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You see this a lot in fantasy fiction, where everyone on the planet (and sometimes beyond) speaks the same language, even though it makes absolutely no logical sense for them to have any knowledge of each other's languages.

Of course, if you try to avoid this, then you run into the problem of characters not being able to communicate.

The first option is obviously illogical and to me, stupid, but at the same time it makes practical sense. And looking at the fantasy genre, it seems everyone just goes with that and ignores the non-sensicalness of it.

But is there anyway to work around this? Has anyone come up with a way to avoid this irritating trope?

closed as off-topic by FFN, thesquaregroot, Mark Baker, sphennings, Todd Wilcox Feb 26 '18 at 17:49

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    There are many things in fantasy that are nonsensical. Last week I mentioned it would be nonsensical to have a hospital patient who had zero nurses. The counterargument is that it makes the story more efficiently (better) told. It is nonsensical that every decision a character makes is towards a single goal of resolving their moral dilemma. That's not true to life. But it is true to story. I had feedback IRL that my characters should not eat meat because I will lose readers. Nonsensical, but pragmatic. But also an opportunity. (The villains can eat meat, lol :-) ) – DPT Feb 19 '18 at 17:53
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    Forget about all of the characters speaking the same language. Consider that all of the characters speak the reader's language. On a remote planet orbiting a star in a distant part of a galaxy far, far, far away, just what is the probability of that? :-) – a CVn Feb 19 '18 at 18:16
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    Note that this isn't something that's restricted to fantasy fiction. You have basically the same issue with real-world novels where people travel between countries. Generally speaking, though, authors don't bother with translation issues unless it's a plot point or intended as "local color" (e.g. vacationers to Brazil's Carnaval tend not to struggle with Portuguese, and characters visiting Paris aren't flummoxed by French. If your car breaks down in Mongolia, there's never an issue communicating with the local mechanic or hotel owner -- unless the author wants there to be.) – R.M. Feb 19 '18 at 20:21
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    I think this one may be more suited for WorldBuilding.SE than here. – JP Chapleau Feb 19 '18 at 20:31
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs on Worldbuilding.SE – JP Chapleau Feb 20 '18 at 13:37

11 Answers 11

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There are several ways to have more than one language in your world. Here are some ideas:

  • Your characters might be conversant in more than one language. If your characters are high-born or a hereditary merchants, it makes perfect sense for foreign languages to be part of their education. You can even mention they have an accent, or have trouble understanding expressions.
  • There might be a lingua franca - a language that people learn as a second language for the explicit purpose of communicating with other people whose language they don't share.
  • People might actually not understand each other, communicate through hand gestures, seek a translator, etc.
  • There is the option of magic/translator microbes/babel fish - a fantasy tool fitted to the setting, that just lets people understand each other. But that, in my opinion, is the least interesting solution. (Not that it's always bad. Sometimes it's boring but practical - handwaves the problem, and lets you get on with telling the story.)

Some books in the fantasy genre make use of these tools. Look, for example, at the "Lord of the Rings": "Common Speech" (a.k.a English) is a language all characters are at least conversant in, it is the lingua franca of western Middle Earth, as well as the MCs' mother tongue. However, the hobbits have their unique dialect of "Common", with some unique words. Frodo, the MC, knows enough Quenya (one of the languages of the elves) for a polite greeting, but not much more than that (basically "please" and "thank you"). While elven nobility are fluent in Quenya, Sindarin and Common, we also encounter elves who do not speak Common, and Legolas, an elf, serves as translator.The Rohirrim (a human nation) have their own language, which the hobbits recognise as being somewhat related to where their unique words come from. When the Rohirrim choose not to address visitors in Common, it is considered lack of courtesy, but they certainly talk and sing in their own language among themselves (Aragorn is the one to translate this time). There's also the language of the Dwarves, which they keep secret from strangers so we only get glimpses of it in place names, Dark Speech (with multiple dialects), whatever languages the Southorns and Easterlings speak (we know nothing of those save that they are not the Common), and so on.

