Language is one of those things that people tend to be concerned with when writing science fiction and fantasy (mostly in fantasy), and yet how many SF&F authors are linguists? It’s quite possible that this is a natural outgrowth of trying to show a radically different culture from our own; or it might be that the godfather of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Professor himself, put so much work into his languages.

Not everyone is a philologist, though, much less one of Tolkien’s caliber. How do we use languages in fiction without sounding like we just made it all up? How can we make it up if we’re going to keep the audience from feeling lost? How can we even hope to show a language barrier if the book’s all written in English?

What’s This English Thing Anyway?

10513260_10152205973787102_5904398384679713495_nA couple months ago, I gave my students in the Christendom College creative writing workshop a lecture on one of my favorite topics: Shakespeare. He’s a great source of inspiration, for narrative, dialog, pacing, or even just the idea that a nobody from a small town could one day be considered the greatest writer his nation ever produced by just telling stories for the masses.

Sadly, he’s not extraordinarily accessible, because his plays are taught like they’re books rather than performances. We stare at the printed word and try to decipher it; not just the individual words, but the strange cultural references as well. We don’t hear the beauty of the language, because our language has moved on.

Think about that. Language has moved on in just four hundred years. That feels like a long time, but it really isn’t. Other languages have stayed a lot more steady; sure, they’ve gained new words and grammar from contact with other cultures, or to describe new inventions or absorbed concepts, but there isn’t a particularly huge difference between modern and medieval Polish, Japanese, or Greek. Why is English so sloppy?

A Bad Habit 

Languages evolve over time, and there’s precious little that can be done to stop that (even when widespread modern recording is involved; more on that later). However, languages change the most when they bump into other languages, and there are a few times in the history of English that this has happened in a fairly spectacular way.

The first bump happened when the Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes decided their old lands on the continent weren’t rainy, foggy, or otherwise miserable enough for them. To fix this, they decided to move to Britain. After some dispute with the native Celts and the gone-native Romans over who was in charge, the Germans started measuring for curtains. In the process of getting their new peasant underlings to keep house, however, English was born.

Now, a lot of linguists say that there was no real influence from the Celts on early English, because there are very few English words that stem from those languages. On the other hand, we’ve got a sudden and decisive change from the Anglo-Frisian that the new masters of the house used to speak. It’s less in the individual words and more in points of grammar (which is more than just the difference between there, their, and they’re, whatever the Internet might lead you to believe). If the theory of minimal Celtic influence is true, then it’s just pure coincidence that all of a sudden the Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old German words with Welsh sentence structure.

It’s also odd to think that the Anglo-Saxons just went off and did their own thing, and all those Welsh, Cornish, and other previously-in-charge British just packed up and left. It’s far more likely that they started trying to communicate. And thus, the new language of Old English was born — born out of a bad habit between Saxon invaders and Welsh milkmaids, who thought that sharing one thing might lead to sharing others.

Viking Efficiency

Things went on very well, with people like Bede translating stuff into this newfangled English thing, and someone writing down that popular Beowulf poem the kings liked hearing. Then another set of immigrants arrived. Like the Germanic tribes before them, the Norse decided England was a prime vacation spot. Eventually, they were visiting so much that they decided to stay. The Saxons had a tough set of immigration laws, but the Norse lawyers’ swords were sharper, and those particular courts didn’t have much of an appeal process.

545928_10150669371142303_1407266198_nThe Norse decided they liked this English thing, even if it did have that weird Welsh structure to it. They figured it could do better, though. As a result, they started tossing in their own vocabulary, adding in strange new words like calllawloan, scrape, sky, and wing. They also simplified a lot of the grammar; though since there comes from Anglo-Frisian and their rode in with the Vikings, the new guys are responsible for at least two-thirds of the there/their/they’re mess we’ve got today. Thanks, Olaf!

Of course, that’s not the biggest mess English got because of an invasion. Noooooo. Even the Norse kept things basically the same. For real linguistic headaches, we had to invent a whole new kind of English. We call it Middle — and like most middle children, it desperately wants attention.

Blame the French 

One of my college history professors, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, stressed the importance of the Battle of Hastings in this manner. “And then we get to 1066. 1066. 1066. ‘Is that going to be on the exam, Dr. O’Donnell?’ TEN SIXTY-SIX.”

Seriously, I can’t forget the year now.

Of course, neither can England, or the English language. The Battle of Hastings was, to quote the current United States Vice President, a BFG. Not only did it radically alter English history and society, it’s also used as the point linguists say Middle English was inflicted on the world.

See, the Norse weren’t alone in wanting to move to England. Their cousins the Normans had done it to France, and they decided it was time to give those pesky English a lesson for having fun wrong. They didn’t just move in like the Norse did. They decided to make everyone speak French.

French is another one of those bad habits. In its case, it’s a bad habit spawned by Latin hicks who decided they’d had enough of all those stupid declensions they’d never use (what sane person is going to address a table directly?) and just decided to speak plain simple Old French. Sadly, they didn’t get rid of one of the biggest bad habits of all: referring to everything in terms of genders.

