Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to Write Fictional Languages

And then, Amashra, High Priestess of Bouurain said, "Oh, foolish one, don't you know that the the soul is Sol!"

WAIT. Hold up there. Is this lady saying that we know the soul and the sun are related because the words sound the same? Does that mean she’s speaking English? Why would they speak English in Bouurain? Maybe they just mean that the Bouurainian words for soul and Sol sound the same? That would be fine, okay, keeping going.

Only I’ve already been tossed out of the story. 

So, one thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how to deal with language in fiction. Because worldbuilding is a language problem and language is a worldbuilding problem.

Worldbuilding is a Language problem. And Language is a Worldbuilding problem.

A blog post at The Hunting of the Snark  really helped my thinking on this. This post introduces four terms that really help me think about how to deal with languages in fiction, in particular, made up languages.

conlang: “a functional language with all the requisite parts,”  enough information about sounds, grammar, and vocabulary for eager fans to learn it and communicate more or less intelligibly.

Think: Dothaki, Klingon, Na’vi, Sindarin and Quenya (elvish)
burrogue: Words and phrases that suggest the existence of a complete language. Personal and place names and invented concepts often get ‘burrows’ (an individual invented term), which give a sense of the world as a whole, and reminds the reader that this is Not Home.

Think: Edgar Rice Burrough’s language of Barsoom (the origin of the term ‘Burrogue’), which heavily influenced the Star Wars Burrogue with word parrallels like ‘sith/sith,’ ‘jedi/jeddak),’ and ‘padawan/padawar.’

barbar: An impressionistic representation of the sounds of a foreign language. These utterances don’t break down into meaningful words or grammatical structures.

Think: Thermian from Galaxy Quest, or the Droids’ beeps and boops in Star Wars.

masque: When a work of fiction is written entirely in English (or whichever real language is used as the means of communication between the writer and the reader), but it is signaled that English is only a stand-in for the actual language the characters are speaking, translated for the convenience of the readers.

Think: any ‘Common’ type language: Gallactic Basic Standard, Westron; or the more nuanced Suomic, etc.

One point that the Snark makes is that these terms are for fictional languages. But, of course, the portrayal of fictional languages is derived from the portrayal of real languages. I find books which occasionally drop into different tongues to be very surprising, but also very cool. They also often represent the way real people live their lives. Not all of us live in monoglot cultures, and some times we use multiple languages in a single conversation. Conlangs can be used to evoke those feelings too.

Some of my favorites are Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E.M. Delafield, where the narrator drops into French whenever she has something ‘too shocking’ to say in English, Random Deaths and Custard, where the main character lives in the Welsh Cwms, and has a reputation for being pretty good at speaking Welsh, but actually isn’t. People do actually speak Welsh in Wales! And it’s great to see that bilingual world represented. And, on TV, I’m loving Jane the Virgin, where the realities of code-switching in a multilingual, multigenerational family are shown.

Other books (Travel narratives, I’m looking at you), use terms from the foreign culture that our narrator is investigating, because the point is to maintain that sense of foreign. Using ‘congee’ rather than ‘Tamil rice porridge’  is a choice. An interesting one, to be sure. The decision to use a burrow in a similar context might have a similar alienating effect.

Finding a real-world parallel with barbar might be dangerous, but a brief youtube search for "Catherine Tate Interpreter" can both exemplify the concept of barbar as it relates to real languages, and remind you how offensive it is! Luckily, when used with fictional languages, it is often shorthand, or used for non-human entities whose mode of communication might differ enough to not be parseable by the human language faculty at all.

One thing I’ve considered is using barbars to express the confusion of a non-speaker in a foreign context. But I decided that it would be more interesting to try and express the incomprehensibility by writing down what a non-speaker would hear. Speakers of a language hear things like word boundaries and allomorphs which are completely inaudible to non-speakers. So writing down the actual pronunciation with no spaces between words would respect the language without making it easy to understand.


(That’s easy to understand.)

Masques are obviously the fictional version of translation. Reading Russian lit or Japanese slice-of-life comics in English, you still know that the communication is not happening in English unless it’s explicitly stated that it is happening in English. But for fantasy there aren’t any external cues that the base language is not English, so the author needs to signal that within the text.

It’s really exciting to have words to be able to think about the use of language in fiction, especially fantasy and scifi. The implications and effects of ‘oh, I’ll just make up a word for that’ are easier to think about, when you know what you’ve done is create a burrow, which implies a burrogue. ‘Do all the words I made up sound like they come from the same language? Should they?’ If you’re using a masque, that doesn’t mean anything goes. Translations often commit the sin (imho) of replacing jokes that only work in the origin language with a joke that works in the target language. But if the joke doesn’t work in the target language that means that it’s probably a joke about the language itself (try translating puns, just try it). So if you have a pun-style joke in your masque, that can break the veil, making the reader think about the fact that you’re only pretending that another language exists. I’d love to see more of the French New Wave style of subtitle translation used in a masque, [[Untranslatable French Pun]].

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