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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Using Fictional Languages

   
Author Topic: Using Fictional Languages
KathiS
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My reader brought up a very good point that raises a question. How does everyone feel about having a character speak in a different language? Not overly so, just one or two lines. I obviously know what my character is saying and I try to have some indication of what it might be by how the other character's respond or react.

Does it kick you out of the story?

Do you re-read because you've stumbled over foreign words?

Instead of

quote:
"Grtch bringu trg torng yadda," he said.
would you rather see
quote:
He said something to Snoopy in a language Woodstock didn't understand.
and leave all the language out of it.

[This message has been edited by KathiS (edited August 05, 2011).]


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wetwilly
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I personally would prefer leaving the language out of it. It makes me stop to try to pronounce the crazy words in my mind and pulls me out of my reading flow.
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Natej11
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In my fanfiction I like using languages, usually just a line here and there. It's kind of fun making it sound somewhat authentic. Like in Demonic I use lots of glottal sounds, X and G and K and Z and CH, etc. In Elvish I'll use lots more glides, Ls and Rs and more sibilant and flowing language.

It helps that I've always been interested in language. I took a bit of Arabic and Spanish and a few linguistics classes. It's really interesting to learn some of the aspects of language.

[This message has been edited by Natej11 (edited August 05, 2011).]


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Crane
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For me, it adds to the realism. I word or two, or a phrase or two is fine, especially if those words are important to understanding the different culture of the character who's speaking it.

For example: khaleesi, muad'dib, or ka'plah!

Song of Ice and Fire, Dune, and Star Trek wouldn't be the same without these words.


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Osiris
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I've had problems with this too. In one story, I had a character who'd curse in Hindi, and the crits complained about it because they didn't know what it meant.

So now if I use foreign words, I try to find a way to queue to the reader what the word means through some action or reaction of other characters who know what the word means. Sometimes there are objects that exist in other cultures and have no analog in English-speaking cultures, and in such cases I find it necessary to use the foreign language word.


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babooher
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Judicious use can create verisimilitude. I think some people get really crazy with this. On one hand, I think Tolkien went nuts (but hey I think it made him happy) and I've seen people who think you should go to that depth before using an imaginary language. It has been awhile, but I think I read something where OSC was in this category. To me, this falls into the category of technical nits and I don't care.

On the other hand, too much of anything is a bad thing. If you have to write the language and then explain what was said, you're wasting space.

I've been working on a piece where there is a lost language for the old nobles. One character is recognized by his use of a word I made up that is the love child of hombre and the Irish oibrí. One word and its meaning is explained and has signficance to the story. It wasn't just there for scenery.


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Crank
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I figure: if my MC doesn't understand the language, neither will my reader, so I don't bother to recreate it with our alphabet.

I often have alien characters attempting to speak an Earther language, or an Earther speaking an alien language, and that's where I have my fun with dialog. One of my species' primary language does not make use of interrogatives as we understand them, so the dialog when my characters are speaking that language (as translated into English for the benefit of my readers) is inherently different than when my characters are speaking an Earther language.

I have, by the way, created my own pronoun for the English language, which appears in a few of my SF stories. One of the editors at Leading Edge suggested the original idea, and I ran with it.

Of course...I'm in the middle of writing stories for my young adult series, and Teen-speak is the most fictional language of them all.

S!
S!


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MattLeo
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You know, the thing that keeps me away from writing high fantasy is that I can't stand fantasy names that don't sound believable. I'm kind of a stickler for accuracy, or when I can't get it (as in fantasy worlds) precision. I did a short story which was in a high fantasy-ish world, but a cribbed the names from the Kalevala and the toponyms were just slightly twisted Finnish place names.

I'd say that if an alien language is spoken, a transliterated example is better than telling that it happened, *provided you can make it sound like language instead of the gibberish it is*. It takes a kind of poetic ear, I think, to carry this off. Some writers have a gift for riffing off of what foreign languages sound to their ears, like H. Beam Piper's Japanese sounding Fuzzy language. But if you go that route, if you have more than one or two scattered instances you're going to have to invent a phonology, lexicon and grammar.

It probably comes as no surprise there's an Internet subculture to help you through this task (conlang -- CONstructed Languages), but that way may well lie madness.

Here's a thought. If you knew somebody who spoke a fairly exotic language, say Khmer or Navaho, have them translate your dialog into that language. Then you could *transliterate* what it sounds like to you according to the rules of English orthography. That's bound to cover your tracks. I wonder how many writers who use pseudo-Welsh names have any idea that "Cymru" is pronounced roughly "Kemree"? Or that "Dafydd" is pronounced "Dahvith?" "Kemree" and "Dahvith" would not be recognizable as Welsh except to a Welshman who sounded them out.

