Q&A with Nick Farmer, Linguist, #TheExpanse
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In addition to the newsletter, we run an exclusive Q&A series with authors, editors, writers, creators and technical experts who are contributing to the genre. We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to connect with Nick Farmer, a linguist who is working on the new Syfy original show, The Expanse.
While most science fiction and fantasy fans will think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth languages, or perhaps the Klingon tongue spoken in Star Trek, not all languages need necessarily be created for fictional races. Farmer’s work on The Expanse is for humans who are living off-planet known as ‘Belters’ as they live in the Asteroid belt. Certainly the show didn’t need to create a language for these characters, after all, they are not so different from the ‘Earthers’ they deal with. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that they went the extra mile to do this. Nick was gracious with his time and provides some fascinating insights into how he does what he does, and how his contribution to the show works.
What’s the first thing you do when sitting down to work out a language or dialect?
I think I should preface my response by saying that, to date, I’ve only done languages spoken by humans, which places constraints on what I can produce, if plausibility is a goal (and it is always a goal of mine). Plausibility, in my mind, doesn’t just mean a language that has a grammar, lexicon, and phonology that reasonably imitates natural language; you also have to take into account the socio-linguistic factors that influence a language’s development and its usage. So, the first thing I do is learn as much as I can about the people speaking it: where they come from, who they interact with, how they interact — in short, their culture.
…you also have to take into account the socio-linguistic factors that influence a language’s development and its usage.
What role does culture of the society play in developing a language?
I won’t say “everything,” because there are serious practical considerations to be taken into account. For example, if the language is to be spoken by actors, then it is best that I don’t come up with a phonology (the sounds of the language) that the actors find impossible to produce accurately and consistently. But beyond such things, as I noted, culture is both the primary source of inspiration for a new language, and the primary constraint. As an example, with the language I created for Syfy’s The Expanse, called Belter, the speakers live in a society similar to those found in the colonial-era Caribbean, complete with mass importation of labor from different cultures and a relatively isolated existence on islands — or space stations, in my case. In history, this led to the rise of Creole languages, so the most appropriate language to develop for The Expanse would be a creole. There’s the inspiration. The constraint comes from the fact that Creole languages have very particular features. Indeed, the commonalities between otherwise disparate, unrelated languages has so fascinated linguists that there’s a whole sub-field of study, with raging debates about the genesis and development of Creoles. I won’t go into the details of those debates, but suffice to say, I had to respect all the academic work that’s been done on the subject.
…the language I created for Syfy’s The Expanse, called Belter, the speakers live in a society similar to those found in the colonial-era Caribbean, complete with mass importation of labor from different cultures and a relatively isolated existence on islands — or space stations, in my case.
How do new communication tools like emojis impact the development of language?
How languages change is a very complicated question. There are a lot of factors that go into it, but there is one factor that the layman expects to play a much bigger role than it actually does, and that’s orthography, or how the language is written. Advances in communication technology (from the written word itself, to paper, the printing press, telegraph, radio, TV, internet, etc.) certainly do allow languages to spread more widely and quickly, and have allowed for more registers (both formal and informal) to emerge, but these are issues of quantity, not quality; though I must admit that widespread languages have a greater effect on other languages. As for emoji, they are a non-linguistic signal, like one’s tone of voice in English, or body language. Of course, there are languages which use these things as linguistic features (tones in Chinese, gesture in sign language), but at this point, they change drastically in production, becoming much more systematic and consistent, and at the processing level in the brain. I suppose this means that one day a real emoji language could emerge, but I can’t imagine what context would produce that.
Advances in communication technology certainly do allow languages to spread more widely and quickly, and have allowed for more registers to emerge, but these are issues of quantity, not quality; though I must admit that widespread languages have a greater effect on other languages.
How do you go about creating slang terms/language as opposed to a more formalized language system?
In a way, there is no Belter slang, as opposed to a formal language. This particular issue is not necessarily universal to all languages. Some languages, like French, are spoken by every level of society in France, thus different registers exist in order to signal your level. However, there are some languages, like Quechua (an indigenous language of the Andes) where speaking the language in and of itself marks you as having a low status, so there is no need for Quechua slang. Belter, in The Expanse, is such a language.
What’s one element of your job that readers/viewers are completely unaware of?
I’d say, probably the sheer amount of time and work it takes to do this right. In creating a language, you have to keep track of everything. I have a spreadsheet Belter dictionary, with the word in Belter, the pronunciation in the international phonetic alphabet, translation in English, part of speech, etymological roots, etymological explanation, and notes on usage. There’s a table on the phonology with extensive notes. If you search on Wikipedia for “French phonology,” or any language for that matter, you’ll get a rough idea of how many details are involved. Then I have pages and pages of notes on syntax (which is particularly complicated in this language). I’m not just winging things, adding new words willy-nilly and putting them in whatever order seems convenient. That would be babble, and aside from my own professional pride, people would recognize babble pretty quickly as not sounding like a real language.
I have a spreadsheet Belter dictionary, with the word in Belter, the pronunciation in the international phonetic alphabet, translation in English, part of speech, etymological roots, etymological explanation, and notes on usage.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
Explaining to people what it is I am doing. People have a lot of preconceived notions about language and linguistics in general and constructed languages in particular, so it’s a challenge. I truly appreciate opportunities like these, where I can try to set the record straight, so I thank you for your interest and questions.
The Expanse is based on a series of novels written by James S. A. Corey. The first season is currently airing on Syfy at 10pm eastern on Tuesday nights. You can catch up with previous episodes at the show’s Syfy page. The Expanse has already been renewed for a second season.