TT: Learning the Conlang

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your thoughts on constructing languages in your fiction. Now I have another question for you. If your protagonists arrive in a new place, how do you handle the problem of having them learn the local language?

Language is a Gateway

JANE: Well, that varies from book to book, even within books.  By the way, this problem applies not just to conlangs, but to any book in which the characters encounter a culture that speaks another language.

In the Firekeeper books, there’s usually someone with an incentive to teach the language.  For example, poor Derian gets stuck with teaching Firekeeper Pellish.  He’s very sympathetic to the people who have the job later on – and when it’s his turn to learn a new language, he’s eager to cooperate.

In the “Artemis Awakening” novels, Griffin Dane comes to Artemis believing that he’s prepared to speak to the inhabitants.  The culture is conservative in regard to change, which helps, but he does have a pronounced accent and occasionally uses phrases the locals find archaic.  Conversely, they’ve developed terms that weren’t in his primer or use terms that are in his vocabulary, but for which the meaning has shifted.  So, although communication is possible, it does stumble from time to time.

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you a sense of the way that languages can impact on the story, even in ways that have nothing to do with the languages themselves.

ALAN: In Real Life (TM) I’ve always found learning a new language to be a relatively painless experience if I am surrounded by the language all the time. I tend to just soak it up like a sponge. I worked for the United Nations for a time and I spent six months in Geneva where the lingua franca is French.

JANE: (chuckling) The lingua franca is French.  Well, yeah…  Uh, please, go on!

ALAN: By the end of my stay there I was quite fluent in French. I was even thinking in French. The language had become so second nature to me that when I flew home to England I spoke to the immigration official in French while proffering my British passport. Very embarrassing…

JANE: That’s a great anecdote!  You really do have a gift for languages.

ALAN: Of course it helped that I’d studied French at school, so I had a firm foundation to build on. But that hasn’t always been the case. I once spent three weeks in Russia. I entered the country with no knowledge of Russian whatsoever. But after three weeks I could read the Cyrillic street signs and I could hold (very) simple conversations.

JANE: My dad spent some time in Russia.  When he came back, he enjoyed showing us how familiar words would be spelled in Cyrillic, and how he’d managed to get by once he’d learned what letters were which.

I wish you two could compare notes on your experiences.

ALAN: That could be fun.  Russia was a very surreal place – I once ordered drinks in a bar. I paid in American dollars and I was given change in Deutschmarks…

But my gift for languages doesn’t always work. I spent some time in China and got absolutely nowhere. I didn’t pick up any of either Mandarin or Cantonese.  Perhaps that’s because they are tonal languages and I’m tone deaf. I also realised for the first time just what it means to be illiterate. I never learned to identify a single written character…

But I’ve gone Tangenting off the topic. Sorry.  Let’s come back to it. It certainly sounds as if you’ve done a lot of thinking about conlangs.

JANE: I have.  In fact, as I said when we were getting into this discussion, I may have thought too much about it.  I find myself thinking, If these people really are speaking another language, why isn’t the entire book written in it?

ALAN: If I hadn’t already mentioned Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, now would be a good time to point out that the whole book is written in his made-up language. So it can definitely be made to work.

But the master of conlangs, J. R. R. Tolkien himself, had the best ever excuse for not writing the whole book in his made-up language. In the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states explicitly that his earlier novel The Hobbit is simply a translation from sections of The Red Book of Westmarch. And, by implication, so is The Lord of the Rings itself:

Further information [about hobbits] will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself…

About The Lord of the Rings itself, Tolkien goes on to say that:

This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch. That most important source for the history of the War of the Ring… It was in origin Bilbo’s private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire… he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.

JANE: I’ve always thought that was a great explanation.  The hobbits speak English (therefore, their bits are translated from hobbitish), but they need to learn all the other cultures’ languages.

This is the foundation excuse in most Fantasy (and even far future SF, where logically the language would have drifted so that, even if the people still spoke English, it would be as incomprehensible to us, now, as is Old – or even Middle – English).

