School is officially out, and I’m doing my damnedest to enjoy the two weeks before summer term starts. I need to be rested and refreshed, because this summer term is bound to be intense. And its the homestretch. If I’m going to hit Summa Cum Laude, there’s no room for error in the next two months.
Also, I felt I should update you all, we found a house! We close June 14th, and move in the following weekend. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, but we couldn’t be more excited. Expect the blog to take an oddly HGTV spin during June and July as we paint and take on new DIY projects along with home-ownership.
But, on to the purpose of this post. I promised I’d share my paper on Eastern Street Slang, and I’m sorry it took so long to publish. I had to wait for grades to come back so I didn’t get dinged for plagiarizing myself. But, here it is, in its 6+ page glory.
If this isn’t of interest to you, I do want to mention that work is still ongoing with The Audient Void, and that I’ve updated my reading page. There should be a book review of The Magician King sometime soon.
Thanks, as usual, for reading and following. Enjoy my attempt at shedding an academic light on my fangirl obsessions.
Eastern Street Slang: the Life of an Invented Anti-Language
by Brittany Zelkovich
Language is an inescapable facet of human existence. It’s how we communicate with our friends, families, and coworkers. Language allows us to not only make sense of the world around us but to experience it, and then share those experiences with others. So it’s only logical that, in our efforts to explore and express the world and ourselves, that our art would include language.
Many works of fiction feature invented languages. “A number of authors have used constructed languages to give their stories depth and intellectually stimulating plot twists and to address mature themes,” (Boozer, 101). Some of these languages, such as Tolkien’s Elvish or the Klingon language from Star Trek, have become household names. Others aren’t quite as well known, such as the Elvhen spoken in the Dragon Age video game series. But all of them serve a purpose in their respective works, usually as a native language of some indigenous species. These languages, though invented, “are supposed to be real in their respective fictional contexts” (Peterson, 19). One fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, took a different path with his invented language. Instead of an indigenous language, he created an anti-language for characters of a socially and politically oppressed race in his Mistborn series, allowing them to speak without fear of being understood by their oppressors and, oftentimes, by the reader.
First, a definition of an anti-language must be established. Halliday defines an anti-language as a “language generated by some kind of anti-society.” He goes further to say that, just as normal languages do, anti-languages maintain the social structure of its speakers but, in the case of anti-languages, that social structure is “of a particular kind, in which certain elements are strongly foregrounded.” An effective anti-language is purposefully obtuse. It should be difficult, if not impossible to understand if you’re not a member of that particular anti-society. An anti-society is, according to Halliday, “a society that is set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it. It is a mode of resistance…” It’s this definition that is key in categorizing Sanderson’s Eastern Street Slang as an invented anti-language.
Just as in real life, the environment of the Mistborn series directly affects Sanderson’s language. The Skaa are a race of people who have been oppressed by the Imperial government into servitude and destitution for over one thousand years. The setting of the first novel, Mistborn: the Final Empire, is in the capitol city of Luthadel. Conditions are bad for Skaa there. Crumbling tenement housing, ash piled in the streets, and the constant fear that some noble might notice you are realities for the Skaa. But the conditions in Luthadel are considered much better than those in the Eastern half of the country. To Lestibournes, later known by his nickname Spook, the capitol is bursting with opportunities for a young Skaa thief. He joins the rest of the characters in their heist plans upon his arrival in Luthadel, only to find that no one understands his speech. “’You’re wanted,’ he said in a thick Eastern accent. ‘Ups in the where above with the doing. With Master Jumps to the third floor’” (Sanderson, Mistborn 109). These are Spook’s first words in the series, and just like the character they were spoken to, readers don’t have a clue what he said. With context, the reader understands that the main character is supposed to head up to the third floor, but that’s all the language reveals. Hopes that further exposure will clear things up are quickly dashed. In one scene multiple characters speak the anti-language to purposefully confound and mock a particularly pretentious member of their crew, and while the scene is humorous, the meaning of the words spoken is still difficult to discern:
Spook frowned. “Niceing the not on the playing without.”
“I have no idea what you just said child,” Breeze said. “So I’m simply going to pretend it was coherent, then move on.”
Kelsier rolled his eyes. “Losing the stress on the nip,” he said. “Notting without the needing of care.”
“Riding the rile of the rids to the right,” Spook said with a nod.
“What are you two babbling about?” Breeze said testily.
“Wasing the was of brightness,” Spook said. “Nip the having of wishing of this.”
“Ever wasing the doing of this,” Kelsier agreed. (Sanderson, Mistborn 397)
While, in this scene, the language is used for humor, it also lives up to Halliday’s definition. Spook speaks out against Breeze’s earlier implication that he used magic to get Spook to fetch him another glass of wine, and agreeing with the boy, Kelsier joins in to mock Breeze. But this is a small example of how Eastern Street Slang fits into the definition of an anti-language.
Later in the series, after Spook has become so much more than the crew’s errand boy, the reader finally learns more of his youth, and how he came to speak Eastern Street Slang in the first place. In one scene, between Spook and a love interest, the reader is shown that Spook still writes in the Slang, keeping his plans and thoughts private. “’It sounds like gibberish!’” She says to him, to which he replies, “’Wasing the how of wanting the doing’” (Sanderson, Hero of Ages 501). To translate, he says to her, ‘that’s how we wanted it’. He then goes on to reminisce on how it’d felt to speak the Slang, how it’d given him a “kind of power, being able to say things that only his friends could understand” (Sanderson, Hero of Ages 501). The very definition of an anti-language. But, just as in reality, life and language are not static, and so neither is Eastern Street Slang.
