Q&A

Can I Use a Real Language for a Fictional Culture?

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Hello to everyone at Mythcreants,

My question is about how to deal with semi-representative cultures – namely, those that deal with language. There are several countries in the world of my story whose people speak languages that are equivalent to real-life languages (The examples I shall use are Gorrik, which speaks an equivalent to German, and Mooren, which speaks an equivalent to Croatian) but have no other ties to the real-life cultures whose languages they speak.

My worry is that German, Croatian, etc. readers may end up offended that these cultures use their language. In the example of Gorrik, it is a militaristic nation with a slave system and a generally apathetic outlook among its citizens – for lack of a better term, the people of Gorrik lack true emotion. As for Mooren, it is located in secluded frozen lands and is what you would get if you combined Viking, Inuit, and Native American cultures.

Obviously, neither of these fictional countries are representative of Germany or Croatia, but is there something I can do to prevent them being perceived as such and then offending my readers?

– Caide

Hi Caide,

The best advice I can give: Take any cultures you have that are semi-representative of groups you are not part of, and change them until they are not representative. Partial representation is usually alienating to people of that culture. That means either the fictional culture needs to be completely fictional and not use specific characteristics of any real group, or it needs to be a very authentic and well-researched stand-in for the culture. The latter requires an enormous amount of work for anyone who isn’t already a participant in the culture at some level.

I’m sure you have your reasons for choosing real languages, but I think we can find another solution for you that won’t come off as bad German-speakers and Croatian-speakers. Even if someone isn’t German or Croatian, if they recognize the language it will probably feel weird to them.

If your languages are conlangs inspired by German or Croatian, the best solution is just to change the language enough that its roots aren’t recognizable anymore.

If you are using real language to avoid creating a conlang, you don’t actually need a fictional language in a written work. Instead of writing dialogue for the people that speak the language, just summarize how that they are speaking something the viewpoint character can’t understand (or if they do understand, put it in English and then describe that they are actually speaking in this other language). This approach creates a much better experience for readers.

You described one of your cultures as a combination of Viking, Inuit, and Native American cultures. If you are combining real cultures to create a fictional one, you want to make sure the fictional culture doesn’t actually come off as a mash-up of those cultures, but something different. So for this culture, you’ll want to go through and get rid of stuff that obviously was taken from any of those cultures, for instance, dream catchers. Sometimes, all it takes is changing the name. Many cultures have sacred visions induced by substances, but if you call it a “spirit quest,” that will feel like it was taken from a Native American tribe.

I’m sorry if that wasn’t the news you were hoping for, but it’s better to make edits while you still can.

Best wishes,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As a German myself, I can say I’m really tired of Germans always being stereotyped as war-mongering and emotionless (yes, I know, we deserve some of that after what the Nazi did, but still…). We also happen to have good plawrights and poets and we are a nation of engineers. As a matter of fact, the average German is anything but emotionless – otherwise we wouldn’t have so many squabbles among neighbours.

    I also wonder why you think you need several languages in your story. Personally, as a reader, I already find it tiring when people write out accents (that was fashionable at the high time of pulp and I’m an avid pulp reader, so I encounter it often). As a German reading pulp stories (which often have German villains, of course), I also find it jarring every time someone used Google Translate or something similar to translate a sentence into German and it’s something a high-ranking Nazi would have been shot for saying – for mangling the German language.

    If you want to show the reader that there’s people speaking a language the viewpoint character doesn’t understand, then just say so in the text. No need to invent or use another language. If you want to put a few words in another language in the text, perhaps for objects which do not exist in our world, anyway, just go ahead but make sure the meaning of the words can be understood. If you want for people to talk in different languages which your viewpoint character understands, use the language you’re writing in (English, I guess) and just mention that those people are speaking another language. Much easier to read for the audience and will not alienate anyone.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It just seems unfair to categorize German as the “evil language” because of WWII, considering all the horrible things English speakers have done over the centuries.

      • Cay Reet

        You get used to it after a while, but it’s also tiring.

        I mean, I see the point in a story set in WWII or even WWI (which we also started) or between them. I don’t really see the point in fantasy stories.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        British English is also somewhat evil, though. The morally best language is American English.

        • Cay Reet

          As the ‘Good To Be Bad’ campaign from Jaguar showed, Britain has the best villains.

