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Thread: What language are we speaking?

  1. #1
    Searching for dragons Blinkk's Avatar
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    What language are we speaking?

    I have a female MC in a fantasy world who comes from a town in the mountains. She was raised to be a mountain girl and she never had a proper education (although she knows herbs, wild birds, and can fell a tree like nobody's business). She's suddenly thrown into this crazy adventure and she must work with an important dude from the palace.

    Now that she's working with this educated, eloquent guy, it felt important to highlight her non-education. I've been revealing it by using some vocabulary. He frequently says a high end vocab word that she's never heard and she pretends like she knows what it means. But really, she has no idea. It gets her into trouble more than once.

    I was toying with taking this a step further and had the idea of making her speak with informal contractions (ex: 'do you' becomes d'ya, or 'what did he' becomes whatd'dee). That's how she learned the language anyway. By listening, not by writing out the words. I'm on the fence about keeping this one, because it's making her sound way younger than she is. Any thoughts?

    Anyways, as I'm working though this issue another interesting thought hit me.

    These characters aren't actually speaking English. They're speaking a language that's made up to fit this fantasy world. Since I'm the author writing for an English speaking audience, I'm technically translating this foreign fantasy language into English. It's strange, because later in the book the male MC teaches her to write, and he specifically mentions the 38 runes that make up their sounds. So if they have different sounds than English, would it make sense to start adding informal contractions? It seems odd to me.

    Haha, am I thinking about this way too much? I feel like I am.

  2. #2
    Independent fluffy puppy. Osulagh's Avatar
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    There are some studies showing that it's hard, if not impossible, for people who grew up without language to learn language later on. That part of the brain had never developed and does not later on. Cases like this are fairly rare, and I haven't looked into them recently. Look into Genie.

    He frequently says a high end vocab word that she's never heard and she pretends like she knows what it means. But really, she has no idea. It gets her into trouble more than once.
    That's actually rather normal in everyday speech and normal for people still learning the language. Our brains tend to fill in the blanks, and when learning another language our brains aren't prepared to fill in the blanks so they become more obvious. Over time we learn to fill-in by context. Children are a good example of this as we're not born with all the words needed to understand a conversation, they tend to over-look words they do not know and learn them later with repeated occurrences and derive meaning from context.

    I was toying with taking this a step further and had the idea of making her speak with informal contractions (ex: 'do you' becomes d'ya, or 'what did he' becomes whatd'dee). That's how she learned the language anyway. By listening, not by writing out the words. I'm on the fence about keeping this one, because it's making her sound way younger than she is. Any thoughts?
    Children and people tend to learn pronunciation from the person they're learning from. While it can be rather hard to pronounce words from pure listening, if the example speaker is clear enough the learner should get it just fine. As she learning from this eloquent guy? I'd expect her to pick up on proper pronunciation. If not, she'd pick up on whomever is speaking most around her.

    These characters aren't actually speaking English. They're speaking a language that's made up to fit this fantasy world. Since I'm the author writing for an English speaking audience, I'm technically translating this foreign fantasy language into English. It's strange, because later in the book the male MC teaches her to write, and he specifically mentions the 38 runes that make up their sounds. So if they have different sounds than English, would it make sense to start adding informal contractions?
    I've heard and read over a lot of theories regarding the fantasy author's role as a translator between the characters and reader. It's not something that makes a huge difference, unless you hit what you hit; working from your writing system.

    I've seen authors using writing systems before (runes, a lot, in fact. What's with people and runes? God, that Nordic influence), and they just don't relate how the runes transform into their language and how that transpires into ours. "The runes on the walls read, "Hangul is amazing; why don't the Japanese and Chinese use it? Kanji sucks." I'd simply gloss over and try to avoid revealing the written language system. If it's a foreign language to the characters, or sometimes they use certain words that don't have specific translations (which doesn't come to light as much nowadays), I could see dipping into the fantasy language. But if all your characters are talking in this language, I'd avoid supplying and detailing an alphabet.

  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW stephenf's Avatar
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    Hi

    The language problem is interesting and difficult to resolve . If you need to educated your reader, the learning curve needs to be shallow and short . There have been a number of books that have managed to persuade the readers to make a bigger effort. But some very good books remain obscure, because of the difficultly of actuly understanding the language . Have a look at Russell Hoban book Riddley Walker
    Personally, I think it is better to keep the language simple concise .

    Your story sounds a bit like the children raised by wolves myth . In those stories it is always told from the educators point of view . It would be interesting to understand what is happening in the wolf boys mined. But it would be so alien , to translate it would be converting it something alien to the original , and it's true meaning, to the boy , would be never understood
    Last edited by stephenf; 04-18-2015 at 09:03 PM.

