Language in SF & Fantasy – Part 1

English, English, Everywhere

One of the most common criticisms of SF/Fantasy is the uniformity of language on alien worlds, especially when compared to Earth. Estimates of the number of languages currently spoken vary between 6-7,000 and in the course of human history over 30,000 languages have existed at one time or another. And yet a majority of authors don’t worry about it.

That kind of thing bugs me. Right from the beginning, I decided it was unrealistic to
a)      ignore the problem of language altogether and just have everyone speaking English with no explanation, or
b)       have some awful McGuffin like Hitch-Hikers’ Guide’s “babel-fish” or Star Trek’s Universal Translator, or
c)       have one all-encompassing language of “Berikatanyan” – kind of the logical equivalent of a language caller “Earther” or “Terran”

If not English, …?

So I had to think about what languages would be spoken and how the Earthers interacted with their speakers. Fortunately, at the time Gatekeeper opens, the original two crews have been on planet for approaching nine years. This is easily long enough to learn the local language (as anyone who has elected to live in a foreign country will know), and also have parts of Berikatanyan society learn English. There is precedent for fluency in the visitors’ language being treated as a mark of rank or privilege, in the same way speaking French was seen in early English high society.

Thus the principal characters in the two realms would all be thoroughly familiar with English; other members of both courts would be passable but perhaps not fluent; and those who came into regular contact with Earthers (like the forest clearance units) would have “holiday” command of English, broken and halting with limited vocabulary but capable of understanding and making themselves understood.

Conversely, Earth people living at either Court or Palace would learn the native tongue and those coming into regular contact with Berikatanyans (but not living with them) would have a more basic grasp of one or other (or both) languages.

…what have you got?

Which brings us to the languages. I’ll describe how I went about “inventing” them in Part 2 of this post, but thinking about how they might arise in the world I’d built for the Chronicles, it’s legitimate to assume that warring tribes that developed independently and – in a primitive feudal society – would not meet each other very frequently, would have divergent languages even if they descended from a common ancestor, with a common tongue. An Earth equivalent would be the so-called Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, …) or Teutonic language (English, German) that have similar features but are effectively totally different languages. Since I allude to “two- to three-hundred years” of bickering between Court and Palace in Gatekeeper, and settle on a more definite 300 years in Water Wizard, this is easily enough time for the languages to have diverged. 

Closer to home, the UK is well known for the diversity of its dialects, even over relatively short distances. In an area that includes where I live, stretching north and south by only 30 miles or so in each direction, you will find Liverpudlian (Scouse), Mancunian, Lancashire, Cheshire, Potteries (Stokie), and Birmingham (Brummie) to name but six. Not only do these regions vary in accent and pronunciation, but they also have many examples of dialect words that are not found outside their own small areas. So it’s entirely realistic that in an area the size of the peninsula where most of the Chronicles’ action takes place, and over a period of three hundred years, the language would develop into:
Kertonian:           (from Indonesian keraton – palace)
Used in the Black Queen’s realms (therefore known as Kertonia)
and
Istanian:               (from Indonesian istana – court)
Used in the Blood King’s realms (therefore known as Istania)

Too much of this is a distraction – similar to watching a film where an alien language is spoken and the subtitles are turned off (or not burned in) – so the Chronicles only has a few, short examples of each. A handful of local words are used more frequently, so they become familiar. On first appearance I include contextual explanations, and they can also be found in the handy Glossary. I hope it adds to the impression of a well-realised world. 

Language in SF & Fantasy – Part 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top