Bridge crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation

In the Star Trek universe, computers translate unheard languages without any data.

If you’re a writer of fantasy and scifi, language is literally indispensable. And because it’s something we use every day, many authors think they can change it up without doing any research. I’m all for experimentation, but knowing the essentials of how language works can make your writing much better. To that end, I’ll cover a few misconceptions I see in spec fic media and give you some advice on how to get it right.

1. Language Is Tied to (Moral) Character

An orc from the Hobbit films shouting.

This is a pretty huge one: lots of books draw a logical connection between a character’s language and some fundamental aspect of their character, usually morality. This most often takes the form of “bad guys” speaking a “bad-sounding” language (more on that later), but it can be more abstract as well.

Tolkien, whose achievements as a conlanger and scholar can’t be overstated, was actually pretty bad about this. For example, the language created by Sauron to be spoken in Mordor, Black Speech, is described in morally coded, value-judgment terms: while Sauron and the Nazgul speak ancient and “pure” Black Speech, the form spoken in Barad Dur is described as “debased” or “corrupted” by lowly Orkish influences.

Plus, the orcs in Tolkien’s works speak only a “pidgin” of elements from various languages unless Black Speech is imposed on them. The way Tolkien describes Orkish is pretty deterministic: their languages “diversify” because they hate each other so much that orc communities reject the idea of a common tongue. But even allowing that orcs don’t feel the human impulse for interconnectivity, language is used to communicate: it naturally develops based on who the speaker has contact with. If orc languages are diverse, it is because their communities are isolated from each other, not the other way around.

Generally speaking, drawing strong connections between the language a character speaks and their implicit moral character smacks of prejudice and leaves little room for nuance. It encourages assumptions about a person based on the language that they speak, beyond where they’re from or where they were educated. If you have the impulse to use language as a shorthand for morality in your story, stop and think why first – why couldn’t the bad guys speak the same language as the good guys? Are they really so different?

2. “Bad” Languages Sound a Certain Way

Worf and two other klingons performing the deal howl.
Klingon is mostly yelling, admittedly.

Moving directly on from my last point, describing the language spoken by a bad guy as harsh, rasping, guttural, or otherwise difficult to listen to is outdated in the same way that the ideas behind phrenology are outdated. Speaking from a purely phonetic standpoint, it’s actually very hard to draw sweeping conclusions about how a language sounds.

For instance, what exactly does “guttural” mean? Does the language involve lots of uvular fricatives or trills, like Arabic? Is it highly glottal, like Scottish English? What does “rasping” mean? Does the language heavily aspirate some or all of its consonants, like Thai? Are there a large number of voiceless fricatives, like Toda, indigenous to southern India? If there are “difficult” sounds, how have they been preserved? Languages change to maximize ease of pronunciation.

Furthermore, “difficult to pronounce” or “harsh” are extremely subjective concepts. Sounds that are unpleasant or difficult for Arabic speakers will be very different from sounds that are difficult for Vietnamese speakers. It can be easy to fall into this descriptive trap with existing languages (like German), which is an excellent way to alienate bilingual readers.

3. Certain Types of Communities Speak Certain Types of Languages

If you try speaking to these folks in ye olde Englishe, they’ll be confused in Polish. Biskupin Villiage by Globe Master used under CC BY 3.0

This is connected to the linguistic determinism of the previous section. I encountered this idea most recently in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. The book has a scene where the protagonist, Kvothe, encounters an old herdsman he needs to get information from.

Kvothe has never been to the guy’s home village, and they’ve exchanged only a few words at this point in the story. Yet somehow he buddies up to the herdsman by speaking in a dialect that sounds… hokey? Backwoodsy? Supposedly, it sounds something like how the herdsman speaks, based on the fact that he’s from an isolated community. Kvothe gives some kind of explanation that the herdsman speaks the way people used to speak.

The problem with this is that there’s absolutely nothing unique about the herdsman’s social circumstances or environment that determines how his language might sound.* There’s no such thing as a universal “archaic” dialect, a “country” dialect, or a way people “used to speak.” The herdsman’s language might be less exposed to outside influences and therefore might change less rapidly than another, more widely spoken language. However, that isolation would make it less easy to guess how the language sounds, not more. That brings me to my next point.

4. “Old” Languages Are Different From “Young” Languages

This ancient cuneiform tablet is a long complaint about poor quality copper.

Whoo, boy. I see this sentiment echoed a lot, especially in fantasy books where ancient languages are used in spells. In Western culture, we venerate Latin and ancient Greek as paragons of linguistic elegance, progenitors and carriers of “high culture.” They are often used in spells because we think they sound cool and esoteric. Ironically, ancient languages are often venerated by the same people who think modern-day languages spoken by Indigenous or non-industrial societies are “primitive.”

We generally think of dead or “ancient” languages as fundamentally different than the languages we speak today. After all, people’s lives were different from how they are now, so why shouldn’t their languages be? The problem is that, while the possible variations in human living conditions are nearly infinite, languages are constrained by human physiology. There are only so many contortions the human tongue and vocal cords are capable of, so this limits the possible sounds available. Human brains are only capable of processing information organized in a limited number of ways, which limits possible variations in word order.

