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Communication and Languages in Fantasy

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
Hello!

I'm working on a story that involves the MC traveling through lands of other races that speak different languages. There's no such thing as "common."

The MC comes from a highly developed and civilized land - they have technology, education, science, "modern" medicine, etc. Magic is prominent, but it is less mystical and more a branch of science to them. And this civilization is small and closed off mostly from the rest of the world. There's no trade or anything between lands. This civilization keeps to itself, mostly because the world was "destroyed" thousands of years ago and civilization never really recovered. This civilization has never ventured out to learn of other people, so they don't know languages that aren't a part of their civilization.

Most of the rest of the world is tribal and "primitive" and has had little to no contact with anyone from a civilized land for thousands of years. The lands are wild and untamed.

So I'm struggling with communication for this story. My MC is a magic-user so right now he is using magic to communicate, but I'm not sure I like that. I mean, it makes sense for the character, but it sounds a little contrived as far as good writing goes. This is important, because in the beginning of the story he saves a character that is from one of the tribal settlements and this character becomes the MC's companion/side kick. If not through magic at first, how do they communicate?

How do you handle communication/language in your worlds?
 

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
Have the character he saved translate for him.
Yeah, but how does he communicate with the character he saves in the first place?

I'm sticking with magic for now, but I'm open to ideas. This whole story is about magic and how different it is in other cultures and the main character is on a quest to learn more about magic. So magic makes sense for now.

I'm just curious how other people handle communication in their stories.

Thanks for the response!
 

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
How advanced? An app on the phone can go a long way... Or would that be "witchcraft"?
Well, there are no "smart phones" but there are communication devices. But the MC is on a special test quest and is only allowed a few items and a communicator isn't one.

But since you bring it up, I've never thought about the communicators translating before. They are telepathic, so TECHNICALLY you wouldn't need to speak a language, you just convey a thought. hmmm...

interesting... very interesting.

Thanks for the response!
 

Gallio

Minstrel
My world resembles Earth in that there are dozens of different languages. There is a common tongue, but it is only spoken in certain countries, and often only by the elite (like French in 19th-century Russia). There are also a few pidgins or trade languages. Some of my characters are very good at learning languages, but most of the characters, if they find themselves among speakers of an alien tongue, have to learn it slowly, by trial and error, taking several weeks to master even the rudiments. The problems of communication are often the drivers of the plot.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
Yeah, but how does he communicate with the character he saves in the first place?

I'm sticking with magic for now, but I'm open to ideas. This whole story is about magic and how different it is in other cultures and the main character is on a quest to learn more about magic. So magic makes sense for now.

I'm just curious how other people handle communication in their stories.

Thanks for the response!
Maybe the one he saved can already speak his language. Not everyone never travels.
 

Demesnedenoir

Myth Weaver
I handle language in a variety of ways because magic doesn't really help with language much. In your case, in an advanced society, you'd likely have someone who is a linguist of their own language and prone to being one of those people who picks up foreign languages easily. A person not like me, heh heh. If the character in need of a sidekick is such a person, then things get easier. I'd say you show the initial struggle to communicate, and if possible, skip ahead a few weeks or months of these two together, and you'll have decent communication. Or, if it's good storytelling, write the struggle and aggravation in some general way, because it's a good bonding opportunity for the two characters. Whichever one enters the other's culture will probably make the fastest progress. Readers also tend to be forgiving of language barriers being broken.
 
Your world sounds interesting, that you have a kind of hermit kingdom, a bit like Japan used to be, but it feels a little paradoxical to have this small isolated country be so far advanced and yet close itself off to the outside world. With curiosity and advancement in science usually comes exploration and travel. Unless that’s the point at where you’re at now where you have a traveller.

Languages are a difficult one to be honest both in writing and reading. You also have minutiae of local dialects and cultural differences to consider whenever you have different languages too. It gets a bit tedious when a character speaks in a broken language all the time because at some point you would expect that skill to improve. It is fiction after all.

In one of my worlds one character has the magical ability of the cypher, so he can interpret other spoken languages and also read and understand written symbols and glyphs. Other than that, I’m only dealing with two main languages so I’m not putting that kind of strain on my narrative.

