Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Vote for Your Favorites! The INSPY Awards

The INSPY Awards have been going since 2010, recognizing stellar works of Christian fiction in half a dozen categories including speculative fiction.  This year, independently published works are eligible too!

Anyone can nominate a book, although you're limited to one book per category and can't nominate any of your own work.  Obviously, the book you nominate has to have been published in 2016.  (Branch of Silver Branch of Gold, anyone?)

Check out the nomination form here:

Nominations are open December 27 to January 16.  Shortlists are announced at the end of April, winners in June. 

I don't know how many of you get emails from Goodreads... They just finished their yearly awards cycle based on member nominations and votes.  Despite the fact that I enjoy books from almost every category, so many of the winners and nominees were books that I actively disliked that by the end there was only one category I could vote in!  I'm looking forward to the INSPY Awards, because I've usually enjoyed so many of the nominated books and like seeing those authors rewarded.  And then there's always the possibility that I can find new books to love!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Building a Fantasy Language 4: The Weird Wonder of Nouns

What do different languages do with nouns?  Nouns make up the largest portion of the dictionary for most languages.  They denote persons, places, things, and ideas (as you probably learned in elementary school!), and as such every fantasy language needs quite a few of them.

In this post, I’ll try to provide some inspiration regarding nouns, mostly about their grammar.  I’m sure you won’t have any trouble coming up with the nouns themselves!

Noun Grammar

Almost all languages do something to their nouns to mark them for number.  Number refers to how many of the noun there are: is there only one of it (singular), or more than one (plural)?  

Many languages get along with just singular and plural forms of their nouns (like English does), but other languages have dual forms (two of something, often natural pairs such as hands, eyes, feet) or even trial forms (three of something).

Class (often, confusingly, called Gender)
If you have ever studied Spanish, you will have learned that nouns can belong to different classes (genders) which have characteristic endings in the singular and plural.  Spanish, which has two classes, calls these “masculine” and “feminine.”  The –a ending usually used for “feminine” singular nouns is applied not only to women and female animals but also to articles of furniture, types of buildings, objects, and so on.  Other than humans and animals which actually have gender, the assignment of a noun to the “feminine” or “masculine” class is arbitrary.  Yet every noun must belong to one class or another.
Some languages add a third “gender,” usually called “neuter.” 

However, in most languages, there are more classes than there are available genders.  For example, in Latin, there are five noun classes but only three “genders.”  So you see that noun class and noun gender really have to be treated as distinct, even though textbooks often confuse the two terms.

Latin Noun Classes
                        Nom. Sg. suffix         Nom. Pl. suffix        
Class 1           -a                                 -ae                              “feminine”
Class 2a        -us                              -i                                  “masculine”
Class 2b        -um                             -a                                 “neuter”
Class 3a        -                                   -es                               “masculine/feminine”
Class 3b        -                                   -a                                 “neuter”
Class 4a        -us                              -us     
Class 4b        -u                                -ua                              “neuter”                     
Class 5           -es                               -es                  

Latin has five noun classes (with variations) which you can tell apart by their suffixes.

The Hittite language (which is a sort of bachelor uncle of Latin) has about a dozen noun classes, which all take more or less the same suffixes, but which may change their roots based on the final sound of the noun.  So the nouns which end in –i behave one way, while nouns ending in –a, -u, -au/-ai, -nt, -tt, -r, -n, -l, -s, and alternating –r/-n behave different ways.

Some Native American languages also have about a dozen noun classes; but instead of being differentiated by their suffixes, there are special prefixes that go on each noun and on the verb that refers to the noun.  These prefixes tells you whether the noun is human, animate-not-human, made of stone, made of wood, a liquid, carried in a container, and so on.  Sumerian, an ancient Mesopotamian language, also uses prefix “determiners” for some nouns (land, people, wood, water, etc.).

Case (Noun Declensions)

Many languages put special prefixes or suffixes on nouns to show what role the noun plays in the sentence.  In Old English, our ancestors did this for every noun; today, we only use case for English pronouns.  Think about it: he, his, him.  Whenever you want to put a third-person pronoun in a sentence, you have to choose which of these to use—and there is only one “correct” answer for each situation!

Nouns which are the subject of the sentence appear in the nominative case, while nouns which are the direct object of the verb appear in the accusative case.  (Unless, of course, you are working in an ergative language where subjects of transitive verbs are marked one way [ergative], and subjects of non-transitive verbs AND direct objects are marked a different way [absolutive].  Ergative languages are hard!)

Some languages have only these two cases (nominative for subject and accusative for direct object), but most have more.  Latin has 5 cases in the singular and plural, with a few historical relic cases which can only be applied to certain nouns. Hittite has 7 cases in the singular and 4 in the plural, with 2 additional cases which are not marked for number.  Akkadian has 3 cases in the singular and 2 in the plural (two of the singular cases merge into one).

