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.
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.
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.
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?