Saturday, June 24, 2017
This week I thought I'd talk about wordplay in The Curious Tale—the use of language to create additional meaning or aesthetics beyond the literal value of the words. I greatly enjoy wordplay, considering it mainly a playful way to have fun writing, aesthetically beautify my work, and reward the scrutinous reader with hidden information.
It's such a broad term, though! So let's take a look at some of my wordplay techniques. Most of the examples I use come from the Prelude to After The Hero, so feel free to read along and Ctrl+F as we go.
Comparatively speaking, I rarely use that most popular mainstay of wordplay, the pun—and when I do my puns tend to be subtly concealing hidden information (often allusive), as opposed to serving as objects of humor.
A good example in the Prelude is a word that you probably glossed over because it doesn't mean anything: Monpateallhuje. This is spoken by Jemis just before Galavar issues his Glorious Commands, and I set it in italics in the text so that you'd know that it's not just a nonsense word. I expect readers would have taken it for some kind of Relancii interjection. In fact it isn't!
Scrutinous readers who read the word aloud might have noticed what's up: It's a bastardization of the French phrase Mon Petit Rouge, written as a transliteration. If you pronounce it carefully, you'll get the exact pronunciation of the French phrase.
The French means "My Little Red One." I don't state this in the text, but Jemis is actually speaking to Silence here, not to himself or the room. Readers have the context to make this inference—Silence is helping him to his seat at the Willful Table—but that's all. The rest is left to the clever mind.
Now, why this pun? Well, for assiduous readers of this column, I shall tell you! From Jemis' point of view, it's a long-running joke between the two of them: Both of them are pale-skinned, red-haired Middemesners, but whereas Jemis is stunted in growth and quite tiny and frail and short, Silence has always been tall, robust, and vigorous. On Relance, as on Earth, males are larger than females on average in most nations. So, though it's a joke for Jemis, for me as the author it's actually a nugget of hidden information: Calling Silence his "little" red one gives readers an insight into his self-effacing, irreverent style of humor. And it insinuates that they have a history together, which is true. In that respect it also serves to foreshadow the revelation of this backstory.
As for puns in the more traditional usage of simply trying to be humorous, it's uncommon but I do, on occasion, give it a shot. Speaking of shots, one example of this from the Prelude is in the scene where Galavar hands Diva a flask of hard liquor, brand name Deshat's. This name is a pun on William Shatner, or "The Shat" as he is sometimes affectionately known. The idea here is that you take a slug of this stuff and you'll instantaneously (but, mercifully, briefly) become an honorary member of The William Shatner School of Acting. I wanted to name it "DeShat's," to help create more names in the Curious Tale universe that use the "De" prefix as DeLatia's does, but I figured it would be too obvious to call it "DeShat's." In retrospect, I think it was a mistake for me not to go ahead and capitalize it that way, and I may even retcon this in the future.
Halfway between my usual hidden meaning puns and the more popular funny ones is the term Deauwell, listed by Gregor as one of the civil emergency services in Sele. The Deauwells are Sele's police force. Their name does what it says on the tin: do-wells. One time I got to thinking about the term ne'er-do-wells, and thought it would be cute to reverse that to get a term to describe some goody two-shoes. This idea ended up growing a pair of legs.
And there are more—King Allopeash, for instance, was bald—the point being that even one of my least-used forms of wordplay does come up occasionally.
My last word on puns is that you'll notice that most of them—including all the examples above—are couched in proper nouns. It's rare for me to use puns in ordinary words, because that violates the meta boundaries that I have set for The Curious Tale narrative: Specifically, any such pun used narratively would break the fourth wall, and The Curious Tale isn't allowed to do that. Such puns have to be used in-world if they are going to appear at all, and that's quite rare for me. You'll notice that all the examples I gave are narrative (i.e., meta) puns from me to you; none are used in-world by people as puns.
My favorite and most prolific forms of wordplay are alliteration, consonance, and assonance, taken together as a single entity that I usually just call "alliteration."
