Monday, May 26, 2014

Guest Post: Let's Talk About Language

Eric here, with a special guest. I've known Cara DiGirolamo for a few years now--we're both lucky to belong to a great local fiction writer'scritique group in Ithaca, New York. None of you are as lucky as me, as I've heard many of her works, including a fantastic fantasy novel called Princess Lib, all about a princess learning to come into her own by fighting ogres, saving friends, and even going to court. Cara's life is all about language, so let's let her pontificate regarding that topic and how we should all contemplate how people speak much more when it comes to scifi and fantasy.

Let’s talk about space. You know, the final frontier, with alien populations and cultures cropping up on every planet. A band of intrepid explorers arrives on this planet, on a Starfleet vessel, through a Stargate, by some means of something beginning with Star, and lo, the aliens all welcome them, or the aliens all try to kill them...and very handily they do this all in English.

Have we noticed the problem?

Language and culture are two things that can make a place come alive. They are highly related ideas. In this blog I want to talk about some of the really interesting ways you can look at language in fantasy and use it to bring the world to life.

Is this scary? It shouldn’t be. This is NOT about Conlanging.

(Conlanging – the act of building a CONstructed LANGuage, i.e. a conlang.)

Now, conlangs have a rich history in the world of fantasy, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his obsession with Finnish and Welsh, but I know, from personal experience, that for some people constructing a language is possibly the most painfully boring and frustrating thing anyone can do. ConNaming, however, every writer has to do at some point, so it’s worth thinking about. But not now.

Instead, let’s imagine some worlds.

A vast empire, spanning mountains and seas. But a traveler from the capital has no difficulty communicating with the peoples of the hinterlands, perhaps they have a slight rustic accent, but nothing that impedes his path.

Languages change over time, and physical separation can create mutual unintelligibility. It’s very likely that an empire would span over cultures with differing native languages. But is this world then deeply flawed? No! This is an opportunity. A powerful and well-organized Empire would likely have a policy of everyone learning the language of the conquerors. Rebels might still speak their local tongues, and suffer punishment if they were caught. An emperor who brought prosperity might also bring a sense of pride and prestige in speaking his language. Young people who intend to go to the cities to look for work would learn the metropolitan language, while their elders grumble in the corners in the old tongue. Rather than having an unbelievable world, we now have more depth and complexity, and a way of showing whether the empire is cruel or benevolent, just by the locals’ attitudes towards language.
A world of many diverse cultures, a traveler visiting each one, and though being thrown by local customs, having little trouble buying his dinner.
First question to ask: is the traveler likely to know many languages? This is where being an American skews one’s ideas a bit. In most places, it’s totally reasonable to grow up speaking and understanding multiple languages. Although this can happen through formal education, usually it happens because the languages are all around. Did the traveler grow up in court society with ambassador’s children? Did he have a nurse from one place and a cook from another? Did his family speak a different language from the town? Does the village a mile into the wood speak the language of their homeland? Did he grow up on the docks or in a trading outpost where people from all over came together to interact?

If not, perhaps his interpreter did. Or, even, if not, perhaps there’s a lingua franca, a language used for trade and communication of ideas on a supra-national level. Knowing the trade language means there are always a few people he’ll be able to speak to. He’ll have a way of functioning, even if no one is using their native language.
A foreign land with complex systems of kowtowing before royalty, appreciating your elders, and never asking directly for anything, in which your rustic hero enters, and with his cheerful good-naturedness wins over the local populace who are secretly sick of all this stiffness.
Problems! The ways people use language is an intrinsic part of a community. Methods of politeness can vary from context to context inside a society. But if someone violates those norms, it’s very unlikely that people are going to just smile and like him the better for it. If someone came up to you and violated your politeness norms, you’d probably think he was pretty rude, right? This is the same.

Now there are a couple of ways to think about being polite. Two common ones are negative face vs. positive face. When you think about negative face, think about a courtier, someone who needs to get people to do things for him without making them feel like he’s imposing. He does not expect people to like him, in fact, he doesn’t even always expect them to be able to figure out who he is. Although he could try to jolly everyone along, make them think that they want what he wants, that isn’t usually the way of things in court society. Usually, he tries to make the imposition as small as possible. He says, “Well, if you wouldn’t mind,” or “If it isn’t any trouble,” to people more powerful than he is. He never talks about how important it is to him, just because it would reveal that they have power over him.