See, Old English was sensible. The word man was gender-neutral. If you wanted to refer to a male person, you used wermann (male-man, not to be confused with the guy who delivers your junk mail and Netflix DVDs), or sometimes waepmann (roughly “that guy who’s probably armed, so be polite”). If you wanted instead to refer to a woman, you used wifmann.

Wifmann eventually became woman, but the wif part survives in wife and midwife (as well as fishwife if she’s got a bit of a dirty mouth, or possibly a load of seafood). Midwife is actually a gender-neutral word itself; it means “with the woman,” not that the midwife is a wife. So yes, Call the Midwife is actually a sentence meaning that someone should contact the middleman who specializes in women.

Of course, if you say it like that, it sounds like a, uh . . . dating service. Right. We’ll leave it at that. Family-friendly blog.

The wer in wermann really survives in only one common term today. Three guesses, and the first two don’t count. That’s right, werewolf! Ever wondered why it wasn’t “wolfman”? Now you know!


Apparently there were no wifwolves. No wonder they were howling. They should have called a midwife. *cough* Moving on.

That isn’t the extent of the mess that French made of English, though. Here’s another example. The Anglo-Saxon peasants had a bunch of perfectly good names for meat, like cow, pig, and chicken. The Frenchy nobles, on the other hand, didn’t eat such vulgar things. No, they ate beef, pork, and poultry. Of course, the nobles didn’t tend to hobnob with the farmers, so eventually we got different words for the meat when it was still moving versus when it hits the plate. (Though at least chicken has had a revival on my menu!)

There are lots of other changes that happened, but you get the idea. By the time English was restored as the language of government, the damage was done. Which means you’ve just learned two things. One, that the state of Washington should have just called for a revival of Old English. And two, the French mess things up.

(And that’s the sound of me suddenly becoming unpopular in France.)

Not Suitable for Print

But Chaucer didn’t write in the same English as Shakespeare. So what was the big change that happened by Billy’s day?

222511_496285907057071_559416293_nSimply put, it was the printing press. Written English wasn’t the domain of educated experts anymore. The printing press made it possible for anyone who could read and write to quickly and easily record their words for posterity. Add that to how England was becoming more and more connected via trade, both with other countries and within its own borders, and you’ve got a mess of people with different ideas on how English is to be constructed and even spelled. In Shakespeare’s day, you still had a lot of phonetic spelling; if you’re having trouble imagining what it sounded like, then pretend it’s first grade and your teacher is teeching yoo how 2 reed bie sownding it owt.

(I just sprained my brain there. Hold, please. *long pause* Okay, better now.)

Of course, not all of those phonetic pronunciations are quite the same as in Modern English. Soon after Shakespeare, the Great Vowel Shift had taken hold. That’s when all of a sudden the English started pronouncing vowels in weird ways, like the letters had played a game of musical chairs in a foxtrot set to polka. In other words, it was a mess. A mess that got locked in by the rise of standardized spelling.

Other countries went with the (arguably sensible) approach of setting up language academies to standardize printing. England, however, insisted on being different again. Instead of a central standard, the individual printers became the custodians for what would become standard English spelling. Since the printers became publishers, you now know where the headaches of submission guidelines come from. They’re testing to see if you can follow their rules.

Cheeky bastards.

A Legacy of Linguistic Violence

So that’s English for you. What started as a bad habit became a lifelong tradition. The English got a taste for foreign words the way a rabid dog gets a taste for man-flesh, only now they have to call it people-flesh. Now we run around the world, hunting languages down dark alleys, beating them over the head with a dictionary, and riffling through their pockets for loose grammar.

That actually lead to more torturous bits of English, like a single person getting told they can’t use singular-they (even though Shakespeare did); or being told to never split an infinitive; or that a preposition isn’t a good thing to end a sentence with. These, and a lot of others, came from an overabundance of Latin and Greek influence on English schools. Now, there are a lot of good things to say about Latin and Greek. Using them as a standard by which to judge English isn’t one of them. Grammar rules that don’t facilitate communication tend to make communication more difficult.

Thank God they didn’t insist on adding declining nouns to the language. *shudder*

If you want to learn more about this sort of stuff, I highly recommend Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by John McWhorter. It’s a fascinating look at the development of the English language, and I’ve become a minor fan of Dr. McWhorter’s work. He’s also the narrator for the audiobook version of the same volume, and he’s not only a captivating speaker, but you can also hear him pronounce all the strange words (including comparison languages that have little to nothing to do with English, but serve to illustrate a point).

Creating Your Own Linguistic Mess

Okay. So English is weird because of immigration and 19th century boarding schools being fascinated with Classical studies. How does one put this all into practice in a science fiction or fantasy novel? What’s the point?

I’m glad you asked, Mr. Strawman Audience Member. Here are some lessons to learn from the development of English.

