Tag Archives: language

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction


A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.


Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.


You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.


For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.

Rolling For Metaphors: Lessons from Taylor Mali


Taylor Mali, American poet and English teacher, has come up with this fun little exercise. I’m on a bit of a poetry bent at the moment, so this appealed to me. He goes into a little too much detail in his video (thanks, Mr. Mali, I know how to fold cardboard into a cube with sellotape), but it’s worth watching. Let me know what metaphors you guys come up with!

Identity of the Consumer: Body & Mind As A Place


Lots of interesting stuff this week, and I may have got a little over-excited. Identity is high on my ‘cool ideas to think about’ list, particularly as the question underpinning my current book is centered around the balance of personal and social identity. When does taking care of oneself tip over into selfishness, what are the consequences of non-conformism, and is the individual more important than the community? I’ve touched on this before, a bit, but in the context of producing art rather than writing characters.

Conditioned IdentityConsumer-Society

In her essay on Consumer bodies, Elizabeth Jagger says that the rise of consumerism fundamentally changed the idea of identity, as media and cultural pressures began to dictate what people wore, ate, watched, read, how they behaved, where they went on holiday, and what they thought. I’m sure there were elements of this earlier in history but modern media channels make it far more pervasive. It removes an element of control over an individual’s identity, even if they don’t realise it. Those that choose to ignore current fashions are, to some extent, excluded from society as ‘odd’ or ‘other’ and thus the cycle continues. It’s not a new idea – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a brilliant, sickening look at an extreme version of modern consumerist culture and identity.

Jagger also makes a big point about the greater impact of dictated appearance on female identities, which obviously plays into the behaviour and power dynamics of characters. She says (and I agree) that women use appearance to manipulate their social position. This isn’t new either – it’s a pattern of behaviour that can be tracked back throughout history. Women manipulated, using whatever tools they could but mostly appearance and sex (which are almost always intertwined) to get what they want because they were rarely in a position to just ask for or take it. Is that any different today? With that in mind, how will it impact how my protagonist behaves, dresses, and achieves her goals?

There are a couple of points which Jagger didn’t address, due to the time of writing, but which I think are important. The first is social media. The rise of global communities has contributed to the fall of the geographical community, as individuals are no longer dependent on locality for ‘contact’. But that decreases physical contact which impacts individual identity, making it more fragile and more needing of external validation from the global community. Without physical contact, this validation becomes more about expressing the ‘correct’ opinions. It moves identity away from appearance and imposes taste onto the mind.

Fat-Green-TrollIt also has lead to the rise of the anonymous identity, such as internet trolls, which fundamentally changes an individual’s behaviour and attitude towards the community. That identity is totally separated from the body, and also from the projected mental identity that is shared openly. It is a fragmentation of identity between private and public, with the freedom of anonymity giving rise to identity without the influence of taste or external opinion.

The second point that Jagger doesn’t really address (although she touches on it in the discussion of female body builders) is that of trans-gender identity. For trans-gender, the body is fundamentally NOT a part of their identity, it’s an obstacle to it. But appearance is the only way society can be made to understand, whilst at the same time making the individual vulnerable to attack and ridicule. Issues of trans-gender leads to situations where the body and mind are at odds in determining identity, and community can be very oppressive – even dangerous, in some societies – in resolving this question.

Individual Geography

Okay, moving past the theory (I warned you I got excited) and on to the practical. You’ve heard of the setting being written as a character? Where it feels like it has a personality/atmosphere (see all the stuff last week about poetic topography). I’m going to cite Kate Griffen again as a good example of this – the London of her Matthew Swift novels feels like a real, breathing place that actively contributes to the story. Right, now flip this on its head: now try writing the character as a setting.