Let me make a quick digression to talk about the three of these in relation to one another, since many people don't know what they are and many online reference resources have misleading or incomplete information.
The second-best way to understand these three figures of speech is to forget about alliteration and take consonance and assonance by their simplest definitions, with consonance being the nearby repetition of consonant sounds in speech and assonance being the same thing but with vowel sounds instead. (And, in this simplified form, alliteration is either of these—but usually consonance—when it occurs at the beginning of words, as in "twist and turn.") These plain-as-mud definitions are really helpful, because they get to the heart of the matter in a way that the fuller definitions weirdly don't.
But the very best way to understand this sonic trio is to think about cadence—which is also the secret to understanding why I use this kind of wordplay so heavily, as we shall see momentarily. The reason I enjoy alliteration, consonance, and assonance wordplay so much is not really that I like seeing the same letters or hearing the same sounds. It's that these devices create fascinating cadences for the reader.
Consonance creates sharp highlights, functioning rather like syncopation in music. Consonance draws attention to one or more of the words participating in the consonance. It shifts the reader's focus and thereby can be used to guide the reader's reactions. To me this is more than just a matter of wordplay; this is a knob to control one of the fundamental dimensions of language. Listen to Seamus Heaney read Beowulf and you'll understand. (More on that in a moment!) The biggest mistake that people make of consonance is assuming that it has to function like a tongue-twister to work, where the consonance is always at the front of the word and it has to be as many words as possible beginning with that sound. This isn't so; consonance can occur with as little as one repetition of a sound, and it can happen anywhere in a word. The word consonance itself is an excellent demonstration of consonance, on the first and second instances of the N sound.
Assonance, again going to music theory for an analogy, creates a sustain effect. This too creates highlights, but rather than sharp ones these are smooth. (And of course you'll have to go with me on the journey of using tactile terms like "sharp" and "smooth" to describe sounds.) If the tongue twister is the fallacious exaggeration of consonance, then rhyming is the fallacious exaggeration of assonance. Assonant words don't need to rhyme with each other. It's all about drawing out or extending certain vowel sounds by placing two or more of them in proximity to each other.
Alliteration is a catch-all for all of the above: consonant and assonant sounds, occurring anywhere in the involved words. The word itself gives us its meaning by way of etymology: It means, in the most literal possible sense, "toward lettering," which is to say, more poetically, "a bringing together of letters." Its etymology is modeled on the structure of obliteration, which originally referred to the effacement of lettering (i.e., to cause to be forgotten). Historically, alliteration, especially in its form of "consonance at the beginning of words," has often been considered artistically lowbrow or even an immorality or a vice—thinking which still persists in some circles today, among people who apparently have nothing better to do with their lives.
You will find numerous "rules" for these devices on the Internet. Almost invariably these rules are wrong. Alliteration (et al.) doesn't need to occur at the beginning of a word, or even in the stressed syllables of a word. It can occur anywhere that the effect is resonant enough to be noticeable. Consonance and assonance likewise can occur anywhere. Nor do the participating words have to be adjacent. An especially resonant alliteration (particularly when in tandem with other devices) can even span whole sentences. And, of course, while the exaggerations of consonance and assonance are wrong in their generalization, they are not wrong circumstantially: You can certainly use consonance to create tongue-twisters and assonance to create rhymes.
Henceforth I will refer mainly to "alliteration" with the intent of conveying all three devices.
And Now, Back to Wordplay!
As I hinted a moment ago, I first got turned onto alliteration as a form of wordplay in literature with Beowulf, in twelfth grade. I remember specifically being taught that the author was a big fan of alliteration, and when I experienced that in the text I really enjoyed it, and thought to myself "I can do that!" ATH the RPG was underway at the time, and from then on I have applied alliteration in my work liberally.
Let's talk about cadences again—the reason alliteration is so powerful. Imagine "The dog ran to the kitchen." There's no alliteration here, and you wouldn't have read that sentence with any particular cadence. Now consider "The dog darted to the kitchen." That's alliterative, and it invites the reader to superimpose a cadence on their reading of the sentence. If you imagine a good audiobook narrator reading this passage aloud, you can almost taste the emphasis on darted.
