Language Shifts in Fiction

Not how it is written by authors (Charles Dickens vs. Robert Heinlein as prose stylists. Discuss!) but how it happens in fictional worlds. It’s something I’ve been batting around a little in the Cat books, and far more in the Colplatschki stories. How does language change over time, even when it is not absorbing vocabulary from other languages? What words go away, which ones shift meaning, how does pronunciation drift? Rada makes note of some of it and ignores most of it. The people of ColPlatXI don’t realize what’s happened, although the reader probably does.

For example: Small furry rodents are a major annoyance and serious problem for the people in the next three Colplatschki books. Meez get into things, chew them up, eat and spoil food, and are a constant problem that has to be kept in mind. You know exactly what sort of creature I’m taking about, don’t you?


Meez are a problem. So what became of “mice?” Actually, the shift in pronunciation is rather logical. Goose ->geese so mouse ->meese is something children play with all the time. And if you look at French, how is the city of Nice pronounced? Yes, “Nees.” So a drift from mice to “meese” to “meez” makes linguistic sense. English drops sounds all the time, both consonants and vowels. Knight and knee were once spoken as written, just as they are in modern German “K-necht” and “K-nee.” The initial hard sound disappeared over time. English also drops case endings, spare vowels (although not as much a spoken French does) and tends to gulp irregular verbs and plurals whole.

As you can hear and see from the Middle English example of the well known Creation text, English has shifted a great deal in 700 years. Those pronunciation shifts over time are well-known and documented, and I tried to imitate that to an extent in the language of Colplatschki without going overboard.

“Pfeach?” Borrowed from German, where “Pflaum” is plum. A dialect became regularized.

Because I don’t really show Azdhagi, readers don’t get the sense of drift unless Rada or Zabet specifically comment on it. As it is from time to time the archivists pester the Lord Defender into looking at old documents in order to understand what precisely was meant and how the usage or pronunciation has changed. Zabet tends to ignore such shifts, because of how her mind works – literally, her language processing system is so tied into telepathy that the language-sounds she hears are only part of how she picks up communications.

Rada hears them, acknowledges them, and moves on because of her conditioning. She has a functional take on language, not a linguist’s interest. Yes, she knows things have shifted, especially in written Azdhag. The symbols have grown simpler over the centuries, especially in the two generations following the Great Relocation. Only a few, like the one signifying the Pack, the greater Azdhag collective, remain so complicated and nuanced. In contrast, spoken Azdhag is restricted by hard limits on what sounds are physically possible, much more so than humanoid languages do, but the body language aspect? Definite variations over time.

Aside from a few, very basic and clear gestures. Ahem. Yes, those.


7 thoughts on “Language Shifts in Fiction

  1. I was thinking about a similar topic myself a couple weeks back, when investigating a game/simulation of dispersal/colonization of primitive humans through a world. It incorporated a tool for generating words (usually from an example corpus) such that they seem to be from a common language, such that as a group of humans spread through an area the settlements it founded would have similar-seeming names.

    I thought that was neat (and still do), but I also realized that it is far too static for a long-run simulation. Language changes, especially when portions of a group loose contact with other portions. Merely slow communications can lead to accent and dialect. Place names may change as language changes. Words get borrowed from other languages. City and nation states get conquered. Languages undergo simplification.

    There are lot of potential changes and shifts that languages can undergo, and reasons for it. After about two hours of digging online I was no closer to finding any reliable, simple models for shift. (If you’ve run across more or better, please do mention.) It seems like a deliberately plotted shift, like your meez example, would be a plausible and not-annoying example. In the other hand, actually depicting widespread language shift, as David Weber does with names in his Safehold series, is just bloody frustrating for the reader, and probably for the writer, in the long run.

    (Sorry if I’m rambling, this topic is just one I’ve been intermittently thinking a bit about over the last couple weeks, and I find it very interesting. I could go on and on, but I shall stop now.)

  2. Much like trying to write a western with ‘correct’ language and spellings for the time, it turns off some of the readers. Having said that, it IS interesting to try to ‘plot’ the changes. It is a well known fact that the mind can and does ‘read’ what it expects to see… 🙂

    • Indeed. And how often do we get used to hearing now-archaic terms in religious or holiday texts and don’t think twice about it.

      ” . . . for He hath holpen His servant Israel . . .” or “Noel, noel, noel! Noel sing we clear/ Holpen are all folk on earth/ Born is G-d’s Son so dear!” or “he got into a big snowbank and we became upsot.” (Which is a correct past perfect form of upset. Holpen is similar: helpen, halp, holpen. Modern German is helfen, half, geholfen.)

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