Dead Men are the Poorest of All Rambled musings of an independent author

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On Languages in a Fictional World

The real world is replete with languages.  Those of us born in the U.S. often forget how varied the spoken word can be if you step outside the boundaries of our nation.  And the diversity only expands the further backward in time you go, before technology, industrialization before that, and navigational advances before that brought people of differing nations together.

Trade and religion are major themes in my story, both driven by language, and I wanted to capture its realistic usage as best I could.  But I am no linguist and have no specific desire to fashion my own language.  Tolkien already did that and no one can, or arguably should, dabble in that arena without strong reason and the proper tool set.  Moreover, and this is important, I do not feel it is necessary for the reader to understand the languages being spoken in many situations.  If the point of view (PoV) character does not grasp what a foreigner is saying, then often the reader should not either.

There should be a communication barrier when a traveler sails five hundred miles to an uncharted island or negotiates trade contracts with a merchant lord on another continent.  So the question then becomes how I as a writer can convey this without bogging down the reader.  I love Faulkner as much as the next man–read his entire library in college–but making sense of his accents, which he uses for every major and minor character, can be challenging.  Perhaps distractingly so.

So here are some of the rules I developed:

  • Strategic, but limited use of accents and shortened words.
  • Strategic, but limited use of broken grammar for incompetent speakers of a given language.
  • Every language in the book corresponds to a real-world language, slightly modified.
  • When I create a character, no matter how minor, I also jot down the language(s) he or she speaks and the fluency level.
  • Slang used to separate learned/wealthy characters and lowborn characters.
  • The inclusion of a glossary to define key foreign terms, especially slang.

The most significant point for me in that list was the third one: every language I use is an actual language.  I write what I want the character to say, then translate it into the appropriate language, massage it slightly, and then finally render it in the text.  The translation does not have to be perfect, because the reader is not expected to understand.  It is there as a device; however, proper names and jargon words will remain consistent from dialogue to dialogue, giving it better verisimilitude.

I also make use of slang, some of which is entirely made up, some of which is based on cant and slang from the 16th through the 19th centuries.  Characters with a nautical background will use nautical slang; characters who grew up on the streets or have spent their fair share of time involved in the underbelly of society will use street slang.

With this combination of educated vs. non-educated, street vs. nautical vs. neither, and fluency vs. non-fluency, I was able to create easy rules for my character interactions.  It helps me as a writer make decisions about mode of speech and vocabulary usage for every character.

In short, I try to treat language with the same care and depth as every other detail about my characters and world.

Thoughts on “On Languages in a Fictional World

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