gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
[personal profile] gridlore
That's "Hello to everyone, Let's talk about language" in Turkish. I wrote yesterday about how the treatment of non-humans in gaming and fiction bugged me, and here's another nit I like to pick.

I speak English, but my English is the result of 200 years of drift from the mother language in Britain. English is spoken all over the world, but is fractured by regional accents and developing dialects to the point that if you put someone from Maine in the same room as someone from Alabama, they'd barely be able to understand each other. And that' speaking the same base language.

Now add in the roughly 6,500 languages spoken on our planet. Most of which are mutually unintelligible to each other. There are many places where you can walk a half mile and find that the entire language has changed, and the people in this village don't share any common linguistic characteristics with the nice folks in the last village. Linguistic families shift, there are different alphabets, and so on.

So why would this be any different in fantasy or science fiction? Think about it, Elves, dwarfs, orcs, etc., are all separate species with wildly divergent cultures. Their languages would be in different families with almost no crossovers. Depending on your setting, human languages might have been influenced by the older races in some places, that's a pretty common trope. But still learning Elvish is going to be as hard as it is for an English speaker to learn Japanese or Russian. Orkish? Assuming you can even make the sounds, there are going to be severe cultural barriers to really understanding what you are saying.

Get out into space and things get worse. Every human language, thriving, threatened, or dead, has something in common: they evolved to take advantage of how our mouths and respiratory systems work. Even tongues with odd glottal stops and clicks can be learned with enough study. Now take an alien like my Storks. They have mouths and a jaw that looks a like an alligator snout with a long, flexible tongue. They have no lips. Stork speech has been described as sounding like a broken steam pipe scalding a turkey alive. We can't come close to speaking it, and there's no way a Stork could manage more than a few human sounds. So how do you talk when you physically can't communicate?

Oddly, the Chinese figured that out long ago. Written Chinese is ideogramic, and is universal across all spoken Chinese. It is as close to a universal language as we're ever going to get, as the written form expresses ideas rather than sounds. So you can write "Where is the Hilton Hotel?" and have it recognized everywhere the Chinese language is used.

There's a legend that when Europeans and the Chinese first met during the Age of Exploration, the Chinese suggested that we adopted their written language. Pity we didn't, it would have made things easier.

But anyway, back to my point. Languages change over time as regional accents and slang infect the mother tongue. Borrowed words and phrases creep in and become standard. Isolation increases the speed of these changes. Within a few generations - lacking a serious attempt to keep the language "pure" - you'll be getting new language forms developing and drifting away from the parent.

Which means in a setting with comparatively slow travel like the Third Imperium, there will be millions of languages. Isolated, low population planets might speak a few tongues completely unknown elsewhere. Translator technology is advanced today, but the sheer number of languages you'd need to load would be daunting. Plus, translators will largely miss context. If you're in Alabama and a woman looks at you and says "Well, bless your heart!" she's not being nice, she's calling you an idiot. Not knowing the vernacular can be dangerous.

Most settings include a "common" language. There is historical precedent. Latin and Greek were understood across most of the world during the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, and you can usually find an Arabic speaker in an Islamic nation. French and English have both had turns as the lingua franca in trade and diplomacy. But those tend to be the languages spoken in the cities and along the trade routes. The merchants in Istanbul when we were there spoke wonder English, French, and Russian, because that was the main tourist demographic. I am certain that if we had headed out the east away from the big cities, finding English speakers would have presented a problem.

Like everything else, language is a big part of the setting, and present obstacles and aides to characters, whether they be in a game or in your stories.

Date: 19 Feb 2017 06:23 (UTC)
kshandra: figurine of a teddybear seated at an office desk, looking at a computer (ComputerBear)
From: [personal profile] kshandra
This was one of my favorite details the year Baycon did the Pyrocumulon shared reality framework. Since the natives of the planet were gryphons, a shared written language - Pyrocuneiform - was created that could be written equally well with a hand-held stylus as with a talon. (I wonder if [livejournal.com profile] myrkrida still has the font file...)

