The Language Barrier


I was acting as a sounding board for a friend recently whilst she was brainstorming a new story, and we came up against an issue that I hadn’t really previously considered. What do you do about different languages? This is actually a major challenge for fantasy and sci-fi writers, and one that frequently gets overlooked. It’s rare for a sci-fantasy book to only contain one culture, but it’s even rarer for those cultures to speak different languages on the page. The ubiquitous ‘common’ or ‘trade’ language covers a multitude of problems, and I’m absolutely not saying that’s a bad thing. But honestly, how realistic is it?

By the way, if you’re expecting a logical argument with a final conclusion on this one, you’re in for a disappointment. I haven’t quite made up my mind. In favour of the use of multiple languages are the factors of realism, and the potential for comedy misunderstandings. Against, the issue of clarity.

Yup, clarity again. Well, it is pretty essential to story telling. The problem here is how to effectively communicate between characters, if they can’t understand each other. If you want the reader to understand both (often a bonus), it’s even worse. No one wants to study an alien language during the course of a story – if they did, they’d be doing a Rosetta course instead. As for translation montage scenes, jog on. The Thirteenth Warrior did it well but that approach wouldn’t work on the page and I’ve never seen it equalled in any other story.

You may think that I’m coming down firmly in favour of a common tongue, but you’d be wrong. After all, Tolkien wrote much of his stuff around the various elven languages that he put together and it does add a completely alien, fantastic aspect to the books. Before you ask, no, I don’t speak Quenya. But I did study Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) at uni and I have been known to use elements of it in my stories. It can drive home a foreign culture like nothing else, and all the points I’ve made about language in previous blog posts can be applied to add a rich depth to that culture which then comes out in other ways.

There is, of course, a middle ground. There’s always a middle ground. This time, it’s dialects. Essentially the same language still, just on diverging paths. You can keep the cultural differences without losing the ability to communicate (mostly). The opportunities for comedic mistranslations remain but the reader can more easily be in on the joke. It also has the advantage of realism – the UK isn’t exactly a huge country, but we’ve got more dialects than you can shake a stick at.

So there you have it: arguments for and against. Not so much advice as something to think about.


One response »

  1. I studied ‘The Silver Darlings’ by Neil M Gunn during my (equivilant to) A level English. It’s a book set in Scotland a good few hundred years ago and it uses both English and Gaelic. It does it in such a way that the reader isn’t meant to understand the gaelic, but can get the gist of what is said by the context. Quite clever in some ways. However it drove me crazy because Mr Gunn didn’t write in Gaelic, he wrote in phonetic gaelic, so that english speaking readers would pronounce the words correctly in their heads I presume. As a Gaelic speaker it was incredibly frustrating to have to sound out all the words before understanding what the sentence said, when it would have been easy to read had it been written properly (and are people reading in English really going to care about sounding out words they don’t understand phonetically?).

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