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Representing multiple languages in speculative fiction

At Realm Makers next week, I’ll be teaching a course called “Unventing Language: How real languages inspire fiction.” The main reason I wanted to teach this class is that I’m often asked by speculative writers how they can show that characters in their stories are speaking different “languages” when the whole book is written in English.

Some writers make it harder on themselves that it needs to be. Sometimes writing speculative fiction does mean you have to reinvent the wheel — maybe you need to engineer a wheel differently to work in an environment with heavier gravity than Earth’s. But we don’t have to reinvent writing. We just have to apply some ideas that are already there.

We can learn, for example, from writers of fiction with international settings.

One way to signal that different characters are speaking different languages is to use different word choices for each language. You can see this in Shogun by James Clavell and Kim by Rudyard Kipling. They each had characters using “thee” and “thou” when speaking in Latin or Urdu, respectively. You don’t need to use thee and thou if that doesn’t work for you; there are other tricks you can use to give languages a different feel.

Syntax is a good way to do this. Think of Yoda’s “accent” in Star Wars. Or the note Sherlock Holmes receives in the story “Scandal in Bohemia.” The letter explains why the writer wants to meet Holmes and concludes, “This account of you we have from all quarters received,” leading Holmes to remark that a Frenchman or Russian would not write a sentence that way, as only a German “is so uncourteous to his verbs.”

In the same way Holmes could discern the language of the letter-writer, readers can pick up on the nuances of the different “languages” in a novel if you write each one with a slightly different vocabulary and syntax.

At Realm Makers, I’ll talk about some other, similar tricks. And if you’re not able to be there, I intend to write up the whole thing as a white paper afterward. Let me know if such a document would be of interest to you, and what questions you have about presenting your fictional languages in English.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

9 comments on “Representing multiple languages in speculative fiction

  1. Yes, I am currently writing a novel with four languages being spoken. I would very much like to read your paper.

  2. I’ll only be there Saturday, so I’m not sure if I’ll make your class. My novel series uses multiple languages, including one I’m creating, so I’d appreciate this document.

  3. Cool, Kristen! Great idea to put your information into something people can download online. Could draw traffic for you, too.

  4. I added a couple of entire German phrases (unexplained, as the POV character didn’t understand it) and French phrases (contextually comprehensible as “What?”) to a scene in my WIP to clarify that my characters were speaking French from that point on. Also said “B. continued in French” and then wrote his speech in English.

  5. […] a fabulous time with all my fellow SpecFic writers, and got some good feedback on my class about representing multiple languages in speculative fiction. Based on that feedback, I’ll be putting the information into a white paper later this […]

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