From as early an age as I can recall, languages fascinated me. I grew up in a culturally-diverse corner of town—Italian, Korean, Spanish speakers all lived on the same block, within a few houses of one another, and my own family comes from a background that would make a mutt feel like a purebred. In high school, I took up Spanish and then later took German. In college, I took Russian courses. I had also spent considerable time in places, while serving in the Navy, where Spanish and Italian were the native tongues. Later, in college, Russian. For fun, I studied French, Gaelic, Tolkien’s Elvish and I even own a Klingon Dictionary.

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Then I began creating languages of my own to use in my stories—Omen-Eyes, Ennid the Havoc, the languages for the upcoming Dross* and alien races of the SHARC series of stories. In each of these, the language provides a “flavor” to differentiate the races/species and in just about every case, creates some type of conflict because of the limits of translation.

Here are a few things I learned about language while studying them:

Languages more often than not don’t feature a one-for-one translation. If it works out that way, you’re lucky. Some drop prepositions while others adopt gendered ones. Some (including English) drop implied verbs.

Example: There is a book on the table.

In Russian, their grammar prefers: On the table, there is a book. (Which, translated with the available words, would read: “On table, book.”)

In German, their sentence structure can be even more rigid. Subject-Verb-Everything Else for a statement, Verb-Subject-Everything Else for a question. Some throw their words all over the place, using inflection more than just structure to differentiate between a statement and a question (yes, that would be English. We English-speakers are language contortionists).

You went there.

Simple statement, although why someone would have to tell someone else where they went is beyond the scope of this blog.

You went there?

Connotes the idea of surprise that the subject “you” overstepped some boundary to get to that location, like the timid librarian stepping into a biker bar, where they clearly wouldn’t be wanted.

You went there?

This one is a little more snotty, and less of a question than pure derision. They don’t want an answer, they want to mock. The subject “you” ventured into some place that the one asking the question wouldn’t have set foot simply because it is beneath them.

(There’s a great episode of Jerry Seinfeld that uses this to great effect. Why would Jerry bring anything?)

Some have few words that can say a lot, and others use a lot of words for very little, and some languages encompass both. Russian is my favorite for this. On one hand, they can say “Tim tahm.” and mean “Tim is over there”, while to say “I like pets” they have to wrap their tongues around “Menay neravidtsa domoshnie zhivotniey.” (Bugs Bunny pokes fun at this concept too, in “Wackiki Wabbit”.)

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This may arise from the need to define the concept within the sentence that you are introducing it. We could say “The clear sky” but if the one listening is not familiar with the concept of “clear”, it may have to be expressed as: “It was a sky through which light may pass so objects on the other side or within the volume of the object may be seen without hindrance.” Now imagine that some of the words in the definition had to be defined, as those concepts were unfamiliar. See where the conflict in trying to explain things can arise? (Oppressive regimes might condone destruction or redefinition of terms and concepts to prevent someone from speaking about things that the government doesn’t want discussed. Sadly, a fairly recent phenomenon in our own history is to cripple free speech, open debate and discussion by hurling the invective “racist!” or “bigot!”–the equivalent of the playground “your mom!”– when no intelligent argument can be formed or respectfully conveyed.)

Then there are the concepts. We speakers of English are all familiar with hyperbole, exaggeration, metaphors. Imagine telling someone that your heart leapt for joy when you saw them coming. If they have no experience outside of the literal realm, they may start looking around their feet for a bloody organ bouncing around in the grass.

English uses very little of the mouth. We blow air out through our lips, puff out our cheeks, touch our tongue to the roof of our mouths but we tend to use so little of it. Other languages, like Russian, use all of those and add different “depths” of the mouth and throat to create their sounds. Some, like the fascinating Khoison family of tongues from Africa even feature pops and clicks. We have a couple of equivalents in English—you’ve probably heard it as “tsk-tsk” or when someone “clucks” their tongue.

And finally, some of the translations can be… funny… when brought over into English and vice versa. A “Nova” was a car model that didn’t do well in Spanish-speaking countries because, while it’s an astrological term in English, in Spanish it translates to “no-go.” And some names are pronounced the same way as some Russian terms. I’m not sure “The Queen of Country” would want to be known as “Fish” McEntire, and that jedi-in-training would be far less heroic if he’d been known as “Onion Skywalker.”

*Title subject to change

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Comments
  1. GPC says:

    I always learn something new here.
    Thank you for enlightening me.

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