From “CHOAM” to “Chewbacca”: 10 Ways to Create New Words for New Worlds

Imagine you are some deity about to create a new universe from scratch, including all of its stars and planets, mountains and oceans, plants and animals. You’ll probably start with a handful of subatomic particles, a sprinkling of energy, and give it all a good mix together. If, as is more likely, you are a writer trying to build a new universe on your typewriter your building blocks are going to be different. To create a new Star Wars galaxy, or the desert planet of Arrakis, or the island of Westeros, you’re going to need new words – and more than just a few of them…

2015 is quite a year for science fiction fans. This December will see the release of the seventh chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time – and potentially the most lucrative. 2015 also marks the 60th anniversary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. Set millennia into our own “future”, Dune tells the tale of a young nobleman who enlists the powers of a strange desert people to avenge the death of his father.

Arguably, George Lucas’ Star Wars borrows more than just a desert setting from Herbert’s 1960s classic. One thing that the two sagas certainly have in common is an abundance of fantastic and exotic words. From Herbert, for example, we have “Paul Atreides”, “Vladimir Harkonnen”, “stillsuits” and “sandworms”. From Lucas and his colleagues, we have “Luke Skywalker”, “Darth Vader”, “lightsabers” and “ewoks”.

But just how did Frank Herbert and George Lucas come up with these wonderful new words?

Lucas and Herbert – just like George R. R Martin – might not be trained linguists. But, in naming the alien things and novel concepts that populate their fantasy worlds, they both demonstrate high levels of sophistication in lexicogenesis – the term linguist Gary Miller uses to describe the processes which give rise to new words. And, as it turns out, they rely on the very same processes of word creation that linguists have identified on our own planet – the very same mechanisms that all of us can use, and which keep English topped up with everyday neologisms like “manspreading”, “contactless” and “binge-watch”.

So, in celebration of a bumper year for science fiction, here are the ten main ways that budding science fiction writers, like Frank Herbert and George Lucas, can create new words for new worlds.

  1. Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)

Of course, new fantasy worlds need to have some commonalities with our own universe or otherwise we’d struggle to connect with them on any sort of level. It’s no surprise that both Dune and Star Wars feature humans (or humanoids at least) – as well as planets, stars, deserts, food, drink, gravity, love, hate, and so on. It’s trivial to say that, for most of these, there’s no need for a new word. It suffices to use the relevant linguistic label (the common noun), like “planet” or “star”, that already exists in English – or whatever language the writer is working in.

But where the word and concept doesn’t exist in English, there’s also the possibility of borrowing common nouns, and the relevant concepts they represent, from other languages too. Herbert does this masterfully in Dune, borrowing heavily from Arabic (“Butlerian jihad”, “erg”, “Mahdi”) and Persian, as well as Turkish, Latin and French. In Dune, the title for the ruler of the galaxy (the “Padishah” Emperor), for example, comes directly from Persian.

In borrowing these words and concepts, Herbert gives us a flavour of “Galach”, the “official language of the Imperium” and the native tongue of Dune’s central characters. In the same way that the English of North America mixes British English together with words and concepts from Spanish, French, and various indigenous languages, Herbert’s fictional language is “hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialisation terms adopted during the long chain of human migration”. Lucas too, is not afraid of a bit of borrowing either. The word “stormtrooper” (the English translation of “Stosstrupp”), for example, comes from Nazi Germany.

  1. Borrow proper names

In any science fiction universe, people and places need naming too. Proper names can be taken from a variety of source languages, and not just English. Herbert, for example, borrows many first names and family names directly from English (“Jessica”, “Duncan”) as well as Russian (“Vladimir”), Finnish (“Harkonnen”), Chinese (“Yueh”), and ancient Greek (“Leto”). Lucas also derives characters’ names from a variety of sources, including a Moghul emperor (“Admiral Ackbar”) and a 1960s TV character (“Han Solo”). Despite the linguistic diversity, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that the central characters of both Dune and Star Wars still have first names (“Paul” and “Luke”) that are less than alien to English speakers.

Proper names can also be borrowed to name other things too, such as places. Dune’s “Giedi Prime”, for example, is derived from the name of a star in the Capricornus Constellation. Luke Skywalker’s home planet “Tatooine” takes its name from a city in Tunisia.

And, as is the case on our own planet, you can use place names as surnames (Dune’s “Duncan Idaho” or Star Wars’ “Wedge Antilles”), or surnames as first names (“Anakin”, for example, comes from the surname of a British film director). And, likewise, if you want to give familiar names and labels just a whiff of the exotic, you can use an unusual spelling but keep the sound or pronunciation the same. One of Herbert’s minor characters, for example, is called “Piter”. This is something that George R. R. Martin does to even greater effect in A Game of Thrones (think “Robb Stark”, “Jaime Lannister”, “Joffrey” and “Ser Jorah”).

