Neologisms, Pseudowords, & The Pleasures of Deviant Language in Fantastika

 “All fantastic genres make some use of fictive neology. Heroic fantasy invents words to evoke the archaic origins of its worlds. Phantasmagoric satire delights in wordplay that simultaneously masks and insinuates the objects of its derision. Gothic and supernatural tales invoke esoteric and folkloric terms to create the sense of a concealed or forgotten past. SF is distinct, in that its fictive neologies connote newness and innovation vis-à-vis the historical present of the reader’s culture. They are fictive signa novi, signs of the new.” – Istvan Csiscery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, p. 13)

I love words. I love common words, complicated words, obscure words, archaic words, and I especially love made-up words. As Dr. Csiscery-Ronay points out above, one of the foundations upon which all fantastic genres (and, in the book cited, SF in particular) are built is invented words in some form of fictive neology. In science fiction there is a lengthy (sometimes rich, sometimes irksome) history of neologisms, while in the fantasy genre there are plenty of invented words, some of which could be described as pseudowords, “a pronounceable word-like item (letter or sound sequence) that lacks semantic or pragmatic content (i.e., meaning).”  Of course,  there is overlap in these tendencies; plenty of SF stories have characters and places with strange names, and some fantasy work create neologistic vocabulary. Both utilize chimerical names and terms, and this is something that readers of the literature find pleasurable. But why?

My first thought is that these words fulfill a specific function, one similar to but distinct from the use of, say, slang in a story. Zachary Jernigan discussed the issue of creating new words in a recent piece about fashioning character and place names in his forthcoming novel No Return, part of a longer series on naming at the blog. Jernigan’s contribution was of particular interest to me because, unlike others discussing this topic such as Bradley Beaulieu or Aliette de Bodard, his thoughts on the significance of made-up place and character names boiled down to “act[ing] very purposefully” to set the story apart from “mainstream” fare while also serving as an identification that the story was intentionally striving to challenge the reader. Creating such words “is to state, unequivocally, that names like Zack or Zachary—while cool as far as Earthbound names go—are hardly sufficient for the purposes of planting someone else on another world.”

This seems to me to be the elemental purpose for employing all sorts of word inventions in fantastic literature. But this is more than an effort to create markers; it is a conscious choice to create a deviation that signals to a reader that the story is not emergent from the world we know (contemporary and historical). Neologisms and pseudowords are defined as deviant, as extrinsic to the rules of language, and have often been viewed negatively; pseudoword are used as test objects against genuine words (the definition that I used above is from a neurological studies website) and neologisms have historically been perceived as markers of aphasia and other psychological dysfunctions. As more studies are conducted, however, researchers are discovering that these words are processed similarly to known words. They are not aberrant, but are deviant in the sense of a “thing that . . . departs markedly from the accepted norm” but they are not psychologically or cognitively so.

The type of deviance that these words create is not one that tries to mark something departing from “the norm,” but that tries to assert a new normativity. When William Gibson describes a “deck” in Neuromancer or Ursula K. Le Guin uses the term “kemmer” in The Left Hand of Darkness, the reader is being informed that the world of the text is not that of their own world.  It does this by working to create a pleasurable disruption in one or more forms:

  1. The pleasure of displacement

    This comes in several forms, from what Dr.  Csiscery-Ronay called “exotic affects,” the use of other historical and contemporary cultures and languages to create neologisms and pseudowords to replicate recognizable cultural indicators and distances to selections with little or no specific cohesion, similar to what Jernigan alludes to in his creation of names. The goal is to create words with a level of unfamiliarity outside of the reader’s presumed lexicon as a method of transporting the reader, signalling that they are experiencing a world that is not their own. They give the reader the opportunity to participate in shifting perceptually and cognitively to a setting that is not grounded in the world around them.

  2. The pleasure of identification

    As Jernigan noted, another aspect of this pleasure is the knowing identification of the text as SFnal or fantastical with the complementary identification of the reader as one who enjoys such literature. This pleasure locates a reader within the field of the literature, transforming from a generic reader to a special one: a fan, an aficionado, an experienced reader. This is the social pleasure that links the reader to other readers and to social milieus.

  3. The pleasure of struggle

    This pleasure is tied to the first two. Here, the reader obtains additional satisfaction by trying to figure out the meaning and significance of neologisms and pseudowords. This is not often a lengthy struggle, and may be one that is fading as there is now a rich history of word inventions that can educate readers more quickly. Neologisms are constantly being created in popular discourses, and successful ones are quickly absorbed into English vocabulary, to the point where we no longer see distinct dictionaries of neologisms. So, I think this struggle still occurs, but is fading, particularly for experienced readers.

  4. The pleasure of anomaly

    This is the pleasure of reveling in the fact of deviance itself, from reading something “not normal.” The use of neologisms and other invented words to frame a story as not mundane or typical flavors the experience of reading.

These pleasures emerge from and heighten the feeling and understanding of a story as fantastika. As I noted in a previous column “Fantastika takes the speculative nature of fiction and carries it much farther away from the world we know and experience around us.” The range of variations in how this is accomplished are based partly on literary and genre convention and partly on voice, point-of-view, and narrative perspective. But what shifts a reader out of the ordinary and into something else is fictive neology. Neologisms and pseudowords are identifiable word inventions that facilitate that.

For some readers, unfamiliar words, especially invented ones, break up the pleasurable flow of reading. In a piece on SF and reading protocols Jo Walton tells a story about someone reading The Forever War and getting  “hung up” on the details of a tachyon drive. The reader wanted to understand the unfamiliar term because he did not realize that how the drive worked did not affect the story. The term was a conceit to advance the narrative, but the reader apparently could not bypass a term whose workings he did not comprehend. His enjoyment of the novel was hampered by trying to make sense of the term rather than embracing the deviance it signaled.

Invented words are not unique to fantastic literature, and neither is the need to create a sense of elsewhere. All fiction seeks to transport, and some of it employs neologisms and pseudowords to achieve that objective. But that quality of deviance, of departing from rather than reproducing the world the reader is (supposedly) familiar with, is reinforced with all of these odd words. I don’t think that they are necessary in every fantastic story(check out Karin Tidbeck’s Jagganath for an excellent exceptions), but when they are utilized they give the reader an invitation to exult in deeper displacement and challenges them to think beyond the worlds they know.

3 thoughts on “Neologisms, Pseudowords, & The Pleasures of Deviant Language in Fantastika”

  1. Thanks, John.

    I think you are missing a pleasure that some authors do with neologisms and new words and concepts in genre.

    The pleasure of creation: the pleasure of marveling at what the author is building. Not just because its new, transformative, struggle or identification, but marvel at the edifice created.

    The gee-whiz factor of an ansible, a ringworld, or a palantir…

  2. Well, John, you didn’t tear me apart. I’m happy with that. Also, this was wonderful. I particularly love your deconstruction of the term “deviant” as it relates to the subject at hand.

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