Thursday, June 22, 2017

Language & Storytelling

Or, Why Authors Should Care About Conlangs

"Show, don't tell."

This is possibly the most oft repeated, best known bit of writing advice ever uttered. But what does it actually mean? Aside from the occasional illustration or diagram, writing is not a primarily visual medium. You are very restricted in what you can actually show. Typically, it breaks down into a metaphor for things like "give good description" and "let the reader make their own inferences"; i.e. "don't be straightforward and boring".

But there is one thing that you actually can literally show in writing, without resorting to illustrations or diagrams--one thing which nevertheless is fairly consistently ignored by most proponents of the "show, don't tell" mantra: The language itself. The language you are writing in, and the language your characters speak.

There is, however, another bit of advice which seems to preclude showing off the manipulation of language itself as a literary device in prose: that being that the language should be invisible. Ideally, the reader forgets that they are reading, becoming immersed in the story. And it turns out that things like accurately transcribed, realistic dialog, accurate phonetic representations of dialectal speech, and similar uses of showing language are super annoying and hard to read! But that does not mean that you can never show language at all--it just means that you have to be careful. When appropriate, doing so can be very powerful.

Showing and even calling attention to features of language itself is powerful because language is intimately tied up with personal and group identity. At the simplest level, this is why good characters have distinct voices; personal identity comes through in the sometime tiny idiolectal differences in how people use their language, making them identifiable even when you can't hear their literal voice. Being able to write distinct voices, different the authors own natural voice, such that the reader can tell who is speaking without the need of dialog tags is a relatively rare but extremely valuable skill, and it is all about literally showing rather than telling.

But, the significance of language to identity goes much deeper than that. Beyond individual voice, peoples' choice of style, dialect, and even what language to speak in often hinges on establishing, or refuting, membership in a group. This is a large part of the function of slang--using it to show that you're part of the "cool" crowd, watching who doesn't use it, or who uses it incorrectly to identify outsiders to your peer group, or even refusing to use it to distance yourself from that group.

One of the best examples I know of of using language to establish identity comes from the film Dances With Wolves. At one point our protagonist, John Dunbar, has been taken prisoner by the army he used to be a part of, and is being interrogated--in English, of course. Now, John is a native speaker of English, and he is clearly capable of answering in English. He could simply refuse to speak. He could say "I refuse to answer your questions", or any number of other things. But what he actually says is:


"Sugmanitutanka ob washte..."

(Followed by some additional words of Lakota which I have not been able to find transcribed.)

Through subtitles, the audience knows that he is telling his captors "My name is Dances with Wolves. I will not talk to you anymore. You are not worth talking to."

Now, imagine if he simply said that, in English. Would it have nearly the same emotional impact for the viewer? Would it have the same effect on the other characters? No, of course not! By his choice of language, John is communicating his changed sense of identity--that he now considers himself not an American soldier, but a Lakota.

In films and TV shows, if you are going to portray linguistic diversity at all, you basically have no choice but to, well, actually portray it. I.e., have the actors actually speak a different language! (Even in Star Trek, with the conceit of the universal translator in effect, they at least have the alien characters speak gibberish in those rare instances when the translator breaks.) The complexity of ensuring the audience remains engaged, and the extra costs involved, more often than not result in simply avoiding or ignoring issues of linguistic diversity, but if you're going to do it, you have to do it. And when the details of the story make it implausible or politically unwise to use a real human language, you get someone to make a conlang--hence Klingon, Na'v, Dothraki, etc.

Writers, on the other hand, have a cheat. You can always just write, "My name is Dances with Wolves," he said in Lakota, and never have to learn or invent a single word of another language, or figure out how to keep the reader engaged. The language remains invisible. But you have then committed the grave error of telling when you could have shown! Indeed, of telling in the one singular situation where literal showing is actually possible!

"But," you say, "then the reader won't understand what's going on!"

Well, for one thing, maybe that's the point. Sometimes, the narrator or viewpoint character won't understand what's being said, and the reader doesn't need to understand it either. There may be legitimate disagreement on this one, but consider: is it better to write something like:

She said something I couldn't understand, but seemed to be in distress.

or something like

She said something like "Pomogitye! Moya sobaka gorit!", which of course I didn't understand a word of, but I could tell by her tone she was distressed.