The body is relatively easy. Take a step back and view it as a place rather than a person. This is where similes become your friend, although the usual warnings about overuse apply. What can your body do? What can’t it do? How does this impact who you are? And then, having worked all that out, what kind of place does that make it? By way of example, here’s my answer to that last one:

I am a boat, running free before the wind. The pale planks of my deck soak in the sun and the salt, weathering fairly. My sails ripple as the wind changes, sometimes furled tightly, sometimes – more often, lately – stretched high and wide to catch the breath of the world. My compass spins in the gimbal, dancing between logic and desire. The smooth keel is painted with the depth markings of friends and family, keeping the little vessel upright. The small cabin is low-ceilinged, curving over a patchwork of memories and words. It is warm with hope and affection and soft sorrow. The door is open but there are only seats for three; the fourth is broken in the corner. Water sings like crystal beneath the foot of the prow, the horizon is wide, and the tiller is master of herself.

I’ll admit that I found describing the mind as a place much more challenging. To me, the body is the least part of someone’s identity (although, granted, the easiest identifier). It can be stepped back from and described as a place without too much of a leap. The mind, however, is the person. It’s too big and abstract and uncoordinated to easily turn into a setting. I’m not even sure what language to use.

One of the exercises was the following:

Part of the mind as place is how it interacts with the world and processes all of the information that comes in and goes out, such as language, color, light, etc. Imagine yourself as someone else, someone completely different from you culturally or socially. How does that person—this new you—exist inside his/her mind? What kind of place is it?

Because I was struggling with the concept, I made a list of some primary cultural traits that I have (privileged, educated, capitalist, liberal, atheist), worked out what the opposites of each are, and then wrote. I actually did the exercise a couple of times, for characters either out of LARP or my own writing. I didn’t plan what I was going to say in any way – I just held the whole concept of the character in my mind and starting typing. What came through each time was a little surprising and gave a very clear indication of what was most important to them. I’m not sure if it constituted writing the mind as a place but it was a useful little exercise. Again, by way of example, here’s what I came up with.

TAMSIN (poor, uneducated, faithful, optimistic)

There’ll be something to eat at the end of the day, there always is. The god looks after his own. Besides, I wouldn’t swap the open road for all the cushions and cakes in the world. They don’t see past their stone walls, poor folk. Never seen a sunset fire the sky, or had a storm wash off the dirt of a week. Never got by on the smells of a bakery and crusts stolen from a bin. Can’t taste food right if you ain’t felt hunger. I’ve begged for my supper and let me tell you: pity-bread fills the belly just the same as any other kind. But poached meat cooked on an open fire under the god’s stars? Ain’t no oven roast can compare with that.

ALEX (poor, uneducated, feudal, belligerent)

‘Course I know what I want. You don’t know, you’re gonna end up in the gutter – or forgotten at the bottom of the pecking order, if you’re lucky. You can get nearly anything, if you know what you want and have the balls to go after it. Yeah, there’s dark places but I’ll stand in ‘em and shout just as loud as the light ones. This is my life, my turf. You wanna do something with it, you’re in for a hell of a fight. And if you get in my way, the bruises are your own fucking fault.

EDIT: Looking back, I wonder if maybe my description of my body as a place is more accurately my mind as a place. Which sort of highlights how blurry the line between physical and mental identity can be. Hmm. Any thoughts?

The Poetics of Topography: How to Describe Places


I’d like to start by saying that literary criticism has a tendency to be – in terms of vocabulary, at least – up its own backside. The first bit of critical analysis I had to read took me three goes and a dictionary to get through. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration:

The over-arching imperatives of socioecological critique can detract from fiction’s own aesthetic distinction, enlisting novelists tangentially in correspondence with activist affairs. ~ David James, Contemporary British fiction and the artistry of space

Anyway, let’s move on to the ‘poetics of topography’, or (in normal language) how to describe places. There’s the obvious: physical description. Next to the pub is a post office, next to the post office is a supermarket, and so on. But that’s pretty boring to read and doesn’t actually give the reader much of a clue about what each one really looks like. It’s certainly not a story.

There’s two main tricks to describing a place in a way that will make it real to the reader: history and emotion.


Think about how your characters interact with the place. When they look at the pub, they don’t just see a building with booze in it. They see Friday night with friends, the day they went in for a meal and got caught in hail on the way home, the time some drunken idiot spilled a full pint all down their leg. You can take it bigger – encompassing a town, for example – or smaller, down to a room. If it helps (which it did for me), don’t think of it as describing the place. Think of it as using the place to describe aspects of your character.

