Google Your Words

Real actual writing advice today!

You know how when you’re writing fantasy/science fiction/imaginary whateveritis, and you make up words? Names, little language phrases, stuff like that?

Google them.

Always, always, always Google them I am not even slightly kidding.

For example… remember the Powerpuff Girls? The clearly-made-up city of Townsville? I was born in Townsville. It’s on my birth certificate and everything. Townsville, Queensland. It’s named after the guy who financed the settlement, Robert Towns. I am not making this up, I swear. (Incidentally, it’s a hole. Don’t go there.)

The beautiful and you-should-absolutely-watch-it Studio Ghibli movie Laputa: Castle In The Sky was shortened to Castle In The Sky for US release. La puta, get it? Yeah, not so good, and never mind that it’s a perfectly innocuous name taken from Gulliver’s Travels. Make sure you’re not swearing in a language you don’t know!

Incidentally, even within the same language, dialect differences can make an innocuous statement into a filthy joke. For example, in Australia, ‘root’ is a synonym for ‘fuck’. In Canada, there is a store chain called ‘Roots’ (There’s also a ‘Roots Kids’. You can imagine our reaction). I don’t know if it’s still there, but the Outback Steakhouse used to have a dessert called the Chocolate Thunder From Down Under. I ask you, who names a dessert ‘synonym for poop’? People who don’t speak that dialect, that’s who. The dessert was not half bad, though. (Yes, of course I ordered it, how could I resist?)

Of course you should always be careful when throwing in words from languages you don’t know, we all know that. But be very, very careful about your made-up words, too. They may not be as made-up as you think, and while ‘Koorva’ may sound like a nice fantasy name, Google tells me that it’s ‘whore’ in Ukrainian.

Don’t assume that this is something editorial will pick up, or that you’ll remember to check some other time during rewrites! Getting the words right is your job, so play it safe. Google your words, guys. Every one.

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Following the Language Barrier, The Dialectic

So, let’s talk about dialects.

A dialect, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group’. Dialects within the same language can vary pretty damn enormously. Remember the adorable but barely comprehensible Young McGuffin from ‘Brave‘? He was speaking Doric, a dialect of Scots which may be an obscure subdialect of English or may be simply a very closely related language, apparently that’s up for debate, which I didn’t know, so thank you Wikipedia.

I love Wikipedia. It’s not always perfect, but on average it’s usually reasonably close-ish, which as internet sources go is pretty good.

Anyway. Dialects within a single language can vary hugely and sometimes very subtlely. Varieties within one country can be pretty broad – between different countries, even bigger. I’ve been married to an American for nigh on ten years now, and I still occasionally come out with words or phrases he doesn’t know, despite the fact that we are both English speakers first and only. I comprehend Television American (the tidied up version, like BBC English) reasonably well, but when the slang comes out I am rapidly lost. Although to be perfectly honest I get confused by a lot of Australian slang too because I am a nerd in her thirties and didn’t know the cool things the kids were saying even when I was one.

This is relevant to writing because it is very very easy to get dialects wrong. I’ve been corrected multiple times, when writing Harry Potter fiction, for using words or phrases that are dialectically inappropriate. Ditto for writing American characters, though not as often. If you are writing a story set in a country or area or something with which you are not personally familiar, and you want to publish it, do really try to find someone who knows it to act as a beta-reader for your dialogue at the very least. People will usually do this for unfamiliar languages, but they don’t always realize how wildly dialects can vary among, the most prevalent example I know of, English Speakers Of The World. (I don’t read any other languages, so I don’t know how frequently this problem occurs elsewhere, but from what I have picked up here and there English-speakers are bar-none the worst for not realizing that their language has dialectic variations)

And don’t crack the shits if your source says you can’t tell your bogan from your wanker.

See? See what I mean? And I don’t even speak Strine! I’d be confusing you all if I could, I can tell you.

Seriously, English is not just English. Check your dialects, especially if you’ve set your novel in a country other than your own.

 

And Now For Something Completely Different

My daughter has been very slow to start talking, which is both worrying and deeply frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we need to make an appointment to take her to a specialist to try to find out what the problem is.

