Say What?

As I’ve been threatening to do over the last few weeks, I’ve finally managed to put aside some time to talk about the use of language in fantasy and sci-fi. By this I don’t mean the style of prose, but rather the use and representation of different languages by the narrator and characters.

It’s an immensely broad subject once you start looking at the detail, and right at the start I’ll say this is, like my other advice, simply a rambling collection of thoughts and experiences. I would love to hear from fellow Hamsterites on their own experiences; the way they’ve dealt with the issue, or perhaps problems they have yet to resolve.

Why Do It?

The first thing a writer must ask is whether it is necessary to employ different languages in your story. The potential pitfalls are deep, so there must be a solid reason for doing so. As with other aspects of writing, the use of languages falls into three categories: character development; plot; and world-building.

Language for Characters

In terms of character development, ignorance of language turning into understanding can be a metaphor for a character’s own acceptance of a foreign culture. This is how I’ve used language in Malekith. The elves are ignorant of the dwarfs’ language and when they first meet the language barrier is an issue, to the point that Malekith himself openly abuses the lack of understanding for his own amusement. As the two societies intermingle, their understanding of each other increases and the language barrier ceases to be an issue.

You could go so far as to have a character who refuses to learn another language as a statement of their personality. They may regard themselves as a guardian of their culture, refusing to use an invader’s language, or perhaps they are simply old-fashioned or bigoted. On the other hand, a character may be a radical, ready to embrace the foreign culture, earning scorn from his society by his use of a language.

As examined in The Prodigal Tongue by Mark Abley, language is not only a barrier between cultures, it can also be representative of the generation gap. Two groups, ostensibly speaking in the same tongue, may use phrases and words virtually unintelligible to each other. Just as it is said that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language, a society’s sub-cultures, professional cliques and generational groups can also come into conflict through the use of idioms and unfamiliar terminology.

Language as Plot

When considering language in your plot, is there an event or sequence in the plot where understanding a language, or the opposite, is an important development? For instance, a character may overhear conspirators speaking in a foreign tongue and must find out what they were saying in order to combat their nefarious efforts. Alternatively, perhaps the conspirators speak freely, thinking that no one will understand them, thus revealing part of their plan. Of course, in order for this to work successfully, the character’s ignorance/ knowledge of the language should be a factor introduced before the pivotal moment so that it is a natural progression of events rather than being a facet of their knowledge invented purely for that scene. Errors in translation can be catalysts for many types of events; the aliens arrive saying ‘We come in peace’ but the translation gets it wrong and in fact they said ‘We come to end peace’, or vice versa; a riddle in another language does not translate properly and sends the character on a false journey; an important place has a different name for the locals and cannot be found.

Whole plots and sub-plots can be hung off cultural conflict and the pursuit of a common means of communication may be the entire goal of the protagonist. It could be the deciphering of an ancient text or an alien artefact that has been discovered. The unknown breeds fears, and the need to find out the intent of a new or old culture can provide plenty of tension and drama.

On the flip side, language errors have great comedic value. Mispronunciations, poorly-worded metaphors and general wordplay can provide humorous episodes. Whole characters can be created around this premise. There is currently a WWE wrestler named Santino Marella, of Italian descent. A major part of his gimmick is his mangling of the English language and in particular the catchphrases of other wrestlers, past and present. The sitcom Frasier often uses language disparity to create similarly funny situations, and there are many other examples in literature, TV and film, too numerous to list here (though feel free to post your favourites in the comments!).

World-building by Language

The last aspect – world-building – is the usual reason for including separate languages in fantasy and sci-fi. As I mentioned in my article on names, the style of a language can be used to convey information about a species or culture. It seems reasonable to assume that any world (or worlds) that have cultures and races growing from disparate origins that each will develop its own language. These things can be assumed to exist, but their inclusion in the text should serve the purpose of providing a window into that race or culture’s values, traditions and society.

When considering the world (or universe) of the story, one must considered the evolution of language. In a sci-fi setting it is almost certain that cultures evolving on different planets will have entirely different systems of communication. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the fact that languages adapt, mutate and take on aspects of each other if developed in proximity to each other. This necessitates a bit of linguistic archaeology on the part of the author, going back through the histories of the involved cultures and working out how isolated or overlapping their languages would be. Assuming that different species at least use basic verbal communication, and are even capable of producing similar sounds, one would then expect them to be able to replicate each other’s language. Conversely, it may be impossible for different creatures to interact due to differing physical properties.

