evolving thing. Since we thankfully don’t have an equivalent to the Académie française that declares what is and isn’t “officially” part of the English language, our language can grow, adapt, expand and borrow things from other languages freely. This is a great thing and it is also one of the many reasons why English is one of the more widely-spoken languages across the world.

But, if you’re writing science fiction, then this can pose something of a problem. After all, if the English language is constantly evolving, then it’s probably going to look at least slightly different in the future than it does now. Afrter all, the English that people spoke a thousand years ago is very different to the English that I’m using to write this article.

Many writers have attempted to guess what the future of the English language will look like in sci-fi stories, with varying degrees of success. The two most notable attempts I’ve seen at creating a “futuristic” version of English in science fiction can be found in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”.

Unlike in the Stanely Kubrick film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”, where the characters only use the occasional word of futuristic slang, Anthony Burgess’s novel is narrated entirely in this “futuristic” version of English. And, yes, in the UK edition of the book at least, there is no glossary whatsoever.

What this means is that although the book in incredibly short, it will take you about three times longer to read than you might expect because you will have to spend ages working out what each word means.

Russell Hoban’s “Riddely Walker” is set in a post-apocalyptic future and this is reflected by the fact that language has become slightly more primitive in some ways. The whole novel is, of course, narrated in this “post-apocalpytic” version of English.

I tried to read this book in 2010 and unfortunately, the narrative style just ended up being too confusing and obtuse, and I ended up abandoning it after a few pages.

And, this, I think is one of the major problems with trying to create a “realistic” version of what the English language might sound like in the future. It may be a clever linguistic experiment or a fun gimmick, but – more often than not – it gets in the way of the story itself.

If your audience has to spend two minutes figuring out what a single sentence means, then they’re probably either going to stop reading out of sheer frustration or they’re going to lose track of the story that you’re trying to tell.

However, most sci-fi writers realise that practicality is the most important thing in a story and either just use modern English or they add a few new words – whilst making sure that the audience can understand what these words mean from either the context in which they are used or from just looking at the word itself. This approach obviously works best in stories that are set in the near future, where the English language won’t have had time to change too much.

The most notable examples of this far more sensible approach to writing futuristic speech can be seen in many classic cyberpunk novels form the 1980s. Although most of the narration uses “ordinary” English that the audience can understand, the writers aren’t afraid to drop in the occasional futuristic word or expression, to reinforce the fact that the story is set in the future.

So, I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that it’s ok to invent new words and/or expressions to show that your sci-fi story takes place in a more realistic version of the future but remember to do it in a more subtle way. With futuristic language, less is often more.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Drawing As A Language

2014  Drawing language sketch

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of this concept (I think that it was in one of Shoo Rayner’s Youtube videos, but I can’t remember which one), but I thought that – for today – I’d talk about the whole idea of drawing as a type of language.

This might sound strange at first glance since language is something that usually involves words. But, in essence, language is anything that can communicate ideas between two or more people. So, using this definition – drawing is a type of language. In fact, it’s one of the best types of language that there is.

Yes, you can’t always express extremely complex ideas through drawings – but at the same time, drawing is one of the closest things that we have to a truly universal language.

For example, instructions for some types of DIY furniture usually feature diagrams as well as badly-translated (or completely absent) English instructions. If it wasn’t for the diagrams, most English-speaking people probably wouldn’t know how to build it.

Likewise, if you buy a comic when you’re on holiday in another country – then you can still enjoy the illustrations (and get a general sense of the story), even if you can only barely understand some of the dialogue.

Not only that, like any language, drawing has it’s own variations, “accents” and dialects too.

For example, one of the most popular “dialects” of drawing across the world at the moment is anime/manga-style drawing. And even this has it’s own variety of “accents” – eg: everything from super-cute “kawaii” manga to the much more “realistic” drawing style used in a series like “Cowboy Bebop” etc…

But, there are literally hundreds of other widely-used drawing styles out there (eg: “realistic” styles, ligne clair, art nouveau etc…) and, best of all, you can even develop one that is uniquely yours. I mean, what other languages are there in the world where you can choose or even create your own “accent” or “dialect”?

Another reason why drawing is such a great form of language is because it is much more direct than written or spoken language can ever be. When you want to talk or write about something, you usually have to picture what you want to talk about in your mind and then find a way to turn this mental image into words. Well, with drawing, you can just “cut out the middleman” and put whatever is in your brain directly onto the page.

So, why isn’t drawing more widely seen as a type of language?

Well, apart from the fact that it can be harder to express more complex ideas through drawings alone and that (unlike most languages) there is no spoken form of drawing, I’d argue that it mostly has to do with the perceived learning curve involved.

Getting fluent in any language is a difficult and time-consuming process (and that includes your native language too – I mean, you probably weren’t exactly fluent in it from the moment you were born, were you?), and drawing is no exception to this. In order to become even vaguely close to “fluent” in drawing, you have to put in a lot of practice and spend years working on it.

