Mesmerize, magnolia, masochism, and other anachronisms

A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.

This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.

And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?

I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.

I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?

And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.

And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.

 

 

 

Testimony

We believe pretty much anything we’re told, which was great in a time when we were only ever told things by our close family and friends (who probably saw those things firsthand) but not so great now that we’re constantly being told things by strangers. Lots of people, including me, like to think of themselves as not so credible; but there’s so many things I’ve just accepted because my friends told me they were true, and so many things I’ve relayed from some random on the Internet–usually with enough epistemic honesty at least to mention my source and say “take this with a grain of salt”–without knowing whether they were backed up by evidence.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons. One is the election we’ve all already thought too much about–but at the same time can’t safely stop thinking about, like, the second I wanted to stop thinking about it Trump named Steve Bannon chief strategist. As a person who regularly reads Slate Star Codex + a smug liberal I was used to thinking of the Breitbart people as ideological enemies of about the same calibre as 4channers, so this is almost more surreal than the presidency. Facebook fake news and blatant untruths in the far-right media were the subject of a lot of journalism leading up to the election. Leftists like to think we read the true media, but how much can we really pat ourselves on the back? We can think: I hear and believe things that are also heard and believed by NPR. But what are my reasons for believing NPR is a good source, and are those reasons any different or any more objectively rational than the reasons of somebody who trusted a Facebook news item about how Hillary went in as a commando to kill American personnel in Benghazi with nothing but a combat knife and a can of hairspray?

The other reason is that I’ve been reading about Yoruba epistemology in Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft by Hallen and Sodipo. It so happens this is actually my first introduction to formal epistemological philosophy outside a semantics classroom, so I’m sure to some extent the stuff I’m astonished by is old hat–the Quine chapter completely blew my mind right out of the gate and there’s another blog post to be written about that. The writers complicate the traditional translations of mo (translated as “knowing”) and gbagbo (translated as “believing”). Mo ideally is seeing with one’s eyes. Gbagbo they translate as agreeing to accept what you have heard. And of course there are many other languages where the speaker marks propositions to tell the hearer how they came by the information–hearsay, seeing with your own eyes, inferring from context, heard it on Facebook.

Once in an anthropology intro class my TA tried to explain the point of view of some Indigenous opposition to the Land Bridge Theory: “There’s different ways of knowing than just the scientific one.” The snide white jokester she was talking to was like “You mean the truth?” I believe in the scientific project and in objective knowledge but, I mean, come on. That guy doesn’t mo that people moved from Siberia to America tens of thousands of years ago, he just gbagbos it. (From what I’ve read, I gbagbo it too, but what the hell, I wasn’t there.) Just accepting what you were taught by one person as opposed to what you would have been taught by a different person if you had been born in 1200 in a Kwakwaka’wakw settlement doesn’t necessarily make your thing true and their thing fake. Believing this seems to be the root of a lot of unnecessary smugness–yeah, yeah, including my liberal smugness. Either way you’re just accepting what you hear unless you’re willing to start digging much deeper, and digging deep on everything you hear isn’t really feasible. (Or is it? Note to self: Run an epistemology project for a year where I fact-check everything I hear, ???, profit.)

At the same time, it’s hard to dislodge your ego and take material seriously that contradicts your ideology. You have to kind of virtualize your belief set and run their OS alongside yours so you can safely delete it when you want to go back to normal. And I don’t think I’d want it any other way–I don’t want to internalize material I believe to be false–but are my reasons for not wanting that even valid? How would I know if my belief was false and the OS I installed just to try out a few programs was true?

I feel glumly Sapir-Whorf about the idea that maybe languages with evidential markers encourage their speakers to avoid categorizing material we hear in the same bin as material we experienced firsthand. That’s definitely a topic for further research, though, not a real theory. Don’t quote me. Definitely don’t think of that as something you know.