In the modern world, english is a well-estabilished technical and scientific language. Some terms have become so commonly used that they are accepted in my native tongue (words like "computer", "PC", "network" being examples).

I'm currently writing a science fiction novel in my native language. I deal a lot with themes like networking, artificial intelligence, computing and so on in the novel.

So, when the time comes to create make up words for very specific technologies (let's say, nanomachines), it feels normal to use english-looking words (in the example, nano-mechs).

Considering the science fiction setting, is this acceptable or alienating?

  • How hard science fiction are you aiming for? What point of view is your story written from? – a CVn Apr 16 at 10:57
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    @aCVn It's borderlining space opera. The PoV is a third person limited. – Liquid Apr 16 at 12:29
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    I was in a similar position when I started writing my space opera in German. I decided to go with German terminology (Überlichtgeschwindigkeitsantrieb instead of faster than light drive and such), because, while the English terms are normal for me since I read pretty much only English books, the terms do have German equivalents which are usually preferred in "normal" conversation. Whether my decision was right or wrong I can't say, but it feels better to stick to the language, even if it's sometimes difficult to find an equivalent German word for an English term. – Morfildur Apr 16 at 13:37
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    Playing with neologisms opens entire new dimension for your story. By making up words in your native language, you can significantly change the feel of technology of your story. My all time favourite author makes extensive use of neologisms, in satirical works to make silly compound words, in fairy tales in sci-fi setting to give archaic feel, and in serious works, just to make everything feel more natural than series of loanwords would be. – M i ech Apr 19 at 12:35
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    @Liquid I'll try (with cross-language examples, along with my take on some terms and words), but later today. – M i ech Apr 19 at 13:06

Seems totally fine to me. However, what really matters is your actual audience. This sounds like a case where maybe the best approach is to go ahead, write what seems best to you, without worrying too much about it--but then seek the responses of a sufficient number of representative beta readers. Even if you could very convincingly argue what the "right" approach is, what would it matter if the result sounded bad to the ears of your intended audience? (I remember this issue being discussed in the writing excuses podcast; if you search for "beta readers" you'll probably find several useful episodes.)


I think it is important to write what your intended readers will easily understand. If you are a native speaker and inclined toward English-sounding words; they are probably inclined to understand that perfectly, so go ahead.

Otherwise, using your native language, you create a cognitive dissonance; namely how did YOUR language come to be the one used for such a technology, when everywhere in the world, English is the default language for technology, for academic papers, for engineering, etc.

Use what will probably be used; and if you don't, write a brief explanation for how some other language came to be used.

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    English is not "the default language for technology everywhere in the world". Many languages have a technology- and engineering-related vocabulary that does not borrow from English much, even if (like the OP's language) they do use some English words. – KWeiss Apr 17 at 12:27
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    This is flat out wrong in it's anglocentrism. Cursory look at history of English language reveals that until mid XX century English was borrowing widely. English doesn't have own term for mathematical concept of "Eigenvalue", using German derived word instead. In early XX century, it was common to say "Gedankenexperiment" instead of "Thought experiment". Most languages either have own terms for most concepts or there's common Greek/Latin/Arabic-derived term. – M i ech Apr 20 at 7:13
  • @Miech It is not flat out wrong; however, I agree with you that English borrows truckloads of words from all kinds of languages, often modifying the sound to be easier for native English speakers to pronounce. (e.g. Germans still say "Einshtein", most people say "Einstein".) That is WHY English has become in the modern world the default language for science, it incorporates words for concepts that come from wherever. See babbel.com/en/magazine/…, by total number of world speakers, the ranking is English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French. – Amadeus Apr 20 at 11:32

Is your novel set in future?

Generally speaking, yes. It is both reasonable and safe to assume that English will continue to serve as a primary language of scientific and engineering community. Thus, most new terms would be based on English.

Even though this may turn out to be false, selecting a different language is a controversial decision. For example, you may supplant English by Mandarin Chinese, but that would make your novel to stand out. While it may be received well in China, international success would be harder to achieve.