And that makes me think about language barriers. My little ninja (she’s seriously stealthy and agile for a two-year-old) woke up in the middle of the night last night and had shrieking hysterics when put back into bed… and I don’t know why. She can’t tell me. I don’t know if she had a scary nightmare, or if she had a stomach ache, or if she’s just upset because she has the flu. I can try assorted things – drink of milk, bottle of chilled water, cuddles, songs, letting her curl up in our bed instead of her own – but they’re semi-informed guesses at best.

Language differences are often handwaved in fiction. Universal translators are a science-fiction staple, ‘common’ or ‘trade-talk’ ditto in fantasy. Magic can ease a linguistic barrier, or maybe a babelfish in the ear.

Which bugs me, a little. Language is the medium in which novels communicate and yet they hand-wave and simplify it to the point of  non-existence. I really think characters can handle a little in the way of basic linguistic inconvenience. It also ignores the fact that even now, let alone in the days before pocket dictionaries, people often know more than one language, especially if they’re likely to need to. Lady Jane Grey famously spoke and wrote French, Greek, Italian and Latin fluently, in addition to English, and she was still in her teens when she died. There is no reason why characters in high fantasy shouldn’t speak multiple languages… even a Farmboy Protagonist may have picked up a few words here and there, if he happens to have grown up near a trade-route. In fact, the idea that everyone in a fantasy world speaks the same language is orders of magnitude less likely than Farmboy Protagonist happening to have happened on a few words of Exotic Foreign.

I’ll concede that in science fiction, this is harder. A mechanical translator is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that not only are there whole worlds full of new languages that possibly haven’t been encountered before, but that a humanoid vocalizing mechanism probably isn’t going to be up to producing all of them. Even so, it would be nice to at least see some token difficulties.

One of my favourite depictions of this is in the beginning of the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which the poet Ahmed ibn Fadlan learns to speak Norse over the course of a journey, by listening to the men around him talking. Words slowly become clear, and eventually he’s able to communicate, though his use of grammar is noticeably different, which I thought was a nice touch. (Yes, I know it’s a terribly cheesy movie. I like it anyway.) David Weber in his War God series does acknowledge the existence of different languages, and gets around the problem tidily enough by having his protagonist being a somewhat well-educated noble, the son of a prince, who like Jane Grey has learned multiple languages as a matter of course. He doesn’t speak them all perfectly, but he can get by.

In science fiction, the best example that leaps to mind is a very old book called ‘The Dancing Meteorite’, by Anne Mason. I loved this book when I was younger, and as an adult I hunted down a second-hand copy so I could have it forever. It features a young ‘e-comm’ xenolinguist, who runs into trouble several times not only because learning multiple alien languages – some of which are nigh-impossible for a human to produce the sounds for – takes up all her time, isolating her from her peers, but because it takes up all her study time. She doesn’t have enough scientific grounding to know that a meteorite shouldn’t change direction spontaneously, let alone all the other information her peers think is elementary. Anne Mason showed very clearly what a huge barrier language can be, including having Kira explaining to the members of her exploratory team when they protest that handling languages is her job, not theirs, that they will all be in different parts of the alien ship they hope to travel on, and that she will only be able to translate for one of them at a time, and in addition is required to do her own work as well as acting as the diplomat for the team and suck it up and learn your shit, princesses. Not that she says that, but oh, it would have been delightful if she had.

I know it’s tempting to insert a convenient lingua franca into fiction, so that you don’t have to waste time on explanations or translations, but I do think it’s something that should be given real thought, not just brushed off. Language barriers are so utterly frustrating, they make a wonderful source of tension in a plot – and one that doesn’t require willful misunderstandings or being Stupid-In-Service-To-The-Plot. I would love to see a fantasy novel in which the group of travellers Brought Together By Fate don’t all speak the same language, and have to rely on those members who know both or all three languages to relay information. The possibilities for complications just abound! And when The Group Gets Separated, as it traditionally does, well, then things could get really interesting.

Does that story already exist? If it does, please let me know!

EDIT: If anyone is wondering, the trouble with the Tiny Ninja was an ear infection. We have antibiotics for it, and she’s much happier already.