Languages

by Chelsea Lane
(Utah)

Question: What if you decide to add a new language that you've created and already finished perfecting it but don't know how to incorporate it into the book? Should I have one of the characters teach the way of the language like on Avatar or only show it when its necessary??


Answer: There is a guideline that the more work you make your readers do to follow the story, the more readers you will lose. Of course, how much work is too much depends on the genre. But even sophisticated readers will sometimes balk at Ulysses or The Faerie Queene.

If a reader feels like they have to learn a new language to understand the story, they may give up on it. The alternative for them is to keep flipping to the glossary or to earlier chapters to remind themselves what the words mean, which is very frustrating.

It's far safer for the writer to use just a few words of the language in contexts where they are translated or where the meaning is obvious.

Consider, that J.R.R. Tolkein created a number of new languages and dialects. Yet you can read The Lord of the Rings quite easily without feeling the need to master Sindarin, Quenya, Khuzdal, Entish, or the Black Speech. That's because Tolkein gives the reader only little tastes of these languages -- enough to create the feeling that there is a rich history and culture behind the story, but not so much as to detract from it.

If language or communication were integral to the story goal or theme, then you might consider constructing the story so that the reader must master the language. In Avatar language matters because the main character is assimilating into an alien culture.

Another example is the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Darmok." In that story, the main character (Picard) must master a metaphorical style of alien speech in order to establish diplomatic relations. As Picard learns little pieces of the language, so does the viewer. The result is that, in the final scene, when Picard speaks briefly to the aliens in their language, the viewer understands exactly what he is saying. However, it is only a few lines, a very simple message.

If the language is simply part of the cultural landscape of your story, I'd be inclined to emulate Tolkein rather than Avatar. A few words and phrases may be enough, or perhaps a short verse, if it is part of a mystery and gets translated at some point.

It's about keeping to a minimum the amount of work a reader must do for the sake of the story.

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