There are more localisations and specific terminology for various things with the main country the story is set in being made up of various provinces, with the entire country the approximate size of Russia - so there are different names for the same Gods for example in different parts of the country, different cuisines, different customs and traditions etc.

There are also different POV characters too - so the reader will experience the newness of a language or culture through their eyes.

It’s a lot to consider!
 

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
Your world sounds interesting, that you have a kind of hermit kingdom, a bit like Japan used to be, but it feels a little paradoxical to have this small isolated country be so far advanced and yet close itself off to the outside world. With curiosity and advancement in science usually comes exploration and travel. Unless that’s the point at where you’re at now where you have a traveller.

Languages are a difficult one to be honest both in writing and reading. You also have minutiae of local dialects and cultural differences to consider whenever you have different languages too. It gets a bit tedious when a character speaks in a broken language all the time because at some point you would expect that skill to improve. It is fiction after all.

In one of my worlds one character has the magical ability of the cypher, so he can interpret other spoken languages and also read and understand written symbols and glyphs. Other than that, I’m only dealing with two main languages so I’m not putting that kind of strain on my narrative.

There are more localisations and specific terminology for various things with the main country the story is set in being made up of various provinces, with the entire country the approximate size of Russia - so there are different names for the same Gods for example in different parts of the country, different cuisines, different customs and traditions etc.

There are also different POV characters too - so the reader will experience the newness of a language or culture through their eyes.

It’s a lot to consider!
So here's the deal with the civilization. There was a world ending event a couple of thousand years ago. Everything was trashed. 1/3rd of the land was flooded and became ocean. Few survived. As the legends go, "the gods" led a group of people called the Children of Light (a cult) to a magical valley untouched by the destruction. There they found the abandoned remnants of a former civilization (once inhabited by powerful "celestials" that you could compare to the "Ancients" in Stargate Atlantis). In one of the structures that was still intact they found an archive of knowledge. The people used that knowledge to advance very quickly. Since this was the only known habitable land, they "closed" it off and defended the borders relentlessly. I originally had a great wall of China thing going on, but I scratched it. It was dumb and limited some things I wanted to do with my stories.

That being said, there is a group simply called the Seekers that goes out into the ruined world and tries to recover technology and rare plants for medicines, and the like. So I could have them encounter other cultures and bring back language.

Thanks for helping me think this through!
 

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
I handle language in a variety of ways because magic doesn't really help with language much. In your case, in an advanced society, you'd likely have someone who is a linguist of their own language and prone to being one of those people who picks up foreign languages easily. A person not like me, heh heh. If the character in need of a sidekick is such a person, then things get easier. I'd say you show the initial struggle to communicate, and if possible, skip ahead a few weeks or months of these two together, and you'll have decent communication. Or, if it's good storytelling, write the struggle and aggravation in some general way, because it's a good bonding opportunity for the two characters. Whichever one enters the other's culture will probably make the fastest progress. Readers also tend to be forgiving of language barriers being broken.
I like the idea of struggling to communicate adding to the story. But I don't want to over do it. hmmm...

Finchbearer just gave me the idea that some travel and exploration would have been likely for the MC's civilization. Well, he is a part of some magic monks that have to go on a "quest" as the final part of their training. They have to go out into the world and apply their skills and learn about life and magic. Just like my current MC, others like him would have traveled and learned about other cultures. So maybe I should just have him speak some languages.

But it seems too convenient for this young man that has never left this Valley where he lives, and never encountered any people from other cultures to know a language of some random tribe of people.

Maybe he's like me and only knows a few words of the language in question? Or maybe he is fluent and that is the first step to earning the trust of the companion character...

Lots to think about. Thanks for your response!
 

Queshire

Auror
I ended up going with Common.

Partly this is just for sheer convenience. Partly it's an intentional D&D reference. Mostly the setting is called the Burned Heavens and prominently features a big ol' war between the Gods & Titans. I like Common as this language cobbled together from this older Angelic language and as a result is (mostly) universal.
 
