Crafting Languages with A. Walker Scott

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A. Walker Scott's love for science fiction was born one dark night at a drive-in movie theater when the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” scrolled up the screen. Now he is a lightsaber-wielding Browncoat with an IDIC on his lapel. He will read any novel with a good alien, twice if it has an alien language!

He has taught English in Taiwan, awakened in the wrong city in Romania, and done linguistic and cultural fieldwork in the Solomon Islands. And he has been creating his own languages since just before his 12th birthday.

He collects far too many collections and the books have started reproducing on their own. He lives in a sleepy Texas suburb, where he writes about aliens while listening to Bach fugues...when not rendering homage to a pack of slobbery Basset hounds.

What inspires you and/or why do you write?

Travel and other cross-cultural experiences, languages and linguistics, and culture, in general, inspire me to write, as well as speculations about exo-biology, alien life and the ever-expanding list of planets discovered in other solar systems.

Describe your process as best you can:

I get an idea for a scene, and I write it out until the idea runs out. Then I jump to the next scene that pops into my head. Once I have a fair few scenes, I put them in the order I think they should come and step back to stare at them. Then I get an idea for what should come in between a couple of them and write that. I keep on that way till all the holes meet up. That's how the first draft works. Later drafts focus on filling in whatever holes remain, fixing incongruities and fleshing things out until the story really works.

What is your favorite tool or resource? (Like Scrivener, Grammarly, a blog, etc?)

My favorite tools are a notebook and a fine point pen. That's my Zero Draft, which I edit just a bit as I type it up in a plain old Word document. I tried yWriter for one project, but it didn't really work for me.

Can you describe your approach to crafting other languages?

I have been interested in languages since I was a kid. I think I was in 5th grade when I decided I wanted to learn another language, so I went to the library and checked out teach-yourself-type books on French, Russian, and something called Esperanto. I didn't get very far with learning any of them, having no one to practice with, but the idea of Esperanto was interesting. There was also this back panel in Mom's RandomHouse Collegiate Dictionary that had tables of alphabets from around the world. That and the pronunciation tables in the language learning books had introduced me to the idea that different languages have different sounds. So a few days before my 12th birthday, I started making my first language. It was a juvenile mess, but I fiddled with it for several years and kept adding every new sound I learned about.

Then Klingon came along, and I bought The Klingon Dictionary, joined a Klingon mailing list and started building my own alien languages. That's when I realized there was a whole global community of language nuts like myself who were building conlangs (CONstructed LANGuages) for their own reasons. My language interests had never gone away, and I had made some efforts at learning Swedish, Spanish, ASL, Indonesian and Chinese by this time. I had started writing fiction, and including alien languages in my stories. I wrote a couple of papers about languages and took an intro to linguistics class. From there I took a couple of semesters toward a master's in linguistics but had to drop out because of life. I got a job at a college, directing their international admissions office, and I made it a point to learn how to greet all of my students in at least one major language from their home country, but preferably their own native language; I learned greetings in over 70 languages. And no, I don't remember them all.

After that, I moved to Taiwan for three years and taught English while learning Mandarin, Taiwan Sign Language, and Taiwanese. When I came back I spent one summer in North Dakota studying the linguistics of signed languages, but life has kept me from returning to that as well. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to spend three months in the Solomon Islands as part of a team doing linguistic fieldwork, collecting words for a dictionary and working on oral texts in the Natqgu language. I learned a few phrases of Natqgu and a lot of Pijin living and working there.

All but two of my languages are meant for use in my fiction and are spoken by aliens, so they have all kinds of odd inspirations. One, Tvern El started back in college, when I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of an apartment complex, waiting for a classmate to come out. I got to thinking about American Sign Language (the only signed language I knew at the time) and wondering how the grammar of ASL would transfer to a spoken language. As I started sketching Tvern El, there were some things ASL grammar does that I couldn't figure out how to transfer over, so I filled in the gaps with Mandarin syntax and grammar. Soon, I had an isolating language with its own unique features that were neither ASL nor Chinese, and could add a dash of Tvern El dialogue or a poem or whatever, to make my Tvern An character come to life as something unique.

