Uses and Abuses of Multiple Languages in SF/F Worldbuilding – A Question

April 13th, 2007

Jason writes:

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.

I’ve dealt with this so far by having most main characters speak the dominant culture’s tongue, but there is a character that was married into a foreign culture and the dominant culture just ain’t so dominant there. I wonder if I am creating headaches for myself by worrying the problem to a nub, but can’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

It’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

You’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 doesn’t mean such words can’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 doesn’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.

17 Responses to “Uses and Abuses of Multiple Languages in SF/F Worldbuilding – A Question”

  1. Marie Brennanon 13 Apr 2007 at 7:47 pm

    Here’s my take on conlanging in general, not just this specific instance. Note that I haven’t done much of it, but I’ve got one setting in which I’ve written a number of short stories and plan to do novels, that has eleven different language groups in it. So I’ve put a fair bit of thought into this.

    1) I tend to build my languages by pasting the phonology of one (say, Irish Gaelic) onto the grammar of another (say, Latin). Yes, this produces problems, since phonology and grammar aren’t unrelated, but it gives me a base to build on, and an excuse to make use of my language dilettancy.

    2) When to use it and when not to is, for me, a matter of point of view. If the pov character is fluent in the language, then I just write it as English (with the appropriate narrative note that it’s something foreign). When the pov character doesn’t understand the language, I just say the people are babbling something incomprehensible. I mean, could you accurately transcribe Akkadian if somebody started speaking it at you? Not unless they were speaking very slowly, which is the one place where I would write it out.

    3) If a character is speaking a language they’re not fluent in, then I turn to grammar to represent that. This is where my conlanging method comes in handy: Rajna is based on Spanish grammar, so a Rajna speaker communicating in Mittrich would use double negatives and other features of the Spanish language. A Miosaidh speaker would say things like “I am in my sleeping.” Etc. I find this preferable to trying to textually represent an accent, which usually just gets annoying.

    4) I’ll sprinkle in the occasional word or phrase, but not many. Generally certain classes of speech: honorifics, courtesy phrases like “thank you,” exclamations, curses, and of course anything for which there isn’t a satisfactory translation; the Kagi would talk about hirane because nobody else’s language has a word for a particular type of shapeshifter who can use their abilities to alter details of their appearance. (In other words, culture-specific concepts.)

    An example of that last bit being done poorly: I was initially pleased that Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series wasn’t afraid to use Hindi words (or Sanskrit? Okay, I admit I can’t tell them apart), but my continual flipping to the glossary was annoying, and also revealed that he was using Sanskrit (or Hindi) words for perfectly ordinary things like “moon” or “plate.” Save it for the stuff that’s important, or can be figured out from context and will be repeated a lot.

  2. Madeleine Robinson 14 Apr 2007 at 11:51 am

    A light hand is the first rule, I’d have to say. Kate and Marie have covered a lot of what I’d say elsewise, but I’ll add this illustrative anecdote, told me by a Linguistics professor at Harvard during a class I took **mumble** years ago.

    Polish and Ukrainian (rather like Spanish and Portugese) have many areas where they sound superficially alike. When the University of Lvov was subsumed into the Ukraine, it was required that all papers be submitted in Ukrainian. The custom at the time was for all papers to start out with an epigraph from a Marxist luminary, and oddly enough, the favorite epigraph in the Linguistics department was “Language is the Most Important Tool for Communication” credited to V.I. Lenin.

    It helps to know that the same phonetic phrase in Polish meant “The tongue is the most important tool for intercourse.”

    When you’re dealing with languages that have a single root, there are weird areas of congruence and incongruence. If your character has married into a culture with a different linguistic heritage, bear this in mind.

  3. Stephanie M.on 14 Apr 2007 at 6:12 pm

    The languages do not need to be complete. Art is only a representation of real life, after all. Even if you invent a whole language, you’re only going to be using 5% of it in the book, and that’s going to be all names and special words.

    A naming language consists only of sounds, rules for putting those sounds together into words, rules for combining words into compounds and phrases, and a glossary of the words you invent, which can be fewer than a hundred. Complete languages take months and years to flesh out, but a naming language can be done in a few days. Richard Adam’s Watership Down is a classic example of how effective even a very simple naming language can be.

    Marie’s number 3 tip is absolutely brilliant. I love it when authors use this trick. I, personally, do not like seeing gobs of foreign words all over a book. I feel cheated out of the choicest bits of dialogue and background culture.

    Aside from Tolkien, Shogun by James Clavell always comes to mind when I think about using language in fiction. Tons of foreign words and names in it, but it’s introduced gradually, since you’re learning Japanese alongside the main character. The book didn’t even need a glossary.