  1. Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things

Related to the first two, you can also take existing linguistic labels, from English or otherwise, and apply them to new – seemingly unrelated – concepts or things. In Star Wars, the proper names of characters “Wedge” and “Wicket” are everyday common nouns (the latter being everyday, at least, if you are a fan of cricket). In Dune, Arrakis’ all important spice “melange” borrows its label from the French for “mixture”. The drug “verite”, for example, looks like the French word for “truth”.

  1. Extend the meaning of existing words

In fantasy fiction, it’s not always clear whether there is supposed to be a semantic link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the linguistic label from our own planet and the concept, person or thing it is used to represent – even if you can’t stop yourself as a reader from mentally trying to find one. For example, it’s not clear whether the Dune spice is supposed to be a mixture of various substances, or whether “verite” – a bit like ten pints of lager – is more likely to make you tell the truth.

However, what is certain is that another very good way of naming new concepts and things is to simply take an existing word, and extend its meaning. Herbert, for example, uses this process of semantic extension to come up the word “shield” (some kind of electromagnetic defensive barrier) and “carryall” (a flying vehicle for transporting spice). Famously, Lucas extends the common meaning of “force” to describe the invisible “energy field created by all living things” that gives a Jedi their power.

  1. Extend the function of existing words

Related to this, another way to create new words is the process of conversion – that is, taking an existing word and changing its grammatical function. Verbing, the process of creating a verb from another part of speech, is a very common example of conversion in English (think “to email” and “to text”). Herbert does it, for example, with “weirding room”, creating a verb from the adjective “weird”.

  1. Play with a word’s component sounds

One simple mechanism for creating new words is to take old ones and make small changes to their pronunciation. For example, one of the major cities on Herbert’s Dune planet is “Carthag”, which can be arrived at by changing a phoneme (vowel or consonant) or two of “Carthage” (“Qartaj” in Arabic) – the ancient Tunisian city. Apparently, for Star Wars, Lucas derived the name “Chewbacca” from “sobaka” the Russian word for dog. Interestingly, these sorts of phonological changes often mirror the changes that happen to words on our planet, as languages evolve, or as they are borrowed from one language into another.

  1. Build new words from parts of old ones

In any language – certainly in any Earth language – words are built up from smaller chunks of meaning, called morphemes (themselves built up from phonemes). As a result, new words can be formed by chopping bits off existing words, or by adding adding other bits to them.

In Dune, for example, Herbert creates a name for the galaxy’s currency “Solari” by taking the word “solar” and adding “-i”, which looks suspiciously like the Arabic suffix used to describe people from a particular region (think “Iraqi” or “Pakistani”). He also derives the name of the prevalent language, “Galach”, by chopping the end of the word “galaxy”, in a process which linguists call back-formation. Similarly in Star Wars, to create the gangster “Greedo”, Lucas takes an adjective befitting the character’s penchant for money and adds the suffix “-o”, an English device for creating faux Italian or Spanish names (like “el stinko”).

  1. Combine words in new ways

Perhaps the most common – and most fundamental – way of creating new words is to simply combine old ones together. Both Herbert and Lucas rely heavily on compound nouns, which forge together two or more words – and the concepts which underpin them – to create entirely new ones. In Dune, for example, there are “stillsuits”, “groundcars”, “sandworms” and “battle language”. In Star Wars, famously, there are “star destroyers”, “lightsabers” and “the Death Star”.

On Earth as on more distant planets, wherever compound nouns get too long, especially when describing machines or organisations, it’s not uncommon to substitute them for a suitable acronym. On Arrakis, for example, the “Field CP” is a “command post”. In Star Wars, “ATAT” is an “All Terrain Armoured Transport”.

  1. Use any combination of the above

Of course, if you want to be really creative, you can use pretty much any combination of the processes above. Herbert, in particular, isn’t afraid to mix and match. He forms “lasgun” and “repkit”, for example, by contracting the compounds “laser gun” and “repair kit” to form what linguists call portmanteau words or blends. “CHOAM”, a powerful intra-galactic trading company, stands for “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles”, where “Honnete” and “Ober” are borrowed from French and Old German, respectively.

