Languages and Stories

No, not how fancy or plain, active voice or passive. Alien languages and non-English in my fiction, and why I do it.

I seem to have a knack for learning foreign languages. I catch inflections and accents easily, to the extent that I speak German with a Bavarian-Austrian accent rather than American. Having the ability to recognize patterns helps immensely, and my long span of musical adventures also helps, because I pick out phrases and sounds very quickly. This overflows into my writing, as long-time readers know.

The first language I created was Azdhagi. To do this, I first had to think about Azdhagi anatomy. What sounds can they make, and which ones can they not make. Without movable lips, labile sounds such as “p” and “b” are going to be impossible, and long o “oh” will be a challenge. Another consideration is how they breathe – in and out through mouth, in nose and out mouth, or what?

As a result, Azdhagi is a “bright”, with ai, ae, ee, ah, oy vowel sounds dominating. Some guttural sounds are used, and a nasal resonator in the skull allows for pitched grunts that act a bit like glottal stops. Azdhagi is semi inflected, but not too much, and is an agglutinative language, so that words and prefixes are tacked onto the core noun-verb-root pair to add description, object, and tense and intensity to the basic idea. For example, reh means a fan held in the forefoot. Reh-dakh is a hand fan made of iron. Reh-dakh-schleera means “iron war fan held in the forefoot.” If you wanted to say “Lord Iron-Fan [Rada] defeated Lord Blee in sword combat,” it sounds like Kai Reh-dakh dakh-leh-huh tsaikuhssee Kai Blee, literally “Lord Iron-fan iron-blade-long defeat-recently-completed  Lord Blee.” The bolded sounds are emphatic, and “uh” is a combined chuff and nasal grunt with a glottal pause following. “Kh” is pronounced like the ch in the Scottish “loch.” Rada has not mastered the “uh” combination because her anatomy just doesn’t allow it.

In case you wonder, Azdhagi is literally “of us.” The syllabic stress tells the hearer if it is a plural nominative usage “We” or possessive “our language.” When written, it is talon upstroke on the last syllable for nominative plural and talon downstroke for possessive.

Because Azdhagi don’t have facial expressions, they use body language to communicate most emotions. The more gesticulation, the lower the rank of the individual once you get past certain basic gestures. Things like the weak-side negation, made by lifting the weak-side [right] forefoot and making a swirling motion, palm-up, are common, but the ability to remain perfectly still despite strong feelings is considered a sign of true nobility. The King-Emperor may allow his tail-tip to move two centimeters, and his neck-spines to rise one centimeter when he feels near-lethal fury. And then he will gut, dismember, or blind the offending party. To outsiders, it appears that he gave no warning at all before exploding into action. To Rada and the Azdhagi, His Imperial Majesty telegraphed a strong warning and the idiot didn’t heed it, and so deserved what he got.

One slight advantage Rada had learning Azdhagi is that Trader is guttural in terms of basic pronunciation, but has a flowing and slightly inflected rhythm. “Half-musical, half-guttural” is how Rahoul Khan thinks of it. Wanderer, which Rada does not speak unless forced to, is very sibilant and highly inflected. She thinks in Trader most of the time, and swears in Trader, Azdhag, and a few other choice languages.

Staré is another language that has body language as a major component, especially intensifiers. The Staré have exceedingly flexible tongues, and can make sounds that are literally tongue-twisting to humans. Like Azdhagi, their faces do not show emotion, but their ears and fur do to a small extent. Where the Staré truly show emotion and complex emotions/ideas is via pheromones. Entire conversations can be carried on through scent alone, making translation from Staré to Common (the humans’ language) rather difficult if the translator doesn’t know the scent speech. Rigi has a major advantage because she is a “nose,” meaning that she is very sensitive to shades of scent. She also grew up among Staré and learned many scents through context, because the adult Staré tend to ignore human children or treat them like hoplings.

Since scent communicates shades of meaning and emotion, Staré verbal communications are literal. In the next book, when Rigi and her family return to Shikhari, the “butler” Lonka uses phrases like “Be filled with care,” or “May your journey be without/free of events,” where a human would say “Be careful,” or “uneventful.” This is a sign that he learned Common relatively late. He is also high third Stamm. Lexi, Uncle Eb’s research assistant, has an unusual mastery of Common (and other languages) for a third Stamm. This should have clued Rigi in that he’s not quite what he seems, but it will take a few more adventures for her to realize this.