Monks were certainly the scholars of the Middle Ages - going out into the wider world and learning about all kinds of things, about theology, astronomy and so on. I’m not that knowledgable in that area, but it would make sense for a dedicated group to go out in search of knowledge. The other things to consider here from my perspective are to what end is this knowledge being collected? And in this society is it just men who’d be allowed to do this sort of thing or would you have female scholars too? During the Middle Ages knowledge was a precious resource, perhaps as precious as gold with a culture of hoarding so to speak - how much knowledge do you want your monks to share with the wider world. Most people during the Middle Ages were kept dumb and illiterate so they could be kept by more powerful people in order to do the most laborious jobs such as farming.

Japan kept itself closed off to the wider world for a long time and only let the Dutch traders live on an island off the main coast to keep them at arms length. After Japan opened up was when they advanced very quickly. But what we are left with is a preservation of a much older and rich culture.

Is your world akin to finding the remnants of Ancient Greece? How will these people filter through the language and the knowledge they find without a prior working up to that point. Surely none of it will make any sense to them?
 
There are 2 ways to approach this. Either the realistic, or the cinematic.

From a realism perspective, learning a language takes a lot of time. I've experienced this first hand, with exchange students who took a gap-year abroad, redoing the last year of highschool. These are people who are completely emerged in a different language, with no one speaking theirs. It generally takes a few months for people to become fluent enough to hold a decent conversation, even for people who have great language skills. And that is with a common language (English) to help figure out what is actually meant.

So if you want to go down that route, expect a lot of handwaving, miscommunication, guessing, and very short conversations for a long while.

With the cinematic route, I mean the case where you have the language nerd who mysteriously understands whatever language they come across after just a handful of moments. Stargate does this a lot. Science guy walks up to an alien computer, punches a few buttons and understands everything it says. Or does the same with a random inscription on a wall. Same goes for plenty of other SciFi and Fantasy shows.

I know several people who speak 5+ languages, including professional translators, and it just doesn't work like that in real life. Unless languages are very close, knowing other languages helps very little in learning the next one. (And interestingly enough, once you go above 4-5 languages you've got to take care not to override one of them with a new language you're learning...). But just because it doesn't work like that in real life doesn't mean that you can't get away with it. Like I said, it's a common trope. Establish that person X is good with languages, and then you can have them learn the basics in a week or two. And be fluent to the point of sounding like a native after a month.
 

TheKillerBs

Maester
I ended up going with Common.

Partly this is just for sheer convenience. Partly it's an intentional D&D reference. Mostly the setting is called the Burned Heavens and prominently features a big ol' war between the Gods & Titans. I like Common as this language cobbled together from this older Angelic language and as a result is (mostly) universal.
Fun fact, the word Koine means "common" so any time I hear people speaking Common I imagine them speaking Hellenistic-era Ancient Greek
 

Mad Swede

Auror
Well now, this is quite an interesting question, and one where the answer depends on your setting. My stories are set in a medieval style world, which means that most people don't travel very far. In a situation like that most people never need to learn more than one language and may not even know other languages exist. Those that do travel, like merchants, will often speak another language and so the question of translating doesn't arise very often. So the question then becomes how far you protagonists travel and, coupled to that, what there own backgrounds are.
 

BiggusBeardus

Minstrel
Monks were certainly the scholars of the Middle Ages - going out into the wider world and learning about all kinds of things, about theology, astronomy and so on. I’m not that knowledgable in that area, but it would make sense for a dedicated group to go out in search of knowledge. The other things to consider here from my perspective are to what end is this knowledge being collected? And in this society is it just men who’d be allowed to do this sort of thing or would you have female scholars too? During the Middle Ages knowledge was a precious resource, perhaps as precious as gold with a culture of hoarding so to speak - how much knowledge do you want your monks to share with the wider world. Most people during the Middle Ages were kept dumb and illiterate so they could be kept by more powerful people in order to do the most laborious jobs such as farming.

Japan kept itself closed off to the wider world for a long time and only let the Dutch traders live on an island off the main coast to keep them at arms length. After Japan opened up was when they advanced very quickly. But what we are left with is a preservation of a much older and rich culture.

Is your world akin to finding the remnants of Ancient Greece? How will these people filter through the language and the knowledge they find without a prior working up to that point. Surely none of it will make any sense to them?
So, I given it some thought and the order that the MC is a part of would definitely send people out to learn stuff. This is basically what the MC is doing, but it is a part of his training and not just for knowledge's sake.