ALAN: Anthony Boucher’s short story “Barrier” has some interesting speculations about how language would evolve in the future. At one point someone says, “Eeyboy taws so fuy, but I nasta. Wy cachoo nasta me?”. And it (almost) makes sense in context.

JANE:  Let’s see, is that “Oh, boy, that’s so funny, but I ask you.  Why are you asking me?”

ALAN: Well done! However I think “Eeyboy” might actually be “Hey, boy”. But the point is moot.

JANE: Or a demonstration of exactly what we’ve been discussing.  I’m American, so I “see” “Oh, boy,” which is a common American use.

Both the Burgess and the Boucher examples only work because they’re deriving from already familiar languages (Russian and English).  If the language was completely made up—like Elvish – the readers would need to translate as they read.

But asking myself why I’m not writing my entire book in the conlang is only one of my problems.

ALAN: What other problems have you encountered?

JANE: Oh, several, many of which are just the snakes in my own brain.  Can I save them for next time?


9 Responses to “TT: Learning the Conlang”

  1. mittsusaru Says:

    I may be misinterpreting your “chuckle” (if so, I apologise), but lingua franca does not literally translate to “french language”. From Wikipedia… :”In Lingua Franca (the specific language), lingua means a language, as in Portuguese and Italian, and franca is related to phrankoi in Greek and faranji in Arabic as well as the equivalent Italian. In all three cases, the literal sense is “Frankish”, but the name was actually applied to all Western Europeans during the late Byzantine Empire.”

    French language (or french tongue) would be something like “lingua gallico”. I mention all this because I thought that franca meant french until very recently, so may be a common misconception.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks for the education… This is the danger of multi-lingual puns, a topic that is one of many that gives me brain snakes!

      In my current RPG, a running joke is that “Latin is the lingua franca” of this particular world. At least that won’t be spoiled!

    • Peter Says:

      Referring to all Europeans as “French” (or Franks) isn’t restricted to the late Byzantine Empire – it’s still current in parts of Southeast Asia (probably for similar historical reasons, now that I think about it.)

      “Barang” and “Farang” (Khmer (Cambodian) and Thai, respectively) loosely translate as “gringo” or “European” and both probably ultimately derive from “Frank”. In Thailand people of African descent are sometimes referred to as “farang dam” (lit. “black Frenchmen”.)

  2. James M. Six Says:

    When I was in Beijing, I was unable to learn the language because my JOB there was teaching five college level ESL courses *in* English, so I had to remain in English-thought-mode. What I did learn, though, was that my accent was so atrocious on the few phrases I *could* say, it was easier to look up what I wanted (like a destination) and copy the written form line by line and just show it to a taxi driver or whoever. That worked extremely well.

    Even so, by the end of five months, I’d started piecing out some characters in common use and what they meant, even if I couldn’t speak it. (Think Tarzan learning to read English.)

    Beijing is a little kinder to tourists than other citiies, though. Many of their public signs (street, subway, etc.) have Latin alphabet equivalents. When it came to food from little shops, however, it was just point and hope. As in the 10-second vid attached to this link:

    • janelindskold Says:

      Fascinating… When I was writing the “Breaking the Wall” books, I began to recognize some basic characters from seeing them over and over in my (translated) research material. It was like looking out through a very tiny window at a new world.

  3. fmrichter Says:

    It’s really crazy how quickly you learn a language when you’re immersed in it. That being said, I “immersed” myself in A Clockwork Orange and I still couldn’t tell you anything about it other than the basic plot. I guess I’m not cut out for Slavic langauges

  4. Peter Says:

    When I studied Russian, many years ago, the letters I had the hardest time with were the ones that looked familiar but meant something entirely different – those of us who grew up watching international hockey (or just the evening news in the Cold War era) will remember seeing the letters CCCP on uniforms but not twigging that in English it would be written SSSR.

    In some ways Polish was even worse, since it’s written entirely in familiar (Latin) characters…some of which aren’t pronounced the way an English speaker would expect (as can be seen in city names like Krakov or Varshava.)

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