  1. Create a new word from scratch

Finally, if all else fails, you can simply create a new word from scratch – that is, from some arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. When you do so, you need to make a decision whether the new word you create will fit into the sound system of English – that is, the set of rules which govern which phonemes, and which combination of phonemes, are allowed in English – or whether it will fit into some other, possibly alien, language. For example, while “Han” and “Hoth” are entirely plausible words in English, “pchagavas” and “hrobas” in Herbert’s invented “Chakobsa” language, are definitely not.

It’s actually pretty difficult to invent a new word that doesn’t share at least some similarities with existing ones. But short of asking Frank Herbert or George Lucas directly, it’s really quite difficult to tell if a word is an entirely arbitrary invention, or whether similarities with other words are intended for artistic reasons. For example, is Paul Atreides’ home planet of “Caladan” a complete invention, or is it derived somehow from (the equally watery) “Caledonia”? Is the name for Dune’s native “Fremen” an accidental string of vowels and consonants, or is it a contraction of “Free men”? Because we all love looking for deeper, hidden meanings in words, the fantasy universes of Dune and Star Wars leave plenty of room for folk etymologies about the meaning of things. According to this website, for example, Han Solo’s name means “he who is alone”:

“Solo” means alone, and Han is very much a loner. Also in Swedish, Han means “he”. Combine these two definitions, and the resulting translation is “he [who is] alone.” 

Whether that’s what Lucas had in mind is highly debatable, and the man himself has been known to spread a few myths about how his characters’ names were created.

‘Dawn-hearts’ and ‘Jellyspoons’: Creativity and the Compound Noun

 

ImageAll creativity, including linguistic creativity, is about novel combinations – that is, the marriage of old concepts to form new ones.

Linguistically, this can mean combining any part of speech with another. But while poets and writers might get carried away with fancy combinations of verbs and adverbs, I would argue there’s as much to be said for combining the simplest part of speech: the humble noun.

Compound nouns are formed by combining any number of nouns together to make a new one. They are quite commonplace. English, for example, has “hair-brush”, “moonlight”, “dog-house” and “Facebook”, just to name a few. Of course, compound nouns can be pretty mundane. But what would a holiday be without “sun-cream”, sun-screen”, “sunglasses”, “sun-block”, a “sun-bed” or a “sun-hat”? And what would dinner be without “rice crackers”, “jam donuts”, “potato chips”, “bread pudding”, or a “jellyspoon” to serve your preserve with?

New words, new concepts

Most importantly, such compounds are the source of endless creativity. Say you take any common noun, signifying some concept like “cat”. Then you take another noun, signifying some seemingly unrelated concept, like “fish”. When you put the two nouns together, to create a compound noun, you can’t help but create a new concept by fusing the two old ones together: “cat fish”.

Such compounding in a ripe source of neologisms, particularly to describe new concepts in socio-cultural and political thought. The last decade, for example, has brought us “black swan theory”, “kitchen-table politics”, “prawn-sandwich man” and “choice fatigue”, among many other such compounds. It’s also a lively process in pop culture too, as seen in words like “flash mob”. Not unsurprisingly, quite a few compound nouns have appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year list. Noun combinations include “toy-boy” (WOTY in 1981), “beatbox” (1983), “kitten heels” (1995) and “text message” (1998).

Compounding is also a rich mechanism in poetry. One of the masters of the art of combining nouns was the English poet DH Lawrence. Flick through his collected works, particular his later poems, and you’ll find all manner of hyphenated compounds. I particular like this evocative passage from his 1923 poem, Almond Blossom:

     Sweating his drops of blood through the long-nighted Gethsemane
     Into blossom, into pride, into honey-triumph, into most exquisite splendour.

“Globe-flower”, “fire-mist”, “mother-love”, “lady-smock”, “moon-tide”, “sun-starer”, “sage-ash desert”, “dawn-heart”, and “wound-stump”, for example, are also all his.

Creative compounding

But compounding nouns is not just for writers and media professionals – it’s for everyone.

Here’s a game to try: Take a dictionary, open it at any page quite at random, and write down the first noun you come to reading down from the first entry. Then, open another page, again at random, and write down the first noun you come to directly after it. Now look at the two words side by side. Bizarre as the combination might seem at first, I’m pretty confident your brain, by appropriately re-wiring your semantic system to link the two concepts, will find some way of making sense out of it.

Here’s a few random examples I came up with using exactly this method:

     Material forest (a place where various materials can be harvested)
     Slope alloy (a type of metal used primarily for inclined surfaces)
     Sycamore flour (a low-gluten wheat substitute)
     Runt cricket (a game played by the smallest cub in every litter)
     Toddler necessity (the need for small children in times of crisis?…)

They’re certainly bizarre, and you may not agree with my attempted explanations for them. But somehow, thanks to our creativity,  such combinations are not entirely implausible – at least in our imagination.

