12 Mar 2017

gridlore: Doug looking off camera with a grin (Default)
This changed course mid-writing.

I love words. I love their history, their construction, and how a word can cover so many meanings. I love the flow of words in the hands of a master, whether it a Shakespeare sonnet or Vin Scully calling a 5-4-3 double play. I am fascinated by the evolution of languages and how the clash and melding of different tongues created languages as beautiful as French and as confusing as English.

This comes from being the son of an Englishman, and a bit of a wit himself. My dad was determined that we would know our British roots even as we grew in California in the 60s and 70s. So along with Enid Blyton novels, we watched a lot of PBS. See, back then the local Public Broadcast station was the only source for shows imported from the BBC. So we watched Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen At Large. Later, we watched BBC comedies like Good Neighbors, To The Manor Born, and Are You Being Served. This viewing left many American viewers convinced that there were twelve actors in England at any given time, and three of them were Penelope Keith.

Then there was The World At War. This 26 episode masterpiece from Thames Television ran in 1973-74 and was quickly snatched up by American stations. My father survived the Blitz and the bombing of Coventry, I was an Army-mad ten year old. We spent many Saturdays watching archival footage and interviews as Laurence Oliver narrated.

That was my early exposure to the idea that the same language could diverge from the root. These BBC shows (which grew to include Doctor Who, The Starlost, Blake's 7, and Survivors) were in English, but a very different English. I began to read up a little on how languages worked. It's been a minor passion ever since.

One of my favorite books here on the history shelf is "The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History". It's not a ponderous tome, like so many others (I'm looking at you, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!) but instead a slim volume that show boundaries not based on states, but by the languages spoken. It's an amazing way to look at the progress of history, and really affected how I look at the world.

Hence one of the things that makes me cringe in fiction and role-playing games. The concept of a "common" language that everyone speaks. Especially in societies lacking things like fast communications and printing presses, linguistic drift is inevitable. English is the "common" language of the United States, but accents and regional variations mean that you could have a hard time getting residents of Alabama and Maine to understand each other. Take away TV, radio, and telephones and the drift speed opens up.

Even past universal tongues faltered. Latin was the official language of Rome, but leave the Italian peninsula and the only people speaking it are military and civil officials, tribal chiefs who had been educated in Rome, and the occasional educated merchant. When Rome faltered, and Constantinople became the center of the empire's power, Latin held on for a time, but eventually Greek became the language of an empire that called itself Roman for a thousand years after the fall of Rome.

Latin ended up a sacred language in the Roman Catholic Church, and the source of torment for generations of English children. French and English have made bids to be universal, but still, they aren't really common. We met dozens of English speakers in Istanbul, but that's a city that's been a center of trade and tourism for almost 2,000 years. I'm sure if we had been Polish, we would have found rug merchants able to cheat us in Polish.

So what do we do about the idea of the common tongue? Throw it in the dustbin. Historically, travelers, soldiers of fortune, explorers, and agents of the state have learned to speak the languages of the people they interact with. That's more interesting, in my opinion. Make your world live with different linguistic families, regional dialects, sacred tongues and secret cants. If you must have a common tongue, it's probably going to be limited in scope of use and utility.

Think of the phrases you find in tourist guide books. Hello, goodbye, please thank you. Where is (blank)?, how much, offer, and other simple words and phrases. That's going to be your trade tongue. If you want to have an in depth conversation, learn the local language!

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

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