    • LizardWithHat

      As a fellow German I don’t think we “deserve some for what the Nazis did”. I was born in the 90s so i refuse to be ridicule or held accountable for what happen during the days of my Great-grandparents.

      That said I’m and feel responsible for never making light of what happened back then, never joke without clearly punching upward and never let it be denied what happened. For that I gladly take responsibility but not for that it happened because I couldn’t have done anything. And I like to think that after over 70+ years equating the todays Germany with Nazi-Reich shouldn’t be view as anything but stupid.
      Sorry, that got my kinda triggered. I hope i have not offended you.

      I would like to add that many faux-German-characters tend to speak in a growling tone (if they bother to not use the faux-military tone) which would make anybody sound cartoonish and evil regardless of the language used.

      • Cay Reet

        I don’t really think we, as the generations born at the end of the war or later, really deserve to be held accountable for what was done before our birth (1970s here). It’s just understandable that there are some people still working off the template. We should remember it and we should probably be in the first row when it comes to warning people about what happened in the past, but we are not personally accountable for what happened then.

        Yes, the way they portray the German language is weird … or, perhaps, it really sounds like that to people with other native languages, I have no idea. The way German villains speak definitely would look villainous in every language.

  2. Jenn H

    I would advise against giving the apparently evil empire any traits that would be tied to a specific culture, such as language. While having your fantasy Newfoundland Vikings speak Croatian is just going to confuse people.

    Once you start using real languages, you are priming the audience to think of the culture and people associated with that language. Which is fine if that is the effect you’re going for, just watch out for any unfortunate stereotypes or implications that might come up.

    If you’re building a culture from the ground up, think about the geography of where those people live. Then research the real world people that live in that environment, noting similarities and differences between different groups. That should give you a good starting point for making a culture that is both unique and plausible.

  3. StyxD

    I would also chime in against using real languages for fictional cultures. There are even more problems with this than mentioned in the post.

    First, a language will affect all the names of places, characters, etc. of that culture.

    And I hate to nitpick, but “Mooren” doesn’t sound like a Slavic name for a people.

    My main point is, without knowledge how to create proper names in a language, your fictional names will likely come off as butchered or tacky (we all know you can create fantasy German names by taking any string of consonants and umlauts and finishing it with “Wald”, “Stein” or “Berg” ).

    Second, what does using a real language even add to the story? Most of the time, writers use it to throw in untranslated words and sentences for flavour, perhaps because it feels more realistic than using a half-baked conlang. But I don’t know about others, but for me it immediately damages immersion a bit. Even if I can’t read the language, it always makes me think “oh no, some English-speaker probably used Google Translate for this and it’s actually gibberish.”

    There are better ways to deal with fictional languages, described on this blog too.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with you on both points.

      The funniest thing in German is how we can string together words like no tomorrow, making composite words no native speaker has a chance of really pronouncing right. Example?

      Rheindampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänswitwenpension

      This is a legal word which describes the pension the widow of a captain of a steamer company with steamers on the Rhine receives. It’s not in any dictionary, though, because we obviously can’t write down all possible compostie words we can create.

  4. Greg S

    In Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series he depicts a fantasy world with Germanic flavor, and pulls it off beautifully.

  5. Ikke Spør

    I agree with most everyone else here. Using a real language doesn’t fit. For any readers who know those languages, it just won’t feel right. Not that I’ve run into this in any books so far, just, I can imagine, if any of the four or so other languages I know showed up in some fantasy book I was reading, I wouldn’t like it. I’d probably hate it actually. I’d put down the book and never pick it up again. For me, at least, seeing one of my languages get thrown around as if it’s not an essential part of the whole culture would feel like watching a close friend get their limbs pulled off. Languages are extremely personal to me, just like any other cultural things. I would go so far as to call it cultural appropriation, to use a real language like that.
    I know that’s a strong way to put it, but monolinguals tend to think it’s possible to separate languages and cultures, and it isn’t.

    • Cay Reet

      As a reader of pulp stories (most of which, old or new, are set in the 1930s or 40s), I can say how jarring it is for me when someone who clearly doesn’t speak German, but (in new pulp) uses Google Translate to translate a sentence into German to have one of the German villains say it. More often than not, the basic synthax is intact – Google Translate does that by now. But the sentence usually looks nothing like what a German would say – most often, there’s words which are technically correct, but wouldn’t be used by a German speaker in that case. Especially when it comes to insults or swear words, there is a huge difference between what an English speaker would expect to see used (like bitch or fuck) and what an actual German speaker would use (not Hündin or Ficken, even though those are correct translations). Germans use different words for insulting than Americans or Brits. They also use different words for swearing. So unless the writer speaks the language they want to use as well as their native language (or, like me, have a different native language and English as a second language), I would definitely advice against it.