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    "Magic/techno translation" can be used without it being wholly boring IMO if rather than fully translating it simply gives you the gist of what the person is trying to get across (eg, for non humanoid species it could indicate tone and body language for the unfamiliar). – DoctorPenguin Feb 20 '18 at 14:45
  • My unnecessary attention to useless details prompts me to tell you the Common Language in LotR is actually named Westron. Other than that, great answer! – FFN Feb 20 '18 at 20:51
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    Babel fish was what occurred to me – Andrew Leach Feb 20 '18 at 22:48
  • IIRC, Arthur C. Clarke's Rama books had one set of aliens capture Nicole des Jardins' child and genetically engineer him to be able to better read their colour-pattern based communications when he grew up. Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky trilogy has a skilled translator drugged to the point of slavis hyper-focus until she could translate intercepted alien communications. Not really planet-scale answers there though. Another common handwaving-away-language-concerns trope is telepathy, where the alien communication appears directly in the character's mind. – TessellatingHeckler Feb 20 '18 at 23:55
16

You can work around the language barrier the same way we do in real life: have someone act as a translator. There are three ways of introducing such a character:

  • Option 1: The moment the need for a translator arises, one of your characters randomly sticks his hand up and goes, "Oh, I speak language X!" Don't do this, except for comedy value (see: Airplane!). It's a lazy deus ex machina.
  • Option 2: The characters know they'll need someone who speaks language X, and seek them out in advance. This may mean having to create a new character just to fulfil the "translator" role, though.
  • Option 3: The people who speak language X bring a translator along with them when they meet the protgaonists. This is my personal preference: it's a much less jarring handwave than Option 1.

None of these options are perfect, but of course, there's a reason many fantasy works use the "everyone speaks the same language" handwave: sheer convenience. It annoys me too, though, so kudos to you for breaking the mould.

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    Upvoted. Option 3 creates opportunity to reveal thought processes among the group while still presenting them as a united voice. You can show a cultural conflict/hesitation/debate without stating it explicitly…. Option 2 puts a new character in the room who can show an everyman reaction to negotiations that would never be displayed by the negotiators. – wetcircuit Feb 19 '18 at 18:15
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    Option 4: The Stargate route; start out with option 2, but somewhere along the way in the story completely forget that a translator was necessary at all. Or Option 5: The Startrek route; there's a techno-magical device that automatically live translates for them (which will be obvious that it was occurring by lip movements not matching the sound), but then sometimes you have an episode where the protagonists are posing as a species who speak a language the protagonists don't and the aliens are none the wiser. – Shufflepants Feb 19 '18 at 22:18
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    For the record, Option 1 might not be a deus ex machina if you set it up right -- mention that this person is a language nerd when she's not studying swordplay, or that she's been a mercenary in dozens of different countries (and scale her language knowledge appropriately). The key, as with anything like that, is to not pull it out of nowhere, and reference the setup when you do -- e.g. "I've worked in most countries. Seen a lot of things." -> "Yeah, I speak X. Worked there for... 'bout 7 years. Not fluent, but probably good enough." – Nic Hartley Feb 20 '18 at 3:44
  • Another option: While there are different languages, there's one dominant language that is understood by many people throughout the part of the world relevant for the story. At Roman times, you could have expected to communicate in Latin everywhere in the Roman empire, and probably also in many of the neighbouring provinces. In today's world, many people speak English all around the world. – celtschk Feb 20 '18 at 8:40
  • Careful who you call a "Lazy Deus" – TessellatingHeckler Feb 20 '18 at 23:44
4

It may or may not be true that every crisis in the real world is an opportunity, but it is true that every writing challenge is a writing opportunity. The challenge of multiple language isn't an obstacle to overcome, it's a chance to show things about the world your characters live in, the mindset of your world's difficult cultures, the relationship between societies, the developing relationships between characters who speak different languages, and so forth.

Of course, doing that well would take a lot of work. If you don't want to put that effort in --no judgement --the best choice is probably to just do what everyone else does and ignore the implausibility of it. Like other standard choices, it becomes invisible that way. Any other way of addressing it will probably just call unwanted attention to it.

It's worth noting however, that quite a large percentage of the real world population is in fact fluent in multiple languages. If you're willing to foreground this aspect of your worldbuilding, the possibilities are endless. Which language is high status? Which is low status? Who knows multiple languages, and who doesn't? Who secretly understands a language she pretends not to? Who secretly doesn't understand a language as well as he pretends? What happens when you absolutely have to communicate with someone whose language is utterly alien? The storytelling possibilities are wide open. (Samuel Delany even developed an entire, critically acclaimed novel around this very issue --a linguist was his hero.)

4

You really misunderstand how fiction works.

In most novels and short stories the characters never visit the toilet. Does that mean that Frodo, Macbeth, or Odysseus never defecated? No. It just means that everyone knows that people have to move their bowels, and that since it is irrelevant to the story it is not mentioned. Just like breathing, wearing clothes, and everything else that people do on a regular basis and take for granted.

Now everyone knows from personal experience that people speak different languages and that you have to learn foreign languages to communicate internationally. It is such a common and therefore banal fact of everyday life, that you don't have to mention it in fiction for readers to understand that it is going on when people from different countries interact.


