Multilingualism and Culture in Fictional Settings

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.

Multilingualism and Culture in Fictional Settings

I’ve done a couple of essays on writing multilingual settings already – such as last week’s! -, but there’s always room for more. I tend to focus on the more technical aspects of how that works, I think, but of course there’s much more to writing a multilingual setting than fits into a short essay.

Today then, I’ll be talking more about social/narrative perspective of writing a multilingual character or settings because multilingualism will impact far more than just your characters. It’ll affect the whole setting and technology will have a massive impact as well. For me, personally, you may notice that I lean towards writing multilingual characters who are at least fluent enough to switch between them in daily life. The more technology you have, the more likely multilingualism is going to crop up. This is why universal translators are a pretty standard handwavey solution found in science fiction and why Common is the fantastical variant albeit with a less plausible explanation. It simplifies the setting you’re writing.

Anyway! I’ve already discussed some ways in which people will codeswitch or otherwise be influenced by multilingualism, but I haven’t really touched on the setting all that much. It actually doesn’t take a lot for multilingualism to show up. All you need is one item – for example a spice – to be imported and find that some people prefer the original name and others prefer a new one that fits the language it’s been imported into. Now you’ve got two names for the same item and people will use whichever one they come into contact with most for it.

One of the things to bear in mind when you’re including multilingualism is, well, politics because some languages are seen as more desirable and/or more prestigious as others. For a real-life example, one need look no further than the way the UK treated, for example, Welsh and French. One was literally beaten out of people and one was actively taught because it was deemed a mark of good quality to speak it. I’ll leave you to figure out which was which, but if you need a hand, look up the Welsh Not.

If you’re writing in a multilingual setting, you can use language to give an easy of class or attitude in much the same way it’s used today. Or worse if that’s the setting you’re going for. You can use it to convey whether a character is an arrogant snob or whether they’re more open to diversity. You could use it to contrast a character who genuinely wants to learn about other cultures and one who just wants to fetishise them. You could use it to comment subtly on a character’s origins or their emotional state. (Or both! You’re probably doing both.) You could use it to convey that certain characters don’t like one another. Wherever you’re from and whatever language you speak, there’s bound to be a dialect that gets frowned upon by the dominant culture in your country. Think about how that manifests itself for a moment because that, too, is an example of how multilingualism can fit into your setting. Multilingualism is those dialectal tensions on a much larger scale.

Multilingualism, then, can and should affect how characters feel about one another. This is especially true in a fantasy setting where these attitudes play out more readily since the social structures are set to mimic times where this was common rather than presenting a more egalitarian view of language.

If you’re writing a multilingual setting, then, one of the things you have to bear in mind is what people’s overall attitude to those languages are as this will inform character relationships and attitudes. Once you know that you can narrow in on things like who speaks what language when.

Sometimes this is easy: there’s often a very strong divide between public and private. Meaning that the dominant language in a country is often spoken in public, but in private that person ends up speaking a different one. This is probably the biggest aspect of bilingualism that you’ll need to account for: the way people treat one another.

A powerful example of that is when you’re conversing with multiple people and not everyone speaks the same language. Some find it exceptionally easy to switch between languages repeatedly, but others can only switch once or twice before getting ‘stuck’ on one language: usually the one most people have in common.

Let me try to illustrate that. Let’s assume that we’re trying to write a scene between Anna, Bob and Lei’myra. Anna and Bob are both your average fantasy protagonists and Lei’myra is your average fantasy elf. Let’s also assume that Anna and Bob are both bilingual, speaking Human and Elvish, but Lei’myra speaks only Elvish. Lastly, let’s assume that this is quieter scene focused on character building. Lei’myra has just joined the team and this is the author’s introduction to the new team dynamics.

It is entirely possible for Bob to be so used to talking to Anna in Human that he’ll switch to it automatically whenever he addresses her. It’s not a conscious or deliberate choice to exclude Lei’myra from the conversation on his part. It’s just reflex because Person A means Language Y and Person B means Language Z. Lei’myra is liable to notice the switch, though, and someone will have to repeat the information in Elvish if it’s important. If it’s not, Anna may reflexively switch back to Human too. Or Anna may be better at keeping the wider conversation in mind and reply in Elvish. Whatever happens next in the conversation, though, will have to deal with the multiple languages.

As a writer, that means you’ve also got various ways to showcase it. You could be blunt and state outright that languages are being switched. (Many readers will appreciate this because it’s unambiguous.) You could be more subtle and rely on a description of Lei’myra and Anna’s physical reactions to this. Moreso Lei’myra’s than Anna’s, though. Like Bob, Anna will be too used to speaking to him in Human to react strongly to the switch. You can also use the exchange to give an idea of how fluent people are in Elvish. Maybe Bob didn’t switch because he’s used to speaking to Anna in a certain language. Maybe he got stuck because his vocabulary wasn’t good enough. (Grammar, it has to be said, is reflexive enough that it’s more likely to throw a listener with a better grasp of it than the speaker. When you’re speaking a second language, you think about vocabulary even when you speak. Grammar is more instinctual and so you often won’t notice you’re using patterns from a different language unless someone points it out.)

