How to Use Alternate Languages in Your Story

Gryxle blewph cothip wu’dop^

That means, “Welcome to my latest blog post!” in the fantasy language I’m creating for a book I’m writing. I know, it’s a little rough right now, but I’m working on it. My favorite part is using the ^ symbol in place of the exclamation point.

I’m pretty excited about this. Soon it will catch on with my readers like such classics as Klingon or Elvish.

Okay, so maybe I’m a bit delusional. The point here is that we fantasy writers are often a little too eager to delve into language creation. We jumble letters together and write glossaries, but often we are only annoying our readers with our jaunt into world-building.

I’m convinced that in most cases, such stuff isn’t entirely necessary. As I’ve been annoyed by stories that do this, I’ve come up with a set of guidelines for alternate languages.

Number 1: Treat it like a real language. Pretend it’s Spanish. (Or, if you speak Spanish, Mapudungun.) If your character speaks English and doesn’t understand a word of Spanish, what will he understand? Nothing. There’s no need to write it out.

Think of a time when you’ve heard somebody speaking in a foreign language that you were unfamiliar with. What did you catch? You might pick up a word here and there, but it sounds pretty much like an incomprehensible stream of gibberish. In prose, the best way to handle this is to write something about how the character didn’t understand what was said.

The guard spoke hurriedly with the captain in Spanish.

I didn’t know the dialect, but I managed to catch that the chief was concerned about the sunrise.

This adds realism. If your character really needs to know what’s going on, don’t have him suddenly learn the language. Give him a translator. Or keep him in the dark about things and have him try to deduce what’s going on from the action.

Remember that your POV character can’t get hints from the author. He’s limited to his own knowledge.

Number 2: If your character knows the language and must speak it, spell it out in plain English wherever possible. It’s common courtesy to your audience to make it understandable for us. We don’t speak your language, so we need a translation.

I spoke to him in the Tehuni language. “When’s dinner? I’m starving!”

Frakellbrosh! Good!” shouted the gnome. “We will have peace this night.”

By doing this, you’re again adding to the realism. If I were sitting by a fire telling you a story, I wouldn’t jabber at you in a language you don’t understand. Instead, I would make sure you knew what was being said if it was important to the story. And if it’s not important to the story, I shouldn’t put it in there in the first place!

Number 3: Do not, under any circumstances, pull a Christopher Paolini and direct us to the glossary in the back. This is absolutely the worst thing you can do, short of not explaining what was said at all.

Let me quickly follow that by saying that a glossary of your alternate language is not a bad thing. Put it in if you like! But where Paolini messes up is by introducing words so rapidly that you must use the glossary to follow along. I spent the entire time while I was reading Eragon with a finger smashed under 500+ pages in the glossary, flipping back and forth between the story and the dictionary.

This is bad. You don’t want to interrupt the flow of the story while your reader flips through pages and pages of words and phrases. The goal is to keep the story moving. Using the tips above, you can keep things moving, then include a glossary for the obsessive fans.

Now, it can be tough to know how many new foreign words are too many. This is where your test readers come in. Ask them to tell you when they had to use the glossary or go back earlier in the story to find the first use of the word. If a lot of people are consistently confused, you might add a translation into the story for the sake of clarity.

But there’s one more tip I have for you. It’s simply this: Don’t include an alternate language.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t have another race with their own language. That adds all sorts of depth. Go for it! However, that doesn’t automatically mean that you have to put the actual words into the story. Just because you world-built it doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Here’s the deal, though. You’re not a linguist. Or, at least, I feel pretty safe saying you probably aren’t. Most of us are storytellers, not language experts. The reason J. R. R. Tolkien made such a wonderful, believable set of alternate languages is because he was a linguist. Language was the guy’s passion.

And Klingon? The creators of Star Trek hired linguists to make up the language. Quite literally, there are people whose job it is to build languages. But you and me? Most of us are merely hobbyists stringing letters together.

That’s not to diminish your alternate language, but it is to say that you might be seen as a more professional storyteller if you stick to what you’re good at. Make sure your alternate language serves the story, not the other way around.

I’ve written another book!

A Purple and Gold Afghan and other stories coverThis time, I’ve gone into the realm of short stories. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, A Purple and Gold Afghan and other stories relates the story of Joseph, a lonely young man who’s just begun seminary. When he finds a beautiful afghan on his dorm room bed and attempts to track down its maker, Joseph runs headlong into a series of events that might just lead to something called… love.

The book is available on the Amazon Kindle store for 99¢. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy it.

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