Friday, April 27, 2012

The Language Enigma

Sometimes in writing we have to deal with foreign languages--either existing or created by us. When we do, we need to make SURE we are doing our research. I can't stress it enough, so let me say it again: WE MUST RESEARCH. One more time, say it with me: I MUST RESEARCH.

Even when creating your own language, you can't just spew letters out and go, "Look, Ma, look what I made!" Well, you can, but let me tell you right now people will catch you, and they will be displeased. Every language has rules and cadences and a specific ring that lets you know it is a language. Think about it, if someone walks by you speaking another language, even if you don't know it, you recognize it, right? I hear people speak Spanish all the time. No idea what they're saying, but I know it's Spanish, or Italian, or Korean, or whatever because it has a certain sound.

I made this mistake in the first fantasy manuscript I wrote with my own language. I thought I could just throw out whatever and it would work because it was a made up language. Guess what? The feedback I got was something like this:

"These words look NOTHING alike. None of them."

"I like the story, but their language is really unbelievable."

"You've never studied languages, have you?"

And they were completely spot on. When your language looks like: "Xuop uenns to nkto yu kam lau'la eknataliantbrlmdpkndiflasa?" there is something wrong. (Don't worry, my language didn't look THAT bad, haha, this is just an exaggerated example.)

My favorite example of an author who has this nailed is Richard Adams--the genius behind Watership Down. The book is about a group of rabbits who must find a new home when they realize their current one is about to be destroyed by humans. Richard Adams created a vocabulary for the rabbits based on how he thought they would genuinely speak if they could.

Look at some of the words from their language: hrududu, pfeffa, thlayli, zorn, hraka, homba, elil, fu inle.
Compare--look at some of the words from Spanish: muy, cabeza, boca, morena, nina, buenas, llamo.
Japanese: kokoro, tsuki, oshiete, wa, namae, iie, gambate, itadakimasu.
Mandarin: zhongwen, ni, qiu, ma, laoshi, dui, chun, yue, zai, xiang

Oh my goodness I could keep going! (You know by now I'm long-winded, yes? Good! Continue to forgive me.) Back to Richard Adams. His language LOOKS like a language. More than that, it FITS the characters who are speaking it--if you can't picture a rabbit with its little wiggling nose saying, "Hrududu, hrududu," then you've never stared at a rabbit long enough.

Now, I'm not saying you need to be J.R.R.Tolkien or James Cameron or whoever created Klingon. If you want to make a complete working language, FANTASTIC, if not (like lazy old me), you still need to put in the time and imagination to make the words you do use believable. It makes a tremendous difference, believe me.

(This is self-explanatory for real languages, right? I hope we all understand we must spare ourselves from the embarassment of putting Arabic in our books when we know nothing about it and having someone who does know the language corner us and demand to know why this character called his girlfriend a lovely cow.)

~ Lizzy
Current word count today: Considering we just rolled midnight into a new day: 0. I better get cracking!
Current song: Lune by Bruno Peltier [Gringoire, Notre Dame de Paris]
Current quote: "De gustibus non disputandem est." ~ Cicero


  1. Lizzy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have tagged you! :)

  2. Unfortunately, I fail at life and have not done this. Which is why I shall remove all mention of foreign language words from WDC and pretend they don't exist. While the English language is my thing, languages in general are not.

    Either way, though, this is genius, and very good advice. Yes.

  3. I love Watership Down.
    And I did a post about the origination of Klingon during A to Z last year. It was actually "Scotty" that came up with it. At first.
    Language is tough. It can't just be a bunch of made up words.