Sunday, February 21, 2010

Language Pride/Language Control

If you're creating a nation - for fantasy or science fiction - I'll begin by encouraging you to give it a language. But even if you have already, don't stop there. One of the things you find all over the world is that people who speak a particular language have strong attitudes about it, both internally or relative to other languages of their world.

Today my husband and I were discussing France and the French reputation for being prickly toward Americans - something which I have never in my life experienced. Interesting, isn't it? Because I speak French well, I always get lots of credit for it. My theory is that Americans and French are very similar. The people of each of these two countries are very proud of their language, and because it is spoken in many countries of the world, they feel that others coming to visit should have the courtesy to learn some of it. This may or may not jive with the experience of some of you, but nevertheless, it's an example of manners which are closely linked to language pride.

In Japan, they have a different kind of language pride. Both my husband and I have encountered situations where we were told we spoke Japanese "too well." There's a strong cultural view of Japanese as a unique language that can't truly be captured by a foreign speaker.

Speakers of different languages can also have varying attitudes toward the use of dialect by people from different regions - some laugh at them, some think they're precious, and others disparage them. Some countries have a national institution whose job it is to maintain the "standard" language against the intrusion of dialectal usages or foreign borrowings (especially foreign borrowings).

I encountered a funny article recently about German train stations replacing signs written in English with ones written in German. The part that was surprising was that the English they were replacing wasn't the kind Americans would necessarily find easy to understand - it was very idiomatically appropriate to a German context. The article is here.

If your world has nations and languages, then considering language attitude on some level will help it feel a lot more real. Even if you've got one language that is the strongest across a whole world, consider that language use diversifies very quickly. English is very strong as an international language, but there are lots of different kinds of English. What is Standard English? How does it compare to the Queen's English? Is one more often learned, or more highly valued in a particular location? If you meet someone from Hong Kong, their English will probably sound British, but someone from the Philippines will probably sound American. If you want to teach English in Japan, it will be easier to get a job if you sound American or British than if you sound Australian.

War is another context in which language control can play a huge role. Take the example of World War II, when Japan occupied Korea and outlawed the use of Korean in public. Korean didn't disappear, but a whole generation of people learned Japanese as a conqueror's language. Imagine how that influenced attitudes about Korean and Japanese!

Think also of the language Hebrew, which was primarily used as a literary language and was then revived for active use starting in the end of the 19th century (source: Wikipedia entry on History of Hebrew). Now it's the native language of millions in Israel.

I hope all of these real world examples can help you extrapolate for situations in your fantasy and science fictional worlds. Language isn't just a tool for conveying messages, but also for conveying information about culture and identity. It can serve conquerors, or rally the oppressed. It can be a measure of refinement or lack thereof. It can be a symbol of national unity, or a symbol of national diversity, or yet again a symbol of deep national history.

It's something to think about.


  1. Funny, this is one of the core principles I like to explore when I first dig into a language and I was just thinking about this. (Love simultaneous thought patterns. :smiles: ) Trying to figure out how a character/community/culture/nation views their language creates such a telling point in every interaction with someone from outside of the community/culture/nation. Whether they speak the same language or a different one, the character's view of their OWN language affects how they view the other character and their choice and/or use of language.

    Timely post and I thank you. I'm going to incorporate the thoughts here and link back when I return to my (currently in draft mode) post on creating language from the inside out.

  2. 'Nother interesting thing to think about-- How do you define a "language"? If Country A and Country B can understand each other, why do they insist that they speak different languages?

  3. Good point, Atsiko. The distinction between dialect and language is a blurry one. We talk about dialects of Chinese, for example, but many of them are mutually unintelligible. Why call them all "dialects"? Then again, there's the distinction between languages like Flemish and Dutch and Afrikaans. They may be mutually intelligible, but they have different names. I think there are historical factors involved in these distinctions, but also that mutual intelligibility and unintelligibility can't be assumed to be the final criteria.

  4. Don't forget about "creoles." Singlish, here in Singapore, is a mixture of Malay, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) and English (with a fair amount of the English having come from 1810s Britain - contemporary with Jane Austen). It's an odd mix and takes some getting used to (at least for me), but it's extremely popular with the natives.

  5. Yeah, pidgins and creoles can be fun.

    Juliette, I'm sure you've heard this before, but it's often said that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. “ Nowadays, I'd imagine an air force might help, as well—and maybe a nuclear arsenal.

    On China-- As I understand it, there are at least eight spoken languages in China-plus inumerable dialects--and then you have written Chinese, which could almost be considered its own language, and is readable by people speaking almost every language or dialect in the country.

  6. Danes and Norwegians, explained a Norse friend, can understand each other. With a little effort, he added, they could understand a Swede, "but why would you want to?" (Swedes are the butt of Scandanavian jokes.) It's political. When Norway declared its independence from Sweden, she discovered to her horror that she did not have a language. Everyone in Norway spoke Danish. (Denmark had ruled Norway for centuries.) So the professors fanned out into the countryside and recorded all the dialects spoken in remote viks, etc. Then they "calculated an average" (as my friend Fredrik put it) and tabbed that as New Norse (Nynorsk).

    You find similar differences between Germany and the Swiss-Bavarian-Austrian flavor. In the north, for example, they say "zwo" for two (and you can see how that creeps across to English). In the south they say "zwei" (tsvai) which is the actual High German. Ditto: "Appel" in the north and "Apfel" in the south for apple.

    Germans think Austrians sound like hicks. Austrians think Germans sound like Prussian officers.

  7. I always want to know what language/s my characters are going to be speaking... and then make sure none of their dialogue or POV uses a figure of speech their language hasn't got...

  8. What's the opposite of language pride? On a recent NPR "World in Words" podcast, they discussed how many native speakers of Hindi actually consider it to be a lower status than English. So, confronted by an English speaking person who is trying to respect the language and culture, they may actually switch to English.

    If you don't already know about this cool podcast, here is the link:

  9. Thanks for all your contributions, JDsg, atsiko, OFloinn, hampshireflyer and Meindzai. These are all good things to think about - who knows when the situations you describe might be relevant to a story that someone is writing. There's lots of inspiration to be had in real world language situations of all types.

    Meindzai, sometimes you'll find the same situation - a Japanese person speaking English to a person who is trying to speak Japanese - but usually for entirely different reasons than in the Hindi case. It's interesting.