Positive face is the opposite, where you try your best to be charming and friendly, and tell people just how much you need their help, and make them feel good and connected with you, so that your wants become their wants. Now, it’s obvious to do something like having the court be all negative face, long sentences, hiding your personal interests, and having the pub be positive face, all about making friends and getting them to take your side. But what if you switched them? What if there was a court that ran entirely on positive face mechanisms, with a surrounding town where negative face was the way to go? How could that happen? What would it be like?

Your rustic hero becomes king. Perhaps he slays a dragon, or has the royal birthmark on his behind. And then he’s king, right? He can suddenly talk the talk of the king and walk the walk of the king, no problem.

Oh there’s definitely a problem. What happens after your farm boy becomes monarch? How does he learn to speak like a king? Does he have tutors training him in court language and city accents? Is he powerful enough so people try and speak like him, and suddenly the rural hickish accent is stylish and popular and everyone is trying to adopt it? Does he try and fail to change his accent? Do people mock him behind his back for how he says his Vs? Do his supporters pick up his accent and his rivals reject it? What about a suspicious sycophant? How would he try to ingratiate himself with the king by adopting his accent? Would the king find that humiliating? There are a thousand possibilities, each one more interesting than the last.

Essentially, here’s the truth of it: questioning your expectations about language and playing with them can put life into your characters. Women/Men/Workers/Hicks, we all think we know how they speak. But those expectations are derived from our own culture. If we are building a new world, we need to break out of our own expectations, surprise ourselves and our readers. Or just really think it through!

Language: a danger and an opportunity. What’s that, now? You want to try ConLanging?

Cara DiGirolamo is a professional linguist and amateur novelist. As a linguist she is most famous for herarticle on the systems underlying blended fandom !ship names (along the linesof ‘Brangelina’). As a novelist she is most famous for waving her hands around wildly and going into an excessive amount of detail about why pronouns are confusing, and how, if we all spoke Middle Welsh, we wouldn’t have these problems. 


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Cara, welcome to Heroines of Fantasy! This is a great post; it really helped to put into perspective some of the things I try to do with my own work. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Great post, Cara. Very thought provoking for the historical fiction author, too!

Terri-Lynne said...

Here's the thing about language in fantasy fiction--no matter how careful we are, no matter what scenario we set up, it's all fudged, and here's why-- Take, for instance, Italy. Within that relatively small area, there are a myriad of dialects that aren't necessarily mutually understandable, but are--outside of the most remote areas--generally passable. Several centuries ago, they'd almost be separate languages complete with varying grammar systems. (That's how Spanish, French and Italian separated from Latin to begin with--but that's a whole OTHER story!) Language, as we see and hear it today, is nothing like language a few centuries ago--which is where most fantasy is set, in a primative society. There would be no "common" language, because even if there were, it would vary so greatly and STAY that way because of distances, and the fact that outside of traders and soldiers, most people stayed put.

Because of radio, Tv, Internet, whatever, languages have...homogeonized a bit. Americans can usually understand one another, wherever they're from. The UK, Italy, France. There are still dialects, but they're nothing like they were back when most fantasy story equivalents would be.

So, though language and how it's understood/spoken/evolved would be vastly different in the time-periods we write, we fudge it for our fiction. We make it accessible for modern readers with conquest or evil overloard insisting upon everyone speaking his language scenarios that probably would not have made a difference if in ACTUAL primitive societies, and that's fine. What else is there to do? This "suspension of believe" (aka--handwavery) is what fantasy fiction is about. "Oh, child, I know everyone will not speak the same language, but we're going to make it a magical thing that allows it, so hush and read on and enjoy."
That's what we say, and that's what most readers accept.

The words/names/places within a fantasy world have to make sense. If you're borrowing from Italian culture, or British, or German--stay consistent. You can't have an "English" feel to your story and then name your characters Xu Wan--not unless you want to imply conquest or trade on a vast scale.

In A Time Never Lived, I invented a language because I could NOT reconcile any sort of scenario that would allow people separated for thousands of years to speak the same language. I used language, and folklore, to show a migration of a people out of the mountains and into the desert. It was HARD! But I pulled it off well enough that no one has called shenanigans. Of course, I do have less-than-believeable-once-you-really-look-hard ways for my characters to be able to learn the mountain language, but--as I said--handwavery is our friend!

Wow...I went on and on there. You happened upon one of my passions. Thanks, Cara!

writerknv said...

Italian itself is a bit of a fudged language. Dante Alighieri had a huge influence on modern Italian, adding in many of the word endings simply so he could rhyme them. He is also credited with standardization of modern Italian.

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim...really? I had no idea! In my obsession with the English language, I often overlook the fact that all languages have amazingly interesting histories to them.

So Dante was the Italian version of Shakespeare...sort of. Cool!