  4. #4
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin amyall's Avatar
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    I feel like focusing too hard on creating a new language could be a really tricky move and has potential to alienate your readers. If your reader is taken out of the story by a jarring combination of sounds that don't make sense to them there's a chance you'll lose their connection to the characters.

    I suggest sticking primarily with separating the two characters by their vocabulary and style. Mark Twain is a great example of writing dialog that lets you know everything about a person.

    Tom Sawyer is a classic character with a simple education but he doesn't come across as childish. Perhaps your leading lady could be something more like him?

    From- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer--
    "No -- no -- I reckon it wouldn't hardly do, Ben..."
    "Like it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it..."
    "Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer."


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  5. #5
    Get it off! It burns! Dennis E. Taylor's Avatar
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    I watched Pompeii recently, and they were speaking English! And here I always thought they spoke Latin...

    Seriously, though, the reader knows you are translating. The MC may not actually be saying "y'all", but she is saying something that's the backwoods equivalent for the milieu. They don't have "can't" and "cannot", but they likely have contractions. When you mention the 38 runes, that's IMO exactly the right way to handle it. It gently reminds the reader that this isn't actually English, without getting all telly.

    The point is that you are trying to give the flavor of the interaction, not a literal video recording.
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  6. #6
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    The way I handle this sort of thing is just to give the language a different spin without using different words or unfamiliar dialect. For example, I might insert a few errors in a consistent manner, because a person who grew up speaking incorrect grammar thinks it correct and applies it the same way a person who knows correct grammar does.

    "I been getting pain from the head cook about how I been putting the bread away."
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  7. #7
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Dialects tend to have internally consistent rules, though they may be very different from the rules that prevail in more "educated" society.

    There was a lively discussion a while back on AW about expressions like, "The floor wants swept," or "The dog wants fed," for instance.

    And double negatives? Once an acceptable part of English (as they still are in many languages), and they're still used in some dialects (like Yorkshire, I believe).

    Many argue that a light touch is best, unless you're great at dialects.

    I have a character who is in a similar situation to yours, and I've puzzled over the same issue. She's further along in her immersion in a more "sophisticated" part of the world, since she's been at a university in the capital city for a few years when the story begins (and she's got a mentor who is trying to edify her). But I try to show her slipping a bit, then correcting her own diction, when she's agitated. The hard part is knowing what to do with the narrative when it's in her pov. Should it, in essence, be telling the story in her colloquial style (to do this, I'd have to create an internally consistent and natural seeming colloquial voice for her), or should the narrative style be like her spoken voice--pretty formal, but occasionally lapsing to more colloquial tone when things get stressful, and with a smattering of words and expressions that have carried over from her rural childhood?

    I've opted for the latter, but I don't know if it's the best approach or not. I don't think I'm a natural at conlanging, or con dialecting, or even at "borrowing" real-world dialects and transplanting them into my fantasy world in a way that feels natural or seamless
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 04-19-2015 at 03:08 AM.
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  8. #8
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Osulagh View Post
    What's with people and runes?
    Why do you rue runes?

    It may be overused to the point of abuse, but it's a quick way to let the reader know they're not in Kansas - or on Earth - anymore. Plus it's faster and easier to write than "hieroglyph" or "grapheme" or "logogram" or "fancy-arse smeerp word to make a fantasy-world letter or character sound not like an ordinary old Earth letter or character".

    As others have said, unless it's a major point of the novel and/or you're a linguistics expert, it's best to keep this kind of thing light. Mentioning the "38 runes" of the local alphabet is a nice hint that they're not dealing with English A-B-C's, without needing to go into details.

    On the dialect, a light touch would also be preferable. If she learned to communicate from someone speaking a dialect, she'd pick that up, though if she realized it made her seem slow or stupid she might start correcting herself in "higher" company. (Being illiterate wouldn't mean she was stupid, just that she never learned to write. Humans were illiterate for thousands and thousands of years and did okay for themselves...) As for the fantasy language having different contractions and such due to being composed of different sounds... again, I'd tread carefully here unless you had a snerkload of knowledge about linguistics and such, or you could come off very awkward. Myself, I'd just leave it in English, maybe with the odd peculiarity or hitch, if that.

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  9. #9
    They've been very bad, Mr Flibble Mr Flibble's Avatar
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    You are thinking about this way too much

    You are translating into English, right?

    So your accent/dialect translations are also into English in a form that English readers will see what you mean

    Soo.....


    Everything you write is an approximation.

    And so? Happens all the time

    And basically don't over do the djanow and isnet and similar, keep it consistent and you'll be fine.




