richard harland's writing tips

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Other Language Topics


1. Powers of Language

2.Person & Tense




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4. Naming




New names have their problems, but what about whole new languages? Societies in an otherworld aren’t going to speak English. So what does the author do about it?

Well, um, nothing. The author acts as though the problem doesn’t exist and hopes the reader won’t notice. Or to put it another way, the author takes on the role of translator and turns everything into English, except for a few words that have no English equivalents.

A few untranslatable words are enough to convey a sense of living inside this otherworld. Neither reader nor author really wants to go the whole hog.

However, there’s a further problem when members of different societies in an otherworld encounter one another. If they’re truly different, they ought to speak different languages—which means they won’t understand one another. This is a problem the author can’t translate away.

Just occasionally, the meeting of two languages might be an important part of the story. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, though, it’s a pain in the butt. Either you slow down the overall narrative by taking a year off for plausible language-learning; or you slow down dialogue and events while the characters crawl through the business of communication through signs and guesswork.

It’s a small speed-hump that derails everything. The consequences are liable to be enormous. Most fantasy writers choose to go around the speed-hump by setting up a convenient universal or common language in the first place.

This doesn’t necessarily cut out different languages. Societies may speak both their own language and the universal language. The flavor of the non-universal languages can be suggested by just a few phrases thrown in here and there.

It’s a plausible set-up when some overarching empire has existed in the past—as with Latin as the common language of the Roman Empire, or English as the common language of the Raj in India. But in most otherworlds, the universal language is more of a handy convention. It’s a small improbability for the sake of a very large pay-off.

In SF, solutions are harder to come by. When members of one society (e.g. human) encounter an alien species, it’s impossible to posit a shared language. Some solutions are:

—One society has learned to speak the language of another by eavesdropping on communication signals at long distance

—Or has developed a translation device by similar eavesdropping

—Or has developed a miraculous translation device that is valid for all languages.

Babel-fish, anyone?babel fish












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1997 - 2010 Richard Harland.