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The Australian National University

Seminar // Prof Jane Simpson, March 14


Tuesday, 14 March 2017 - 4:30pm - 5:45pm


Seminar Room 1, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Professor Jane Simpson, Australian National University
Image: 'The Mermaid.' Hans Anderson. (Illus.) Stories from Hans Andersen. Hodder and Stoughton. <>.

Constrained Creativity: Towards a Natural History of Language in Fantasy Novels

Tuesday 14 March 2017, 4.30 – 5.45pm

Seminar Room 1, Sir Roland Wilson Building, ANU



Any fiction writer creates an alternate world, but in some genres, the alternate world is intended to be different from the novelist’s own society. This is most noticeable in science fiction, historical novels, fantasy novels, steampunk, and novels set in non-English speaking countries. Creating a believable alternate world involves paying attention to the languages spoken by the characters, and the place of languages in the world.  The characters may speak different languages from each other and from the readers (‘alternate world languages’, AWLs, a type of ‘conlang’), but this must be represented through the language of the readers (the conceit of translation).  Within this limitation, writers have some freedom to use words, phrases and sentences that readers won’t know, whether invented, archaic or from another language.  These have communicative, symbolic and aesthetic functions. 

Can we use the fragments of invented languages in novels as evidence of anything of interest to linguists?  I suggest that the answer is a qualified 'yes', based on a survey of 50 novels, with more detailed study of three novels, along with consideration of parodies of fantasy novels, and discussion of reception, and comparisons with Peter Carey's "Ned Kelly" and Dylan Coleman's "Amazing Grace."

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Jane Simpson is Chair of Indigenous Linguistics and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University. Her first degree was at ANU in Middle English literature and Chinese. Then she moved to linguistics, graduating in 1983 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a PhD. She works on structural and social aspects of traditional and new Australian Indigenous languages.  This includes word-meanings and dictionary-making, and has led to an interest in linguistic creativity, fuelled by a long-held addiction to fantasy literature.


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