Personally, I'm inclined to go with option 2. And if the reader is supposed to understand what's going on? As a writer, you have it so much easier than the film makers! They have to resort to subtitles, which distract the viewer from the scene. But your readers are already reading! Sticking in a subtitle costs you nothing!

"Sugmanitutanka ob washte..." John said. My name is Dances with Wolves.

And you don't need to be J.R.R. Tolkien to do a good job with a conlang in a story. In fact, while Tolkien was a fantastic conlanger and worldbuilder, and while I may be metaphorically burned at the stake for daring to say this... Tolkien wasn't really the best at integrating different languages into his stories. Dropping in a page of non-English poetry every once in a while, while exciting for language nerds like me, generally results in readers just skimming over that page, even when the reader is a language nerd like me.

So, writers: consider the languages your characters use. Consider actually showing them. And, if appropriate, consider a conlang. If you're not up to conlanging or translating yourself, help is easy to find.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Stochastic Democracy

Or, a method for the fair and equitable distribution of political power.

Much thought has been given to methods of ensuring fair and accurate representation in a representative democracy. Ideally, if, for example, 40% of the population supports one party and 60% of the population, then 40% of the representatives in any given governing body should be from the first party and 60% from the second (or at least, 40% and 60% of the votes should come from each party, if we relax the assumption that one rep gets one vote), within the limits of rounding errors introduced by having a small finite number of representatives.

Let us assume, however, that you have instituted a perfect system of ranked-choice voting (or something similar) and a perfect and unbiased system for drawing districts from which representatives will be selected, so that you always have such perfect representation. Or, presume that you have a perfect direct democracy, so issues of proportional representation never come up in the first place. At that point, there is still another problem to be solved: the tyranny of the majority.

The trouble is that what we really want is not proportionate representation at all; it is proportionate distribution of power. Representation is merely a poor, but easier to measure, approximation for power. And in a perfect representative government where 60% of the constituency supports one party, and 60% of the governing votes are controlled by that party, they do not have 60% of the power- they have all of it, presuming you go with a simple majority voting scheme to pass legislation. If you require some larger plurality, however, the problem still does not go away; supermajority voting requirements simply mean that it takes a larger majority to become tyrannical, and in the meantime you have a roadblock: the minority party may not be able to pass anything, but it can keep the other side from passing anything either! Nobody getting anything done may be an equitable distribution of power, but only because any percentage of 0 is still 0.

It would be better if we could somehow guarantee that a 60% majority party would get what they want 60% of the time when in conflict with the minority, and a 40% minority would get what they want 40% of the time when in conflict with the majority. It turns out that there is a remarkably simple way to guarantee this result!

Rather than allowing the passing of legislation to be decided by a purely deterministic process, we introduce an element of randomness. When any issue is voted upon, the action to be taken should not be determined simply by whichever side gets the most votes; rather, the result of a poll is a random selection from a distribution of options, weighted by the number of votes cast for each one. If all representatives always vote strictly along party lines, then over a large number of votes on issues over which the two parties disagree, 60% will be decided in favor of the majority party, and 40% in favor of the minority party- but with no way to predict ahead of time which 60 or 40% they will be, such that it is impossible to game the system by strategically timing the introduction of certain bills.

Even if we imagine a more extreme split, like 90% vs. 10%, it is still impossible under this system for the majority to run away with tyrannical measures that harm the minority for very long. Should they try, it incentivizes the minority party to introduce ever more extreme countermeasure proposals more and more frequently, one of which is guaranteed to eventually pass! The majority party therefore has its own incentive to attempt to build consensus even with small minority factions, creating legislation that will benefit everyone.


Of course, it seems highly unlikely that any country could be convinced to run their government this way in real life! But, there are I think two good reasons for considering the idea. First, this could make for an interesting political backdrop in a sci-fi or fantasy story; perhaps your fantasy society finds the inclusion of randomness in their political process to be a religious imperative, as it is through the interpretation of random events that the will of the gods is revealed. Second, it highlights to mostly-overlooked but very important distinction between equitable representation, and equitable distribution of power. Hopefully, having looked a this simple solution to the problem will help someone to discover another, perhaps more practically tenable, one.