Written Language and Songbroken

This post contains minor spoilers for Songbroken.

One of the little easter eggs in Songbroken, as I discussed in my book launch interview, is that the society I invented has no written language.

This wasn’t a conscious choice at first. I’d written quite a lot of the book before I realized I hadn’t made any reference to writing. I think I first realized this when the main characters, Nilos and Kelol, reached the city. At that point, I thought about how they’d navigate this strange, huge, overcrowded new environment. Would inns have signs to guide travellers? How would you know what kind of goods were being sold at a market stall?

That’s when I stopped to think about the world as I’d established it so far. Up until that point, “contracts” and “songs” were synonymous. A person’s debts and obligations were recorded as songs as well. Nilos’s healing apprenticeship was based around learning healing songs–in this case, a combination of actual melody, “lifepoint touch” (by which I imagined a combination of massage and acupressure), and herbal remedies. But Nilos was never given a written recipe to memorize. Everything he needed to know was encoded in the songs he learned.

Given this established “rule” of my world, it didn’t make sense for people to have a second, redundant way of recording information. In a largely agrarian society, just beginning to drift towards feudalism, most people wouldn’t be literate anyway. Books (if they existed) would be works of craft and very expensive. So I decided that I would deliberately avoid any mention of written language.

“Literacy” would be available to everyone, but instead of the written word, it would be a musical education. Children would need to learn how to harmonize, and to memorize some of the more common contract song variations, so that they’d be ready to sing—instead of sign—contracts as adults. This was when I added the profession of teacher to the novel.

One thing I enjoy about this detail is that since there’s no mention of writing in the book, the reader might not notice that there is no writing system! It’s an absence rather than a presence, so it’s not something a reader would necessarily miss or go looking for.

I was really happy with this worldbuilding detail, because it meshed so well with the world I’d already created, without requiring a lot in the way of rewrites. As a writer (and a reader), I love to see how one aspect of the world has a ripple effect on the rest.

This also has an effect on the monetary system—something I hope to write about in an upcoming post!

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