Using story measurement units vs real measurement units

msstice

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In my world a certain group of people have a particular set of measurement units which differ from the units we (i.e. the readers) are used to. When the characters speak, they use their units. However, when I narrate something, should I use our familiar units, or use the world units?
 

Weillyn

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I think it depends on a couple of things and would be case by case. Understanding is my main concern, so the first thing to consider would be whether or not it's vital that we, the reader, understand fully the unit of measurement to understand what's going on (ie: if the measurement is being mentioned in conversation and is not the main focus.) If it is necessary we understand the relevance, I think I would go about it by mentioning the distance naturally, like using your custom units when your characters are talking, and maybe both here and there in your narration (ie: "You're going to head about ten rams down the road," said Susan; mind you, the rams here are twice as large as back home, so it was much further than it sounded.)

What were you leaning toward?
 

-K2-

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You say, "a certain group of people," which sounds to me like not all characters use those unconventional units. If other groups use units commonly known (like the imperial system or that odd and obscure metric thing...:sneaky:), there is nothing saying you couldn't have the other characters make a comparison.
E.g.:
"Captain, the Bob-Slobs say it's sixty-three hopflops to Bobopolis."
"Darn it Jim, in kilometers," the Captain snapped.
"Sorry captain, twenty-one."

Regardless of how or if you explain it--personally--I'm a believer in reason and consistency. Reason is up to you, but when Bob-Slobs measure in hopflops vs. kilometers, the math should work out every time.

K2
 

ckatt

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first thing to consider would be whether or not it's vital that we, the reader, understand fully the unit of measurement to understand what's going on
Totaly agree with this.
In most cases, I'd say we don't. Unless you are expecting your readers to work out the math at some point, the actual distanced probably doesn't matter. The other consideration I would have its narrative voice. Even if the narrator is not a character, it can add immersion by keeping the units 'in the world'
I'm reminded of the historical fiction novel Shogun by James Clavel. The main character is an outsider come to Japan. Near the beginning, we learn the Japanese measurements for a few things, like hours and distance, and then they are used pretty exclusively.

“Your fief is increased from five hundred koku to three thousand. You will have control within twenty ri.” A ri was a measure of distance that approximated one mile. “As a further token of..."

Looking it up now I see that 1 Ri is closer to 2 miles but that makes little difference to the story. Yet I think using the measurement was a great bit of world-building.
 

msstice

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Very cool ideas, thank you all!

“Your fief is increased from five hundred koku to three thousand. You will have control within twenty ri.” A ri was a measure of distance that approximated one mile. “As a further token of..."
This I like very much, I just have to get skillful in introducing it. In my world the characters use a decimal time system, and a milli-day = 90s.

I want to write "He waited a few milli-days", but it would be awkward to explain it right after at that point.

So I should be clever and have some conversation early on, when some one in a dialog mentions `jiffies` (0.9s) and `milli-days` (90s) and use that as an excuse to layout the decimal time system during narration.

"I'll have it done in a centi-day" he said. The roganauts (or whatever) used a decimal time system, with a day amounting to 25 of our hours, a centi-day being 15min, a milli-day being 90s and a jiffy being 0.9 of our seconds.
 

Astro Pen

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Your real challenge, as a creative, is to invent names for the units that have meaning of themselves. That way you don't have to keep flipping. Many of our existing measures are named that way: One Foot is pretty clear a furlong (furrow long, the length of a field) for example. Hands for the height of a horse. In my own language of welsh Llath (a lath of wood) is a yard.
Play around and have a bit of fun with making some. "I'll give Eight Peas of gold for that foal. "
 

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As mentioned, I'm also a believer in 'reason.' So, everyone, in every world, speaks English so every reader can understand. Well, I get that except at that point I'd expect they'd apply English words properly (or make an attempt). Since it's more reasonable that they speak English as a second language, I'd then expect and welcome their own language used where there is confusion, or where there isn't a direct English word to express what they mean...like your time example.

But--and this is just my opinion hoping to help, imaging how it might be received--with 'centi, milli, and jiffy' all being graduations or expressions we use in English, but that neither apply as they do in English or are some alien language word, goes against the conditions I set (for myself) above.

As an example, a barbarian language I developed used the following words (in brief):
Ba: visible light, sight (Ba'sot = bright, Ba'mon = shaded or shadowed, Ba'fed = dark)
Ke: 2
Kef: a stride or pace (kef'sot = to walk, kef'mon = fast walk to jog, kef'fed = to run)
Kot: season, (Kot'sot = Spring, Kot'mon = Summer & Fall, Kot'fed = Winter)
Lum: second moon
Lus: sun
Sosh: life itself

Sosh'lums: Time in general, days of life
Ba’lums: Specific times during the day (ut’ba’lums’sot = sunrise, ut’ba’lums’mon = mid day, ut’ba’lums’fed = sunset, un’ba’lums’sot = dusk, un’ba’lums’mon = mid night, un’ba’lums’fed = dawn (dawn and dusk the half hour before the sun crests/passes the horizon))
Ba'mons: distance of movement of a shadow (word ba'mons would be spoken as a distance. Is shown or described by spacing of hands, or in number of strides to show an exact time or time passed = minutes and hours) E.g.: Ke'kef ba'mons, a shadow lengthening from noon (none) to two strides distance
Lums: passing of the second moon, a day (word lums spoken as a count of how many is shown on fingers = days)
Lumuns: the second moon completing 1 full phase cycle = months
Kot'feds: passing of winter seasons = years

Point being, the barbarians have their language they build upon. When they spoke 'crown' (English), pride found them often using their own words to replace English words. But, those barbarian words actually meant something and were used to build more intricate concepts.

