Part of the How They Do It Series
I recently received a wonderful question about using made up languages in a novel, and I knew just where to go to get the answer. One of my critique partners (and best buds) is a linguistic anthropologist who writes science fiction and fantasy, and deals with this topic all the time. I can't think of anyone better suited to share tips on how to handle this situation.
Juliette Wade's first short story, "Let the Word Take Me," appeared in Analog Magazine, followed by her novelette, "Cold Words," "At Cross Purposes" with cover art by Bob Eggleton, and "The Liars," appeared on the cover of Analog's October 2012 issue with art by Michael Whelan. Other short stories include, "The Eminence's Match" in the Eight Against Reality anthology; "Smoke and Feathers" in When the Hero Comes Home 2 from Dragon Moon Press; with two more stories coming soon: "Lady Sakura's Letters" in the inaugural issue of STRAEON from Stupefying Stories, and "Mind Locker," which will appear in Analog in the coming year.Her most recent story is "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" (Not Easily Thrown Away) from Clarksworld Magazine.
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Take it away Juliette...
Q: My novel tells the story of explorers coming to a previously completely isolated island, told from an islander’s POV. One of the first issues which comes up is communication between the two groups: over time they learn each other’s languages sufficiently to get by, but at first they cannot understand each other. Although the places do not exist, the explorers are essentially from a western society, so, for example, I have used English names for their characters and exotic names for the islanders. Therefore it follows logically that the explorers speak English, or at least, the equivalent thereof, while the islanders speak the “foreign” language.A: You ask an interesting question.
My issue is how to write dialogue between the characters. Since the book is written in English, I can hardly use this as a source of the words the explorers use which cannot be understood. I am also reluctant to start inventing languages or (ab)using existing languages. I’m not a fan of writing words on a page that the reader can’t understand. Can I get away with large chunks of reported dialogue? e.g. “He said something she couldn’t understand.”
You have two populations, the island population and the explorer population, neither of which actually speaks English within the story world, but both of which have to be comprehensible to readers.
I think one of the issues that makes the task difficult here is that you are taking the point of view of the islander population, which could lead to an expectation that the islanders speak English… but you are associating English instead with the explorer population, since you may be emulating aspects of real world history.
Let's step back from the problem for a moment, and think about what the language difference is doing in your story. It's not only creating an overall sense that we are in a fantasy world rather than a real world, but it's also creating a divide between two groups. Whatever decision you make should have something to do with how closely you want your reader to identify with each of the two groups.
Using a lot of incomprehensible words is automatically going to make readers feel alienated from the group that uses them, so if you want to create a sense of insider perspective, keep the use of "exotic" words to a minimum for the islanders. Names of people and places are totally fine. Names of things can also be fine if you are able to support them enough in the surrounding text that readers will be able to understand them.
You can also make the sense of insider perspective stronger by thinking through the kinds of issues that are important to the islanders, how they define their lives and what metaphors they use. Then you can contrast those with the outsider's way of thinking.
When it comes to portraying the explorers as outsiders, you can certainly say things like "the newcomers spoke at length but we couldn't understand them." Another thing you can do is describe what their language sounds like – hard and fast, for example, or mushy with lots of sounds deep in the throat. Still another thing you can do is take a word or two from the explorers' language and show how the islanders might spell it. For example, when I had aliens listening to humans speak, at one point I had my human character say "Wow," but my alien character heard it as "waaaau," which was more consistent with the language he spoke. You can also have explicit language teaching and related talk built into social situations here and there.
I understand your reluctance to start using foreign languages, or start creating languages, but in a sense, you already started as soon as you created exotic names. Take a look at those names and try to figure out if they have a set of sounds in common. What is the "feel" they give you? If you can grasp that, then you may be able to extend that "feel" into the way that you use English when you are writing from their point of view.
I hope this has given you some helpful options to consider going forward.