What To Do When Your Characters Speak Different Languages

languages-and-namesOne of the really fun things about writing speculative fiction—especially genres like fantasy and science fiction—is creating the cultures and languages for races and species that don’t exist in our world. Great depth can be achieved by showing different languages that makes stories feel immersive and alive.

You might go the route of J.R.R. Tolkien and invent one or more languages that span the ages and show growth and change over distance and time with a large vocabulary and grammar. Or you might scale it back a bit, like Mercedes Lackey did in her Valdemar novels, where she used a few key words and phrases to pull readers into her work. Throughout the world’s evolution, the language evolved as well (e.g. the Taleydras language). George R. R. Martin did even less with an invented language when he created a few words for the Dothraki that let his readers know these were a totally different people than what we encountered in the Seven Kingdoms.

The point is, you don’t have to create an entire language if you don’t want to.

Though, if you do want to, it’s one of the most amazing, eye-opening, and educational things you can study.

After you create a language, you can even think about whether or not you should invent an alphabet to go with it.

Oy vey…

elvish-alphabet

Tolkien’s Elvish alphabet… in part.

There are a few things that you should keep in mind, though, to make sure you have the best reaction from your readers when you invent words, phrases, or languages that have never been seen before.

My friend Shashank is tackling the goal of writing a sci-fi novel. He’s writing it in English and asked me about how to convey that another language is being spoken between some of his characters who don’t speak English, given that I’ve done this a lot over the years with our role-play characters.

It was our conversation that inspired this blog post.

Here’s what we talked about.

Your goal is to make sure that your reader:

  • Knows who is speaking what language
  • Knows which of your characters can or cannot understand what is being said
  • Can understand what is being said/described in the created language

1. Don’t over-do it. Orson Scott Card gives a bit of wonderful advice in his book How to Write Science Fiction and FantasyCan the human mouth pronounce it? Be careful that the language you invent is pronounceable for your English-speaking readers.

You don’t want your created words to be so much of a distraction that they have the opposite effect on your readers of yanking them out of your story instead of pulling them in. Avoid clumping together too many random letters and the overuse of apostrophes. If you can’t easily say it yourself, you probably shouldn’t put it into your story.

2. Make sure your readers know who is speaking what language.

In this situation, I recommend you: a) Invent a couple of words or common phrases for your other language, just to show that difference in culture and sprinkle them into the dialogue between your non-English speaking characters. b) Type those words in italics to show they are specific to the foreign language.* c) when your English-speaking character arrives on the scene, type the non-English dialogue in English, but in ITALICS. This way your reader can tell what is being said by the aliens/foreign-language speakers, but your English-speaking character cannot.

*Avoid just straight substitutions for this example. If your created language calls an apple “bratig” but it is just their word for ‘apple’, that won’t have the same effect as if a bratig is a tart, green, bumpy-skinned fruit the size of an apple that doesn’t exist anywhere else. If it’s an apple, call it an apple and save the new word for something more specific to your culture/region.

3. If you write a word or phrase in your invented language, follow it up with a translation of some kind, unless you don’t want the reader to know what was said either.

In my story “Kasima’s Gift”, I introduce my invented word falanori:

She exhaled and continued staring at the shadows as they danced, thinking of how fond her grandfather had grown of using that particular tone—the familiar one curmudgeons used to assert their will and stop further discussion—ever since she had reached her sixteenth summer and received her falanori, the small piercing high on her left ear that marked her as a woman of the tribe nearly a year ago.

Obviously, Kasima and her people would know what the falanori is, but people reading my story would be confused if I didn’t offer an explanation. The part that’s underlined is for their benefit.

4. Always write the bulk of your foreign language in English. You can use bold or italics to show that it’s not actually English that’s being spoken, but for the sake of your reader, don’t have pages of strange language for them to try to sift through.

5. Be consistent in how you set your languages apart. If you use bold to show your invented language in one part of your story, use it consistently throughout. Likewise, if you use italics, a different font (be careful with this one), or any combination of these. You’re using these as tools to guide the reader clearly. Make it easy for them to recognize what’s being said and how.

If you’re interested in seeing some more examples of my invented language, and maybe get some inspiration with making your own, click the Language link at the top of this blog.

Most importantly, have as much fun creating your words as you have with creating those who speak them!

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