morphology

Putting Place Names in their Proper Frames

Wizened issues Average a calling with a slew of fanciful place namesWhenever I see fanciful or imaginative place names, real or fictional, my first instinct is not, “Ooh, how neat!” It’s more along the lines of, “What were they smoking when they named that?”

I live in a city called Mesa. Literally “table,” because it sits on a plateau. Nearby land features include South Mountain (to the south), Red Mountain (guess what color!), and the Salt River, which runs through salt banks on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Salt is fed by the Black and White Rivers, which come from the White Mountains to the north. (Where it snows. Surprise.) We also have the Verde River and the ever exotic Gila River (pronounced “hee-lah”), but don’t get too excited. They translate to “green” and “salty,” respectively.

The most imaginatively named land features in the area? Those would probably be Camelback Mountain, which looks roughly camel-shaped from the side, and a range to the east called the Superstitions. But these are, of course, part of that vast and intuitively named North American system, the Rocky Mountains.

(Spoiler alert: you can find many rocks therein.)

Place Names: A Fine Art

One might contend that this stark realism in naming is a feature of desert living, but it’s not. Place names across the world break down in a similar manner.

The British Isles sport a number of “feature” names that, thanks to language change, no longer appear as mundane as they once were. Consider the following elements:

  • “dun” = hill
  • “fen” = swamp
  • “-more” = moor
  • “-kirk” = church
  • “avon” = river
  • “-lea”/”-ly” = meadow
  • “thorp”/”throp” = village
  • “-ford” = river crossing
  • “way” = road
  • “strat” = street

When you start combining these with each other and with other elements, the resulting names have a classical, established sense to them. And then you realize that the River Avon is literally the River River, a “dunhill” is a hill-hill, and the high-sounding Fenmore can only denote an exceptionally boggy bog.

Even the poetic Stratford-upon-Avon breaks down into “street-river-crossing-upon-river.” And suddenly it’s not so poetic anymore.

This convention holds true for other languages as well. The infamous Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales translates (reportedly) to “the parish of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand landmark of Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu might intimidate the casual reader, but it only means, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Which is why, when I see fantasy book maps with mountain ranges called the Jagged Spine or the Teeth of Hecate or whatever, it rings false. From what I can tell, settlers across cultures have arrived in new areas, looked around, and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this forest is pretty black. Let’s call it the Black Forest.”

Semantic Bleaching at its Finest

Many place names carry an otherworldly, fanciful sense because their meaning is not readily accessible to the average speaker. Foreign wording or language change swathes the landmark in a layer of mystery. Places named for their founders or in honor of other notable figures further establish that esoteric feel, because more and more often, proper names exist separate from their original definitions.

This chasm between word and meaning introduces uniqueness and wonder, but it can also give the impression that place names are arbitrary.

Typically, they’re not.

Now, this isn’t to say that the run-of-the-mill fantasy author should put away their scrabble tiles and take a more conventional route to naming their landmarks. Rather, when the darts are thrown and the seemingly random letters assemble into a slick-sounding country, the questions that follow might be, “How came this name in the history of my world? What is its root? What does it mean?”

And the answer doesn’t need a lot of window dressing. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a place called “Red River” or “Castle View.” On the contrary, that simple detail can lend authenticity in a world where the unfamiliar reigns.

My two cents. (Of course.)

The Uncontested Right to Rule

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Over the course of human history, the greatest conflicts have revolved around the right to rule. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” as the saying goes: those with advantages in life will always claim they are better suited to lead, and perhaps they are.

But that doesn’t mean they should glide to the position without a fight.

Types of Government

The morphemes –archy and –cracy carry a meaning of “government” or “rule”; –archy is the Latin form, and –cracy is the Greek, and words containing one of these two units refer to a specific type of government. For fun and world-building purposes, I’ve compiled a list of terms.