Cadence creates emotional intonations and vivifies our imagery of whatever is being described to us. Or at least it can; many readers of course don't pay much heed to this. But many others do, including me, and for me the perception of cadence is especially strong.
Consequently, its appearance in The Curious Tale is virtually continual. You'll find it at least in a weak form on every page, almost without exception, and in most paragraphs. I dial it down for practical scenes and scenes heavy in dialogue, but I more than compensate for this by dialing it way up for artistic, sweeping scenes. Consider:
So at once they invaded the capital, the City of Sele. The enemy, Galavar, did not wish to come forth from the excellent defense of his fortress, but he did so, for he did not wish to forfeit his city either, and in Galavar's decision the Hero met fierce opposition for every avenue and aede he took.
The amount of alliteration—deliberate alliteration, mind you—in this paragraph is mind-boggling. It begins straight away, with the consonant S sound in "so at once." Most of my alliteration is twofold, just like that, with only two instances, which makes it less obtrusive and facilitates a finer degree of cadent control.
"The City of Sele" is also consonant, creating a sort of "ringing" effect on the S sound that, in a sentence, functions like a tower on the city skyline—something that stands above its neighbors.
The largest alliteration in the sentence is a running F theme, interspersed throughout the long sentence with the effect that the participating words function almost like weak exclamation points, indicating emphasis on those words. "...come forth from the excellent defense of his fortress...for he did not wish to forfeit...and...met fierce opposition." It's incredibly subtle—probably subtle enough to not really enter into the conscious awareness of most readers, but it's definitely there and it probably does create subconscious focal points in many readers—especially the people who, like me, hear words when they read them, even if only inside their own heads.
The most prominent assonance in the sentence is the short I sound that occurs multiple times in "the excellent defense of his fortress, but he did so, for he did not wish to forfeit his city." (Incidentally, many of the involved words do not actually use the letter I. That's another common misconception with alliteration; the letter doesn't matter; only the sound.) This repeated barrage of short I sounds creates a sense of urgency and the feeling that resolution is very close by but has blatantly not yet been achieved. In service of the larger scene, this contribution of urgency and incompleteness is very much intended to apply toward setting the mood at the beginning of the Prelude.
Another assonance, this one a rhyme, is build around "decision" and "opposition." Even though it rhymes it doesn't really function as a rhyme, instead serving to create a powerful cadent texture. Notice also that the words themselves—and this is often so—are relating not just alliteratively but substantively: A decision and an opposition are fascinating contrasts, essentially two forms of the same thing, but seen in different ways. I would be lying if I said I think this deeply about every sentence I write, but I definitely drill down this far sometimes, and these opening scenes are very important.
There are other alliterations that occur in the passage, but by now I think you have the idea. This stuff is absolutely everywhere in my writing. And if you're suspicious of me for claiming alliterative credit for practically any instance whatsoever of two or more alliterative sounds, consider that I pay such close attention that it would be almost impossible for me not to notice as I'm writing. I do "back in" to some of my alliteration by writing the words without realizing the alliteration is there, but when it happens I never fail to notice it, and I always explicitly make the decision whether to retain it. (As a figurative device, alliteration has "must be justified" status.)
I find that, stylistically, I use consonance much more often than assonance. I suppose I find it easier and more natural, and certainly more fine-tuned. I frequently explicitly retool sentences to increase their consonance; I rarely do this for assonance.
Alliteration draws attention to the structure of the text—one of the few ways I'm willing to do that in The Curious Tale, as it falls in the category of meta actions and threatens the suspension of disbelief. Indeed, done poorly, alliteration can pull a reader out of the story, and I have no doubt that were my works widely read there would be some people who complained of this. Modern audiences have virtually no internal interest in alliteration—but I do think that, with artful application, I can win some of them over, while also failing to even register (and thus cause bother) in some others.