Date: 19 Feb 2017 18:36 (UTC)
nodrog: (States' Rights)
From: [personal profile] nodrog


>  If you're in Alabama and a woman looks at you and says "Well,
>  bless your heart!" she's not being nice, she's calling you an idiot.

Where and how did you get that idea?  Yes, she is being nice.  'Bless' is a positive verb here, and “Have a blessed day” doesn't mean you're a Wiccan, it means you're either born-again or familiar with it.

[“Ain'tchu a mess” is good-natured also.  When you start hearing prison-yard obscenities, that's when people are NOT being nice.]

Date: 19 Feb 2017 18:55 (UTC)
nodrog: (Great World War)
From: [personal profile] nodrog


I'm reminded of Jack Vance's brilliant story “The Moon Moth,” where the native language is not spoken but sung, and moreover performed with simple instruments.  Just saying the words was viewed as you would be if you beer-belched your sentences, and the Terrestrial agent had to learn to sing and play in a hurry! 

(People also wore masks corresponding to their social status, which was based partly on reputation, and the climax of the story involved the agent having to go out in public in his bare face.  Shock and horror!  Opprobrium!  Even slaves wore simple black masks!  The agent was about to be shunned forever, his mission wrecked - and he strummed and sang to the crowd, “Who among you could do what I did?  Who has the courage?  Show me what brave men you are!”  And the crowd was awed into silence…  and gave back before him and did him honor, for it was true:  He had done something none of them would have dared on their very lives.

Jack Vance ruled.  I wanted to visit the worlds he wrote of.

Date: 21 Feb 2017 10:18 (UTC)
claidheamhmor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] claidheamhmor
Vance had some wonderful ideas for different peoples, races, and cultures.

Date: 21 Feb 2017 15:27 (UTC)
nodrog: the Comedian (Comedian)
From: [personal profile] nodrog


http://www.tor.com/2016/08/28/jack-vance-on-this-day/


… The most important thing was that in the midst of all of these basic
facts, when he wasn’t building houses or making music or packing his
family up and moving to Marrakesh, he was writing extraordinary novels,
wrestling with language and ideas until he created new worlds. And then
he gave those worlds to us.


        Reith asked the Dirdirman, "Is it true that you eat human flesh?"

        "Certainly.  It can be the most tender of meats.  But
        you need not fear; unlike the Chasch, Dirdir and Dirdirmen are
        not compulsive gourmands."


- It's one of those passages that tends to stay in one's memory…

Edited Date: 21 Feb 2017 16:21 (UTC)

Date: 22 Feb 2017 14:10 (UTC)
claidheamhmor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] claidheamhmor
Thanks for the link.

I always liked "gruff and deedle, with a little wobbly to fill in the chinks."

Re: The Moon Moth

Date: 23 Feb 2017 11:35 (UTC)
nodrog: 'Quisp' Cereal Box (Quisp)
From: [personal profile] nodrog


I dig the 21st century the most, daddy-o.  Like, you can find anything on this far-out “Internet” thing, y' know?  It's crazy, man.  It's wild.

http://www.unexploredworlds.com/RealPulp/htm/rpulp145.htm

Re: The Moon Moth

Date: 24 Feb 2017 13:29 (UTC)
claidheamhmor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] claidheamhmor
Time to re-read that. :)

Date: 19 Feb 2017 19:23 (UTC)
nodrog: (Angrezi Raj)
From: [personal profile] nodrog


Q:  So how do you talk when you physically can't communicate?

A:  Technology and pidgin.  The appropriate sounds are generated electronically.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Pidgin_English

No:  “In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer characterizes the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will”

Yes:  “My wanchee many rifle chop-chop!  How muchee cash?”

Date: 21 Feb 2017 10:19 (UTC)
claidheamhmor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] claidheamhmor
Some good food for thought there. "Common Tongue" is RPGs is a handy games simplifier, but a multitude of languages would seem to be more believable.

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gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
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