Below, I list some of the many cases that languages use.  No language uses all of these!  Note that some cases, like dative, may include meanings in some languages which other languages keep as separate cases.

Nominative – subject
Genitive – possessive (N’s, of N), object of a preposition that requires genitive
Dative – indirect object (to/for N), object of a preposition that requires dative, place in which (in/on/at N)
Locative – place where (in/on/at N); often absorbed by dative or accusative
Accusative – direct object, object of a preposition that requires genitive
Ablative – by/with/from N, object of a preposition that requires ablative; sometimes absorbed by the dative
Instrumental – by means of N, in the N manner; often absorbed by ablative or dative
Comitative – along with N; may be absorbed by ablative
Allative/Terminative – to/toward N; often absorbed by accusative
Equative – like N; may be absorbed by accusative
Oblique – includes everything other than nominative
Vocative – the case you use for someone’s name when you are speaking directly to them
Adverbiative – N is acting an an adverb.  Often absorbed by accusative.

If you aren’t sure what an indirect object or an object of a preposition is, I suggest that you create a fantasy language like English or most Native American languages, which never or almost never uses case!


Semitic languages like Hebrew also include something known as noun state.  Basically, these nouns change their suffixes and sometimes their own shapes based on whether they are bound to another noun or not.  Nouns that are running around on their own look normal, just like they look when you find them in the dictionary (absolute state).  Nouns that are bound to other nouns are in the construct state.

You can think of the construct state as kind of like compound nouns in English.  In English we make up words and compounds like housefly or pepper-shaker.  In Semitic languages, the first noun in the compound gets special marking so that we know to take the nouns are a compound.

Some Examples from Hebrew
            mishpaxah “family”
            mishpaxat ha-‘ish “family of the man”
            lev “heart”
            levav ha-‘ish “heart of the man”
            melakim “kings”
            malkey ha-‘arets “kings of the land”

Many languages don’t use states.  As a Semiticist, I enjoy introducing them into my fantasy languages!

Honor, Taboo, and More Fun Ideas

Some languages restrict the nouns that you can use based on who the speaker is and/or who they are talking to. 

In some cultures, men and women speak using different sets of nouns—it is either considered taboo (forbidden) for women to speak using men’s nouns (and vice versa), or it is a choice with marked social meaning (a woman might use men’s words to assert authority, for example, or a man use women’s words to show extra politeness).

In other cultures, your access to nouns may be restricted by your social class or caste.  Working-class folks don’t use certain nouns—and upper-class folks don’t know the working-class nouns.

Or, in a different situation, you may use one set of nouns when talking to people who are “inferior” (younger, poorer, less prestigious) to you and a different set of nouns when talking to people who are “superior” (older, richer, more prestigious) to you.  Which set of nouns do you use when talking to your equals, “inferior” or “superior”?  Depends on the language!  Some languages even have more than two sets of nouns—so is this person “very inferior,” “inferior,” “equal,” “superior,” or “very superior”?  (If I had to make these kinds of decisions every time I spoke to someone, I doubt that I would ever talk at all!)

Noun Meaning-Groups

As you know, the nouns in a language aren’t just distinctive because of their grammar—they’re distinctive because of what they mean.  Not all languages have specific words for banana, pet, maple sugar, arbor, skyscraper, pancakes…  You get my drift.  Either these things don’t exist in the cultures that speak those languages, or they are minor enough to be lumped in under some more general term. 

When a concept that was minor or nonexistent suddenly becomes important, that’s when a language is most likely to borrow the word to describe that concept from another language.  I like letting my fantasy cultures interact with each other and borrow words from each other, but this is very difficult to keep track of!

One of the fun things I like to do when creating a language is to think of the areas of meaning where the people in my fantasy culture are more engaged than English-speaking people are.  For example, I had one culture that lived in a giant, cold, coniferous forest—so I went through a couple of tree books and found all the types of coniferous trees that could survive in my culture’s forest, and gave them all names in my fantasy language.  The people in this culture don’t really have a broad term for coniferous trees—they always use the specific word.  They also have specific words for different types and ages of deer, different types of snow, and so on.

Think about it—how are your chracters’ lives different from yours?  What concepts do you have that they don’t need?  What words do they need that you don’t have?

Enjoy your nouns!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Semi-Modern Mysteries with Connections to the Ancient World

Strong heroines, complex mysteries, living history, a touch of romance, and connections to the ancient world which are critical to the plot… what could be better?

