Tag Archives: linguistics

Guest Post at Penumbra: Linguistic Worldbuilding

Just a quick note for those who may be interested: I wrote a guest post over at Penumbra’s blog this week. It’s an overview on the topic of linguistic worldbuilding. I wrote it as an introduction for writers who perhaps haven’t given this much thought in the past.

I originally wrote a much more technical version getting into some more interesting and detailed linguistic aspects, but I think I’ll save that for another post. 🙂

Anatomy of a Sentence: Countingducks

Anatomy of a human being
Put on your gloves and goggles: we’re going in! (Photo credit: PureBlackLove)

Anatomy: A Greek word meaning, “Cut ’em up!” In the spirit of this delightful medical word, I am happy to introduce a new feature on my blog: Anatomy of a Sentence. From time to time I will showcase beautiful writing I run across in books, podcasts, and around the blogosphere.

Why am I doing this, you ask?

Because I want to become a better writer, and I believe dissecting lovely sentences to see what makes them tick will help me become a more thoughtful wordsmith in my own right.

I also think these fine writers deserve to be noticed and appreciated. Given that, I will be using this feature as an excuse to read more of your blogs. If you’ve posted a piece of fiction on your blog that you’re particularly proud of, don’t hesitate to leave me a link so I can enjoy it and consider featuring a sentence from it in the future. (If you are shy, you can email me a link directly using the form on my “About” page).

Today we’re looking at a sentence from a favorite blogger of mine, Countingducks. It comes from a piece of flash fiction entitled, “A Flight of Fancy Beyond the Normal:”

One of those delicate messages from the stomach department, brought to my attention from some new bod in Tastbuds, informed me that a small snack involving a couple of sausages with a polite egg or two, a hint of beans, one or two mushrooms with a small supply of toast might just avert a full-blown attack of Hunger Pangs: the worst affliction known to sedentary man.

I love this sentence for many reasons. Firstly, I love the personification of the taste bud as a polite worker, the new guy who’s been tasked with the unfortunate job of informing the boss of an impending disaster. There’s a sense of hesitance to to voice. I can practically hear the polite little cough before he launches into the full catalogue of the “small” snack. It’s an example of a masterfully executed extended metaphor.

Which brings me to my second observation. This sentence makes fine use of escalation. Starting with the “small snack”, the list gets comically longer and longer until it’s clear that the snack’s anything but minuscule. And to cap off the hilarity, the “delicate” message which begins the sentence ends on a crescendo of melodrama when these Hunger Pangs are described as the “worst affliction known to man.” It’s a double-whammy of escalation that adds layers of drama to the situation.

Masterful! Hilarious! This kind of thing brings me surging to my feet in applause.

And now to the dissecting table for a closer look at the guts:

Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!
Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!

Oh boy, diagramming this one was a headache. The subordinate clauses! The detailed little prepositional phrases! Once you cut into this sentence, the organs just spill out all over the place. You can see the unsightly scribbling where I dropped my watch inside the patient and had to dig around to find it.

But take a moment to admire the complexity of this organism that Countingducks has bestowed upon us.

At its heart, the sentence says something like this: “One informed me that a snack might avert an attack of hunger pangs.” In the diagram, you can see how for Countingducks, this basic sentence serves as a skeleton on which to hang layer upon layer of detail. I think it succeeds for the reasons I pointed out before: a sense of escalation that does more to communicate the urgency of food cravings than the basic statement would do on its own.

For me, “escalation” is the big takeaway lesson. I resolve to keep this device in mind as I’m writing this week and see if I can’t bring a little of this brilliance into my own fiction. Perhaps you’ll give it a shot as well. Experiment with adding a sense of drama (or melodrama) using this technique. And hop on over to Countingducks’s blog to read this story in full – it’s delightful!

Medical Microfiction: Labiodental

Greeting Frenzy

Fidgeting with my blue vest, I stood at the entrance to ColossoMart, hoping to make a good impression.

“Relax, kid,” said Denny, my supervisor. “We’re greeters, not accountants. Smile.”

He flashed his pearly whites at a passing customer. I caught the eye of a blonde woman with her kid. Following Denny’s example, I gave her my widest grin.

Her eyes widened. She clutched her son’s hand and hurried past.

“Well done! I knew you’d have the knack for Loss Prevention.”

I beamed. They usually stick Sharkmen behind computers or phones, but I’m a people person. I love my new job.


Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy poster.

Labiodental means “pertaining to the lips and teeth”. It’s most often used in the field of linguistics to describe sounds produced using the upper teeth in conjunction with the lower lip. Confused? Make the “f” sound. Really drag it out: ffffffffff. You should be able to feel how your upper teeth bite down on your lower lip to make it happen.

The full technical name for this “f” sound is a voiceless labiodental fricative. “Voiceless” because your vocal cords don’t activate while producing the sound, “labiodental” for the position of your mouth, and “fricative” because it’s produced by constricting air flow through your mouth. To give you a comparison, the “v” sound in English is a voiced labiodental fricative. It’s exactly the same as the “f” sound, except you make noise with your vocal cords while doing everything else the same.

Imagine my confusion when I started learning German and discovered that German spelling rules often reverse the “f” and the “v” sounds! Because in the world of linguistics, nothing’s ever simple.

Today’s story has a labiodental theme as well. I think a shark’s smile well-describes this word! I also think that employing a Sharkman as a greeter would more than take care of any potential theft problems in the store. For people like me, greeters like these might even attract my business. Talk about customer service!

Would you be more or less likely to shop at a store staffed by Sharkmen?