      I also really want to know how ‘Newfoundland Viking’ (to quote another comment here) and Croatian language go together. Languages evolve around the regular life of people. Scandinavian languages (or the language of the Inuit) have a different set of words for certain objects, weathers, or situations than Croatian will have. They will be more detailed on weather situations on the open water or on different types of snow. Croatian will have more words for other things than that, because the Croatians never lived the lives of Vikings (sailing a lot) or in an environment with long winters and short summers (like everyone that high up in the north).

      So even without the stereotyping of Germans as horrible villains, I can see how the use of those two languages in this way is going to be jarring and annoying to readers who are familiar with the languages in question. That is a good reason not to use them.

      If, on the other hand, you want to use a language, look for things which are very specific to that culture and use the words for those. Funnily enough, the words blitzkrieg, kindergarten, schadenfreude, und angst are all German, but now also part of the English language – although our ‘angst’ is less specific than the use of the word in the English language.

  6. Anthony

    I’ve got to say that although this advice seems reasonable for what few details are given within the question, I have to disagree with the spirit of the answers you’ve given. It’s one thing if one culture is just a German stereotype and the other are all Croatian-speaking Norsemen, but a quick question seldom accounts for nuance.

    What I don’t like about this answer is that it’s telling the one asking it to obsess over world-building or emulate existing cultures wholesale. It seems that with the former, you’re holding everyone to the standard of Tolkien, which I doubt is feasible for someone who is likely neither a professor of Anglo-Saxon, nor a fluent speaker of seven languages. It may be that Caide is inspired by aspects of the cultures being used, or that these cultures are bizarro-world analogues or mashups. In other words, completely divorcing the fictional cultures from what they derive from may prove to be a waste of time; spent world-building in stead of writing the actual story.

    I know that to some the allure of works deemed fantasy is to “escape the real world” and explore some different place, but some people just want to read a good story and others just want to get a foot in the door so they can get into writing in the first place. Fretting over world-building and writing an encyclopedia of (generally useless) facts results in what are ultimately dull, lifeless worlds and stories meant as an excuse to explore them; because the writer has spent so much time detailing these histories, these places, these nuances that they become inflexible and any investment spent on them seems wasted if not given due exposition. This sort of thing encourages writers to think about what sort of swords their heroes use or what kind of wood their toothpicks are made from rather than anything worth reading or remembering in a few years’ time.

    Caide, if you’re reading this and want my opinion as someone who’s only fluent in English and can only barely read German and Latin as far as other languages go, I say write it down, pass over it a couple times for errors, then brace yourself for the barrage of unnecessarily harsh critique, hate-mail and gripes that are barely even related to your work, then force yourself to respond politely, if you must reply at all. The people who get worked up over trivial things are just there for their egos or looking for offence, the rest you’ll have to imagine as being less angry than they come across as; there’s good advice in there, regardless. I can tell you from over a decade’s experience of fretting over things of this very nature that you won’t write much of anything if you worry about breaking the rules. Even if it’s just for you, pen it down and get to where you can say it’s done. The best anyone can do in regards to one’s first work is to fail faster.

    • StyxD

      I gotta say, I have no idea where you got that the advice was to obsess over worldbuilding.

      In fact, one piece of advice was *not* to create a conlang or insert a foreign language, which is less elements to build, not more.

      I agree about failing faster, though.

  7. Gray-Hand

    The Dragonlance books used Indonesian for magic words.

    • Cay Reet

      Which is also a little weird. I can see where a story set in an alternate reality to ours could use Latin for spells – Latin has been the language of science for a long time, which means it could also have been the language of magic. But just picking a random language and use words from there for spells seems weird to me.

  8. Kenneth Mackay

    What happens if there’s an Indonesian translation of the Dragonlance series? Do the translators pick another language to translate the spells into?

    • Cay Reet

      Interesting question.

      I know that when tere’s someone speaking German in an English book, it usually stays German in the translation, too, which makes it a little weird.

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