Speaking of English

Or, what language is actually spoken by Bennet and Flynn?

Taking Shield is set 10,000 years into the future. Not our future, because we Earthlings don’t have one in that universe—Earth’s been dark for every one of those years, and Shield is the story of the far descendants of the few humans who got away from the destruction.

So, really, none of the characters is speaking English. Certainly not English as we know it. Language changes so fast the Oxford English Dictionary barely has time to keep up with it. New words are coined and described (‘hangry’ finally made it into the dictionary), old ones fall out of use (well, how often do you use ‘mammothrept’?) or change/add to their meaning (‘text’ as a verb).

Think about Chaucer. Take a few lines from the Canterbury Tales, written just before 1400:

If that me liste speke of ribaudye.
But ik am oold, me list no pley for age,
Gras-tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage,
This white top writeth myne olde yeris,
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers, –
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers,
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree.

Clear as mud. One or two words can be parsed out, but the overall meaning is difficult to grasp. And that’s commonly spoken and written English from 600 years ago. Now multiply that time span by 16, and you get a better feel for the distance between our English and the language spoken by Bennet and Flynn.

Language is never, ever still. It evolves faster than the flu virus.

I did think about trying to reflect some of this in the terminology and language used by my characters. I could, perhaps, use some new term for ‘lightyear’ or for time and distance. Have them drink masf rather than tea (oh, the horror of that thought when you’re a Brit! I rather think we have tea in our veins, not blood), or eat some odd non-Earth food for which they’d created a name (“Have some mashed gazzle, Bennet.”). And, as long as the reader can work out from the context that gazzle taste delish, especially when washed down with a cup of iced masf, then I suppose there can be some benefits in terms of world building, a touch more authenticity. At the least, you’re ramming home the idea that this isn’t Earth and these aren’t Earthmen.

But in the end, I decided against it. I thought that while it might be fun to invent a language, there are good reasons for not indulging myself. I didn’t feel it was absolutely essential for world building, and we could all pretend that we’re reading a translation of Bennet and Flynn’s story from whatever language they speak into good old contemporary English. That at least avoids confusing readers who might otherwise stare blankly at the host of incomprehensible words on their e-reader screen. Would I really want them to sit there wondering if it’s ‘gazz-lee’ or ‘ga-zlee’ or something that rhymes with ‘dazzle’? I’d have to provide author notes such as “Spelt ‘gazzle’, pronounced ‘criffle’ krɪf(ə)l/”. And let’s be honest, the invented words can often look plain daft, full of insane letter combinations and horribly abused apostrophes: “Pass me the kgj,rm, please. Not that one. The n’frt’wwu one with the blue tr’ouds.”

Maybe I took the easy way out, I don’t know. But I decided to use minutes, hours, days, months and years when it came to time, and when it came to distances, then miles (because I’m a Brit and we have no truck with kilometres), lightyears and parsecs. That doesn’t mean the absolute values of these terms are the same as Earth’s, although ‘lightyear’ will still mean the distance travelled by light in a calendar year. It’s just a different calendar year. So…

  • Albion has a normal year of 412 days—10 months of 40 days each divided into 4 ten-day weeks, plus an extra (and extra-long) week at the end of each year, Yule week, to absorb the outstanding 12 days.
  • Each day has 25 hours, each hour has 100 minutes. But those minutes, hours, days are not the same as Earth’s. Each Albion day of 25 hours is equivalent to around 29 Earth hours, 35 minutes. So each Albion minute = 42.6 Earth seconds.
  • Albion’s actual rotation is 412 and some 8 hours so in every third year, Yule week is 13 days long, with an extra day to compensate and to align the calendar with the sun’s apparent position, pretty much like our leap years. Albion’s leap day is actually a few extra minutes longer than normal, for real accuracy, but I don’t trouble my head about that level of detail.


So now you know what Bennet and Flynn mean when they talk about minutes and hours, etc.

And, of course, they drink something called ‘tea’.