That said, languages do play a role in many works of fantasy and science fiction, when they are relevant to the storyline. A recent example is the movie Arrival in which the attempt to communicate with aliens is the driving "antagonistic" force of the plot and the heroine is a linguist.

Translation devices, such as Star Trek's "universal translator", are a common gadget in SF, but there are quite a few fantasy novels in which language learning or translators play some role, as well. And if they don't, just think of how often you heard of interpreters in history class in school – probably never, although they are just as much a part of trade and politics, both in the real world and in fantasy novels, as aides, chauffeurs, or speechwriters (of which you don't hear much in reality or fantasy, either).

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    I tend to disagree. I'd say that if your story has people from different countries/cultures interact with one another, then it should incorporate a mention of their use of a common language, since that is a major factor in their ability to communicate at all. You gave defecation as your analogy, but I'd say that a more suitable analogy would be physical appearance. Having the writer not mention the language in a multicultural interaction (equivalently not have the characters notice it) is as significant an omittance as not mentioning their physical appearance at all. – yoniLavi Feb 20 '18 at 14:01
  • @yoniLavi An yet many novels do not mention the physical appearance of the main characters! (Or do you know what Lewis Caroll's Alice looks like?) – Flinder Feb 20 '18 at 19:35
  • thanks @flinder that's an interesting example, but is it actually "many" novels? And for what it's worth, this is what Alice looks like, as in the drawings that Caroll commissioned from Tenniel and were included in the original print - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04.png – yoniLavi Feb 21 '18 at 3:01
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    Your first sentence is too harsh. Otherwise great answer. – Stig Hemmer Feb 21 '18 at 8:40
  • "A recent example is the movie Arrival in which the attempt to communicate with aliens is the driving "antagonistic" force of the plot" Actually, other humans are the antagonists. – Acccumulation Feb 21 '18 at 15:51
3

Farscape Translator Microbes.

In the SyFy series Farscape, Translator Microbes infected everybody, including the human thrust into this alien universe. In the pilot episode, John Crichton pops out of a wormhole and ends up on an alien ship. Everybody on it is talking gibberish. He clearly does not understand them, then a little floor robot thing injects him with something. A few minutes later their speech is interspersed with English and then they all seem to be talking English.

Your exact point is made by Crichton about this; they explain somehow he was raised without the translator microbes so they ordered the robot to inject him. Everybody speaks their own languages, but it is automatically translated.

Near the end of the series (1993) astronaut John Crichton finally makes his way back to Earth, and can understand every language on Earth.

3

Write what people intended to say, not the sounds of the words.

We don't write character accents phonetically (hopefully). We don't add every "um…" and pause that's used in normal speech. Instead we write what characters meant, not the individual phonems coming out of their mouths.

By extension, we don't need to hear that lizardmen lisp the letter S, and that werewolves have trouble with P and M because fangs don't allow their lips to close. Unless there is some specific comedy of errors because of a mispronunciation, or the accent makes them the butt of a joke, it's better to just write what they meant.

Speaking a different language is a bit of a leap, but really it is the same idea. It doesn't matter which language they use at any moment, they may be bilingual or working among others in a common language of borrowed words, what matters is what they intended to communicate. So just write what they meant.

When the POV is third-person limited, your MC will either understand what was said or not, as the plot dictates. The longer she hears a foreign language the more words she'll pick up, and the meaning will start to come across before she becomes a fluent speaker. You can show this by having her understand only a few words at first: "Stephanie… airlock… come!" It's not that someone is speaking to her in a pigeon language, it's that she is only picking up familiar words.

Characters in a bilingual environment will share words from both languages mid-sentence, and fluent speakers will be comfortable speaking in both languages, so consider it a skillset among your characters rather than a realworld detail you need to show the audience.

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    I think you want "pidgin language", not "pigeon language". But if anyone here does speak pigeon language, I would love for them to teach me – Fox Feb 21 '18 at 23:29
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Not likely. Languages don't work like that, over long periods of time, and especially not when they evolve naturally.

Look at how language evolved in our world. From Wikipedia or the entire subsection of scholarly research into it. Boiled down to basics, before there was language, there were proto-languages. These proto-languages got more and more complex as our need for new words to describe new things expanded (that's not just a source of meat, that's a bear, and it can kill you if you're not careful!) The thing is, they sprung up in different places, and spread with those groups. That's why tonal languages (some African languages, Chinese) are so different. Why Slavic languages (Russian, for example) are so different. Why sentence structure in Japanese is different from English, let alone what you can omit in a sentence and still have it make perfect sense.