The difference between traditional fantasy and sci-fi at this stage is stark. Sci-fi societies are advanced, and will therefore have the knowledge and means by which they can decipher and possibly replicate, if only partially, non-verbal communication methods. Scent-generators, intricate mottling of the skin, use of pheromone-like chemicals, all are plausible methods of communication that can evolve naturally and later be replicated technologically. Most fantasy worlds, on the other hand, are quasi-medieval or even less advanced and so the ability to communicate with a drastically different species may be beyond the characters.

The variations thereof bring us back to the fundamental question of why there are differences of communicationin terms of your story. The world is yours to create in your image. If you require different cultures to communicate, develop a system of language that allows them to do so. On the other hand if you want division and conflict, then ensure that your plot can cope with this – it’s no good having a character miraculously learn (or already know language they would not have had an opportunity to learn) a different language when it becomes important.

Practical Issues

As the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam asks, ‘Is “common” the official language of your world?’. There’s nothing wrong with having a ‘common language’, but there must be a practical origin for it to exist. For thousands of years intrepid explorers and traders in our own world have managed to communicate in different tongues, and at one time or another certain languages have dominated commerce and science, whether Greek, Chinese, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, English, Sanskrit and so on. ‘Common’ languages do exist, but they develop out of other, disparate languages and don’t exist in and of themselves. Despite several attempts, artificially created common languages do not survive long. However, those of expedience do so. Rather than get into the whole subject here, I’ll simply refer readers to the Lingua Franca entry on Wikipedia, which gives a useful overview.

So, one option is to use a suitably dominant language from your world (as represented by the narrative English)as a Lingua Franca, or at least a derivation of it. Some subtlety should be used in this approach. Such language use arises from practical means, and non-native speakers are likely to have a truncated vocabulary unless they have made a point of studying the language in detail and have used it for many years. A native speaker engaging a young foreign trader in a deeply philosophical debate is likely to go nowhere, even if they can agree a price on the beans he is selling… The same applies to other interactions. Many of us have a passable knowledge of at least one other language, but it is a far cry from knowing how to ask ‘Where are the toilets?’ or ‘Two beers, please’ in Spanish and being able to hold even a reasonably short, free-flowing conversation. Be aware of this when your characters are talking to each other (again, this could be a plot point, with a foreign speaker trying to convey something important but simply unable to translate the word or concept accurately enough).

Representing Language in your Writing

This is the real sharp end of things. There are some deep discussions that could be had about language being a representation of thought and concept, and ultimately existing only as a bridge of communication requiring the understanding of both parties, but I’ll skip that for now! Suffice to say, there’s going to be fudges and compromises when including different languages in your stories.

The narrator has one language. For the purposes of this article I will use English as the example of the narrative language, because that’s what I and most Hamsterites will use. However, the principles are the same whatever narrative language we use.

The first question to ponder is whether the narrative language is truly English. For many stories the answer will be a simple yes. However, it might not be as obvious as you think. First-person stories, for instance, may well portray a protagonist that doesn’t speak English and may not even be human! In Malekith, there could be an argument that the perspective I’ve used actually makes it an elven story, and Warhammer elves clearly don’t speak modern English either.

Why is this important? Because in the global world of publishing, there is a chance, if you’re good, lucky or both, that your story will be translated into another language! Years of working on game supplements that eventually saw the world in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian has taught me not to take such things for granted. The narrative language used impacts upon the reader, by use of simile and metaphor and idiom. Where the narrator has a particularly strong voice – mainly in first-person but not exclusively so – the writer has to be wary not to allow the modern English prose to create anachronisms and misleading language to impact the world being unveiled.

I’ll give an example, from The History of Middle Earth series by Christopher Tolkien, which goes into great detail, through notes and letters, of the great professor’s evolution of the world of his stories. Vexingly, I can’t find the specific reference at the moment, but there’s a short note to the effect that one of the characters (Gandalf I think) says au revoir at one point when leaving Hobbiton. Tolkien then amended this, with the comment that Gandalf would not, of course, be speaking French! He is entirely correct that the mixing of the narrative language and foreign one creates an incongruity that sits oddly in the mind of the reader. Small instances might perhaps pass by the reader, but it’s a habit to avoid.

