Thursday, December 29, 2005


I was thinking about dialogue today, and that led me to thinking about the languages our characters speak. Now, of course, not everyone in your story is going to speak English as their primary language -- in fact, in a fantasy story, it's highly unlikely that anyone will be speaking English! On the other hand, your reader likely isn't fluent in Elvish (although Klingon is becoming more and more popular). How do we resolve this? Most writers simply ignore the issue, and that's fine in general. For myself, I take the "Farscape approach." In the SciFi Channel series Farscape all of the aliens speak their own languages -- none of which are English. The Earth-born protagonist wonders aloud, "Why are you all speaking English?" To which one of the aliens responds, "We're not. You're hearing English." Each of them has "translator microbes" that translate speech into the host's native tongue. It works, even if the microbes are a little cheesy. When everyone in your story is speaking the same language, it's easy enough to just say, "You're hearing English; they aren't speaking it." Star Wars does this -- have you ever noticed that all of the text in the movie is an alien script? Many fantasy writers, however, like to add "foreign" (invented) words to their tales, particularly names for things. This violates self-consistency in many (if not most) cases. If the characters are all speaking Elvish (or whatever) but the reader is simply hearing it as English, then there should be no Elvish words at all in the book. I don't care how cool it looks or how "other worldly" it makes your book read -- it doesn't make sense. Same thing for alien cultures in science fiction. Don't make them speak broken English unless they aren't fluent in their own language (which is unlikely).

On the other hand, if some characters speak one language and some speak another, then you're justified in using words from the other language in your story. In this case, we learn the "new" language right along with the characters. This can be fun, and also it can also convey a sense of what it's like to meet an alien culture. More importantly, it's self-consistent. This, I think is what bothers me most about many fantasy stories (other than the fact that so many of them are "Quest for the Item" stories): They don't follow their own rules. Fantasy authors need to think even more carefully about rules than "realistic" authors. Since the writer makes the rules, he has to think through all their ramifications -- and some of them aren't immediately obvious! Nevertheless, those ramifications can add layers to your tale that will make it much more powerful in the long run.

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