  4. Madeleine Robinson 14 Apr 2007 at 10:12 pm

    In The Thirteenth Warrior the viewpoint character, played by Antonio Banderas, is an Arab who has to get outta town real fast. He winds up with a bunch of Vikings, and you watch as he slowly acquires language. It’s done very well in the film; you watch him overhear people speaking in a language which is utterly alien to him…and slowly picking out a word here and there, then making sentences.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 14 Apr 2007 at 11:59 pm

    The one trouble I have with using the trick of interesting grammatical choices to convey a foreign language is that you generally use the same device to indicate someone who is not a native speaker speaking the main language. For example, if a character starts a sentence with “This is, how you say, -X-” then I sort of guess that they’re French, seeing that I’ve seen that exact construction used both in imitations of French people trying to speak English and in cases of actual French people I’ve met who are trying for a word in English. My guess is that the French idiom translates straight across as “how you say” rather than the more formal English “how do you say.”

    That, of course, is just a fine-tuning of some excellent techniques listed so far.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 15 Apr 2007 at 9:28 am

    The obvious case is Tolkien, who was a scholar of language.

  7. Sherwood Smithon 15 Apr 2007 at 10:12 am

    Good stuff above, to which I’ll add, for most readers, a little goes a long way. I really like Marie’s suggestion of grammatical differences. A word or two in B language, for which A has no term, enriches the story, but a book that is stuffed with linguistic pyrotechnics, no matter how realistic the scholarship is behind the construction, slows down the story.

    I noticed recently while rereading Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (which is a favorite) that my eye slides past a lot of the made-up words, especially when one realizes after that first read that stopping and studying them is unnecessary because many of them never appear again.

    I recently read a manuscript that is beautifully written, and crampacked with carefully constructed new words to express the carefully constructed fantastical cultures. What a toil to read. I think the audience will mostly be others who like worldbuilding more than story, because reading it felt like doing homework. I had to take notes on all those terms, and so picking the book up after a break felt exactly like studying for an exam. The story was lost in the unending panorama of data, however poetically presented.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 15 Apr 2007 at 1:26 pm

    The story was lost in the unending panorama of data, however poetically presented.

    Gods, Sherwood, may I steal that? Best summation of a recurrent problem in fantastic literature I’ve ever seen.

  9. sherwoodon 16 Apr 2007 at 1:16 pm

    You mean I fumbled into actually saying something of worth? *faints*

  10. Ivyon 16 Apr 2007 at 2:19 pm

    The easiest thing to throw in is foreign words, but the more important thing is grammar. It reflects the culture’s history and values.

    In Japanese, much is left unspoken. The idea is that the conversation is built on a shared understanding and lives in the space between both speakers. So:

    Wakarimasu ka? Literally means “Understand?” The second person pronoun is absent. The grammar is clean. There are only two irregular verbs and everything conjugates the same for first person, second person, third person, plural and singular.

    Odorokimasu. = I dance, you dance, he/she/it dances, we dance, they dance.

    This echoes the simple beauty that has dominated traditional Japanese culture since Yoshimasa. The language on in-group and out-group reflect the culture’s values.

    Hebrew is built on three letter word roots. It’s gendered. This makes sense for a language that takes meaning from the numeric value of words. Chai (Chet + yud) means life with a numeric value of 18, so most Jews consider 18 a lucky or blessed number. Gender differences matter and that’s reflected in the language. “Amerikai” and “Amerikait” for American depending on the gender of the person being spoken about. Verbs as well. “I understand” is “Ani mevin” or “Ani mevina” depending on if the speaker is male or female.

    We can see some of the history of the English people in the language. Look at the words for animals and food. Cow — beef. Chicken — Poultry. Deer — Venison. In every case the animal is named from the old English word and the food is named from the French. This came in during the Norman Conquest where English-speaking peasants served French-speaking lords and ladies. The language of the field was English and the language of the table was French.

    So how do your people think about communication and society. What has happened to change or distort their language over time?

  11. Marie Brennanon 16 Apr 2007 at 3:43 pm

    Ivy —

    The kind of details you bring up are what fascinate me about languages, but they’re also insanely hard to work into a story. You can build them into a conlang, but that will be opaque to the reader unless you explain it in-text (or throw it up on your website as a bit of trivia, I suppose). And the occasions when it’s appropriate to explain it in-text are going to be limited.

    What I’d love to be able to do is work that in for the pov language, the linguistic culture the story is taking place in, but Japanese speakers rarely stop to reflect on how in-group/out-group distinctions shift contextually, and Hebrew speakers rarely think about gender endings. Or, to give an example from my own language, while I’ll occasionally stop to note the differences between synonyms with Anglo-Saxon and Latinate roots (understand vs. comprehend, frex), that’s not exactly common, and it would feel obtrusive if a character did it. But I really do wish I could find a graceful way to do it, because language can reflect so much about gender, status, formality, perceptions of time, relationship to the natural world, and other fabulous things.