Furthermore, there’s a constant push-pull in language between ease of use and expressiveness. This means that speakers are always coming up with new ways to make language easier to use.* However, ideas need high levels of variation to be expressed efficiently, so we’re always inventing new words, too. This push-pull drives language change and can be affected by cultural and historical circumstances to make languages change faster or slower. So while human technology moves from less to more advanced, what is “advanced” in language is not so easy to define, and the two don’t map onto each other easily. Languages spoken in the past were neither more nor less complex than the languages we speak today.

5. Language Can Be Learned Without Data

Rosetta Stone detail by Thomas Quine used under CC BY 2.0

In Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, dragons are intelligent beings that come out of the egg already speaking and understanding the languages being used around them. This is an important plot point a few times, and I’m extremely biased in Novik’s favor, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief in this instance.* But generally speaking, language does not work this way.

Language is learned only when the learner is exposed to lots of data. Very young children, lacking language, are like sponges for linguistic data. They use lots of observation to learn rules and extrapolate outward until they are fluent. Limiting the amount of linguistic data a young child is exposed to can do serious harm to their ability to communicate later in life.

In essence, language learning requires the learner to be exposed to both a thing and the word for a thing before that bit of language can be learned. Just hearing how a language sounds, looking at an ancient scroll, or receiving a waveform of an alien transmission is not enough to learn or decipher a language! The Rosetta Stone wasn’t deciphered until someone who could understand part of it looked at the rest. So while I’m willing to allow that a dragon in the shell might learn the words for, say, hot and cold, the dragon wouldn’t be exposed to enough data to come out of the shell knowing words for abstract concepts.

6. All Grammatical Systems Work the Same Way

An air vehicle approaches a cliff-side city

I’ve most recently encountered this mistake in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, which is really an exceptional work of science fiction in nearly every other sense. This series takes place in the year 2454, on an Earth that has done away with geographical nations in favor of supranational governments called hives, which citizens join by choice. This system, and the worldbuilding in these books in general, is incredibly well-developed, but it plays fast and loose with language in one essential way.

Part of the ambiguously utopian future of Terra Ignota is that there is a strong taboo against using gendered language. The books are written in English, but hives have different official languages, so speech at the narrative level in different languages is marked with different styles of quotation marks, i.e. square brackets, arrows, etc. No matter what language the characters are ostensibly speaking, they neatly avoid (unless they’re breaking the taboo) using gendered language to refer to themselves and others. The problem is that not every language uses gender in the same way that English does.

It’s not enough to put a ban on “he” and “she” and only use “they.” For Spanish speakers you’d have to come up with an entirely new pronoun and new words for things like “student,” “actor,” “doctor,” and so on. In Japanese, you have kind of the opposite problem: there are no gender pronouns in the third person, but there are linguistic patterns and modes of speech that strongly signal the speaker’s gender role – to enforce the taboo, you’d have to ban entire modes of speech! Chinese has no word for “sibling,” so you’d have to coin something new for that. There are languages you’d have to entirely recreate, then somehow enforce the revisions on the populace – not exactly the best use of resources and time!

7. Your Language Determines How You Think

The aliens writing their circular alphabet from Arrival.

Spoiler Notice: Arrival (2016) and Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

This misconception is often bandied around as some secret of the universe. The actual hypothesis is called linguistic relativity, and it essentially says that the language a person speaks determines the way they think. This does kind of hold up in some circumstances. For example, speakers of languages with lots of different words for shades of the same color will generally be better at identifying or at least articulating differences in shades when tested. However, it’s not true that speakers of a language that doesn’t, for example, have a direct translation for “thank you” won’t understand the concept of gratitude.

A work that consciously plays with linguistic relativity is Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. In this short story, and in the film based on it (Arrival), the main character encounters aliens who have a different way of conceptualizing and communicating about time. As a result of learning to write their language, the main character begins to see forward in time, which has huge implications for her life, the world, and the plot of the story. This is a great example of a story that takes a linguistic phenomenon and uses it to its full narrative potential.

But, as much as I love this story, the human brain doesn’t work this way. Unless your story explicitly takes place in a world where the human brain works differently, think very hard before drawing a connection between a character’s language and what they are able to envision or understand. It’s very tempting to use language as a poetic shorthand or a symbol of the differences between two characters, but this can be dangerous if left unexamined. Very often, these stories uphold an uneven power dynamic. For example, differences in language have historically been used to frame Inuit and Yupik peoples as naïve, innocent, and primitive.

It’s easy to understand why research is necessary if you want to create a story with believable scientific or historical detail. When it comes to language, though, lots of writers think they can skate by without putting in much effort. But language is as complex as building cities and making war. If you put enough effort into worldbuilding to make your fantasy or scifi culture believable from a historical or ecological standpoint, you can do it for language use too. Just do some research. The world has vast linguistic diversity; there’s incredible potential for experimentation and speculation that isn’t complete nonsense.

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