Chapter 43 – Languages, Real and Fictious

Tomorrow, 9th of April, is the day of Mikael Agricola and the Finnish Language here in Finland. Languages are an important part of any culture, sometimes even fictious ones.

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Picture by nofrills

Mikael Agricola is called the father of literary Finnish and he more than deserves that title. His first book, Abckiria (these days known as ABC-kirja/ABC-book), was released in 1543, when written Finnish didn’t have any standard form. He borrowed and made up a lot of words, using Swedish, German and Latin as an example for how the written form should look like. Later on he released a book of prayers (Rucouskirja, now Rukouskirja) and the first Finnish translation of the New Testament (Se Wsi Testamenti, now Uusi testamentti). He worked as a rector and later bishop so it’s no surprise he also translated many other religious texts.

Written Finnish has gone through some changes over the centuries but the core remains the same and around 60% of the words Agricola created are still in use today. Here’s an example line of a poem:

Original: Oppe nyt wanha ia noori / joilla ombi Sydhen toori
Modern Finnish: Opi nyt vanha ja nuori / joilla ompi sydän tuore
Translation: Learn now old and young / who have a fresh heart

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This is the recently chosen official Agricola pastry. Makes you want to read, doesn’t it?

As writers, languages are closer to us than some other people. Words are our tools and in order to use them, we need to know the language we’re using. I’m not saying you have to study linguistics, but the more you know, the better your writing gets. We’ve all heard the saying “You need to know the rules to break them” and how it applies to writing. Proper grammar and errorless text are the base of any written piece. That’s true for fictious languages as well.

Fictious languages are often based on existing languages in some way. The difference (and difficulty) is that there’s no one who speaks your new language anywhere else than inside your head. You have to create it, written and spoken, from scratch. It’s hard and takes a lot of background work. You need patterns and grammar rules, most importantly consistency. You need dedication and love for crafting words.

More often I see books that throw in one fantasy word here and another one there, and in some cases that can work just as well, if not better. Language can bring a lot into the story and make the world seem more authentic, bring its culture to life, but it can also steal your focus.

Perhaps most notable fictious languages in books are Tolkien’s Elvish. While he created over 20 languages, Quenya and Sindarin are the most famous. I think their appeal is in how well-crafted they are. For all intents and purposes, they are like real languages with their history and culture. It’s easy to see how much Tolkien enjoyed working with languages and creating his own.

I’ve heard of people who have learned Elvish or Klingon so well they can have conversations or write their notes in said languages. Useful? Probably not. Fun? I’d imagine so. I also believe it strengthens the bond you have with the world of the story. You feel more like a part of it if you think you’d be able to speak with the characters.

What are your favorite (fictious or real) languages? If you had the chance to learn any language perfectly at the blink of an eye, what would you choose? Do you think fictious languages make books feel more alive or authentic, or are they usually distracting? Is it different with movies?

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10 thoughts on “Chapter 43 – Languages, Real and Fictious

  1. Foreign words, either real or made up, can be sprinkled throughout a text, and, if properly used in context, the reader will learn the word through context. If you have someone saying, “C’mon, move it, let’s go, now, andiamo adesso!” the reader can infer that the Italian words at the end mean the same or similar to the words before.

    This one is a “make the reader do the heavy lifting” sort of thing. Each reader is their own detective, and each word in context a small puzzle or mystery to be solved. The brain is exercised by new words, and as long as they are found grazing in their natural environs, it’s going to pick a near enough answer. In one book, the characters swear in Chinese. I don’t know what the Chinese means, but in context, I’m pretty sure they’re swearing. It’s an exclamation. If it was important for me to understand it, the author would do more to translate. If there is no translation, I’m on my own and I’ll either figure it out or I won’t.

    For amusement, see this video on What German Sounds Like Compared to Other Languages:

    Brilliantly funny.

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    • Very true, context is important whenever using foreign words. Some books do it really well (like with your example of the Chinese exclamation) but sometimes I’ve seen it taken too far, when I either have to reach for a dictionary multiple times or just accept the fact I won’t understand what’s being said.

      Thanks for the video! A “bit” exaggerated maybe, but it was funny 🙂 I actually like the sound of German, even though I can only understand a word here or there.

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  2. I don’t need to learn a language in the blink of an eye. I can do it by myself. More fun. I don’t have any favourite language.

    For the RPG world I’m creating, the “demon race” have their own language. Actually there are several of them. One is legendary (almost forgotten), one is for the nobles (and official language) and one is used daily by the commoners. I do get some inspirations from the languages I know, and from Akkadian. I have a thing for this language.

    Cheers.

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    • I like fictious languages that seem to have a history. I really admire people who have the patience to develop different variations and everything. Do you speak many languages?

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      • I’m native Polish. I learned English, Russian, Latin, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian. Lately just a bit of Norwegian, before my trip to Oslo (but I spoke in English in the end). I don’t speak all of those languages well, some I have (mostly) forgotten and understand more than I can speak. I plan to relearn some and learn new languages.

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      • Well, I plan to learn more and more. If I die old, I’d like to know 20 languages by then. For now I have plans for Norwegian, Spanish, Hindi, Farsi and either Serbian or Croatian. I’d like to pick Icelandic too. The other languages – time will tell. 😉 I love learning languages.

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      • Admirable goal! I know three but I’m only fluent in two. I’d like to learn something new sometime but whenever I try, I give up pretty fast. Maybe I’ll need to take a proper course instead of learning it on my own.

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