Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fictional Languages

One thing J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for was his intricate development of fake languages for his magnum opus, Lord of the Rings and the rest of its genre-creating set.  It was, indeed, a great story about some very engaging characters, and it would very likely have been a hit even without the linguistic effort he exerted. But he did exert significant effort.  Hey, the man created both Elf and Dwarf languages, each with its own runic alphabet.  How cool is that?

He was, from what I've read, a linguist at heart.  His day job was doing etymology for the dictionary, of all things.  I mean, I knew that somebody had to have done all the work required to tell me that "wunderbar" came from the root words "wunder," which means good, and "bar," which refers to a place to consume alcohol, but till I read Tolkien's bio I had no idea that somebody was a real person.  But it's true, he did it, and by all accounts he loved to do it.

He reportedly loved it so much that he probably would've been screaming at me for making etymological stuff up like I am wont to do (and just did), in fact.

Me, linguist?  Not so much.  I handled linguistics in Return of the Gods in much the same sloppy way most fantasy works gloss over the issue.  In my case I did it by inventing magical translating blocks for use in the library.  Cheap and cliched it might be, but it worked and it allowed me to get on with the interesting bits of the story.

In Dragon Queen I'm taking a little different path.  For the first book I'm shamelessly ripping off the entire Welsh language.  Heck, I don't feel bad about it either; after all, nobody ever writes Welsh(TM) and so I'm not actually stealing any intellectual property.  On top of that, I've always loved Welsh, what with its funky interpretation of the alphabet and the melodic pronunciations.  I was able to work some of the funkiness into the storyline, and the language's use presents some fun situations throughout the book.

Take, for example, the main character's confusion over the name of one of the animals in the story: is it Booboo or Bwbw?  The spelling that completely lacks vowels just plain doesn't make sense to the poor Mississippi lass who, despite her standing as a recent high school valedictorian, had to go through and complete both a primary and a secondary education with only English(TM) in her linguistic toolbox.

It's a little challenging for an author, this using a language that I don't speak.  I suppose that would've been easier for Tolkien--nobody can tell him he's got a declension wrong, for example, because he made it all up in the first place.  By definition, the way he does it is the right way.  But I'm using Welsh, which does, in fact, have standard rules, and not all of which I know. 

I'm only using it in little spots in the hope that I don't some day have an actual Welshman walk up and punch me in the face for language abuse.

It's possible, trust me.  The unintentional language abuse, I should add, not necessarily the face-punching.  I worked with a multilingual group in my multinational MBA Leadership course.  We had mostly Alaskans and Austrians in the cohort, but there was also a German who spoke--well, Real German (as opposed to Austrian German).  Most of the time we communicated in English, the course being held on the Americans' home turf and all. 

Toward the end we were required to create a leadership activity, and my group, twisted as it was (hey, it included me) decided to teach communication by blindfolding the crap out of everybody and making them do stuff. "The Blind Leading the Blind" was an obvious, if horribly cliched, name for the gig.

Thing was, none of the Austrians in my group were particularly motivated to translate the English instructions I'd written into their language, which was one of the requirements of the exercise.  So I took the project on. Only--I didn't speak German.  Still don't, neither Real German nor Austrian German.  Yeah, I can ask for a beer, or the restroom, or both, and with enough hand gestures can probably get across a request for schnitzel and fries, and so I'm not terribly worried for my own life if I ever find myself in Heidelberg again. But I'm certainly not "conversant" in the language.

Now, this was a while ago, back when Babelfish was a major site.  It was great; you fed phrases into the magical text box and told it what language to translate to, and CLICK!  The wizards within their web server would nearly instantly feed you back the translation.  For free, even!

I used Babelfish to translate the instructions into German for the Austrians.

And I sent the results to them.

And I heard nothing for a week.

When we were together next, I asked what they thought of my excellent translation.  They grinned and patted me on the head (verbally, not literally).  "No, really," I insisted; I wanted constructive feedback, after all.

Finally one of the uber-polite Austrians explained that what I'd written, in German, was actually, "The Window Coverings Leading The Window Coverings."


At least they didn't punch me in the face for language abuse.

This time, though, I want everything to be perfect--or, at least, accurate.  Thus I've spent hours triangulating phrases.  There are quite a few English-to-Welsh translating sites out there, and when two or three give me the same result, I know I'm close.  Then I spin the result back into the Welsh-to-English translators, and if it comes up right, then I'm happy with the word choice.  At that point, I run off to look at the Welsh grammar sites to make sure I've pluralized and declensed and conjugated correctly.

For the insults, meanwhile, I go directly to a Facebook friend who lives in Wales.  Yay for friends!  Yayyay for friends with strong insult mojo!

It's taken some effort and some time, but I think I've created something that will at a minimum avoid face-punching in return for language abuse.  I'm pretty happy about that.

For the second book I'm creating another language, though I won't spoil any plot points by saying why.  Because I'm trying to build in a certain mood, I'm actually picking the lower-hanging fruit from the Slavic language tree.  At least I have taken a couple of courses in Russian, and so I can read the alphabet and can declense that language with the best of 'em.

Yay for vodky vodkui! (see yesterday's post)

I'm still not interested in creating a whole new language from scratch, though.  Tolkien, I ain't.  Sorry.



  1. Now listen, you and I both know that no one actually understands Welsh. I mean, people speak it, but no one can understand what they're saying. Even the Welsh don't. There used to be a show on BBC called "Ground Force" and the cast included a Welshman. One time they were interviewing him about the fact that his words are virtually incomprehensible. He told a story about a time he was at home with his wife watching an episode of Ground Force on TV and when he came on the screen and spoke, he turned to his wife and said "what the faerk did aye jess say thar?" He couldn't even understand himself. So you see, I'm convinced that Welsh is an entirely fictional language and all those people in Wales are just taking the piss out of us by pretending that it actually means anything. ;-)

    1. Thanks for the chuckle! I'm not willing to say that no one actually understands Welsh, because I still fear the whole face-punching thing. But I'll take your word for it.