Compounds in other languages

Although the Romance languages, like French, tend to avoid them (think “sac à dos”, “salle d’attente” or “pain au chocolat”), compound nouns are certainly not limited to English. Chinese, with its limited inflection, loves to throw whole nouns together to make new ones; the Chinese word for “food”, for example, is “fancai” (literally “rice vegetable”). And even ancient languages had compounds. Sanskrit grammarians had a special word, “dvandva”, for compound nouns where both components referred to the same person (such as “boy-king”, “singer-songwriter” and “girlfriend”).

But German, as everyone knows, is the master of the art of combining nouns. Take a look through any German-English dictionary and you’ll see countless examples of compounds – noun after noun breathlessly strung together without space or hyphen. How about “Fussballspiel” (football match), “Fahrkartenautomat” (train ticket machine) or “Waschmaschine” (washing machine)? Or, how about this particular favourite from my school days?: “Brustwarze”, which means “nipple”, can be literally – and somewhat unromantically – translated as “breast wart”.

The German language’s propensity to shove nouns together to form new ones is a source of great enjoyment for language lovers. In an episode of the US Comedy Series How I Met Your Mother a German character called Klaus has just run away from his own wedding. When he bumps into Ted, the show’s hapless protagonist, he decides to give him a Teutonic lesson in love. Klaus tells him:

“There is a word in German, Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. The closest translation would be ‘lifelong treasure of destiny’. And Victoria is wunderbar, but she is not my Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. She is my Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand, you know?”

Ted, understandably looks confused. Klaus is vexed:

“You know wunderbar but you don’t know Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand?! That is something we learn in Kindergarten. I’m sorry, “Kindergarten” is the German word for…”

Both “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz” and “Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand” are made up, of course. “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz”, for example, is built from the words for “lebenslang” (lifelong), “Schicksal” (destiny) and “Schatz” (treasure). But people with only a modest knowledge of German would get the joke.

The perils of writing them down

But English speakers shouldn’t be so quick to mock. Because, like all the Germanic languages, English is also full of compound nouns – and we have some pretty long ones too. How about “pension fund capitalism”, “container ship”, “ink jet printer cartridge”, “African American” or “sodium potassium nitrate salt”?

The real difference, of course, is how we write them down. Whereas in German it’s consistently alphabet soup all the way, the English convention is that – well – there’s not really a convention at all.

Eric Partridge in his 1947 classic Usage and Abusage (Partridge, 1973), isn’t particularly helpful. Under “Hyphenation”, he writes: “In the life of compound words there are three stages: (1) two separate words (cat bird); (2) a hyphenated compound (cat-bird); (3) a single word (catbird).” And that’s pretty much it. The transition from an orthographic rendition as two words, through a hyphenated middle stage, to a rendition as a single word is to do with how frequent, or well entrenched in the language, the compound noun is perceived to be. That is, somebody somewhere is going to have to make a (fairly) arbitrary judgement either way – just like I have in quite a few places above.

Most importantly, the fact that we write “football match” and not “footballmatch” (like the German “Fussballspiel”) makes no difference to the way the compound noun functions in a sentence. As linguist Steven Pinker writes, about compounds in general (Pinker, 1999, p. 181):

“Do not be distracted by the inconsistent way compounds are spelled in English: sometimes as one word, as in ‘teethmarks’; sometimes with a hyphen as in ‘mice-infested’; sometimes as two words as in ‘geese crossing’. The way to recognise a compound is by its composition, such as being two nouns in a row, and by its stress pattern.”

In compounds of all kinds, when spoken, the stress tends to fall on the first part of a compound noun (we say “workmen” rather than “workmen”). And, however they are written, compound nouns will function, more-or-less, like simple nouns. For example, in the plural form, only the rightmost noun (the head of the compound noun) will get the plural ending added: we have “attorney generals”, “singer-songwriters”, “boy-kings”, and so on. And, although there are a few exceptions, speakers of English tend to avoid plural endings in the middle of compound nouns: we say “anteaters” not “ants-eaters”, for example.

In conclusion

So next time you see a compound noun in print, I would urge you to forget for a moment how someone has decided to write it. Instead, try to admire it for what it is: the ripe fruit of a marriage between two seemingly unrelated disparate concepts and – quite possibly – the creation of something marvellous.

Because, wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without a “dawn-heart” or two?

 

References

Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Partridge, E. (1973) Usage and Abusage. Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

 

[Many thanks to John Cowan for pointing out that “jellyspoon” is indeed a functional serving utensil, and not a made up word as I had naively thought, undermining an earlier version of this post!]