About a year and a half ago, I started reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery series and was completely blown away.  Using a writing style that parodied H. Rider Haggard and other adventurefiction of the eighteen hundreds, Peters penned a series that centers on the strong-minded, recklessly brave Amelia Peabody.  In Crocodile on the Sandbank, set in 1884, Amelia travels to Egypt after inheriting a small fortune.  She quickly acquires a beautiful companion with a mysterious past, and just as quickly adds herself to the excavation team of the ever-irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson.  When a mysterious man dressed as an ancient mummy scares away the excavation workers, and even attempts to kill the excavation team, it is Amelia to the rescue!
Over the course of the series, Amelia and her new husband excavate many different parts of Egypt, become intimately familiar with the (real) Egyptian archaeologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, visit Palestine and Kush, grow their family, battle antiquity thieves and foreign spies, and solve numerous mysteries.
Elizabeth Peters was herself an Egyptologist, and her books are full of details of real archaeological discoveries, ancient tales and poems, and an accurate depiction of the turn-of-the-century understanding of ancient Egyptian history.

My favorite things about this series:  I love Amelia’s voice; I love learning about the history of Egyptian archaeology; and I love Amelia’s relationship with her husband.  This may be one of the best-written marriages I’ve ever encountered.
Series rating:  I would give most of the books in this series to a teenager, but not quite all.  The Last Camel Died at Noon contains some (accurate) re-enactments of ancient Egyptian rituals which I could have done without.  Some later books have a few scenes between Amelia’s son and his love interest which might not be suitable for teens.

Quick quote: (Amelia and her new companion Evelyn visit the Museum of Antiquities in Boulaq, where they meet the Emerson brothers for the first time.)
            We had penetrated into a back room filled with objects that seemed to be leftovers from the more impressive exhibits in the front halls of the museum—vases, bead necklaces, little carved ushebti figures, flung helter-skelter onto shelves and into cases.  There were several other people in the room.  I paid them little heed; in mountain indignation, I went on, “They might at least dust!  Look at this!”
            And, picking up a blue-green statuette from a shelf, I rubbed it with my handkerchief and showed Evelyn the dirty smudge that resulted.
            A howl—a veritable animal howl—shook the quiet of the room.  Beofre I could collect myself to search for its source, a whirlwind descended upon me.  A sniewy, sun-bronzed hand snatched the statuette from me.  A voice boomed in my ear.
            “Madam!  Do me the favor of leaving those priceless relics alone!  It is bad enough to see that incompetent ass, Maspero, jumble them about; will you complete his idiocy by destroying the fragments he has left?”
            Evelyn had retreated.  I stood alone.  Gathering my dignity, I turned to face my attacker. …
            “Sir,” I said, looking him up and down.  “I do not know you—“
            “But I know you, madam!  I have met your kind too often—the rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant. … No spot on earth is safe from you!”
            He had to pause for breath at this point, which gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for.
            “And you, sir, are te lordly British male at his loudest and most bad-mannered.  If the English gentlewoman is covering the earth, it is in hope of counteracting some of the mischief her lord and master has perpetrated. …”
            My adversary was maddened, as I had hoped he would be.  Little flecks of foam appeared on the blackness of his beard.  His subsequent comments were incomprehensible, but several fragile objects vibrated dangerously on the shelves.

Much more recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I started reading Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes mystery series.  The series begins shortly after World War One, and is still growing.  In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the highly-observant and scholarly teenager Mary Russell meets the semi-retired detective Sherlock Holmes.  A Jewess, Russell studies Hebrew Bible and Rabbinics at Oxford when she isn’t solving cases with the middle-aged Holmes.  In only the first book of the series, Russell and Holmes catch spies, thieves, kidnappers, and a master criminal with a long-time grudge against Holmes.
In later books in the series, Russell and Holmes travel to Palestine, solve a murder sparked by a New-Testament era manuscript, return to Baskerville Hall, and more.

My favorite things about this series: the Hebrew-related jokes, the tone-perfect voices of characters from the Conan Doyle stories, and Mary Russell’s intelligent stubbornness.
Series rating: Once again, most of the books in this series are suitable for a teenager, but not all.  A Monstrous Regiment of Women has some very odd undercurrents, and involves some unusual biblical exegesis.  I’ve only read the first five books in the series, so I can’t say anything about the later stories.

Amelia Peabody Mysteries (in internal chronological order)
Crocodile on the Sandbank
The Curse of the Pharoahs
The Mummy Case
Lion in the Valley
Deeds of the Disturber
The Last Camel Died at Noon
The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
The Hippopotamus Pool
Seeing a Large Cat
The Ape Who Guards the Balance
Guardian of the Horizon
A River in the Sky
The Falcon at the Portal
The Painted Queen (to be published)
He Shall Thunder in the Sky
Lord of the Silent
The Golden One
Children of the Storm
The Serpent on the Crown
Tomb of the Golden Bird

Russell and Holmes Mysteries through 2016 (in internal chronological order)
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
Beekeeping for Beginners (novella, published with Garment of Shadows)
O Jerusalem
A Monstrous Regiment of Women
A Letter of Mary
The Moor
Justice Hall
The Game
Dreaming Spies
Locked Rooms
The Language of Bees
The God of the Hive
Pirate King
Garment of Shadows