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  10. #10
    figuring it all out John Ayliff's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blinkk View Post
    I was toying with taking this a step further and had the idea of making her speak with informal contractions (ex: 'do you' becomes d'ya, or 'what did he' becomes whatd'dee). That's how she learned the language anyway. By listening, not by writing out the words. I'm on the fence about keeping this one, because it's making her sound way younger than she is. Any thoughts?
    I'd avoid this, or at least not go too far with it, not because it makes her sound young but because it could make her speech difficult for the reader to understand. I'd have trouble understanding "whatd'dee" -- I'd probably get it after a few seconds, but it would have slowed down my reading and taken me out of the story. There are plenty of ways to show that someone's uneducated without rendering their speech phonetically.

  11. #11
    Resident Alien Reziac's Avatar
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    You can do a lot more with word order and word choice than with visual accents. A somewhat parallel example leaps to mind in Bujold's Sharing Knife series, where Fawn and Dag have very different backgrounds, and it shows in their manners of speech.

    A realworld example is the Pennsylvania Dutch phrase (the one I can remember from a book of examples, which may or may not be accurate but will still serve here) "Throw the horse over the fence some hay." It not only isn't order-typical for English, it also omits words that the English equivalent would need for sense -- but it doesn't need any visual dialect to make you hear it as not-standard-English.
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  12. #12
    People are not wearing enough hats JJ Litke's Avatar
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    I don't mind the term runes, but it does make me think of a specific kind of character. Character would be the more general term that refers to any kind of written symbol in any writing system.

    I agree with everyone else about going easy on writing out dialects. The Tom Sawyer excerpt above is a good example of using word choice. I have a southern character in one piece, but I rejected the idea of trying to write a drawl and used word choices instead, like, "You might could try it that way."

  13. #13
    banned as an incurable tosspot
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    Several previous posters have made the point that there's not only a tradition of using modern English informality and dialects to represent different dialects from the theoretical native language of the story, but also that readers aren't too much bothered by the issue.

    Go light with it though. Use small clues. That they have 38 runes(letters/characters) is a nice flavor fact, for example. What sound those runes represent or how they're drawn is probably unnecessary. You can use the educated vs. hick thing to your advantage without greatly modifying the actual dialogue, too. Have him say stuff like that to her, criticize her diction, etc. But they both need to be understandable to the reader.

  14. #14
    Got the hang of it, here Maxx's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blinkk View Post
    I have a female MC in a fantasy world who comes from a town in the mountains. She was raised to be a mountain girl and she never had a proper education (although she knows herbs, wild birds, and can fell a tree like nobody's business). She's suddenly thrown into this crazy adventure and she must work with an important dude from the palace.
    I had a similar duo once. The girl had two or three small harbor town trades: smoking fish, running a bathhouse and prostitution. The boy was in penal servitude as a cover for spying on his friends. I didn't really distinguish them in terms of language. The boy could be pompous. The girl could pretend to like non-fishy food like chicken and then throw it up under stress. She also tended to stab people unexpectedly with unlikely implements. Later she wrote some memoires it seems so she could use language when she wanted to. Someday I will rewrite their adventures.
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  15. #15
    Searching for dragons Blinkk's Avatar
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    Thanks guys, this gave me a lot to think about. I think I'll go easy on the contractions and make it easy on the reader. Haha, I also didn't realize the thing about runes. I could always say the word 'characters' instead, but that sounds too modern. I'll think on this. It's just a symbol that represents a sound. I don't really care what its called, as long as the reader gets it.

  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW snafu1056's Avatar
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    "Glyphs" maybe. Sounds more exotic than "characters"

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    banned as an incurable tosspot
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    Just say letters. If there's 38, I think people will catch your hint.

  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Reziac View Post
    A realworld example is the Pennsylvania Dutch phrase (the one I can remember from a book of examples, which may or may not be accurate but will still serve here) "Throw the horse over the fence some hay." It not only isn't order-typical for English, it also omits words that the English equivalent would need for sense -- but it doesn't need any visual dialect to make you hear it as not-standard-English.
    The best-known version of that is likely Yoda language: Learn to Talk Like Yoda with the Yoda-Speak Generator

    Short of that, you can use atypical constructions. Isaac Asimov's father would look for his hometown and maps, and say about them "Krichev they have... Khaslavich they have... Petrovichi they don't have." He was using topic-comment order, where the topic or old info comes first and the comment or new info comes after it. That's common in some languages, like Russian.

    Some languages, like Japanese, treat predicate-position adjectives as verbs. Thus, "This apple is red" is "This apple reds". The band "Let's Active" used that sort of construction in its name.

    Some languages use lots of light verbs (Wikipedia). These are verbs with relatively little semantic content that are not auxiliary verbs. English has plenty of verbs used as light verbs, but their usage is optional, and sometimes to get additional meanings. Consider
    I am looking
    I am taking a look

    I am diving
    I am taking a dive

    The "take" in the second ones is a light verb.

