Essay: Oh, Words, Words, Words…

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Oh, Words, Words, Words…

I’ve always loved languages. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering I grew up multilingually, and switching between them is something I’ve been doing all my life. Language always seems to make its way into my work in some form or another, though. At least when it’s longer.

In Lynn vs Conlang, I tried to give people a rough idea of how I come up with conlangs for my stories, as well as some tangents in how to use that conlang to set up some subtle worldbuilding. Today, I’d like to talk a little more about the latter, looking at how I use conlangs in my own stories and why I do things that way.

I should note, first off, that using conlang the way I normally in fiction do falls, more or less, into the category of naturalistic languages even when the conlang itself isn’t developed enough to be a naturalistic language. What I do, though, to the best of my abilities, is treat the conlang like a real language for the purpose of the story.

That’s probably confusing if you’re not too used to thinking about language in fiction, sorry, so let’s start at the very beginning: how can people use conlang in (SFF) fiction?

First, it’s important to know that, especially when you’re writing secondary world SFF, part of the implied conceit is that the characters aren’t actually speaking the language you’re writing in: you’re ‘translating’. Whenever you see a fantasy story using a made-up word, the idea behind that word is that it was untranslatable.

That conceit actually leads into a larger note, though: using a conlang in your stories is actually quite similar to using a real language in your stories. Or, put differently: any advice that you find for incorporating real languages in your work can be applied to using conlangs in your work.

If you’re writing a story where people speak only one language and your main issue is what words to render in the language you’re writing in and which to convey through your made-up language, there’s a limited use to that advice. But if you’re like me and tend to have multiple nations and multiple languages… Well, it becomes helpful to know how bilingualism works. Certain stories, such as Stargate: Atlantis made a deliberate choice to have everyone be able to understand each other perfectly. Others, such as Doctor Who, come up with a MacGuffin to explain the discrepancy away. The new series have pretty consistently had characters point it out, at that.

In my own work, the most conlang-heavy story I’ve published, is A Promise Broken which features an all bilingual cast. Most of the story is, of course, rendered in English, but if I only paid attention to how a monolingual setting uses English it’d soon end up sounding, well, flat. Speaking multiple languages is a specific type of experience, much as ‘being asexual’ or ‘have been horse-riding since the age of ten’ creates a specific type of experience. There are things bilingual people do that monolingual people don’t, and if those notes are missing…

Multilingual speakers can either switch languages completely or they can code switch, which is when they mix the two languages for a variety of reasons that, last I check, science was still figuring out. The important thing to note, regardless of whether you’re writing a bilingual character who speaks real languages or constructed ones, is that code switching comes with its own rules on when it happens, how it happens and why it happens. (Here’s an article about why people code switch from Current Directions in Psychological Science) Whenever you see people talking about an author getting multilingualism wrong, there’s a high chance (a very high chance) that a failure to understand (and apply) the rules of code switching is why. Granted, there’s an equally high chance they just ran a sentence through Google Translate and decided to use something ungrammatical and silly. Or both. Both is even more likely.

Anyway! My point is that when you’re writing a story with multiple conlangs and you want to convey that your character speaks multiple languages fluently – certainly on a regular basis – paying attention to how your conlangs and code switching works is a good idea because it’ll let you build a foundation to use in your story.

In fiction, a very common way to convey code switching revolves around endearments. You see it very frequently in romance novels where one or both of the characters are bilingual and switch to a foreign language to speak endearments. It also happens frequently with cussing. The idea here is the concept that these characters just feel so strongly about one another that they lose the ability to speak English briefly.

While that’s not quite how it works, it’s decent shorthand in writing because it is common. It’s just that what actually happens is more complex. It’s not necessarily so much that a secondary language is momentarily forgotten, but also that these words don’t map neatly onto one another and convey different meanings. Yes, even when a dictionary will tell you that they’re the same word. While a dictionary will tell you that the German ‘Schatzi’ translates as (among others) ‘sweetheart’ because they’re used in the same context, they’re actually two different terms. The English ‘sweetheart’ consists after all of the words ‘sweet’ and ‘heart’ and all the connotations those two nouns have, plus the ones the compound has gained over the years. But ‘Schatzi’ means ‘little treasure’, which has vastly different connotations for its base forms. A bilingual person wanting to convey those connotations is much more likely to use ‘Schatzi’ than to offer up an English translation, whether literal or not.

Anyway, my point here is, of course, that endearments that don’t map onto English well in your conlang can, quite safely be treated as conlang terms and it’ll add depth and flavouring to your world-building. The same thing happens with cussing, where a major pitfall authors tend to fall into is assuming that because they can offer conlang euphemisms for certain words that automatically means they should. Cussing bilingually is an art and craft all its own and, I’ll be frank, not one I’m well-versed enough in to really be of any use. I just know that authors tend to take their cussing too far and I suspect that “But this does have a literal translation that is actually the same word with the same connotations” is a large part of why it often falls flat.

Conlang works best when you’re trying to convey something that genuinely doesn’t match onto any English words you could use or that is just different enough to make using it worth your while. Like, for example, the way I use ‘magic’ and ‘fasaoi’ in A Promise Broken. If you look at the glossary, you’ll notice that the translation I’ve given for fasaoi is, very simply, ‘magic’. So why not simply use ‘magic’ and be done with it? Because, in this setting, ‘fasaoi’ is a highly specialised… type of magic and using the word will have connotations that the English word simply can’t carry. Because the setting differentiates between ‘regular magic’ and ‘magic but with a slightly different set of cultural norms than what a reader would expect’, the language I use does to.

By choosing to use both magic and fasaoi as terms in the book, I’m signalling to the reader “Hey, pay attention. Even though this is obviously something you’re used to, there’s something else going on too”, but I’m doing so in an incredibly subtle way. Some readers will miss the implication entirely.

If you read the glossary carefully, you’ll notice two things: 1) the conlang leans heavily towards terms that are difficult to translate directly and 2) it includes English terms. Two, in fact, because those are terms that I can offer a rough translation for. With ‘Balance’ that’s because it’s easier to explain the concept by leaning on the English connotations than asking readers to create their own based on context. With ‘palmbound’, that’s because the term doesn’t show up often enough for readers to get a clear idea and the English helps them along a little.

And that’s a general idea of what I did with the conlang in A Promise Broken and why I made the choices to use the words that I did how I did. I hope that was interesting and/or useful to you!