Backburner Month 12: “Morphosyntactic Trek”

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A series of linked short stories about the starship Pausanias (named after the ancient geographer), a ship on a mission of research and peace, not unlike the sort of missions undertaken in other well-known cultural touchstones. Unfortunately for the crew of the Pausanias, one of the key magical technologies present in that other touchstone is something which is intractably difficult if not impossible to build in an appropriately general way: namely, automated translation.

Consequently, the plots of these stories would tend to get tripped up in the real-world difficulties of language and translation. These stories would explicitly delve into the vagaries and nuances of language that tend to get ignored when they appear in popular science fiction stories: considerations of dialect and language change and pragmatics and various other ways that language intersects with people and culture. Language is messy and multifaceted and strange and wonderful, and the stories should reflect that.

As an important side-note: I explicitly don't want this to be a work that prominently features conlangs as a major focus. There's a specific kind of science fiction and fantasy—obviously deeply inspired by the languages that J.R.R. Tolkien featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—that features fictional but fully-developed languages prominently, and while I'm not inherently opposed to that as a practice, I'm not terribly interested in writing that kind of story myself. I don't want a reader to have to trudge through paragraphs of what to them are nonsense syllables to get to the story. Instead, I want the story to be about people and how their languages interact with who they are, and that might mean including a word or two of a fictional language, but it doesn't mean building an entire grammatical edifice to serve the half-dozen words which appear in one of the stories.

My plan was to write a handful of these and release them on a regular cadence before collecting them together. I've still got notes about the characters and the setting, and the biggest reason I've put it on the backburner is that I've been working on other fiction projects. Some day, I might start serializing the relevant stories on this very blog!

Why write it? Not surprisingly, given my own background in linguistics, many of my favorite science fiction stories are about language in some respect, like Samuel Delany's Babel-17 or Ted Chiang's Story of your Life or China Miéville's Embasssytown. It's not surprising that I'd want to try my hand at language-related science fiction.

It's surprisingly common for science fiction to gesture at language as an area of focus without actually delving deep into it. Star Trek is an obvious example here: they even once hired the linguist Mark Okrand to fill out grammatical details of the Klingon language, but with a few exceptions (like the famous episode Darmok in Star Trek: The Next Generation) they tend to gloss over language as a concern in most episodes. A perhaps more egregious example is the Stargate franchise: the premise of the movie Stargate was that a group of humans on the other side of a galaxy-spanning wormhole spoke an unfamiliar language, and it took a linguist to discern that it was descended from the Egyptian language as spoken on earth. When they used that movie as the basis for a related television series, they quickly dispensed with most of that premise: instead, the linguist character is really only present for deciphering mysterious ancient texts, since every planet they visit seems to be populated by English-speakers instead.

So as a person who cares deeply about language, I've always wanted to take the space opera format and use it to investigate language in the exact way that traditional space operas don't. I'd try to play in the space between works like Embassytown—which often focus on wild science-fiction premises about language—and Star Trek—which largely gloss over it. That is to say: I don't plan to write stories about the very limits of what language might be, like Story of your Life and Babel-17 did, nor do I want language to take the sidelines like it does in traditional space operas: rather, I want to reflect the ways that languages as we know them in the real world can be wild by transposing them to a fantastic setting, taking the space opera format and using it to grapple with the many things that real-world languages do. To put it pithily: why do the Klingons have only one language, to say nothing of dialect? Why have we never heard a Klingon code-switch? And after a generation of close contact with other languages, how does Klingon change1?

From another direction, one thing I've always found appealing—especially as a person who usually struggles with writing long-form prose—is the idea of writing explicitly episodic fiction, like short stories on a theme. To some degree, that's the same thing I'm doing in writing these backburner-project posts: forcing myself to work in small chunks on a schedule. It's also worth noting that historically serials have been a very common format for fiction even though they've fallen out of fashion a little bit. Doing a short serial—maybe six or eight parts, in total—would be a fun way of telling these stories, especially so that they don't necessarily outstay their welcome.

Why the name? This title is a working title, one I will dispense with as soon as I come up with a better one. Still, this working title is because the project is inspired by space opera like Star Trek, and it would at times involve both morphology and syntax, although those are admittedly a much smaller part of the focus than other aspects of language.


  1. Okay, this is one where I should admit that Star Trek has addressed this question, at least a little bit. If you've watched Star Trek: Deep Space 9, you might be familiar with a drink called raktajino, which is enjoyed by many of the main cast members. Mark Okrand has asserted that this word is a borrowed compound from English and indirectly from Italian, since the drink is an adaptation of a traditional Klingon drink called ra'taj but prepared like a cappuccino.