Chan eil Gaedhlig Agam! When Language Goes Widdershins

I used to think that I was one of those people that just sort of had a knack for languages.  You know, nothing extraordinary, but a modest bit of a gift.  After all, my French accent is quite excellent (let’s not talk about the grammar, though…Peut etre j’ai besoin de practice… un peu), I learned my Greek alphabet before you could say Sigma Tau Delta (my English honors society took a sort of wicked delight in their rather unfortunate acronym), Old English was difficult, but thoroughly delightful, and I can use American Sign Language well enough to hold a conversation.

So as I made my confident voyage across the Atlantic to the land of haggis, bagpipes, kilts, and a truly excellent university, I was reasonably confident that my foreign language experiences would be challenging, but doable.

I take small comfort in the fact that I can pronounce and translate the lower section of this sign outside my flat

And then I met Scottish Gaelic and Middle Welsh.

Pronunciation skills?  I have none.  A worthy eye for conjugations and declensions?  A tragic illusion of bygone days.

Gaelic and Welsh have humbled me.

They also intrigue me, however.  On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending a conference where some undergraduates were presenting their dissertation topics.  The second student gave hers in Gaelic.  Nearly all the professors in my department know it, along with a substantial number of students.

I sat in rapt attention as I struggled to gain an understanding of the topic.  I picked up bits and pieces:

“Last Tuesday, I read…”

“People now understand…”

“Schools also teach…”

But my limited vocabularly and even more limited grasp of the structure of the language kept me from truly following along.  Honestly, I was proud of myself for picking up words and phrases at all.

A discussion of the phrase 'yn y ford' meaning 'to the road' as opposed to 'on the road' turned into our prof drawing a very complicated stick figure depiction of the scene from Pwyll.

The structure of the language is entirely different from English or any of the Romance languages.  The verb comes first.  Gaelic has no verb for “is”.  They have no “yes” or “no” but rather a system of using affirmative and negative forms of each verb to the same effect.

And let’s not get started on broad and narrow consonants and lenition.  I still have nightmares…

Unfortunately, I was unable to continue with the intensive Gaelic course and take Middle Welsh in addition to my actual postgraduate research, so with great reluctance (though, perhaps, a wee bit of relief) I gave up Gaelic.

But I continue with Middle Welsh.  It contributes to my studies of the Irish and Welsh medieval narratives and I find translation incredibly soothing.  Really, it’s one of my favorite activities when I need a break from research.

Working with foreign languages, especially ones as remote from my own as these, brings to mind how we as authors often want to bring languages into our stories, whether real ones or made up ones.  Tolkien is raised aloft as a virtual saint among fantasy authors for many reasons, but one of them is his incredible gift with building entire languages and cultures for his world that make it feel so utterly real.

When an English prof has an objection to going widdershins, and an Italian student is compelled to ask what the word means, and the Scottish student argues that the word belongs to HIS PEOPLE... the American student can only sit back and enjoy the show.

But we can’t all be Tolkiens!  Some books have tried (I think of Eragon by Paolini) and while their effort is noble and their aspirations to Tolkienism are commendable, the languages tend to stick out a bit obviously rather than blending smoothly with the writing.

So what does one do with a fantasy world and its foreign tongues?

  • An easy answer that works for light fantasy is to avoid the problem.  Don’t address language barriers and work under the happy and convenient assumption that everyone speaks a common tongue in your world.  I mean, it is your world.  You make the rules. Honestly, though, for some stories, this is perfectly acceptable.
  • A step up from that is to reference foreign tongues, but leave it at that.  Maybe your characters don’t interact with foreigners and your story is localized.  Maybe there is a Common Speech that everyone lapses into.  Either way, it’s not important enough to go into.
  • You could go further and bring in references to words, phrases, names, and places of different languages.  Catalog them and use one or two when appropriate, though not to the extent of creating an entire grammar and vocabulary for each one.  This will lend authenticity to your world without requiring the extra ten thousand miles of language construction that can also be so overt and top heavy.
  • Or you could try follow directly after Tolkien.  Good luck.  May your language become the next Quenya or… well… whatever that Trekkie language is that people learn (clearly, a sci-fi person, I am not).

I am curious about others’ approach to language in story.  What have you done?  What has worked?  What has been too little or too much?

And how do you feel about widdershins?


15 thoughts on “Chan eil Gaedhlig Agam! When Language Goes Widdershins

  1. Wait, did you explain what “widdershins” means? I’m thinking “wonky” but I fear I’m far off. I speak two languages: English and Trinidadian English. And yes, it’s different, in that if you’re not from Trinidad and someone launches into full-on Trini, you’ll be lost. Other than that, I have only a smattering of romance language skills, though I can ape an accent like a pro!

