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Words and Worldbuilding by Mike Brooks

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

When I began writing The God-King Chronicles, I knew that I wanted it to be about different cultures coming together and clashing (and more importantly, trying not to clash). For that to be effective on the page, I needed to show those different cultures. You can have different styles of dress, different titles, different weapons, different prejudices and so on, but these all reflect a central difference: one of thought, and thought processes. And for me, the clearest way to show this is in how people express their thoughts through language.

However, that brings a problem. I speak one language, which is English. I have a few phrases of vaguely-remembered GCSE German, and a smattering of British Sign Language, but basically I’m a one-language person. Some authors create their own languages, but I’m not Tolkien (I have better hair, for one thing). Even then, that’s no more than flavour: you might write down a song in a fictional language, but you can’t write speech or point-of-view narration in it and expect the reader to follow along.

The question became, then, not what languages I could use in addition to English, or what languages I could create, but what I could make English itself do. I consulted my friend Nye Redman-White, who knows a lot about languages, to try to ensure that names and so on were reasonably consistent within a culture, paying attention to which sounds were and were not used, and things like the structure of consonants and nouns within ‘native’ words of that language. However, my main focus was how to reflect differences in how people spoke, even though all the fictional languages were being rendered into English for the benefit of the reader (there’s another discussion here, about where you stop using loan words from other languages in a narrative that’s in English, but is referring to things that aren’t: I wouldn’t want to use deja vu, for example).

The Tjakorshi are raiders, in The Black Coast, and one clan of them – the Brown Eagle clan – comes looking for a home on Naridan shores at the town of Black Keep. People have noted that the structure of the Tjakorshi language has no differences to English, and that’s true. It’s not because I wanted the Tjakorshi to be the most relatable to the reader: it’s because I didn’t want to make things harder for myself than they had to be by making up another set of rules, when I could at least have one language as my default. The other two main cultures shown, however, needed their own spin.

Narida is a very formal place, a feudal kingdom under a supposedly-divine monarch, and it has much stricter social hierarchies than the clan-based Tjakorshi. In order to show how important social status was to them, I liked the idea of them not having personal pronouns. To say “I” or “me” is indicative that you exist as an individual, irrespective of who else is around you: this did not fit the Naridans. As such, they refer to themselves in relation to the person or people they are speaking to. You might refer to yourself as “this lord”, or “this servant”, or “your sister”, depending on the situation. A noblewoman could easily be “your sister” to one person, “this lady” to an equal or inferior, and “this servant” to a third, higher-ranking noble. “This man” or “this woman” are the basic starting points, although even they are not without their own meanings. In patriarchal Narida, referring to yourself as “this woman” immediately marks you as accepting your inferiority to any men present, unless you actually outrank them.

This allowed me to have some fun when the Tjakorshi chieftain Saana Sattistutar arrives and, having been forewarned of this oddity of Naridan language, persists in referring to herself as “this man” just to make it very clear that she is of high status.

The other culture, in Kiburu ce Alaba (otherwise known as the City of Islands) is a cosmopolitan place; a trade centre with people from all sorts of backgrounds, including Tjakorsha, Narida, and others besides. Its language is very different again, since one of the key features is five recognised genders – high masculine, low masculine, agender, low feminine, and high feminine – plus the informal neutral where you don’t yet know the gender of the person to whom you are speaking, or don’t wish to reveal yours (gender in Alaba is something that one does not assume about others, and your own tends to be disclosed only to those to whom you are close). But how was I going to achieve this, when English has only three generally-recognised flavours of pronouns: “he”, “she”, and the singular “they”?

One option, of course, would be to use neo-pronouns: two characters in my novel Dark Deeds use ze/zir; another in Rites of Passage uses ve/vis. I could have used “he” and “she” for high masculine and feminine respectively, and then use neo-pronouns for the low variations, but I didn’t want to assign what real people commonly use as agender or non-binary pronouns to either masculine or feminine in my world, even if those definitions themselves were inherently not part of a binary. For a while, I toyed with making up my own pronouns for low masculine and feminine, and agender (keeping “they” back for the neutral formal), but I quickly realised it would make the manuscript impenetrable to all but the most determined reader. Not only would I need to create the variations – he/him/his and so on – but since you can indicate your own gender while saying “I” or “me”, each gender would need one for those as well. For a created world on a page, meant for someone to read for entertainment, it was impractical.

Thankfully, salvation appeared in the form of my friend Gareth. I expressed my frustration at the difficulties I was having trying to bludgeon English into doing what I wanted – and I desperately wanted a land that existed outside the gender binary, because many cultures around our own planet have not had binary notions of gender, it’s just that ‘Western’ culture has a tendency to swallow such things up and eclipse them, or at least keep those of us within it ignorant of their existence unless we go looking. He suggested that I use diacritics, and at a stroke, my problems had largely been solved.

Now, “hè” was high masculine, “hê” was low masculine, “thëy” was agender, the unaltered “they” was the neutral formal, “shé” was low feminine, and “shē” was high feminine: and of course, it translated over to “mé”, “Ï”, “you” and so forth. It rarely matters, in terms of the story, whether someone is low or high feminine; it’s simply worldbuilding. This country differs from my own in this respect, and I wanted a way to express that in a manner that reminded the reader they were somewhere else, but also in a way that their eyes could skim over without having to pause in every sentence to try to remember exactly what that word meant, and who it therefore referred to.

From the reviews I’ve read so far, people have found the work I did with language to be interesting, and surprisingly easy to accommodate within their own heads: it takes a couple of pages to get the hang of it, but once you have, you don’t really notice it. I like that. For one thing, it suggests the book is still quite easy to read, which is what most authors want.

For another, it suggests that adapting your perspectives to get used to different ways of thinking is not as hard as some people believe: something that the Tjakorshi of the Brown Eagle clan and the Naridans of Black Keep find out – in general – during the course of the novel. And if I would wish for people to take anything away from The Black Coast, and The God-King Chronicles as a whole, it would be that.