Sanderson’s Mistborn series moves beyond its original trilogy into a new series that takes place over three hundred years later in the same world. The events of the first trilogy have shaped the world considerably, and names and places have taken direct inspiration from the world’s history. There’s even a Lestibournes Square! So as the world changed and grew, Eastern Street Slang found a new purpose. And a new name:
‘Anyone here speak High Imperial?’
Waxillium shook his head.
‘Makes my head hurt,’ Wayne said.
‘I can read it, kind of,’ Marasi said. ‘Wasing the where of needing.’ (Sanderson, Alloy of Law 235)
What began as an incomprehensible anti-language spoken by a boy that was little more than a slave, has become a “lofty tongue” over three hundred years later, “used for old documents dating to the time of the Origin, and occasionally for government ceremony” (Sanderson, Alloy of Law 235). And even in its new uses, the language keeps it exclusivity and mystery, a nod to its anti-language roots. By creating a language that grows and develops with the world around it, Sanderson has added yet another layer of authenticity to his fiction.
As Don Boozer said, “authors have used imaginary languages to add a sense of realism to their work.” Authenticity is one reason why an author might choose to invent a language. Invented languages help to define and develop characters that readers might not have much experience with. Elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth are very foreign to human readers, with their frigid demeanor, long life spans, and ethereal beauty. If they spoke the same language as the rest of Middle Earth, it wouldn’t make much sense. In order to create a believable and consistent world, Tolkien’s Elves should speak their own language. And this is what authors have done time and again as they create and perfect invented languages, in order to “…suggest their speakers’ experience within and perspective on a fictional sense of reality” (Sims, 160). From Elvish to Klingon, Klingon to Dothraki, and Dothraki to Eastern Street Slang, these languages are created to solve “an artistic problem, not a linguistic one” (Okrent, 282). And though Eastern Street Slang has almost nothing in common with Elvish or Klingon, it very much exists to solve an artistic problem. Sanderson needed to show the level of oppression in the world of Mistborn and show the subculture that struggled to survive, not just in the streets of Luthadel, but in the rest of the country. By creating an anti-society, and by giving that anti-society its own language, Sanderson added layers of detail to his novels, expanding the consequences of the novel beyond the walls of one city, and even beyond the events of a single trilogy. It’s these sorts of details that convince readers to believe in the worlds they explore in fantasy fiction. So, while Eastern Street Slang plays a small role in the actual plot of the novels, it is crucial to the success of the books. And Sanderson worked hard to create it.
Breaking down Eastern Street Slang in an effort to translate it is a difficult task. Thankfully, fans have been hard at work at interpreting and learning High Imperial, long before the research for this paper ever began. There are a couple key tricks to learning High Imperial. First, the language is in reverse word order of English. For the purposes of this text, “word order refers to the order of elements in a phrase and a sentence” (Peterson, 148). English word order is subject-verb-object. Meaning that our sentences, at their simplest, look like this:
“I ran home.”
But, High Imperial has reverse word order. So, verb-subject-object. What makes it so confusing is that High Imperial will often leave the subject out of the sentence because it’s usually implied or already known between the speakers. And if the subject of the sentence is the speaker, it will never be stated in the speech. So, to follow the same example:
“Wasing the running of there.”
That’s just the word order. What really makes High Imperial so confusing is that all verbs in the anti-language are turned into gerunds, or –ing verbs, regardless of tense. The tense is established by the first word of the sentence, in this case “Wasing”. The reader and listener know that what the speaker is talking about happened in the past. Present tense would start “Ising” and future “Willing”, respectively. If this isn’t complicated enough, Sanderson has said that as long as these basics are in the right places in the sentence, the speaker can throw in random words, in pretty much any place, in order to further obfuscate the meaning. That’s why “the” and “of” seem to be sprinkled throughout every sentence; because they are. Most of the sentences in Sanderson’s novels, and those created and shared on the internet between fans are simple in their structure, but Eastern Street Slang has the potential to get very confusing the longer and more complex the sentences become. Which is perfect for a language that exists in order to be difficult to understand. The more information you have to share, the harder it is to do so.
While constructed languages in fantasy fiction are fairly common, constructed anti-languages are much less so. Aside from Sanderson’s High Imperial, Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat comes to mind. This language was used amongst his characters in the cult-classic A Clockwork Orange who are members of the teen subculture in the novel. Even this comparison doesn’t quite work, since the tone and genre of the works are completely different. By creating and implementing an anti-language in his fantasy fiction Sanderson broke new ground for the genre. He used the language to not only further develop the world and add authenticity to his setting and characters, but to increase the stakes for his characters and further hook the reader. By adding an anti-language to the Skaa he created an anti-society readers would root for. Without the use of Eastern Street Slang, the novels would have lacked that level of depth and authenticity that keeps readers hooked for over 1,800 pages, and even the outcome of the series would have been different without the exclusive nature of the language. To put it bluntly, Sanderson’s anti-language is crucial to the outcome of events in his fictional world, and critical to the satisfaction of his readers. To take a lesson from Spook, notting without the speaking of it.
Boozer, Don. “Speaking in Tongues: Literary Languages”. Library Journal. Sept 16, 2006, Vol. 131 Issue 15, pp.101. Apr 18, 2016.
Halliday, M.A.K. “Anti-Languages”. American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3. Sept 1976, pp 570-584. Apr 18, 2016.
Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. Spiegel & Grau. 2009.
Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention. Penguin Books. 2015.
Sanderson, Brandon. The Alloy of Law. Tor Books. New York, New York. 2011.
—. The Hero of Ages. Tor Books. New York, New York. 2008.
—. Mistborn: The Final Empire. Tor Books. New York, New York. 2006.
Sims, Harvey J. “From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages”. Mythlore. Spring-Summer 2012, vol. 30 Issue 3-4, pp.159, 10p. Apr 18, 2016.