    Imagine some people who go even further, replacing most verbs with light-verb constructions.

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by Reziac View Post
    You can do a lot more with word order and word choice than with visual accents. A somewhat parallel example leaps to mind in Bujold's Sharing Knife series, where Fawn and Dag have very different backgrounds, and it shows in their manners of speech.

    A realworld example is the Pennsylvania Dutch phrase (the one I can remember from a book of examples, which may or may not be accurate but will still serve here) "Throw the horse over the fence some hay." It not only isn't order-typical for English, it also omits words that the English equivalent would need for sense -- but it doesn't need any visual dialect to make you hear it as not-standard-English.
    It's a really fun example because it actually does use entirely English word orderings, but rather it combines them in ways Standard English does not. For example: "Throw the horse some hay" is totally legit standard English, using a transformation rule on "Throw some hay to the horse." But the modifying phrase is placed incorrectly. It does fit much better in the untransformed sentence following the direct object.

  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW rwhegwood's Avatar
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    May I suggest that if the character is essential rural in origin, then her language will likely be highly conservative in it's constructions. That is world, worn down, out of vogue, forgotten and relegated to textbooks in the city would still be part of her living language. To give a personal example, my family has very country roots and has apparently had them for a long time. I remember my grandmother would from time to time reference some person or family in her youth as having holped her. This was in the 70s. Holp and Holpen fell out of common use in English somewhere between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Yet, it hung on in the living language of one of my grandmothers right at 500 years later. It is the same thing I heard in other old poor rural families growing up. I remember one girl in the fifth grade who always said "hit" for "it" and "nary" for "not any" Old formations that passed out common usage hundreds of years ago. Old terms survive for otherwise common items. I knew an old man once who referred to his suspenders as "gallusses". Where I grew up "tote" is as common as "carry". My mother used to use a word for something that stank which took me years to figure out. If something smelled rotten she said it smelled like pure dee kyarn. I was in my 20's before it dawned on me kyarn was just a worn down version of "carrion". As others have noted rural language will be salted with it's own euphemisms, sayings, jargon, etc. Think Jed Clampett and his litany of backwoods expressions: More nervous than a long tailed cat on a porch full of rocking chairs, jumpier than a cricket in a henhouse, lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut.

  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    Another way of suggesting another language may be to use different idioms, phrases intended to suggest literal translations of idioms in the characters' language. Idiom - Wikipedia has lots of literal translations of idioms for dying roughly corresponding to English "kicking the bucket", like these:
    Finnish: potkaista tyhjää 'to kick the void' or heittää veivinsä 'to toss away the crank' or kasvaa koiranputkea 'to be growing cow parsley' or heittää lusikan nurkkaan 'to toss the spoon to the corner' or oikaista koipensa 'to stretch the shanks'
    French: manger des pissenlits par la racine 'to eat dandelions by the root' or casser sa pipe 'to break his pipe' or passer l'arme à gauche 'pass the weapon to the left',
    German: den Löffel abgeben 'to give the spoon away' or ins Gras beißen 'to bite into the grass' or sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen 'look at the radishes from underneath',
    So you may want to invent suitable idioms for your characters to use.

    Another thing that one can do is to use descriptions that suggest a different world of things that one is accustomed to. For instance, if you have characters whose spacecraft use antigravity or whatever and slow down before entering atmospheres, you could have them describe one of our spacecraft entering an atmosphere as an "atmosphere crash". "A lot of us find it very bizarre, but Earthling spacecraft arrive at atmosphered worlds by doing atmosphere crashes. They don't even try to match velocities."

  22. #22
    practical experience, FTW
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    My favorite idea is how she misuses fancy words. That's very typical. Additionally, you could spell her words wrong, like "accept" for "except". That's a common problem for people who don't read much. It doesn't really make sense, because she's not really writing, but it would show she's analyzing the word that way. Or things like "evolve" for "involve". That at least is an audible mistake.

    Contractions are okay, but keep it on a small scale. Dialectical writing is like spices: a little goes a long way. Once established, we'll hear her say "ya" even though you write "you".

    It's fine that it's not English. It's common in a society with a long history of literacy for the way the language is spoken to diverge from the way it's written. Literate people will have more understanding of the way it's "supposed to be" (used to be) spoken.

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW lpetrich's Avatar
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    I'm reminded of a bit in Mario Pei's "Story of Language" that I read long ago. WWII US Navy men created “sky juice” for “water,” “collision mats” for “pancakes,” “fuel oil” for “syrup,” “gravel” for “sugar,” “horizontal duty” for “sleep,” and “squack” for “girl.”

    But these are slang rather than dialect, though slang can be interpreted as a kind of dialect. But it could be fun to coin such terms, like "idle mode" for "sleep".

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