In any case, true alien languages might not sound like language to us at all, having no features in common. What if instead of the sequence of phonemes (sounds) that make up a word, the aliens mixed musical tones so that words were chords? Or if speech were a sequence of clicks the speed of which broke the stream of sound into words? That's one of the things that people who don't know a language can't do, is identify word boundaries.

What if their language didn't have words at all?


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Robert Nowall
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It's the rules of pronunciation that sometimes do me in. If it doesn't match up with the rules of English, I stumble over the words. (I tripped up for a long time on Tolkien's "hard 'c'" in Sindaran.)

(Some of the rules for, say, Welsh or Gaelic, seem to amount to "Let's stick it to the English," attempting to be deliberately unpronounceable...)

On Tolkien and his languages and the effort he put into them...Tolkien spent his entire adult life, some sixty years, working on these, while simultaneously building a base of knowledge that made him, maybe, the greatest philologist of his time. His level of scholarship showed in his invented languages---and hardly anyone who's attempted such things since, in emulation or otherwise, operates at his level.


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Osiris
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quote:
What if their language didn't have words at all?

Yes! Once again, I can only recommend THE SCIENCE OF ALIENS by Clifford Pickover. It covers the diverse possibilities of alien communication.

The aliens in my WIP novel have a two levels of communication; through bioluminescent organs for distance communication with the limitation that nothing too complex can be communicated this way, or incredibly complex communication that borders on hive-mind telepathy through direct contact. Neither method involves sound. In fact, they have no hearing, though they can 'feel' the pressure waves sound creates.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited August 05, 2011).]


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EVOC
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You got to make the words semi-pronounceable. It doesn't matter if it is a name or a foreign language (alien or otherwise). I think it would be more realistic for a few words to come up.

I think you also have to keep in mind your target audience. That may determine if they would tolerate an alien language (or any language other then English).

Language is also so much more then English, Spanish, French, Alien, ect. Language is also may include technical language, job specific language and age specific language. All those would also be depended on your target audience.

Another thing you may want to consider is your story pacing. If you want your reader to slow down a minute and think about the scene coming up, I would put in an Alien language to get them to slow down. Especially if you just finished a fast paced scene.

However, if you want your reader to continue at the same pace, I would leave is out or minimize the use of another language.

Last, you might try something like this:

quote:
"Grtch bringu trg torng yadda," He continued to speak to Snoopy in a language Woodstock didn't understand.

Showing us a bit of the language without the whole conversation.

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Crank
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@ Osiris: Thanx for the tip. I'm familiar with Pickover's works. A number of years ago, I emailed him to mention that "Surfing through Hyperspace" got me interested in the study of higher dimensions; he responded back with a few nuggests that were far more intense than anything he included in the book.

In about 3-5 business days, I will be familiar with Science of Aliens as well.

S!
S!


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Osiris
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Excellent, glad I could recommend it to someone else. My favorite parts of it so far are when he demonstrates that mother nature is apparently more imaginative with the creatures she comes up with than many science fiction stories.
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KathiS
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A lot of interesting feedback.

I use the "foreign" language in a scene with two of the main characters and one minor character. The minor and one of the mains have known each other a very long time and it is the language they would use normally. In deference to the other main, who wouldn't understand, the minor character is speaking what would amount to English but slips into her native tongue for one exchange with the other main that is just between them.

Huh. Now that was a convoluted explanation if ever there was one!

There is no reason beyond world building that I *need* to have it. I felt it added something and never gave it another thought so it's always good to get other people's take on it.

kls


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History
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Quendi, Sindarin, Khuzdal (Dwarfish), etc works in Tolkien because these are fully developed languages.

Similarly when HBO developed GRR Martin's A GAME OF THRONES for television this year, they hired David Peterson of the Language Creation Society [ http://www.conlang.org/ ]to fully develop the Dothraki language [ http://www.dothraki.org/ ].

Thus, creating a few simple language rules, a vocabulary of about 100 words (especially articles, prepositions, and conjunctions) and using them consistently can make your invented language believable.

The issue you raise also applies to using foreign (i.e. non-English) language in a story or novel. In my writing, I have a fair amount of transliterated Yiddish and Hebrew (mostly Biblical Hebrew) and occasionally other languages (most recently ancient Egyptian). Everything I include is actual language.

A related issue is making a "foreign" language relevant as well as understandable to the reader. There are many ways. Two I employ include translation and, whenever possible, recognized implication.

Interesting subject.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob



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