    Like you, I avoid aping Tolkien though, and don’t try to invent languages. When they don’t work, they’re awful. Among the worst offenders are Sci-Fi character names. So many Qs and Xs! For once I’d like to see a sci fi character named Trish. Now that’s original. Another author who did languages well was Richard Adams with the classic bunny novel, Watership Down. who knew rabbits could talk!

    1. ‘Widdershins’ basically means counter-clockwise or the wrong way around. It comes from Old English meaning a journey against something, more or less. So my prof likes to go clockwise around the table when we’re doing our Welsh interpretations to avoid widdershins!

      I believe you when you say Trini is different. If you listen to someone lapse into Scots English, you wonder if they are, in fact, talking English at all! It’s good fun. =)

      I think using sensible names that truly fit your story is a sign of good writing and a good author. Authors who lapse into names like Qizzxxi’x are either unaware they are being cliche or they are just trying to be cooler than they really are!

  2. I am working on a fantasy novel and find that I am following the Martin example. The names I’ve created tend to be mostly imaginary (I’ve found that some of them are peoples names) but familiar. I think the key is to use proper nouns that are pronouncable but seem to fit a certain Earthly culture so that the cultures in your world are familiar before you describe them. Like Robert Howard, whose stories are easily accessible because the world is similar to ours. That isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t develop a rich and engaging world, but the truth is that we all borrow aspects from real life and history to build our worlds. Unless of course, you’ve a knack like Tolkein in which case invent away.

    1. A lot of names that I’ve used are unusual spellings of real names or slightly changed real names – such as ‘Ariande’ instead of ‘Ariadne.’ Familiar and yet not. I agree that your names should actually match each other in some way if you want the culture to feel sensible.

      Tolkien is awe inspiring, but even he borrowed from what he knew! He was very fond of Welsh and some of the Scandinavian languages, such as Finnish. You can see inspirations from different mythic backgrounds, such as Celtic or Nordic, in his world building.

      1. I have used some of the just slightly “misspelled” names as well.

        The evolution of language and how it changes over time and space is such an incredible area of study but I find I don’t have the time for it. I am impressed when anyone creates a cohesive and working language for a piece of fiction (Dothraki in the Game of Thrones show, Klingon, Elvish in Tolkein of course). I have no desire to spend years creating a language though, even one based on an existing one.

  3. On the subject of language, especially in speculative fiction, I think what a character says is far more important than how he says it. Language is so much more than words that sound different then our own. You can pain a vibrant picture of a culture simply by paying attention to what they say, and do it all in English (or whatever your native tongue happens to be). I am no linguist (I have a good memory, but I’m awful at mimicking an accent) and any attempt I make at building language will be laughable at best, but I can use the language I do know to create the impression of a different one. Idioms are particularly useful, along with simply paying attention to what the culture values. If you treat your manuscript like a literal translation from whatever language your characters are speaking the language will come alive, no italics necessary.

    1. I think that’s a great and very logical alternative. I’m sure you’ve already thought about this, but I think moderation, as with most things, is extremely important if you are going to go that rout. Otherwise, the oddly spoken English might end up being distracting in a bad way.

      On the other hand, I think of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books and the dialects he puts into his creatures’ dialogue (such as the moles!) and I got used to that well enough, so I guess it all comes down to being consistent, effective, and clever.

      1. I’ve always admired Jacques for his ability to pull off all those dialects! I don’t know how he did it, but it worked so well!
        By the way, if you’re a Redwall fan, have you ever listened to any of the audio-books? He voiced several along with a full cast (I think his son voiced Martin at one point). They’re really well done, great stuff for a road trip.

        1. Brian Jacques’ audio books are some of the only ones I’ll listen to! His delightful narrative voice is one of the most soothing sounds in the world and I adore the variety in his casts. They are wonderful! And yes, I think you’re right about his son doing Martin.

          The best thing about Redwall, though, is the food… oh the food!

          1. Haha! Imaging myself in the midst of a Redwall feast used to be one of my preferred methods of not thinking about what’s under the bed.

  4. Just to throw another example on the heap, Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series created not only an astonishing and detail-filled universe but also gave it the fictitious language Chakobsa. The language is used pretty frequently throughout the books and apparently he acknowledged it as a conglomeration of Roma, Arabic, and some Serbo-Croatian. I say take and modify whatever fits your world just as long as it stays consistent and actually lends some depth and detail to your world. Making up words for the sake of it can get pretty dull and makes me give up bad sci-fi and fantasy all the time.

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