  12. Carol Bergon 18 Apr 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Much good has been said. Use a light touch. Don’t obsess – or, if you do, don’t force the reader to do the same. I think of glossaries in the same way as I do that other fantasy aid (cliche) – the map. Write so the reader is not forced to resort to them, whether or not they will be included in the final book.

    When I invent language elements, I worry more about their sound as any true linguistic construction. I tend to use them to “evoke” a culture in the same way I use bits and pieces of art, custom, religion, manners, and so forth etc.


  13. Alison Croggonon 20 Apr 2007 at 10:05 am

    Interesting subject. I guess I mainly use poetry to liguinstically differentiate between cultures (my other main methods are architecture and food and proper nouns too); so my vaguely northern European types use English poetic traditions, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, lyrical rhymes and so on, and my vaguely eastern European/Russian nomadic types have things like Russian folk songs or epic rhythms drawn from the Kalevala, and my Indian/African/Arabic types have poems that are cod Ur (Gilgamesh) or ghazals or other kinds of Persian poetry or oral African poems. It’s fun to write. I intersperse the odd word in whichever language happens to be around, but lightly, as other have said, so no one is scrambling for a glossary. The books have a conceit that tthey are a translation (from Annaren) which permits me to use English as the commonly recognised tongue, equivalent to Annaren. The only language that is at all developed is the Speech, which all my major characters innately understand, and which is basically a Latin grammar with Celtic sounding elements. And also gets over various problems of communication that might otherwise be a bother. But basically I try to get everything to sound right.

  14. Ellenon 20 Apr 2007 at 10:56 pm

    Perhaps oddly, the first book that comes to mind (well, after Tolkien) when I’m thinking about language use in SFF is Orson Scott Card’s The Speaker of the Dead. I say “oddly” because the other language in the book is Portuguese, rather than an invented language. I’ve always thought that he integrated the Portuguese bits pretty seamlessly; some are translated in italics, some are semi-translated through the speaker’s or listener’s thoughts, some are reacted to in English, some are just left for you to puzzle about. To this day there are several sentences in the book I’ve never entirely been able to understand, because I don’t speak any Portuguese, but it hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of it.

    Most of the comments here are about the commenter’s own experiences; does anyone have additional recommendations of books in which the languages are integrated well?

  15. Betsy Dornbuschon 21 Apr 2007 at 8:53 am

    I’m glad you weighed in, Carol, because your books popped to my mind. You don’t seem to weigh in with too many foreign words–or if you do, they’re integrated seemlessly enough that I’ve forgotten. I think sparing clues work best.

    Gee, though, all this talk about linguistics really makes me feel ignorant and quite curious. I see some studying in my near future.

  16. Nicole L.on 23 Apr 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Have y’all seen the article in the New Yorker from last week: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? Here’s the link to the abstract
    Basically it’s creating an uproar in the linguistics world because the language they speak seems to directly challenge Chomsky’s theory of language.

    But the language itself is also fascinating and no outsider has ever really become fluent in it, not in the 30 years since missionaries first contacted them. The language is incredibly tonal, to the point where the consanants and vowels can be dropped and people can communicate by whistling or humming! It’s also an isolate (meaning not related to any of the other languages in Brazil).

    Here’s an excerpt:

    The Piraha, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art, and no common terms of quantification. His most explosive claim was that Piraha displays no evidence of recursion, the linguistic operation of embedding one phrase inside another. Noam Chomsky has argued that recursion is the cornerstone of a “universal grammar” shared by all languages. Steven Pinker calls Everett’s paper “a bomb thrown into the party.”

    They also don’t keep reserves of food, care only about things that happened in someone’s living memory (i.e. during their own lifetime or the lifetime of the generation before) and when someone goes out of sight, they’ve “gone out of existance”. Same word for when a candle flame goes out. The “terms of quantification” thing means stuff like no fixed names for colors.

    Pretty fascinating stuff, even when filtered through several layers of missionaries, linguists, journalists and language, and certainly food for thought when worldbuilding.

  17. Seraon 06 Aug 2007 at 4:08 pm

    WOW! all this talk of languages.. interesting – intriguing and monumentally world changing.. at least in Aldurturran.. which is the world i am working on creating. some of the names of things will have to change to reflect the structures of the languages in use… at the moment most of the world is named and created in elvish… i will have more work cut out for me from teh sounds of it.. thanks for the insight.

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