One thing to be aware of with this approach is bias. It’s very difficult to describe something entirely without bias. Even maps suffer from this – think of the relative size of Africa and the UK on British world maps, for example. When you’re describing a place, beware of your own bias as a writer. Try to keep your assumptions and history from bleeding in. More productively, you can use it to show the reader something about your character’s bias. It can even be a subtle plot hook – if the character’s history contains a bad experience of hospitals, for example, that can be hinted at early on by how they see a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

Guy Gavriel Kaye and Kate Griffen are both great examples of authors who use history to describe places.

That's a story of imperial attitude right there.

That’s a story of imperial attitude right there.


It’s not just about how a place looks, or even smells and sounds. It’s about atmosphere. What does a place feel like? The key to all stories is to hook a reader’s emotions, and that shouldn’t stop with characterisation and plot.

My tutor gave me two passages to read. One described the setting very well, with clear topography. The other barely gave any physical description but the way it felt to the characters was extremely powerful. After reading them both, it was the atmosphere that stayed with me most strongly. This approach is all about ‘show not tell’. You can’t just tell  reader somewhere is oppressive – you have to make them feel it by showing why it’s oppressive.

I found the challenge with this is to strike a balance between the physical and the emotional. The piece I wrote for the exercise focused so much on the emotional that the readers were confused as to the physical location. There needs to be an anchor of some kind that the reader can navigate by.

Mary Stewart and Erin Morgenstern would be my recommendations for good examples of emotional places.


The idea of describing a place by emotion changed my style a bit. I think it can be too much if used all the time, but very powerful if used at the right time. Anyway, this is what I came up with. It needs some more work – the aforementioned physical anchor’s still lacking – but I was quite pleased with it. Any feedback welcomed!


The letter, hand-written on Savoy Hotel notepaper, was brief.

  Your son’s alive. You need to come home.

Trojan had to read three times before it stopped being ink and became meaning. The page fell from strangely numb fingers and slip-slid through still air to the floorboards. He raised his head, seeking comfort from the sun lancing through the wall of skylights. The sun was real. The letter could not be.

  You need to come home.

Home meant London, grey air clogged with politics he couldn’t breathe through. It meant his father’s cold house, full of closed doors and memories that could still stab through the decade to his heart. It meant an end to this exile in a foreign land.

Mr. Bloch was singing on the balcony below, a fine old voice fond of opera. Trojan had left a punnet of tomatoes outside his door last autumn in return for the music. It was the closest he’d got to a friendship in ten years. He’d never been good at making friends; never been given the opportunity to learn how.

  Your son’s alive.

That could not be real. His son came cold into the world and went straight to soil, without Trojan even knowing until after. His father had sent word, one crack in the silence that stretched like an iceberg between them. Unless his father had lied.

  Trojan swallowed, rubbing roughly at his throat. “I am alright,” he told the narrow room, answering silent concern. “Do not worry.”

The tiers of green settled a little, reassured. These were his friends, his adopted children. The palms and the succulents, the ferns and the cacti, the orchids and the jasmine. They depended on him for water and love. They listened to Mr. Bloch’s singing with him, and told him their simple dreams as he watched the stars through curtainless windows. His garret was an Eden of figs and lemons offered up for praise, gifts of blooms unfurling in purple and gold. The wealth of a king, he told them often, and no exiled prince could ask for more.

  Your son’s alive.

His son. All he had left of Sophie,  with her smile like the coming of Spring and skin the lilies openly envied. Her ghost followed him from London and, though the quiet of this place kept her gentle, he could feel the hollowness of his narrow bed. She would have talked to Mr. Bloch, coaxed her favourite tunes from him and made him laugh. She had always been good at making people laugh. Even Trojan, who had never heard such a miracle before.

  Your son’s alive.

The Kentia Palm by the window unfurled a frond as the strains of Tosca’s Recondita armonia floated past. The palm was particularly fond of Tosca.

  Your son’s alive.

He nearly didn’t go.