Alliteration is a hallmark of my writing style. As both a form of wordplay and a form of figurative language it is by far my most common self-expression, rivaled only by my less numerous but more iconic plays on etymology. I love doing it, and I notice very few other contemporary writers paying attention to alliteration, which means I can operate completely independently of any social baggage that would otherwise be attached to it. It is purely artistic. No author I know of, past or present, uses alliteration as intricately, often, or deliberately as I do.
Etymological constructions aren't generally considered wordplay, but in my style they certainly qualify. Other than alliteration, there is no wordplay in The Curious Tale that occurs with greater frequency and determination.
I take endless pleasure in reviving archaic or obsolete definitions of existing words—such as the Sheer, the expanse of sky above the Sourran Landstorm (where Ieik and Sele are located) that's mentioned both in The Great Galavar and the Prelude. In addition to the common surviving definitions of sheer, there's an older, obsolete definition that simply means "bright." That's the definition that lends itself to the Sheer in Relance.
Another example: In the very first paragraph of the Prelude, despite my specifically constraining my introduction of new or unusual vocabulary, I use the word plumb to describe the desert. That was intended to be a head-scratcher; I don't expect anybody to instantly understand what I meant by it when I spoke of "...light...poured steadily onto the fingers of the plumb desert." It is intended to be pondered. (I alleviate the reader's agitation thereafter with uncharacteristically short, simple sentences.) What I meant by it was to connote the vertical vastness of the scene I was describing; I was using plumb in the sense of a plumb line. To understand why, you would have to recall that plumb lines measure vertical distance, or depth as it were. On the first read-through, nobody who is previously unfamiliar with Relance knows in the first paragraph that the Landstorm is over ten thousand feet higher than the adjacent Sodaplains. Only when you do know that—and it's actually never stated explicitly in the Prelude; the closest I come is to say "...the Cliffs of Raglan which stood as high above the Sand Ocean as the skies stood above Relance"—and when you are able to identify that I'm talking about a plumb line in the sense of measuring depth, will you get your head around why I used that adjective in such a bizarre and inaccessible manner. So, decrypted, it would read something like "...light...poured steadily onto the fingers of the desert far below." This kind of chicanery is an example—particularly due to its appearance in the first paragraph—of me communicating to the reader as strongly as I can without coming out and saying it that the layers in The Curious Tale run very deep, and, for those who are interested, there is almost no end to the amount of greater meaning and insight available to you if you think hard and carefully about what you read. This sort of stuff is purely optional with respect to enjoying the story; casual readers can simply gloss over it no worse for the wear. But it's there for those who want it.
Aside from featuring old or obscure words, I take even more endless (!) pleasure in creating new words based on real-world etymological roots. The Vedere—the great plaza seen in the Prelude—is a fine example of that, designed as words used to be designed (and often still are): literally. In Latin, videre means "to see," and gave us the Italian word belvedere, which literally means "fine view," from which the Vedere takes its cue: "The view."
There's also tons of cross-pollination, where I take old or obscure words or senses of words and reengineer them into new words. The dwend Mearulay from the Prelude, whose name literally means "Of the Boundary"—and this is stated in the text—derives its root from the real-world term, now obsolete, mear, meaning "boundary." The root of that root is ultimately "wall," and thus mear is a distant cognate of words like mural. Oh, and dwend itself, which I discussed long ago on another Curious Tale Saturdays, comes from the Spanish duende, a spirit.
Another good example: The common Relancii greeting "Hale fet" derives from the English words hale and fettle. So in other words: "Good health!" (Or, if you want to be pedantic, "Healthy health!")
The etymology pool gets pretty deep, so I'll only share a couple more examples with you:
My ardor for using real-world etymologies is not limited to English or even the Latin alphabet. The arezo in the stone etching of King Allopeash that Rennem sees atop Galavar's fortress shortly before dying is a bastardization of the Persian word arezou, meaning, fittingly, "ardor."
