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Fantastic Wonder is a series of Fantasy related posts where I discuss different aspects of the genre and the many tropes and plot lines associated with it. Today, I talk about languages and speech in speculative fiction.
Language is such a powerful ability. We construct words of random letters or symbols and they allow us to communicate. Whether it’s something as understandable as English, or something as complex as Chinese or Russian, language is a part of humanity for the longest time. It makes us unique in such an isolated galaxy.
But some of us don’t make stories set on earth. A majority of authors do, but for those in our genre, we tend to create our own world, our own ecosystem, and of course, unique cultures and races.
And with a unique race comes, you guessed it, languages. And the best part is that we’re not entirely bound to languages in our world. Of course there’s English, but for fantasy, this would equate to Common, or something similar. We have to know what they’re saying, regardless of language.
So I wanted to go over my thoughts on fantasy or interstellar language and how we can best incorporate it into stories. So, let’s begin.
The New English (or Common)
Usually when a story is released, it’s in whatever real life language it’s available in. So if it’s sold in Germany, all of the characters speak German, even if it wouldn’t make sense realistically. Typically, the go to language is English, but since most worlds wouldn’t know what England is, they have to default to another term, such as common or even Earth language.
Most of the time, I doubt aliens would know any of our languages. We don’t know anything about the outside world, so assuming they knew English is a bit of a stretch. If we don’t know about them, would they know about us? Having aliens speak English, really, is so the readers and viewers can relate to those character easily. Would it make sense to have them converse in their own languages and somehow communicate?
Also, we have translations for non-English languages. Most of them are specific to one country, but some speak other, similar languages. This is where we put suspension of disbelief to the ultimate test. Not against shows in other languages (I enjoy tons of subbed anime and I have this issue), but we have to take this into account.
With that, there are of course fictional languages to take into as well, especially fantasy. This came out of a discussion that most fantasy stories have to incorporate one language other than their own into a story to make it more believable. Especially since it’d be odd if everyone spoke English, even if they’re a different race.
Now, I’m not expecting the world to be huge linguists and come up with an entire formatted language, but it does feel natural for others to be communicating in another language, even if the whole story is in English anyway. Perhaps they can use certain phrases or communicate even when there’s no direct translation, such as a curse word or a greeting (En Taro Adun, is Protoss for In Adun’s name).
The movie Warcraft (which is the best Video Game movie, and probably one of the few good ones out there) handles this pretty well. The humans and orcs communicate with each other pretty well, but confronted with humans, they’re incapable of understanding each other. This is where the half orc/half human Garona comes in, and serves as a mediator between the two, translating the orcs for the humans. When it switches to Durotan, he speaks normal, but Garona is translating in Orcish to allow him to speak. It was a unique way to handle differing languages across two separate (and somewhat alien) species and I wish others employed a similar tactic.
Not everything has to have a translation, but it has to make sense. I can’t fault the authors for it, since anything else would come off as unoriginal and blatantly made up. I can understand why some authors don’t bother with it. I don’t have the time or the energy to come up with a full dictionary of languages like some others, but I do feel some implication is necessary, blatant or not.
What’s in a name?
Names are also another thing. Some people have enough problems coming up with the perfect name for a character, let alone made up. I’m not the most original when it comes to naming, but I do try. Usually, if a name sticks long enough for a character, I’ll keep it, but I do want to avoid similar naming.
Personally, I dislike having to put random apostrophes in names. Like Shan’alar or something. To me, it’s been done to death. It also feels odd to me, just a random apos’trophe sticking out in a per’son’s name. It’s like the author is saying. “Hey, this guy is special because he has a unique name.”
I know some cultures have that kind of thing, like the Japanese sometimes spell a name like “Shin’ichi” or something like that (apologies if that’s misplaced). I’m not criticizing the idea, just that it’s often placed so randomly that it looks fake. Just me, though, but I know some who have this mentality.
But the hardest is coming up with a wholly alien name that isn’t blatantly human. I couldn’t comprehend how some cultures came up with their languages and names in their infancy. I’d imagine it came natural for some, but imagine doing it from scratch. It’s impressive when you think about it from a history standpoint. English is no different. It’s evolved all throughout the years, often without us even thinking about it.
It’s hard to input how to make a convincing name other than look up how language works and make sense of it. But I doubt anyone expects authors to be master linguists, or even know another language, so I can see why it’s not included, but in fantasy stories as well as Sci-Fi, I’d say it’s mandatory to at least consider such a thing depending on the setting and detail.
Anyway, that’s all the rambling I can do. What do you think? Do you have difficulty coming up with a made-up language? How would you incorporate something in your world? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
That’s all for today. Take care, and remember, the inn is always open.