Kate Elliott April 13th, 2007
I have a question concerning the inclusion of multiple languages in a novel. I put a great deal of effort and pride in developing the histories and different culture, reasons for certain beliefs, mythologies and law, arts and so on. In my paradigm, I have four different cultures on a single large peninsula. Two of which are off shoots of the same people, one is an older civilization from the south and then the dominant culture who were migratory raiders turned Empire from a different part of the continent entirely.
Now while I have a passing interest in linguistics, I am no Tolkien. I am curious how one goes about creating a believable world, flush with exotic and distinct civilizations and language without actually building a complete language from scratch. And beyond that, how I should include enough of those languages in the novel without confusing the story and making readers groan every time the big, gravely voiced Syvrian foreigner appears on stage with the learned Republican.
Iâ€™ve dealt with this so far by having most main characters speak the dominant cultureâ€™s tongue, but there is a character that was married into a foreign culture and the dominant culture just ainâ€™t so dominant there. I wonder if I am creating headaches for myself by worrying the problem to a nub, but canâ€™t seem to convince myself that I should let it go.
Three initial thoughts:
1) no, you are not worrying the problem to a nub
Itâ€™s well worth thinking through how you mean to deal with the issue of multiple languages in far greater detail than ever gets on the page, in part so that you know what is going on and in part because once you know what is going on and how you are going to deal with it, you may find that it takes less complicated maneuvers than you believed it might to get your point (of multiple languages) across.
2) less is more
Youâ€™d be surprised by how much you can suggest through a few well chosen words, phrases, or misunderstandings. Mostly readers do not, I think, want to wade through text heavily-laden with foreign words, whether real or made-up, but that doesnâ€™t mean such words canâ€™t be used sparingly to good effect.
For instance, as a single example, one rule of thumb is to introduce such words in specifically important contexts and at spaced intervals so that the reader doesnâ€™t have to juggle a bunch of new stuff all at once – same way you introduce new cultures, new characters, new landscape. Beware infodump, of course.
As for the character who has married into a foreign culture, I think how you deal with it depends on whether s/he understands the foreign language or must use a translator.
3) Remember, always, that language is a window into a culture and can say as much about how a culture looks at the world and interacts internally as does clothing, architecture, political structures, religious rituals, etc. Emphasize those parts of language that illuminate cultural differences rather than layering in a bunch of different words for the same thing.
I specifically want to throw this question open to comments because I happen to know there are some folks out there with actual expertise in this matter.
Additionally, I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions on examples of languages done well and done poorly in stories.
So, please weigh in, all.