Lastly: Sometimes, etymological wordplay needn't be anything but simple and imitative. We have the epithet Almighty for the Abrahamic god; in Relance I figured that a comparable set of epithets would be Alknowing for Sourros (which doesn't appear in the Prelude and Alcaring for Derishos (which does).
Epithets straddle the line between the category of wordplay and that of figurative language. I love epithets and use them frequently because I think they add grandeur and mystique to a story. That's more on the figurative language end of things, but on the wordplay side it's also just plain fun and interesting.
As befits a deity, Derishos has multiple epithets even just in the Prelude, including True Goddess, Goddess of Compassion, Eternal Light, and the aforementioned Alcaring. I discussed divine epithets a long time ago, even before Curious Tale Saturdays existed, so a couple of you might remember some of the many other terms I introduced. Derishos also lends her name to the Moons of Relance, Ishos and Eshos—
—which gives me an opportunity to remind you of the term Shosen. This name appears in the Prelude in reference to the Galans of Sele—"the Shosen"—and is a veritable bingo of the aforementioned wordplay categories. It's a pun because it's close to "Chosen." It's weakly (but deliberately) alliterative because of its internal S sound. Etymologically it has a double pedigree: In one sense it is just as I described to you: a reengineering of "Derishos." In another, it literally means "Lunatic"—which is the proverbial other shoe of the pun on "Chosen"—but gracefully ignores the more common meaning and refers to a "Lunatic" in the old sense, as in a follower of the Moon. I was very pleased with myself when I came up with this term; it is unbearably clever. =]
One of the more important epithets in the Prelude is "City of Peers," which stands in for Junction City. This is important on two fronts: First, it introduces foreshadows a major component of the ATH plot—something that will take a long time to fully reveal itself, but for which clues have already been peppered throughout The Great Galavar and the Prelude. Second, it serves to draw attention away from the actual name "Junction City," which points toward an even bigger plotline and system of spoilers. In fact while writing the Prelude I considered not even using the name "Junction City," but in the end I allowed it to appear exactly once, spoken by Silence—which is not a coincidence.
Speaking of Silence, one of my favorite Joshalonian pastimes is creating new epithets for her. But since I've spoken about them before, I won't dwell on them here except to say that it's very useful to have these epithets because her name—Silence—is strange and also powerful, and shouldn't appear as often as it would otherwise have to.
This is similarly true for Afiach Bard. As the sole protagonist of Mate of Song—itself an epithet—Afiach's name is strange and would be spoken far too often for comfort were it not for a small but highly functional set of epithets I have for her, by far the most valuable of which is simply "the bard." In her story I refer to her as "the bard" almost as often as I refer to her as Afiach. She also has an in-world, rather glorious epithet, which appears rarely: the Bard of Tervail.
Lately I've been working heavily on Chapter 1 of ATH, and I've been mining fruitful new ground in devising new epithets and applying old ones left and right. Soda Fountain, the largest city in the Sodaplains, is variously epitheted as some combination of "the desert sanctuary metropolis"—usually as any two of those three words. It's also referred to as "the city of commerce," "the city of merchants," and various other epithets indicating its prominence in the Sodaplains.
Given how much I appreciate it, I don't actually use onomatopoeia terribly often. Setting aside standard English words that are of onomatopoeic origin—such as hiss, murmur, rush, and bawl—there's very little new onomatopoeia that I recall from the Prelude, though of course my memory is not perfect. One example that does come to mind are the warks, technically a new term but obviously an homage to Final Fantasy and not a term that I personally invented.
This dearth of onomatopoeia is partly because the Prelude has neither annotations nor glossary, and is also the introductory work of The Curious Tale, meaning I was consciously trying to limit the introduction of new in-world vocabulary so as not to overwhelm readers. Another reason is that, to make Relancii cultures more distinctive from one another, onomatopoeic terms don't arise as often in Galan society as they do in some other parts of the world. For instance, Afiach Bard from Mate of Song, who is not a Galan, uses onomatopoeic names for many of her musical instruments.
But, on the whole, many opportunities that arise for me to use onomatopoeia are superseded by other forms of creative language instead.