  • Monarchy: [mon– as in mono– (Gr. “one”) + –archy ] One person holds all governing power. This position is typically hereditary, though cultural tradition plays a heavy role too.
  • Oligarchy: [olig– as in oligo- (Gr. “few, little”) + –archy ] A few select persons hold all governing power. This can be a council or a socially superior caste: the Powers That Be have closed ranks.
  • Gynarchy or Gynocracy: [gyn– or gyno– (Gr. “female, woman”) + –archy or –cracy ] Women hold all governing power. Yeah, you can probably imagine how common this form of government is. But that’s why we write fantasy novels, right? To explore new territory.
  • Duarchy or Dinarchy: [du– (Lat. “two”) or di(n)– (Gr. “two”) + –archy ] Two people hold all governing power between them.
  • Anarchy: [an– (Gr. “not, without, lacking”) + –archy ] No one has governing power. Total chaos reigns supreme, and every man for himself!
  • Hagiocracy or Hagiarchy: [hagio– or hagi– (Gr. “holy, sacred”) + –cracy or –archy ] Holy people hold all governing power. This is a religion-governed state.
  • Theocracy: [theo– (Gr. “god”) + –cracy ] God holds all governing power, and He invests it in his appointed servant(s) to act as His administrators. This is, again, a religion-governed state.
  • Plutocracy: [from ploutos (Gr. “wealth”) + –cracy ] The wealthy class holds all governing power. So, like, every country in the world. /cynicism
  • Autocracy: [auto– (Gr. “self”) + –cracy ] One person holds all governing power. Note: while this has the same meaning as monarchy, the sense attached to autocracy is more severe. An autocratic ruler is more likely to be selfish and ruthless, whereas with a monarch, that’s a toss-up.
  • Democracy: [demo– (Gr. “people” + –cracy ] The people hold all governing power. Majority rules.
  • Mobocracy: [mob– (Lat., short for mobile vulgus, “the movable/inconstant commoners”) + –cracy ] As the name implies, this is when a state is under mob rule. The term dates back to the 18th century, oddly enough. I’d have set it in the 1920s myself.
  • Meritocracy: [merit– (Lat., meritum “praiseworthy”) + –cracy ] Governing power belongs to those who merit it; a system that rewards ability rather than connections. I don’t believe this really exists except in closed circles, but the closed circles themselves imply connections, so… yeah. It’s a nice thought, though.

There are also numeric combinations: pentarchyhexarchy, heptarchy, and octarchy [penta– (Gr. “five”), hex– (Gr. “six”), hept– (Gr. “seven”), and oct– (Gr. “eight”)], for example. These terms refer to groups of five, six, seven, and eight allied states or governors and, presumably, any of the Greek numerical prefixes would work in this template. Why the Greek prefix gets tied to the Latin suffix is anyone’s guess, though.

(Just kidding. There’s a Greek cognate for –archy, so it’s all good.)

Not all forms of government include the –archy or –cracy suffix, of course. Here are some other lovely, government-related words to keep in mind.

  • Republic: [from Lat. res publica “public entity”] Governing power belongs to the people, through elected representatives.
  • Feudalism: [the etymology is mangled, but it relates to fief and a bygone meaning of fee “an inherited estate” and likely comes from Germanic/Teutonic roots. So there.] A system in which governing lords control lands and occupants thereof, and in turn pay homage to a higher Power or Powers That Be.
  • Nepotism: [from Ital. nepote “nephew”] The practice of showing political, social, or economic favor to family members.
  • Cronyism: [crony, from 1600s British academic slang of Gr. khronios “long time/duration” to indicate an old friend] The practice of showing political, social, or economic favor to close friends and associates.
  • Triumvirate: [from trium virorum (Lat. “three men”)] Governing power belongs jointly to three individuals. This was a Roman form of government that occurred under Caesars Julius and Augustus; an individual member of a triumvirate is called a triumvir.

Government has, from the beginning of time, been a social necessity. It’s telling to note, however, the number of synonyms that exist for dictator: tyrant, despot, autocrat, oppressor, usurper, fascist, authoritarian, totalitarian, and so forth.

Ultimately, power leads to corruption. Those who govern will always battle the allure of unrighteous dominion—if they don’t embrace it outright, that is.

7 Things Every Writer Should Know about Linguistics

It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.

1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.

Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.

2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.

It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.

3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.

Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.

Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.

Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.

4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.

  • Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
  • Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
  • Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
  • Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
  • Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
  • Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
  • Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
  • Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.

5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”

In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.

6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.

The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.

Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.

7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.

Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.

In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven_quote

 

Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!

8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.

It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!

 

Nouns: An Overview

This post provides an overview of the Noun. Skill level: Beginner

Objectives:

  1. Define the term “noun” semantically, morphologically, and syntactically.
  2. Discuss features of nouns in English (number, possession).
  3. Create nouns from other parts of speech using only syntactic placement to indicate the change.

I’d love to say that nouns are a self-explanatory category. I mean, we all know what a noun is, right? Or, we’ve heard the word and have a general idea, or… something. The purpose of this post is to codify that “something” into a more concrete understanding. If you know exactly what a noun is and can accomplish all of the above objectives already, then feel free to move along.

If not, or if you want a refresher, read on.

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