Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

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CommandanteLemming
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Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by CommandanteLemming » Wed 13 Apr 2016, 16:20

Hello everyone - I'm probably going to ask some stupid questions but I guess one has to start somewhere, right?

I'm in the process of writing a near-future novel set in the 2030s. I've tried to be really careful with my extrapolation of future political history and culture, but I've found myself consistently unsatisfied with my ability to deal with linguistic evolution and slang. My educational background is in Global Politics (in process of going back to grad school, oy....), and I work around a lot of foreign policy geeks in Washington. So, I know my way around the historical/political/demographic angles, and I know enough to know that all of those things affect linguistics, but actually building workable slang vocabularies has been a bit vexing.

Hence, I figured I'd interface with some people who know more about linguistics than me in order to beef up this aspect for my revisions.

I'll try not to bore you with details, as I'm mostly interested in people's thoughts on how slang develops within a language over short periods - rather than the bigger conlang question of how languages themselves evolve. But here are the three basic things I'm trying to deal with.

1. How to build a slang vocabulary for my 2030s youth culture - who are basically a bunch of rich kids who reject a lot of techiness in favor of a "more analog" early-1960s aesthetic. I usually refer to these people as "Brills" in-text (a reference New York's Brill Building and it's role in 1960s girl group culture), and so far "Brill-Speak" has tended to include the heavy use of the word "Brill" as a variant of "cool/awesome/etc." - along with some slang terms based on classic cars ("that was so torqued!") and some drug culture references (getting high is "pinking out", psychadelic drugs are referenced as "dooley", another girl-group reference). But I'd like to build it out a bit more and make it feel more natural.

2. I realized that my adult characters who DON'T use Brill-speak came of age in the 2020s but speak like Millenials, which is a problem, so I'm trying to figure out if they should have internal slang terms based in their own time (I've portrayed the 2020s as a time where the culture was dominated by internet and hacker themes - dissonant heavy metal, shiny and/or glowing clothes, test patterns and Blue-screen-of-death as major aesthetics - all the stuff the Brill culture rejects).

3. I'm really interested in the evolution of uptalk and then the later addition of vocal fry in youth culture - and I'm trying to think of something else I can stack on top of that in the way people talk.

So, thats me....thoughts? (Help!)
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by Salmoneus » Wed 13 Apr 2016, 22:12

I guess I'd make three points...

First, if the gimmick is that they're imitating the sixties, why not just have their slang be sixties slang, with perhaps a few later additions?

Second... well, 2030 is only 14 years from now. That's not much time at all. Can anyone really say that they can tell the difference between the way people speak in 2016 and the way they spoke in 2002? Or even 1992? Unless the 'people' in question are cliquey teenagers or pop stars, and the 'speaking' in question is when trying to impress girls or intimidate people, then no, you just can't tell.

Third: don't overestimate the importance of slang. Slang in the sense of dialect is very important, but slang in the sense of the hip, rad argot of up-to-the-minute fashion... not so much. It tends to be avoided in many contexts, and even outside of those contexts it's often only one or two expressions that are regularly used - and that can be enough to give a sense of otherness to the speech.

For instance, I recently read Babbitt, a novel from the early 20s that attempts to document (in exaggerated fashion) the society of the day, including its language. To a modern reader, it's both quaint and bizarre. But the only nigh-unfathomable bits are the pieces in the style of contemporary advertising* - which tend to pack themselves to the brim with fashionable language, which trimming down all the excess words that might actually make it comprehensible. Throughout the rest of the novel, the impression of contemporary speech is given with relatively few slang terms - punk, slick, gee whizz (which only occurs once), fourflushing, gas, swell, hustle, zip, zow, whaleuva etc. [actually, it conveys two slangs - the older generation, where people exclaim "rats!" and the younger generation where people exclaim "punk!" - ironically, it's the younger generation who seem more hilariously old-fashioned now, with the "gee whillikins!" and "my good woman!" and calling a car "the old boat" and so on...]