Acronyms, Acrostics, and More
Many other common forms of wordplay have relatively little representation in The Curious Tale, either because the serious tone is not suitable or because I'm not especially interested in the devices. Nonetheless, occasionally you find these:
I did a series of articles once on the composition of the Imperial military. The Empire of Panathar, the mightiest nation on Relance, is referenced several times in the Prelude, but practically nothing of its nature is disclosed. That's purposeful, to preserve its mystique. The Empire is highly divergent from the cultures of virtually all the rest of the world, with its own customs and traditions. Among other things, there's a lot of pomp and circumstance to its institutions, rivaled only by the Kingdom of Tanzibay.
More to the point, the Imperial militaries often use acronyms. The Scepterial Armies, which comprise the Empire's main ordinary combatant force, are known as "CXQ," which, by translating the letters from Latin to the Imperial, means "Clutum Caput Quovis," i.e., "The Celebrated Crown, to Whatever Place You Will." This is styled on the old Roman traditions.
Acrostics are a form of acronym that appear through some kind of sequential presentation. So far there is only one example of this in the entire Curious Tale: the first letter of the name of each of Silence's seven sandships spell out "DESTINY." Obviously there's a bit of flirtation with breaking the fourth wall here, because the physical word destiny is English, a language that obviously doesn't exist on Relance, but for aesthetic value I'm willing to occasionally make exceptions. That, and it's also grandfathered in; this acrostic has been around almost since the beginning of the novelization.
Lipograms and Solograms
Thus far not existing in The Curious Tale, there is nevertheless an opening for the occasional appearance of these two inverse devices: Many years ago I began writing an epic poem about a coming of age journey involving an adolescent boy who, as part of his ascension, had to climb Mount Kask Kadoo. This was a standalone work, having nothing to do with The Curious Tale. My great conceit of wordplay is that most of the story would be a lipogram, a type of wordplay where a certain character—a letter or punctuation mark—is completely omitted. Most of the epic poem would therefore be a lipogram omitting the letter E.
But—now here's the twist—while on Mount Kask Kadoo itself, the lipogram would invert: All vowels other than E (and, of necessity, Y) would be omitted, and only E (and Y) would be allowed. There's no word that I know of for this, so I named it a sologram. "Kask Kadoo" itself would be transformed in the mind of the protagonist by virtue of its sheer dominance over his horizons, into Kesk Kedeer—a phrase Commander Diva cryptically spoke in the Prelude: "I too was at Kesk Kedeer." That's an idiom in their language, which means, essentially, "I survived, but I did not win."
More importantly to my purposes for this article, the inclusion of Kesk Kedeer into the Relancii mythos means that this epic poem, or the story contained therein, now may someday fall inside The Curious Tale. I did this on purpose; in fact it has been in my worldbuilding for some time that Kesk Kedeer is the highest mountain in Relance. Those of you who read my announcement of Mate of Song will recall that Afiach's song also mentions Kesk Kedeer.
I'm not generally interested in palindromes, with one playful exception: In the Kingdom of Tanzibay, great individuals who commit great deeds can be honored with a palindromic name. RPG cast members may remember King Harrukkurrah. Another famous Tanziban not yet introduced to you but who is referenced in Mate of Song is General Tazallazat, a great Tanziban leader.
It's harder to create satisfying palindromic names than it might seem.
Play Me Out
There are many other categories of wordplay; I couldn't possibly list them all. Even as it is, this article is almost five thousand words! Time to stop.
Even though wordplay does a lot of serious work and heavy lifting in my writing, ultimately the idea itself has "play" written right into it, and this is never lost on me. In my own way I greatly enjoy developing the wordplay in my stories, and always look forward to it when I write. I probably won't ever make a fundamental contribution to science, or become the leader of the free world, but by gum I'm going to write some books that, at least in terms of their structural thoughtfulness, will give even Shakespeare a run for his money.
That's all for now. Join me next week when I introduce a fun new mini-feature for social media.
Until then, may you know the pleasure of taking creative risks!
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!