18 Feb 2017

gridlore: Old manual typewriter with a blank sheet of paper inserted. (Writing)
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.

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