I mean, I’m probably still nowhere near there yet – but here’s a comparison of one of my recent drawings and one from 2010 – so that you can see the difference that regular practice can make:

Here’s where I am now:

"City Rain" By C. A. Brown

“City Rain” By C. A. Brown

And here’s where I was back in 2010:

"Hydraulophone and Sousveillance " By C. A. Brown [November 2010]

“Hydraulophone and Sousveillance ” By C. A. Brown [November 2010]

The difference between learning drawing and learning verbal/written languages is that it is a lot more of a practical process. You can’t just listen to audiobooks, watch TV shows about it and read instructional books, you have to learn drawing by actually doing it. A lot. Over several years.

Because getting even vaguely “good” at drawing is as difficult as learning how to speak another language fluently, there’s also this idea that drawing is something that only “artists” do. That it’s more of a specialist skill than a practical way of expressing ideas. And it’s easy to see why people might think this when the types of drawings that they see most often are high-quality “professional” ones.

I mean, if the only examples of – say – French you ever heard were eloquent pieces of poetry read very quickly by native speakers, then it’d probably make you think that French was almost impossible to learn. Well, as many people who have been to school in the UK will testify, it isn’t.

Yes, fluent French might take years of practice to learn – but basic French can be learnt relatively easily.

So, you don’t have to be “fluent” in drawing in order to communicate with it. As long as you know the basics, then you can still functionally express yourself fairly well through drawing.

And, let’s face it, most people have at least some very basic level of drawing ability – even if you can just draw boxes and stick figures, then you can still express yourself at least slightly well through drawing.

If you don’t believe me, then take a look at a popular webcomic called XKCD. The art in it is incredibly simple and it still illustrates what is happening in the comic very well.

So, yes, drawing is a language. You don’t have to become “fluent” in it to use it (but it helps if you do) and it can be one of the best ways of making yourself understood.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Learning Comic Composition Is Like Accidentally Learning German

2014 Artwork Comic Composition German article sketch

I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but I vaguely remember someone (possibly on DeviantART) asking me how I’d learnt how to lay out comic pages.

At the time, I was at a loss for an answer and I think that I just said something like “I dunno, I just do” or something like that, since basic comic composition is pretty much instinctive to me.

But, thinking about it more, I’ve worked out how I learnt to lay out comic pages- I read a lot of comics. It’s as simple as that.

Whilst my comic collection is probably pitifully tiny compared to collections belonging to lifelong comic enthusiasts and I only really read about one or two webcomics regularly these days, I went through a massive comics phase a few years ago and I read a lot of really excellent comics and webcomics.

And, well, this is how I learnt to lay out comic pages and draw the art in interesting ways. I just kind of “absorbed” techniques and layouts that worked well in the comics that I’d read and used them in my own comics.

"Paradox Of Difficulty" By C. A. Brown

“Paradox Of Difficulty” By C. A. Brown

For example, in this comic I made last month, I probably got the idea to show the computer dialogue box in the middle of the first panel from countless similar things I’d seen in other comics on the internet. Yes, it isn’t particularly “realistic”, but it’s a really good way to get the information across to the reader quickly without having to create a new panel.

This is just one of many little tricks I’ve learnt from reading lots of comics, in fact I didn’t even really think about it that much when I added the dialogue box to the comic. It just seemed like the logical thing to do.

Apart from learning a few general rules from instructional books, learning comic composition is something that you’ll probably do gradually, piece-by-piece, over the course of at least a few months. But, saying this, you’ll get to read lots of cool comics and/or webcomics in the process.

In many ways, learning comic composition is like unintentionally learning a different language.

For example, I’ve never had any German lessons and I could probably only hold the most basic and primitive conversation in broken German. But I know some of the language because I’ve picked it up unintentionally through listening to songs by bands/musicians like Rammstein, Equilubrium, Blutengel and Nena and through various textbooks I had to read when I was in school.

But, carrying on with this metaphor, the main reason why I can only probably hold a primitive conversation in broken German is because I haven’t really practiced speaking it much.

In fact, on the one occasion that I’ve actually been to Germany (when I was about sixteen), the sole extent of my conversations in German was “Eine currywurst bitte” (which means “one currywurst please” – a currywurst is, as the name suggests, a sausage covered in curry sauce).

Of course the guy at the currywurst stall then asked me if I wanted a bread roll. I raised an eyebrow and looked puzzled and then he just asked me again in English. Yes, I know, I’m still kind of embarassed about it.

So, yes, I can’t speak very good German because I haven’t really practiced it. But, I can lay out a comic page reasonably well because I’ve practiced doing this literally hundreds of times over the past four or five years.

So, remember, it’s not enough to pick up lots of cool compositional tricks from the comics that you read. You actually have to try them out for yourself and see what works and what doesn’t.

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Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope it was useful 🙂