Now, that isn't to say there won't be a commonly agreed upon language of trade. But that gets tricky, because of the vast majority of languages on offer. Today the languages of engineering and commerce are (and please feel free to add any one you feel I've omitted):

  • German
  • Chinese
  • Spanish
  • English

And it gets even more complex if you get into certain fields. In IT (programming especially) the main language (of the west) is English. In medicine it's Latin. So there still isn't a universally agreed upon language.

  • By extension, you'll have sub-languages within each "race" already, based on caste/job/education/geography.... 2 engineers might get along famously, while 2 poets would be at each other's throats. – wetcircuit Feb 19 '18 at 18:22
  • Most of your second paragraph is dubious. Nobody really knows how language started. There is no consensus on whether human language evolved from a single common ancestor or developed independently in different places. (Also, "proto-language" refers to the reconstructed common ancestor of a group of languages, not to something less than a language; Proto-Indo-European was just as full a language as English or Hindi.) The reason for differences among languages can be summed up very briefly: Languages evolve. That's all you really need to say. – DLosc Feb 20 '18 at 5:29
  • @DLosc Did I gloss over a lot of the facts? Yes. Is it possible all languages come from a common source? Yes. Do we definitively know the nitty-gritty details of early language(s) (AKA proto-language)? No. But I do give a summary of the best guesses we have as I understand them. However, those languages were not as full as current language. They couldn't be. Because in their current form, modern language has thousands of words for things they had no idea about back then. Examples: bacteria, technology, science, the twerk. Language change because new things happen, and they need a word. – Fayth85 Feb 20 '18 at 13:27
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You write in a point of view - and while it's a movie, The 13th Warrior uses this very effectively. If it's a language the protagonist doesn't understand - says so "They were speaking in an odd melodic language" - If he recognises it, mention that.

Language barriers make good plot movers anyway. Finding a natural way to communicate - or even learning the language. While the babelfish or "common"/lingua franca trope is an option, it really sounds like you need to integrate the lack of mutual intelligibility into the fabric of your story.

1

People might learn a simple constructed language when they are older which has a fixed set of rules. (Old enough, that it isn't a native language.) Together with rigid rules this should prevent the language drifting.

This works similar to a lingua franca but you can justify more people knowing it because the language can be easier to learn than natural languages. You still have native languages and the locals can discuss secrets which your protagonists can't understand.

As an Example, the constructed language Esperanto has "la Fundamento" which enshrines its grammar and basic vocabulary. La Fundamento is 113 Years old now and (apart from some disagreement on gender neutral pronouns) still applies to modern day Esperanto. Details around it evolve, but the core remains stable. This is despite people marrying inside the Esperanto community and raising "Denaskuloj" which learn Esperanto as a first language.

Of course this brings its own set of problems: Why that language and why a constructed one. Its not like Esperanto is that successful in our World. But if you like this option, the folks in the Worldbuilding stackexchange would surely love to help you with ideas.

  • Red Dwarf had Esperanto as a future lingua franca, albeit mostly included as a joke for the character Rimmer to struggle with. – TessellatingHeckler Feb 20 '18 at 23:23
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When I wrote a Sci-Fi novel a couple of years ago (humans visiting a planet with human-lookalikes and a civilization like ours), I solved this problem by letting the crew get a 'Language transplant', a direct modification of the language-center of their brains.

The language itself was recorded from human satellites orbiting the planet, and translated and understood by an AI. Then all words and phrases was modified in the brain, and the crew would now talk and understand this language, but no longer their own.

This should be changed back to their original language when they returned. Obviously, they could not read and write this new language, but that didn't matter.

I made this up out of laziness, because I just wanted to come around the language-problem in a fast way. It did not have anything else to do in the story.

Unfortunately the language-issue did play an important role later in the story, which made the process shine a little to the eyes, but I thought 'Hey, this is Sci-Fi, isn't it?'

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Think Chinese. China is huge, and many languages are spoken. People from one side of the country cannot converse with people from the other. However they all read the same characters, so they all read the same newspaper, and communicate in writing.

(I find this mind-boggling.)

Also, if you are in the Far East you can observe this kind of conversation before a meeting starts: In English; "which language do we use?" followed by some discussion until they find a common language, then they switch to that one (or stay with English).

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    That works with the Chinese languages because they all have very similar grammars, and are closely related, so using a logographic system works fine. Because their grammars are virtually identical, and mostly the only difference is pronunciation, if you draw symbols for words that don't reflect their pronunciation at all, it'll be readable to everyone. Of course, this wouldn't work with languages whose grammars vary, or worse yet aren't related to each other. – user26166 Feb 21 '18 at 13:36