So, come up with words as you need them that fit your race and have reason to that race. Make those words fit your race and have reason.

Explain it or make comparisons as needed or when opportunity presents itself, but otherwise don't. My example in the first post a way to do that of gazillions.

Just my opinion.

K2
 

TheEndIsNigh

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I hate clicks or whatever they are.

Do you actually need to refer to units?

Two days by horse, (or woffenhound: the well known universal alternative)

He could drink three jugs of ale and still be standing long after those that fell after just one.

Stellar distances are best done as light distances IMO although FTL drives make that suspect.

Time are rotations of the planet or if that's slow moon orbits. The reason for this is obvious. The chances a day is the same as an Earth day is no chance so the day becomes a local time mesurement relative to the planet you're on. Imagine

"Hey Bill, what's the time?"

"Twenty five minute past 27. In seventieen hours it'll be midnight," Bill replied.


To me there's nothing worse than describing a civilisation 20,000 years (whatever they are) from now where the people use pints and miles. However, since the UK has been defiantly doing it for the last 300 years anyway you can get away with it if you explain the why and wherefores of how.

The advantages of using imperial are obvious (more so than the metric which is whimsically based on a certain planet's distances rather than whimsically based on some old blokes arm) everybody knows what a pint is. Don't get me started on Kg, Amps and Volts. You wouldn't believe the pain involved in specifiying what these actually are. Try WikiP lookups.

Incidentally, according to WikiP the Kg was redefined only recently in 2019. Typically they opted out of using "round numbers"

My explorations in calibrating a 6.5 digit voltmeter taught me that nothing in the world is simple.

What's an Ohm, what's a Volt. It all gets very incestuous.
 

Joshua Jones

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I actually just learned a lesson about this with last month's 75 word challenge entry. I wrote a story from the perspective of a star, and used elemental numbers rather than names because it seemed strange to me that a star would use our names for elements. Clever, right?

It flopped. Received no votes and only one mention. But, the mention was from one of the best critics on the forum, so I knew there weren't missed grammatical or structural problems. Turns out my use of numbers was the problem; it confused most of the readers, and the ones who did understand simply thought I was trying to be coy, rather than immersive. Lesson learned; unless you're writing some sort of mystery, if precise understanding is important to the plot, use commonly understood terms.

As it applies to units of measure, if the audience can get the rough sense of the term AND a precise understanding of the term isn't essential AND you're writing in 1st person or close 3rd, sure go for it. But keep in mind that a reader may think you're obscuring for the sake of sounding exotic, rather than immersion, especially if the invented unit of measure doesn't relate to the plot itself.
 

sknox

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SF has a long, long tradition in this area. I recommend the OP take a look at the classic writers of the 20thc to see the many ways in which this can be handled. One or more will resonate and you'll internalize that and make it yours.

I try to apply the question, does this add to the story or distract from it? To take the distance units, what about weight, volume, time, etc.? Why must the reader have non-Terran for one but not the others? Why call a star a sun or indeed use any Terran astronomical words? Indeed, as fantasy writers sometimes discuss, why are we using English at all?

The answer has to be: because it adds to the story. That's not something about which we can make a universal rule; it has to come from the author, and is judged by the reader. I know that's not particularly satisfying. But make your own choices first. If a passage seems clumsy, then that's your first signal to try a different approach. And just know that, as Joshua Jones has said, sometimes you'll be entirely satisfied but your audience won't. Such is the fate of all art, be it music or painting or writing.
 

Astro Pen

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As an aside. I started writing a demo sentence in imperial to show how tricky it would be to 'invent' and retain meaning and it just kept going into a short story (which I'm not posting here). Writing definitely has an OCD component. LoL

But essentially it came down to the need to qualify your alien units.
"It was a six mile walk to water."
vs
"It was an exhausting twenty kleck walk to water."
 

-K2-

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As an aside. I started writing a demo sentence in imperial to show how tricky it would be to 'invent' and retain meaning and it just kept going into a short story (which I'm not posting here). Writing definitely has an OCD component. LoL

But essentially it came down to the need to qualify your alien units.
"It was a six mile walk to water."
vs
"It was an exhausting twenty kleck walk to water."
Using your distance, term, and situation: At a steady walk we made the twenty klecks to water in two earth hours.

It's still vague (unfortunately), but with an average/fast walk equaling 20/15 minutes, steady would lean toward the former of 3 miles/hr = 6 miles.

K2
 
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