Gravgaln has changed more than any language I have built. It started out with the idea to make an "ugly" language for a race of warriors, but I didn't want it to be anything like Klingon, so I looked to German and Russian for sound structures, lots of consonant clusters, and long words. but I hated the results. After learning about Natqgu through articles written by the primary researcher on that language, I completely redesigned the shape and structure of the verbs, and I did the same with the nouns, taking inspiration from Finnish and languages of the northern Caucasus Mountains. The vowels got an overhaul and simplification and the consonants got some tidying up as well. some of the old vocabulary still worked, but much of it had to be tossed out. That meant rewriting dialogue, respelling people's names, and the names of planets and even the language itself.

Usually, I think of a character. I need someone to walk into a scene and do something and leave. So there's a species name, maybe a character name, probably a description of appearance. Later I'll decide to bring a member of that species, maybe that same someone, into another scene. By this time I may want him, her, or it to shout or whisper or mutter something in Alien. Then it's time to look at those couple of names. What do they tell me about the language? What sounds are in those names? Are they from the same language or two different languages on that planet? What other sounds would fit with the ones I already have? Are there any structures, repeated elements, hints at word order or grammar buried in there? I'll sketch out a sound system and a basic word order, maybe list a few affixes and roots. Then I'll write the dialogue I need for that scene, and shelve that language for later. If I like it, I'll go back and add to it, building a grammar and lexicon, paying attention to what I know about the aliens' biology and culture.

If an Imthiqoraqar, named Nivaq, has a ssiviq sitting on the table in the conference room, I already know a few things about that language. But some of them don't come through, some of them are just in my head, or on a notepad somewhere in my worldbuilding materials. Like the fact that each of those words, being nouns, are spoken with notes of the same melodic template, while a verb would be spoken on a different template. There's nothing there in the story to tell you that. it isn't necessary.

Other times, the language is much more important. In my second novel, David, my main character, is living in a village, learning an alien language, as part of a first contact team. The language permeates the whole story, so I had to work out quite a bit about the language before I ever started writing. Of course, what I knew continued to grow as I wrote. But that's okay. I can even leave mistakes in the explanations (if they're in early chapters!) because David is just learning, and he makes mistakes.

I guess it's best to say that my approach is pretty organic. They grow as I need them.

Biggest challenge for you, and how have you overcome it? (Or how are you working to overcome it!)

My biggest challenge is being consistent about writing. I tend to have huge bursts of productivity followed by stretches of...nothing. I love NaNoWriMo because it gives me that kick to get a huge chunk of text on paper. But the winter months following NaNo often bring an episode of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which can last for months. And life gets in the way, but I usually have another burst of progress in the summer, when I do a lot of editing and fleshing out.

What do you consider your biggest strength? (Don’t be shy!)

My strengths are dialog and worldbuilding. I can write pages and pages of characters talking to each other, only to spend weeks going back through it to add action and dialog tags and mix in a bit of setting. I will delve into the biology, history, and linguistics of my aliens. I have been known to construct multi-planetary timelines, and for an alternate history project, I can tell you the meanings of door colors, cook you an entire meal and send you a Christmas card.

Any other advice for authors, based on your unique experience?

Stop planning and just do it. Too many writers keep planning to start "one day" when they finish school, get settled into their job, after they move, when they retire. They buy and read how-to books, and join writing forums. And google pictures of what their characters should look like. And... The only thing they don't do is actually start writing the book! As someone once said, you can't edit something that hasn't been written yet!

Where can other authors or readers connect with you and find your work?

I'm on Facebook at A. Walker Scott - Author, on Twitter as @awalkerscott1, email at awalkerscott@gmail.com and my sad little webpage is www.awalkerscott.com

My first novel, No Road Among the Stars, will be available through all the normal self-publishing outlets in June of 2018.