Outside of specific conversations, though, bluntness is often your best bet. If your characters are traversing a busy market, add a note to your description about the language use. Wares could be hawked in a multitude of languages, for example. Or perhaps they don’t speak the language used in that country and you can add a note about language that way. Or perhaps the fact that they can understand the hawking is surprising. There are a dozen ways to go about it, but the key aspect is that you address it in some fashion. Here, let me show you an example.

Anna and Bob traversed the market. Neither of them had been to the capital before. Of the two, only Anna had ever set foot outside their small village in the far northern mountains. The crowds were suffocating, elbows jabbing them this way and that. Bob had taken off his pack after the third time someone’d bumped into him, wrapping his arms around it.

Scents were everywhere, from the brine of the salt sea nearby to the spices in the stalls and the perfumes worn by people richer and finer than they. The hawkers called out so quickly Anna couldn’t parse the choppy southern speech fast enough to understand more than snatches at a time, and those were as often lost in the cacophony of so many people talking at once. It was nothing like the markets back home.

She cried when Bob suddenly surged forward, grabbing his shoulder for attention. “What?” she asked.

He grinned at her, looking younger and more himself than he had since the moment they’d set foot in the city. “I heard something,” he said, like that explained anything to Anna at all. Bob’s hearing had always been better than hers, more capable of filtering out unwanted information. It took them half an hour to fight their way through the square to a corner, but even before then Anna could make out more of the hawker’s words. They were comfortable, familiar. The rounded vowels of home, the elongated syllables a soothing balm. She hadn’t heard someone speak in their dialect for weeks, maybe months.

See if you can spot the ways in which language shows up here. My greatest writing weakness is description and this was whipped up with a specific purpose to boot, so an author with more skills in this area than I could draw out the languages even more without breaking the narrative stride of the description.

In this scene, I actually opted for a difference in dialect rather than a wholly different language because it’s easier to show ways to incorporate language cues into your descriptions, but the principle is the same. If you wanted to switch this scene to the concept that Anna can’t speak the language spoken there at all, it’s easy.

Anna and Bob traversed the market. Neither of them had been to the elven capital before. Of the two, only Anna had ever set foot outside their small village in the far northern mountains. The crowds were suffocating, elbows jabbing them this way and that. Bob had taken off his pack after the third time someone’d bumped into him, wrapping his arms around it.

Scents were everywhere, from the brine of the salt sea nearby to the spices in the stalls and the perfumes worn by people richer and finer than they. The hawkers called out so quickly Anna couldn’t parse the choppy Elvish speech fast enough to understand anything. She might have caught a word here or there, but mostly the words blended into a cacophony with so many people talking at once. It sounded nothing like the markets back home and yet the cadence of it was familiar. Undoubtedly, the vendors were shouting variants of “Buy from me”.

She cried when Bob suddenly surged forward, grabbing his shoulder for attention. “What?” she asked.

He grinned at her, looking younger and more himself than he had since the moment they’d set foot in the city. “I heard something,” he said, like that explained anything to Anna at all. Bob’s hearing had always been better than hers, more capable of filtering out unwanted information. It took them half an hour to fight their way through the square to a corner, but even before then Anna could hear the familiar sounds of Human and make out words. It was comfortable, familiar. The rounded vowels of home, the elongated syllables a soothing balm. She hadn’t heard anyone besides Bob speak Human for weeks, though it felt like months.

As you can see, much of the scene is exactly the same, but the references to language look very different. That’s because Elvish, unlike the dialect, is completely unknown to Anna. Oh, she might catch a word here or there if it’s spoken in isolation or a quieter setting, but in a busy market place where people are shouting the specifics will get lost. And yet, because it’s a market, Anna can extrapolate about what is being said. In this case, the setting provides the context. If she’d been looking at a specific stall, the vendor’s tone and posture would have provided clues instead.

Body language, if you’re writing a multilingual setting where one or more of your characters aren’t fluent in body, is important because it’ll give you clues to communicate with. If you offer someone a drink and they make a face, spit it out and they speak rapidly in a slightly aggressive tone without apparently addressing you directly, it’s fairly safe bet that they’re cussing about how awful what they just tried is. And you won’t need to understand a word of what they’re saying to understand that!

So… Those are some more ways in which you can write or render a multilingual setting realistically. The most important thing you can do is acknowledge that your setting is multilingual. That’s half the work done. The rest is adding in details to make sure you’re not just saying “This setting is multilingual” and those details are going to depend on the story you’re telling. Your setting could be as multilingual as you like, but if your story is about two boys traversing a dangerous wood five kilometres from home without ever encountering anyone other than a creepy woodsman? Multilingualism isn’t likely to crop up on a societal level.

If your story is about a student at a magical college? Chances are there’ll be books to read and they could be in a different language, even if that language is only an older variant of the modern.

If your story is about a trader who travels all over the world? Chances are they can speak at least one additional language well enough to survive (in the countries where it’s spoken) if needed.

And those are just some very general examples. All of those will require different details to convey a sense of multilingualism, but the core of it remains the same: know that multiple languages exist and that they impact how things relate to one another.