Supplanting English with your native language may also depend on how books are usually translated. It is easier if translators to your language have a tradition of replacing English terms with local equivalents, and harder if the tradition is to keep those terms verbatim.

  • I see your point. To clarify, it's a future so distant that "current" languages would be changed to the point of being difficult to recognize. – Liquid Apr 16 at 19:17
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    The "scientific and engineering community" speaks many different languages. Biology uses a lot of Latin, chemistry uses a lot of German and other sciences have their own historic language connections. In the end, books are a "translation" of the story into contemporary language from the language of the protagonist(s), who might live thousands of years in the future or past and speak completely different languages. – Morfildur Apr 18 at 6:44
  • @Morfildur Yes, I guess I was too broad with my "scientific and engineering community". In our case, the "translation" that you mentioned is the big question. Would the book look better with or without this "translation"? Imagine a book about future biologists (written in English). Would you expect them to give new species names in English, or Latin? – Alexander Apr 18 at 16:24

Genre doesn't really matter. What matters are the setting, the characters, and the audience.

Do the people in your setting generally use English terms? If so why? Is this explained in the story? Does this vary based on the specific term?

Do some of the characters specifically use lots of English terminology? If so why? Is this explained in the story? Does this vary based on the specific term?

Is the English terminology used comprehensible to your target audience? Can you make it comprehensible with a simple explanation? Does it fit your language or does it feel awkward in use? Is their a more convenient "native" expression?

Timing also matters. Usually people first use the loan word, then a more native variant develops in use and finally an native translation is develop. Sometimes the Anglicized version persists, sometimes people shift to using the native word, usually this is based on how comfortable the words are to use. There is a natural evolution process to languages.

This also depends on how commonly the terms are used. Words used only by specific profession or interest group may never get a real native translation. People fluent in English who actually have to use English may use actual English word. People who generally use their native language develop and use an Anglicized word that is more convenient to use.

Terms with very specific meanings might not be translated as the word actually functions like a proper noun. Older scientific terms are full of Latin, Greek, or German. Nowadays scientists like using names that are formed by combining names with a common term. Like "Planck constant". The reason for this is that when you have a term with very specific meaning, the last thing you want is to introduce ambiguity in translation. You need people with different native languages to recognize they are talking about the same specific thing.


Before we begin, I'm terribly sorry that this post is massively incoherent, badly formatted and error-ridden, It's very late. I'll try to fix it somewhere next week. You can reasonably skip to "Summary/TLDR" at the end.

My take on this topic is heavily influenced by Polish sci-fi writer going by name Stanisław Lem.

Let me quote what wiki says about, what I consider, the most distinctive feature of his writing style:

Translating his works is difficult due to passages with elaborate word formation, idiomatic wordplay, alien or robotic poetry, and puns.

I do not know initial reasons for his reliance on word formation. Deliberate stylistic choice? Mockery of neologisms permeating communist rhetoric? Times before "invasion" of "standard anglophile sci-fi language", as I would refer to standard modern sci-fi loanwords, which loanwords tend to, in my opinion, constrict and railroad vocabulary, stories and even way of thinking about themes. Being on eastern side of Iron Curtain, would be strong indicator of two latter possibilities, any audience was much more likely to have Russian than English as second language, as well as likely to be familiar with communist rhetoric and their neologisms. However, Lem kept his style throughout entire writing career, and despite his familiarity with western sci-fi, suggesting that it was a deliberate stylistic choice.

Now, before I mention my actual opinion on use of loanwords versus made up words or translations, let me give some examples how Lem used made up words to create new and different meanings.