There are also the Seekers (another group) that go out and find old tech and resource deposits, so it would make sense that they learn some languages.

Then there's the possibility of "other people" (from other cultures/lands) coming back with such groups and integrating into the civilization that the MC is from.

And for the record, there are no gender restrictions in this society. There may be roles or jobs that are dominated by one sex or another, but it is not required. One exception is that it SEEMS (could change one day) only women have shown a talent for seeing the future, but that is by birth. There is nothing in society saying only women can be Seers. That is mainly a nod to ancient Greek oracles.

Thanks for all the responses folks! This really helps me think through stuff.
 

Malik

Auror
I speak a few languages. I minored in linguistics, which helps; I learned English by learning Latin and Greek elements as a child, which really helps.

In my fantasy world, there are four kingdoms that speak different, but often related, languages. One of them has regional dialects, the others have related languages because their people were once one people before they were broken into kingdoms. The "good guy" kingdom uses swear words from their enemy kingdom's languages.

I overcome all this--and the linguistic shortcomings of the MC (who's from Earth) by having telepaths, who are among the lowest-ranking sorcerers in their world, serve as translators. Having gained a functional and pragmatic grasp of languages through a few weeks of immersion (U.S. Special Operations Command Language Program), I deduced that it would be simple for someone to learn a language through hypnosis and/or magic, especially by a telepathic mentor. I really don't think it's that far-fetched.

That said, as an author, I separate the regional dialects of my characters phonetically. If you really pay attention, you'll note that Northerners sound different from their southern brethren, and people from one country speaking another country's language will have a distinct cadence and preference for certain souns. The words I choose (in English, of course, because I write in English) when they speak, have a distinct resonance and cadence that separates them, even if you don't notice it. You don't have to; your brain does it for you.

My Faerie speak the other languages, but the Faerie have a number of linguistic restrictions that amount to an accent--again, most readers won't notice, but it's there. For instance, there is no verb to be in Faerie. They live so long that nothing, to them, ever "is." Everything is in a state of flux. A Faerie won't say (in a human language/written in English) "How many are there?" but "How many do you see?" "How many do you count?" "How many did you bring?" Etc. The concept is missing from their language entirely. It's a very specific way of speaking, and where it gets fun is, I can have a Faerie and a human talking about the same thing and describing it very differently. (I did create an entire Faerie conlang and learn to speak and write it; it's great fun at fantasy conventions on conlang panels.)

Similarly, I use a weighted phonetic scheme when the Faerie are speaking "Common" or whatever you want to call your primary language (written in English)/ They use a construct from Classical Greek verse, an unexpanded choriambic nucleus. I once read an 18th-Century poem written in English with this construct applied, and it gives a particular lilt and "gait" to the words when spoken aloud. So I stole it. The degree to which each Faerie sticks to this meter determines the depth of their "accent." It's subtle. They just sound different, even if the reader doesn't know why. (And unless the reader has studied Classical Greek poetry and knows E Prime, they won't know why the Faerie sound weird. And that's fine. They don't have to.) With these metric and phonetic variations, I can write accents without having to resort to intentional misspelling and contractions.

Point being, there are ways around language barriers, and even familiarizing yourself with the basics of other languages can help you tremendously in your fantasy writing.
 

Queshire

Auror
Now I do like the idea of a mind mage as a translator / diplomat, though rather than relying on telepathic communication I think it'd be fun to have them piggyback off of the language centers in another's brain. As a result they'd speak whatever language whoever they're talking with knows.

Alas, I've never had a good opportunity to actually use that character concept.
 
And for the record, there are no gender restrictions in this society. There may be roles or jobs that are dominated by one sex or another, but it is not required.
Thing is, you can create more tension by placing restrictions. This also mirrors real life right? Especially if you’re writing in a historical context. I work with societal restrictions all the time. Be it gender, social status or magical ability (with it being fantasy). The only thing I don’t particularly place too much emphasis on is race, I focus more on nationality, by working with just two countries that generally hold animosity towards one another, that brings in tension in another way.

So maybe you have a female sect of priestesses, or nuns that are scholars in their own right, just as in real life, but perhaps they aren’t allowed to travel. Or perhaps you have one female who wants to travel and she is the first to go out with the male priests. You can work with a lot within restrictions.
 
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