Mostly you'll only find plenty of slang in the areas of transgressive behaviour (sex, drugs, etc), insults [from <i>Babbitt</i>: 'high-binder', 'plute', 'fourflusher'], swear words and the like (Babbitt uses 'blame' as an adjective) and approval and disapproval (from the casual 'swell!' to the elaborate 'I guess that takes the fire-brick necklace!', and on the other side "hunka! not any!"). Also money (Babbitt uses 'bones', for instance, presumably for dollars, and bones are dragged down (earned) by pulling (making sales)). You can also include some more widespread ways of forming things: Babbitt uses the prefix 'he-' to indicate quality and authenticity, and the odd construction "maybe I X" to mean "I don't X" (and "maybe I don't X" to mean "I do X" - so 'maybe I don't want a love-nest with a dandy shade tree' = 'I would like a comfortable family home with a tree in the garden'). A short story I was recently reading did a good job of conveying an archaic feel just by using the occasional expression like "well and so" and "see you" (in the sense of 'you hear?')

Oh, and technological items often have slang, or at least jargon. So Babbitt sells houses with handy car lines for their flivvers. And trades and specialised subjects will have their own jargon, of course.

But the general thing is: you don't need a lot of slang, because people don't use it as much as we think they do. And going back to the second point - that's particularly true when the book's set only a blink of an eye into the future.



I suppose a fourth thing: you have a strange sense, relative to my experience of "internet themes" if you think that equates to 'glowing clothes' and 'heavy metal', and having test patterns and BSODs in the 2020s would be kind of like an internet geek in the 2000s talking about valves...

[your use of 'brill' for sixties culture surprises me - I've always thought of 'brill' as a word of the seventies or even eighties; indeed, people still use it unironically, though I mostly think of it as a word of my parent's generation rather than mine]



*People in the novel marvel over the poetry of this advert:
It's P.A. that jams such joy in jimmy pipes. Say - bet you've often bent-an-ear to that spill-of-speech about hopping from five to f-i-f-t-y p-e-r by "stepping on her a bit!" Guess that's going some, all right - BUT - just among ourselves, you better start a rapidwhiz system to keep tabs as to how fast you'll buzz from low smoke spirits to tip-top-high - once you line up behind a jimmy pipe that's all aglow with that peach-of-a-pal, Prince Albert.

Prince Albert is john-on-the-job - always joy'usly more-ish in flavor; always delightfully cool and fragrant! For a fact, you never hooked such double-decked, copper-riveted, two-fisted smoke enjoyment!

Go to a pipe - speed-o-quick like you light on a good thing! Why - packed with Prince Albert you can play a joy'us jimmy straight across the boards! And you know what that means!

....but people didn't actually speak like that day-to-day...
Last edited by Salmoneus on Wed 13 Apr 2016, 22:36, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by CommandanteLemming » Wed 13 Apr 2016, 22:34

Thanks! That's actually somewhat comforting. Although in my case I do have cliquey college kids, pop-stars, and pseudo-hipster Brill-bars. So those are where I'm most conscious of it.

I may go back and look at the term "Brill" - it's not a term I'd ever heard used for anything at any point in history when I started using it. But I've had at least one other person call me on it as a potential piece of British 1980s slang (which as an American I'm totally unfamiliar with). In my case it's a reference to the Brill Building in New York where a lot of record companies were headquartered and the so-called "Brill Building Sound" that dominated American radio right before the arrival of the Beatles changed everything - and in my case by a future music group called The Brilltones that brought the sound back and accidentally hit a nerve in the culture. But will look at that. I've thought about incorporating a lot of 1950s-early 60s terminology but corrupting and repurposing words.

And the 2020s are underdeveloped so they're going to get more attention as a "historical period" as I work forward - mostly right now I have them set up as as pseudo 1980s period dominated by tech-themes and bright colors, as a foil the Brill culture that followed it. But yes, I'll try to remove anachronisms there - so thanks for pointing that out.

The other thing I keep wondering regarding slang is how carefully I need to police my use of current slang - for instance if the characters describe something cool as "sick" or "epic" - both of which are pretty recent lingo. Is there any sort of established half-life on terms like that? I know I wasn't saying "epic" ten years ago, and I would be hopelessly anachronistic today if I described something as "rad".
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by Salmoneus » Wed 13 Apr 2016, 23:24

CommandanteLemming wrote: The other thing I keep wondering regarding slang is how carefully I need to police my use of current slang - for instance if the characters describe something cool as "sick" or "epic" - both of which are pretty recent lingo. Is there any sort of established half-life on terms like that? I know I wasn't saying "epic" ten years ago, and I would be hopelessly anachronistic today if I described something as "rad".
I think it's very variable. I suspect that 'sick' won't last and 'epic' will, just because 'epic' just means 'epic' and has meant that for a long time - it's just picking on a certain word and using it more, rather than inventing a whole new meaning as with 'sick'. Then again, it's not a surprising meaning - that sort of inversion is common.