In his satiric, comedic and parodic works, like "Star Diaries", word creation is used to create absurd or mocking terms. Take "próżniaż" as an example, to native speaker, it's an obvious combination of "próżnia"-"vacuum", "próżniak"-"layabout" and suffix denoting occupation, creating mocking, yet instantly recognisable in context of space travel, name for astronaut or cosmonaut. "Tubylec" means "native" or "local inhabitant", literally "someone being/living here (implying that you, the speaker is alien in this place)", leading to obvious neologism of "tambylec" for "someone who lives there (not where you are right now)" or Lem's "tuziemiec"-"someone living on this earth/planet (where you are even more alien - from another planet, making observation that aliens might call their homeworld some equivalent of Earth)". Those constructed words have benefit of being new, fresh, creative, instantly recognisable, organic yet mocking. I can't fail to mention "bezrobot", which combines "bezrobotny"-"unemployed" with "robot"-"robot" (same, "robot" comes from Slavic languages, meaning "work", popularised by Czech author) to have new and unexpected word for unemployed robot, instantly making us wonder why was that robot not disassembled yet, why was it built in the first place or how bad is economy if even robots are unemployed?


"Fables for Robots" is a collection of fairy tales that robot parents might tell their robot children to warn them of dangers like, say, robocidal humans. This collection of short stories is inspired by classic fairy tales, very classic, those with copious amounts of death and rare happy endings. "Elektrycerz" is a clear combination of "Elektryczny"-"Electric" (electric is of itself a loanword, albeit pre-dating XX century) and "Rycerz"-"Knight", "Electric Knight" if you will, but in one nice sounding and archaic sounding word. Names of characters in collection combine scientific terms with typical name patterns, "Mikromił" combines "mikro"-"micro" with suffix "-mił" typical for pre-christian Slavic names, denoting "loving something" or "loved by something" ("Bogumił", relatively common name literally means "loved by god/gods"), "Automateusz" combines "auto" like in "automatyczny"-"automatic" with "Mateusz" Polish version of "Matthew". "Wasza Wysokość"-"Your Highness" becomes "Wasza Ferromagnetyczność"-"Your Ferromagneticness". Scientific terms, especially Polonised version of scientific terms, are combined with archaic sounding words or early modern terms and concepts to create flavour of fairy tale. Alternatively, one tale about human captured by robots calls back to actual XIX debate in scientific community, namely what should Polish name of oxygen be. "Tlen"-"Smolderer"-"one that causes/enables smoldering" was selected over "kwasoród"-"acid birther/progenitor"-literal translation of Latin "oxygen", and Lem accentuates fear robots feel by using "kwasoród". In Fables, humans are Nostromo's Alien (decades before Alien, mind you), their blood makes acid! Acid dissolves metal! RUN!

Serious works

"gwiazdolot"-"star flier" used in both serious and comedic works is a real early XX century word for spaceship, created in obvious parallel to "samolot"-"self-flier" or "autonomic-flier"-"plane" and "samochód"-"self-walker" or "autonomic-walker"-"car" something that goes on it's own, without animal to pull it, horseless carriage if you will. In similar way, "Promieniomiot"-"Ray-thrower"-"Ray gun" combines archaic term for hand gun "kulomiot"-"bullet thrower" (other Slavic languages, like Russian, still use this word for some types of guns) with "promień"-"ray" to have something with same feel as "raygun" while being distinctively organic - it's a word one could perceive as one that emerged naturally. "Zmartwychwstalnia"-"Ressurectory" is a place where people are woken up from cryosleep, but even more naturally could mean place where people are cloned back to life, or reuploaded from backup, depending on in-universe lore. "Odmrożeniec" combines "odmrożenie"-"frostbie" with suffix meaning person who had something happen to them, creating a word which could in every day use mean someone who suffered frostbite, but in world with cryosleep could easily take on meaning of someone freshly awoken from such cold sleep.

Case of professional translations: Dune

As another famous, in Poland, example, I'd like to mention translation of Frank Herbert's Dune. There are two main translations, one by (MM) Marek Marszał and one by (JŁ) Jerzy Łoziński. Selection from Polish wiki:


  • (Fremen) (Fremeni) ("Wolanie"-"free-ones")
  • (suspensor) ("dryf"-"drift") ("odciążacz"-obvious opposite to "obciążnik"-"weight")
  • (sandworm) ("czerw pustyni"-"sand maggot") ("piaskal"-"sand being")
  • (stillsuit) ("filtrak"- combination of "filtr"-"filter" and "frak"-"dress suit") ("hermetyk"-something hermetic or someone hermetic in his beliefs)
  • (lasgun) ("rusznica laserowa"-"laser matchlock", "rusznica" is an archaic name for firearm) ("laserobin"- combination of "karabin"-"rifle" (yes, rifle, not carbine, carbine is "karabinek"- diminutive form of "karabin") and laser)

