I’m currently reading a book called The Art of Happiness. It’s written by Dr Howard Cutler in conjunction with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and it’s been really fascinating me. The most recent thing to blow my mind was the revelation that there is no word for the feeling of guilt in Tibetan. They have a concept of regret and the ability to express that they did a thing, but even if one admits to doing a thing and feels regret for the action, it’s impossible to feel guilty about it in Tibetan. One can repent, but that’s not the same thing; with repentance, you’re doing something active, whereas with guilt you’re just feeling bad.
But, does not having a word for the emotion truly remove the emotion? Well, there have been many studies proving that when a society doesn’t have a word for a color, the people in it honestly can’t see the color. Or they can’t tell it apart from other colors, at any rate. (Radiolab has done several lovely broadcasts on this subject, including “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”, which discusses the fact Homer thought the sky was wine-colored before looking at a group of people in Africa who can’t tell blue from green.)
I mention this here because it has me thinking about the language that is used in a work I’m in the planning stages of. The core concept for my faerie language is “bastardized German” but I don’t want to just use German but misspell everything, which is actually what I did in the very rough and amateur work this is based on. No, I want to get a little deeper than that, so I’m starting to think about what words they don’t have, and which ones they do.
Sometimes a language will have a word yours lacks without you lacking the concept it describes. For instance, the Amish have a word for “the condition of being unwilling to write letters” and there’s a language (I forget which) that has a word for when you keep going to the window to look and see if someone is here yet, which I’m pretty sure is not a thing that only I do. So clearly, some words describe things you know even if your language doesn’t have a specific word for it. But maybe the way you see and dwell on this thing is different? And I’m certain the absence or presence of a word does say something about your culture.
So what is different between my faeries and English speaking humans? For one thing, they’re more concerned with whether an object is light or dark. To the point that I’m thinking they have different articles for their objects based on which they’re considered, like many languages have for male versus female objects. (Is a table male or female? Light or dark? To a native speaker, it would be obvious even though to an English speaker it’s nonsensical.)
Being closer to nature, my faeries have more words for weather than most languages, with different words for “sunlight that is warm” and “sunlight that is hot” as well as more types of rain, wind, and snow than English has. You can describe these things in English, yes… There’s “soft sunlight” versus “scorching sunlight” but they aren’t distinct words in our language, and there’s only “rain” between “drizzle” and “downpour”. This would amuse and possibly confuse my faeries, much as an English speaker would feel if someone told them that all foods were called the same thing.
And they’re faeries, so they have more words for tricks than we have, differentiating levels of malice and danger ranging from words for “prank nearly guaranteed to kill someone you hate” down to “light-hearted teasing of a loved one”.
Also, they have different words for “lover” and “lover who is also a friend” and “lover who is a life partner” (the last being similar to “husband” and “wife”, but with less connotation of ownership). Since my story is, of course, a romance, these concepts will be important. As will the fact that there are words for “life partner who is not a lover”, “platonic friend”, and “strongly-enforced platonic friend”.
I’m thinking my faeries must also be missing some of the concepts English has. Monogamy springs to mind. And without that, there would be no infidelity. They also have no divorce; a partnership can end but the word for that is the same word you’d use if you’d decided to never speak to a friend or relative again.
Obviously, I’m still developing all of this and will be developing it further as I plot and begin to write the novel currently known as Fairy Story. I’m putting more thought into it than I did last time I played with these characters, and I’m hoping I’ll have something much more solid to show for it. I’ll let you know. 🙂