Jeff Somers was first sighted in Jersey City, New Jersey after the destruction of a classified government installation in the early 1970s; the area in question is still too radioactive to go near. When asked about this, he will only say that he regrets nothing. He is the author of Lifers, the Avery Cates series from Orbit Books, Chum from Tyrus Books, and the Ustari Cycle from Pocket/Gallery, including We Are Not Good People.
Jeff’s published over thirty short stories as well; his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris and his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He survives on the nickels and quarters he regularly finds behind his ears, his guitar playing is a plague upon his household, and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices, but this is only half true.
He has published his own zine, The Inner Swine since 1995, once in print and now in digital format only. A few hardy fools still read that rag, believe it or not. So can you!
Today, he makes beer money by writing amazing things for various people. Favorite whiskey: Glenmorangie 10 Year. Yes, it is acceptable to pay me in it.
by Jeff Somers
I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about eleven years old, and it blew my mind in many ways, which is nothing new. One thing that blew me away was Tolkien’s use of invented languages: This was a startling idea to me at the time. Of course, it was the 1980s: Those were startling times. Don’t believe me? When I was eleven years old I was still six years from getting cable TV in my house. My computer had 64 kilobytes of memory. And I was somehow under the impression that a mullet was a very sophisticated haircut.
Like I said: Startling.
When I started writing my own fantasy novels, I wanted to make up languages too. It seemed like the most badass thing a writer could do: So thoroughly create a universe that you actually created the languages and myths it was built on. There was one problem. It was the same problem that prevented me from becoming an astronaut, or a brain surgeon (both my go-to responses when tedious adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up): I wasn’t smart enough. Or physically fit enough for the astronaut thing, but let’s face it: The real problem was the math.
I made stabs at constructed languages when writing. The furthest I got was a list of twenty words or so with some vague hints at grammar rules, and then, exhausted, I left off that book and went to play Pac Man on my Atari 2600 for the next five or six years.
Hash Me Laz Adakha Jin Zhoris?
So what do you do when you’re a writer who creates rich universes filled with wonder and adventure, with well-observed imaginary cultures that pulse with verisimilitude … but you have absolutely no skill at creating fake languages? Asking for a friend.
We can’t all be George Martin or Tolkien or the Marc Okrand, the creator of Klingon. My education consisted mainly of me dozing off during English classes and seeing how long I could go between showers (answer: seven weeks), so I emerged into adulthood with no skills whatsoever aside from the vague and debatable ability to write words good (nine novels published and counting!). In short, I am not a linguist. Chances are you aren’t either.
Alien Language Strategies
So, lacking those skills, you essentially have five strategies:
- Vagueness. Never actually print a word of your imagined Old Tongue or Language of Dar the Galaxy Conquerers. Have characters comment on its complexity, it’s rich poetry, and the unusual number of genders it contains, but never actually write down a word of it. After all, when the crazy guy from lord knows where on the subway screams at you, you probably couldn’t write down anything he said coherently, could you?
- English – but in Italics. Please, do not do this.
- The Somers Gambit. Invent two dozen words and perhaps a simple variation or two (they end in -or for present tense and -er for past tense! Every sentence can be sung to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”!) and sprinkle these clues sparingly into your text. Wink owlishly when anyone asks about it.
- Thee and Thou and Fake Olde Tymes. Please, do not do this.
- Cuando Para Mucho. Just go for broke and make up gibberish. This can be more effective than you might think, actually. There are two keys to making this work: One, always know exactly what your characters are saying with their gibberish; and Two, always keep track so you can re-use phrases and words appropriately. Even though it won’t be an actual language, consistency will give it the illusion of being real. Extra points if you actually call the language Gibberish, or, for extra-extra points, Old Gibberish or High Gibberish.
Of course, you could always go the Doctor Who-slash-Hitchhiker’s Guide route and invent some reason why there are no language barriers at all. But where’s the glory in that? I say go Full Gibberish and dare anyone to criticize you.