It's clear that those translations have different feel. Łoziński's translations are more organic (with exception of his term for stillsuit), while Marszał's translations attempt to be more faithful (his term for lasgun tries to capture how archaic "rayguns" are in times where it's more common to have pulse/laser/phase/whatever rifles). "Wolanie" could mean "free ones" or "ones who have will/free will", which considering that in Polish language Germans are called "Niemcy"-"mute ones" is much more natural. Why "mute ones"? Millennia ago all other people nearby used similar sounding Slavic languages, "Słowianie"-"Slavs" comes from Slavic "those who can use words" or "those who speak", meanwhile, Germanic tribes spoke some strange gibberish completely unlike any human language, hence mute ones. "Fremeni" is merely Polonised foreign word, no different from "Apacze"-"Apache", faithful in pronunciation but completely devoid of meaning (apparently "Apache" is derived from Apache word for "people") and decidedly not one created naturally in Polish. Don't fall into trap of thinking that it's "primitive" naming convention, French call themselves "the free people" after medieval Latin for "free, non servile", "English" when pertaining to people means "fish hook people", after shape of Jutland from where Germanic tribe which conquered isles comes, "Polish" is "people of the fields" after founding tribe and Germans call themselves just "the people", note that in some languages origin might be lost, in some, like Polish and French, it is still recognisable. "Odciążacz" makes use of prefix "od-" meaning opposite, and replaced prefix "ob-" in "obciążnik"-"additional weight or something weighting down". In same way, "filtrak" is more natural sounding and as such, is rather uncharacteristic of Marszał's translation. Łoziński tries to rewrite into Polish, while Marszał tries to translate. Is one of those better than the others? Depends. I prefer Łoziński's version, but that's me, besides, you know famous saying about translations, don't you?

Official naming conventions

At the same time, you can invoke official naming conventions of your language. For example, "marines" are "piechota morska"-"sea infantry" in Polish military parlance, remember that "marine" means "pertaining to the sea" making "space marines" an oxymoron. Common translation "kosmiczni marines" is both unimaginative loanword AND oxymoron whereas substituting sea for space in Polish term creates "piechota kosmiczna"-"space infantry", something consistent with military naming convention and easily recognisable yet distinct from "space marines" running around in space operas.


Now, with those examples spelled out, I would like to state what I think: seriously consider making up words. It's an entire new dimension to vastly change look, feel and style of your story. Combine new and old, use feelings invoked by words, use associations to convey meanings. Use loanwords to make character appear pretentious by overusing them, or use them to make topic seem detached, technical and rigid (disclaimer, might not work so well in your language, especially if you are writing in Romance language). If you are not writing in English, it's foolish to discard specifics of your language and myriad of tools it has just because English is more common. Granted, making proper use of neologisms requires really good knowledge of your language, beyond that of most authors, but opens unparalleled possibilities, unique to your language (might be a hindrance if you want to go international, though). Research etymology of words and make up words in similar pattern for more natural and organic feel, use direct translation when you want to convey that concept itself is imported, use loanwords when they serve your purpose. Treat making up, translating or not as another tool in your toolbox. Those are tools, just like tropes.

And remember that I could be wrong, perhaps in your language loanwords are not as alien as they are in mine?

  • If you know that an answer is "massively incoherent, badly formatted and error-ridden", to the point of even pointing out yourself right at the top of the answer that you will need at least a few days to fix it, then why are you posting it? I also see you've edited the answer four times in the few hours after posting it, to add content; those edits might have been better off fixing any known issues with the answer, before expanding on it (adding yet more content which, by your own admission, you will need to fix). – a CVn Apr 20 at 12:43
  • I think there is a lot of good material and groundwork in this answer, but it should be synthetized and formalized better. +1 still – Liquid Apr 26 at 16:33

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