But yeah, variable. I'd never hear anyone say 'rad' except ironically, and likewise the beloved 'mega' of my childhood. But 'wicked' has never gone away, and has even had a bit of a resurgence.

However, since you're writing fiction rather than science: be wary! Even when slang terms don't date, people often feel that they do and dislike them as a result. You even get this with historical/fantasy fiction: people complain that certain terms are anachronistic slang that spoils the suspension of disbelief... even when those terms have actually been in use for centuries. People tend to be defensive and ashamed of overt indicators of their own time (unless you're overtly celebrating the time ironically), so even if people might still say 'sick' twenty years from now, your audience probably won't believe that they will...
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by CommandanteLemming » Wed 13 Apr 2016, 23:50

Salmoneus wrote:
CommandanteLemming wrote: However, since you're writing fiction rather than science: be wary! Even when slang terms don't date, people often feel that they do and dislike them as a result. You even get this with historical/fantasy fiction: people complain that certain terms are anachronistic slang that spoils the suspension of disbelief... even when those terms have actually been in use for centuries. People tend to be defensive and ashamed of overt indicators of their own time (unless you're overtly celebrating the time ironically), so even if people might still say 'sick' twenty years from now, your audience probably won't believe that they will...
Haha don't get me going. Everything I don't change causes at least one reader to label me "unrealistic"

So far the following things have been declared "unrealistic" for 20 years from now:

- Describing a 77 year old man as "wizened" (old will still be old)
- Lack of female cardinals at a conclave electing a new pope (the Catholic Church does not change that fast)
- The existence of television screens that aren't integrated into walls (can you imagine not being able to remove a TV from a wall?)

But I digress [:P]
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by cntrational » Thu 14 Apr 2016, 03:28

sick is already dated/humorous for me, while epic is current, although rarer today than when I was younger
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by Keenir » Fri 15 Apr 2016, 23:26

CommandanteLemming wrote:Haha don't get me going. Everything I don't change causes at least one reader to label me "unrealistic"

So far the following things have been declared "unrealistic" for 20 years from now:

- Lack of female cardinals at a conclave electing a new pope (the Catholic Church does not change that fast)
it changes as fast as it changes.

Cardinals are appointed by the Pope. get another one like the current Pope, or another John Paul II, and there will likely be women Cardinals.
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Re: Sci-Fi Writer Struggling with Slang Extrapolation

Post by qwed117 » Sat 16 Apr 2016, 03:07

Salmoneus wrote:
CommandanteLemming wrote: The other thing I keep wondering regarding slang is how carefully I need to police my use of current slang - for instance if the characters describe something cool as "sick" or "epic" - both of which are pretty recent lingo. Is there any sort of established half-life on terms like that? I know I wasn't saying "epic" ten years ago, and I would be hopelessly anachronistic today if I described something as "rad".
I think it's very variable. I suspect that 'sick' won't last and 'epic' will, just because 'epic' just means 'epic' and has meant that for a long time - it's just picking on a certain word and using it more, rather than inventing a whole new meaning as with 'sick'. Then again, it's not a surprising meaning - that sort of inversion is common.

But yeah, variable. I'd never hear anyone say 'rad' except ironically, and likewise the beloved 'mega' of my childhood. But 'wicked' has never gone away, and has even had a bit of a resurgence.

However, since you're writing fiction rather than science: be wary! Even when slang terms don't date, people often feel that they do and dislike them as a result. You even get this with historical/fantasy fiction: people complain that certain terms are anachronistic slang that spoils the suspension of disbelief... even when those terms have actually been in use for centuries. People tend to be defensive and ashamed of overt indicators of their own time (unless you're overtly celebrating the time ironically), so even if people might still say 'sick' twenty years from now, your audience probably won't believe that they will...
One way to decide on slang and idiomatic language is to decide on what they do for fun. For example, if they play virtual reality games a lot, a "fickle" person may be called "one hand in the game, the other in the world". Slang I find is most often used in a negative sense, to insult others. There are two ways that I have seen them created: distorting prior words and removing meaning.
Distorting would be stuff like "noob" coming from newbie and new boy or pwned coming from owned.
Removing meaning would be like "cancer" (meaning a negative environment) or "scrub" (coming from the actual action, which was used to describe a newb who played by slamming all the keys and "scrubbing" the controller)
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