Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cardassian Language

Fantasy writer B E L Forsythe recently posted this question on her Facebook page:

Thanks to Paramount
There seems to be a debate going on about whether creating a language for your stories is a waste of time...Do you agree...? Do you think making up a new language will hold you back from writing more books? (January 5, 2013)

My answer is a resounding "No." I think a good novel immerses the reader in the richness of its context, and language has to be part of that. You could write about a culture with no music, or a culture with no furniture, but try to write a whole novel with no language at all and you'll run into serious trouble. Even if the characters never speak, how do you describe their thoughts and emotions? Maybe they don't think in words, but your readers do, so it's your job to figure out how the characters think and translate those thoughts as faithfully as possible into English (or Chinese or Amharic, if you prefer). 

I was never comfortable with the idea of saying, "Oh yes, my aliens have never had any contact with Earth so of course they're speaking some other language, but I'm not going to worry about it." Studies show that even here where we all share a planet, language is a huge factor in shaping how we think. Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford University, gives this example:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English). Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.
To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?
The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. 
("How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?" at

When I read B E L Forsythe's question, I couldn't help but think how much thinner and cheaper Star Trek would feel without its Klingon and Cardassian languages. Of course I would: my main character's a linguist who copes with being thrown into a hostile alien society by analyzing their language, which happens to be Cardassian.

When I started doing the research for this book I was surprised how much work has been done already to develop the Cardassian language. And don't make the mistake of thinking it's silly or arbitrary just because it's fictional. Like Klingon, Cardassian is an ideal expression of its culture, set on solid linguistic ground.

Sure, studying Cardassian and working it into my novel means it's taking about five times as long to write, but it's more than worth it. I don't think there's any other way to really see Cardassian culture, and more importantly, to see our own culture through its lens.

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