[incidentally, The History of Middle Earth is a fascinating, if somewhat involved and expensive, read. I’ve had the series for many years and haven’t got anything like halfway through. They give a revealing insight into a writing process very different from that most of us employ today. Indeed, had the Professor used a word processor rather than hand-written and -corrected most of his work, we would not have access to this evolutionary tale and the thinking behind it. The egomaniac in me occasionally toys with the idea of saving separate versions of my Word files and keeping my hand-marked copies for posterity so that future generations can enjoy the same marvellous journey for my own work 😉

On a fanboy level it also includes some utterly absorbing versions of characters and stories that ended up being changed, my favourite of which is that Strider – later to be revealed as Aragorn, King of the West and the most pivotal character of the story – originally entered the plot as a hobbit ranger called ‘Trotter’! What a very different story that would have been.]

So, at first port of call we must accept that the narrator may well already be offering a translation of the story for the benefit of the reader, even when dealing with the main characters. This then begs the question of why certain phrases, names and words are not translated for the reader’s benefit? The simple answer is for the love of words and flavour (or possibly, as in the case of Tolkien, because the writer has devised an entire working language and wants to use it!).

By throwing in exotic alien (and by this I mean non-narrative voice) words, a writer can paint a picture of different cultures in a way that providing a translation would not. English, amongst all the languages, is a notorious hybrid for doing this in the real world, adopting words and phrases into general use with gleeful abandon. Our narrative voice therefore adopts the same regard for foreign words as English, using them in their raw form because a translation does not do them justice.

What Did It Say?

Having decided to include directly untranslated alien language, the writer must then decide whether doing so compromises the reader’s understanding. This again brings us back to perspective and narrative voice. If the intent of the author is for the words to be unintelligible, their purpose based purely upon the sounds embodied by the writter letter, they can remain unexplained.

“Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing said.

In this sense, it doesn’t matter what the words mean, only the character’s incomprehension, shared by the reader. Language doesn’t exist in a vaccum of words and sounds though, so it is perhaps necessary for us to provide contextual information for our reader so that the reader might glean some understanding available to the character.

“Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing barked angrily, glaring at Lewis.

“Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing rasped, gently stroking Lewis’ arm.

“Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing whispered, it’s narrowed eyes quickly flicking from left to right.

The words don’t change but their implied meaning does, due to the contextual information provided.

The narrator can offer explanation, if the narrative voice is suitably omniscient. Another way of approaching this, if the character’s have comprehension, is to include an aside translation, much like a subtitle on a film.

 “Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing barked angrily, glaring at Lewis. It was upset by his red vest, a colour associated with misfortune.

 “Hak ghurk a monak, a grik porak,” the thing barked angrily, glaring at Lewis –  ‘You wear the colour of blood, you are not welcome.’

Both of the above examples depend upon the reader needing to understand what is being said while the characters do not. However, as even these short examples show, the writing can become quite clunky to accomodate this. If the characters understand the language, it is far less complicated to simply have them speak in English, with perhaps the occasional untranslatable word thrown in.

Names, Times, Places and So Forth

Once the door to different languages is opened, the landscape that unfolds contains all manner of alien concepts: names of people, places and objects; how time is divided; distances and other measurements. The more removed from the norm of the narrative language, the greater the chance for confusion or necessity for stodgy exposition. This essay has gone on long enough, so I’m afraid I need to leave that for the time being …


What this brings home to me is the fact that writers that wish to use different languages in their works need to do their research, if only to get a general understanding about how language evolves and is used in real cultures, past and present. You don’t need to become an expert in Aramaic in order to write a sci-fi novel, but by understanding the influence of language on culture, or culture on language, we can create worlds and stories that bit more believable and satisfying. As writers, we are obsessed about words and language, and their use, so finding out more about them is never a chore!

Published on October 13, 2008 at 3:55 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] rest can be found HERE. Published […]


  2. As an amateur writer myself, I find the resources you provide invaluable. Thank you, Gav, for this wealth of information! Also thank Dennis for me.


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