  • Languages bleed. They mix like watercolors on plastic if you’re not careful. That’s not just with neighboring languages, but also with themselves over time, as different people get in charge. McWhorter has some excellent stuff on that in his book. Sometimes you don’t have to go far to experience what might as well be another language. Modern English and Dutch are two separate languages, but there are enough cognates to work in a pinch. You can show a language barrier without having to make up entirely new words.
  • Play with grammar. Go far enough, even today, and you’ll find people using odd phrases and even different sentence structure. Changing the order of subject and verb in a sentence will make the farmer your character just encountered seem very different even if you’re using 100% Modern English vocabulary.
  • Don’t go overboard. I, like many other people, find it extremely hard to read The Canterbury Tales in its original, and it’s pretty much impossible to read Beowulf the same way. And yet both have familiar words, or similar spellings. It doesn’t take much to make a word seem foreign.
  • Have different classes speak differently. This doesn’t just mean using lots of apostrophes to show lower-class speech. I’m talking about using different words entirely. Smite means the same thing as hit, but someone who says the one is very different from someone who says the other. Take a page from the Norman upper class and use different words to talk about the same thing.
  • If you use archaic speech, learn about it first. For example, many people make the mistake of thinking thee and thou are formal. They’re actually informal. It’s called the T-V Distinction, where a language has a different word for formal and informal second person address, like the French tu and vou. People were dropping it in Shakespeare’s day, but he still used it. Anytime a character in one of his plays says thee rather than you, there’s informality going on. Most people these days, though, act like it’s a sign of upper-crust speech. There’s no such distinction. It’s a lot like the -kun and -san honorific suffixes in Japanese, though they and the other honorifics have a lot more rules.
  • Borrow from other languages. I frequently take a shortcut by picking a “parent” real-world language and then looking up words in its dictionary. I’ll play around with the results until I have something that sounds “right” to me, switching letters until it clicks. This lets me create words that sound foreign, but also have linguistic similarities so that I’m not just coming up with random nonsense.
  • Keep it simple. Your audience is probably primarily English-speaking. Don’t use too many strange sounds that don’t fit in English. For example, a book I’m currently writing has both Irish and Polish words in it. Sometimes it’s just not natural to provide pronunciation cues. I’ve sometimes selected words that may not be the natural fit in the original language, but which use a minimum of crazy consonants. (Mind you, both languages are mostly pronounced exactly as they’re spelled. It’s just very decidedly not an English-style pronunciation in either case!)
  • Show cultural division. Language is both a unifier and a divider. One group will feel connected by a shared language, while that same language naturally excludes others. Languages die, or evolve beyond prior recognition. Today, we’re in a constant drive to more unified communication, with English as a dominating force. That increases information sharing, but it also threatens cultural preservation. There’s a reason why linguists are trying to get as many recordings of minor languages as possible today, before those who speak it as a native language die out. It’s equally the reason why so many countries define official languages, with the United States being one of the few strange ones that doesn’t. Consider who speaks what language in your world, and why some groups might stubbornly hold on to their language — or create a new one, such as Cockney rhyming slang.
  • Develop the history of a country. A series of invasions on prime real estate can definitely change things for a culture, and that shows up very well with language. What’s the language of diplomacy? It might not be the language of the biggest power, but rather the language of the traders who travel the most. Ancient Egyptians conducted diplomacy in Akkadian, like most other Middle Eastern/East Mediterranean powers three thousand years ago. Look to see who has had the most influence, peaceful or otherwise, and see what else might have happened.
  • Consider future development. This is mostly useful for the sci-fi authors in the audience. An excellent way to show linguistic drift is through swear words and euphemisms, something shown to great effect on Firefly. It’s often assumed that English will be the language of the future. This is almost certainly true, as the above-mentioned John McWhorter explains. It’s equally assumed that ubiquitous recordings will freeze English; in one of the Honor Harrington novels, it’s mentioned that the characters speak the same English as was spoken when humanity first left Earth. John McWhorter suggests otherwise, though personally I find the idea of texting creating a permanent new shift in English grammar to be a decidedly horrifying prospect.

Language is a tricky thing. We use it so much that we expect certain things, even from foreign languages. The reconstructed pronunciation of certain place names in the ancient Middle East sound ridiculous to English-trained ears. For example, the famous king Suppiluliuma, ruler of the Hittites in the 14th century BC, is thought to have pronounced his name Soupy-Uhlie-Umma, or possibly Shoopy-Oolie-Ooma. I’m sure it was a far more dignified sound to his ears, but today that sounds like something a baby might babble on a viral YouTube video.

The best way to understand how to dabble in linguistics for the sake of a story is to learn about the history of language. As long as it’s not a plot point, you’ll get far more out of studying culture than you will out of grammar without context. I was fortunate enough in college to have a Spanish professor who didn’t just teach us how to order a sandwich and read the biographies of Latin American soap opera stars. He had us translating historical Spanish documents, medieval Spanish poetry, and learning about the changes in Spanish culture, and it gave an invaluable anchor for understanding the language. Language can be separated from culture, but only with significant and even extreme effort.