GUEST POST: Language and Fictional Cultures, by Kameron Hurley

Today, I’m extremely privileged to welcome the award-winning Kameron Hurley to Bibliotropic. She kindly agreed to write a guest post on language and culture, and it’s one of the things I can definitely say I’m thankful for on this Canadian Thanksgiving.


There is no word in English for schadenfreude, the feeling of delight one has at the misfortunes of others. English speakers end up using schadenfreude to describe this feeling because we have no better alternative, and like tortilla or faux pas, it eventually starts to enter the English lexicon. English itself is mishmash of many different languages, product of an island country that was invaded time and time again by many different cultures, and then went out and conquered most of the world, bringing back pieces of language and culture from societies around the globe, Borg-like.

Language is an important consideration when I’m building fictional worlds, because it says a lot about not only the history of a culture, but also gives a window into the culture itself. There has been much ink spilled about the idea that in the ancient Greek world, their limited language for color meant that they may not have perceives a full spectrum of color, because they simply had no name for it. Both “wine” and “the sea” were described as the same color. And when you are told that the word for a particular color is the same across a wide spectrum, it can, indeed, change the way you see the world. Ask anyone who has struggled with desire outside of the heterosexual default we see in the media and hear about as we grow up in the United States. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine a way to be, to name one’s feelings and desires, when one has no story, no language, with which to describe it.

I took this knowledge of language and how it shapes us into account when building the fictional worlds in my epic fantasy series, The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant. One of the societies I built was a pacifist, polyamorous, consent-based culture which has no word for “bastard” or “fuck.” There is also no direct translation for “rape,” which is not something that has historically been used to oppress or as a method of terror and genocide in this society, and does not carry any stigma for its victims, any more than any other violation of the country’s consent laws. They have no historical reason or precedent for such behavior.

If characters from this country want to use these words, they need to switch to a language whose culture cares about whether or not someone’s father is known, and where the act of having sex is considered a violent, dirty word. The language people had to express themselves and what they valued was an intrinsic part of making that society live and breathe in a way that felt organic.

Similarly, when I created the Saiduan culture with its three genders and violent method of assimilation and ascension to power, the language they used was very different from that of my pacifist culture. We have a gendered hierarchy in the West, still, that continues to position women as Other, or women as Things. Adding a third gender meant reconfiguring what a gendered hierarchy would look like in both language and practice in this new culture. Because the society itself was deeply hierarchical, I knew I would not get rid of the idea of gendered hierarchy – in fact, one of the primary struggles that one of the characters from this country undergoes is trying to overcome her own misogyny, her own belief that as a woman she cannot lead, though she has been leading her whole life. She says that as a man or “even as an ataisa” this could be permitted, but as a woman, and her assumptions give us a little window into the broader culture’s assumptions. Language and culture gave her no way to imagine a future where she sat at the top of the hierarchy.

Whatever culture you choose to build, considering how the language and culture will inform one another will help make your societies more believable. If I could give one piece of advice about worldbuilding to aspiring writers, it would be this: every decision you make about a culture needs to inform every other decision. They each will have a ripple effect. One cannot simply plunk in a polyamorous family structure across an entire society and have everything else in the whole culture sound just like a middle class New Jersey neighborhood circa 2015. All of the choices we make inform all of the other choices. It’s in following each decision we make to its logical conclusion that we build truly rich and unique societies.

Kameron HurleyKameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. She has a website, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

4 comments on “GUEST POST: Language and Fictional Cultures, by Kameron Hurley

  1. Pingback: The Empire is Ascendant: EMPIRE ASCENDANT Blog Tour 2015 | Kameron Hurley

  2. The idea that because a culture has “no word for X,” it has trouble seeing or understanding X, is largely discredited in linguistics, but it has become a commonplace in popular culture. For a huge archive of discussions on this, see http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1081 . That doesn’t really diminish the value of what you’re saying, but we always want to fight the spread of this misconception, or at least add some nuance to it.

    • For what it’s worth, most of those discussions on Language Log seem to centre around urban legends, “a friend of a friend told me” stories, combined with saying a lot of, “There’s no one word for this concept in other languages, but there are combinations of words to express the same thing.” Some languages simply don’t have equivalent words in other languages. I think a lot of people confuse “this language doesn’t have a word for X” as meaning, “the culture that speaks this language has no way of expressing X whatsoever,” which isn’t exactly what Kameron is referring to in the post. Using the example of rape that Kameron used here, it would be entirely possible to express that someone was raped by saying, “that person touched me without consent, and it was in a sexual fashion.” That gets across the idea within that culture’s and language’s confines, without having one specific word for the act itself, the way we do.

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