Other languages mentioned in my books, but not necessarily written out, include Old High Drakonic, Feltari, Russian, Pashto, Spanish, and Tsorwow. Trader is the lingua franca of business and war in the part of the galaxy where Rada and Joschka spend their time. Joschka is far more comfortable in German and English than in Trader, but it comes back quickly when needed, especially with Rada nudging him a little.

I don’t think I will ever write out an entire dialogue in Azdhagi or other languages (aside from German) because it doesn’t help the reader. Like using dialect, an introduction to get the sounds across is enough. Only when a main character such as Rada consistently uses the foreign words do I tend to stay with them, like referring to her bone-handled dagger as bahn-leh.

17 thoughts on “Languages and Stories

  1. I recall my first exposure to an invented language: Tarzan of the Apes, in 1961 or thereabouts, in a children’s edition. There was a glossary in the back of the ape language Tarzan grew up with. The word for ‘ocean’ was three stacked words: ‘great,’ ‘big,’ and ‘water.’
    I immediately wanted to teach the language to my friends so we could talk in front of our parents and teachers. Unfortunately, I was the only one who had gotten ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ for Christmas.

  2. It’s nice to get a glimpse under the hood of the stories every now and then. Thanks for the linguistic explanations. Language is the heart of culture, after all.

  3. There’s also the problem of phonetic versus spelled languages. Some can have a single word, spelled identically, but pronounced in several different ways, each with a different meaning. Other words may sound the same, but be spelled differently. (English is notorious for that.) It makes learning such languages fiendishly difficult, and creating them in a fictional world a chancy matter. Oh, the stories I could tell about phonetic mix-ups in African languages by missionaries who didn’t quite get their pronunciations right . . .

    • First Stamm is the highest social and cognitive rank (or caste). The higher the number, the paler the individual and the lower their status and cognitive abilities (especially with abstract thought and memory). Eighth Stamm is the lowest Stamm, with nearly pure white pelts and very low mental aptitudes.

  4. “Be filled with care” does give the speaker’s meaning and does give the idea the speaker’s birth language is different than English.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard people complain about stories set in other times/places where an expression is used that the people “claim” wouldn’t be wouldn’t be used in that other time/place.

    While I’d be annoyed if “Valley Speech” was used by 17th century Frenchmen, the authors have to write a story in the language that the readers would understand.

    Tolkien had various invented languages in his fiction but didn’t write his stories in those language. 😉

  5. I picked up rudimentary German while I was stationed there, important stuff like “Noch ein Bier!” and that you could have an entire conversation just with the word “bitte.”

    I worked hard enough on learning the pronunciation that when some Dutch friends of mine tried to teach their language, they made me stop after a few lessons because, “You have a German accent.” The Dutch I knew along the border with Germany did not like the Germans. Not at all. If a German spoke to them in his own language they understood of course, because learning the German language was compulsory in Dutch schools. However, being modern Dutch, instead of gutting, dismembering, or blinding him, they would reply only in English. 🙂

    • I tried to learn Dutch, but the accent and gutturals got me. However, I can read Flemish very well, as I discovered last summer, if I mentally read the text aloud. In some ways Dutch is a little closer to English than German is, in other ways… I’ll stick with German and English, Spanish and a drop of French, thanks. At least until I find a less painful way to learn Hungarian, Polish, or Czech.

      • If you’re serious about learning the Slavic languages, you might start with Serbo-Croatian. It’s almost entirely regular. From that base, you can pick up any of the others (like Italian to Spanish). Czech is Germano-Slavic, and a little more challenging, especially pronunciation. Hungarian is just weirdly difficult, as it is not an Indo-European language, but rather is a member of the Uralic family. It’s sort of pretty, though, with all the repeated vowels.

        • I was advised to learn Czech through German, by a native English speaker who is fluent in German, Czech, and Polish (was reporter during Cold War). Hungarian is neat, and apparently if you speak Turkish, Hungarian’s relatively easy (!!)

          The way things are going, I might not be traveling much west of Austria after this year. Thus considering adding a Slavic language.

  6. Between the French I had in high school, the German I learned in a few courses on base, and the Dutch I picked up in bars and restaurants, I found I could more or less read a lot of simple texts, menus, simple instructions, driving directions and the like.

    So I was basically illiterate in three languages. !

  7. My wife has a gift for languages

    I however, do not.

    I have heard many variations on “It’s not ‘luh’, it’s ‘luh’!” Accompanied with rapidly rising levels of aggravation.
    I’ll cheerfully admit that there may well be a distinction, but I sure as hell can’t hear it.

    (Oddly, I’m not bad at deciphering stuff that’s written down. I can apply the Latin, Greek, and Old English roots of English pretty readily in text.)

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