The Common Tongue


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Thread: The Common Tongue

  1. #1

    The Common Tongue

    Ah, such a staple in fantasy, the removal of all language barriers lest' the plot says differently. But is this really such a good add-on to a story. I've debated this topic with myself for some time now, so it would be interesting to see what this community thinks about this.

    The way I see it, it can be both good and bad. For one it makes it easier for the author since the hurdles of handling a character with a different language is avoided. Otherwise, I personally find myself uncertain of what to do whenever a character comes along that does not speak the language. Usually, they just end up as side-characters, having impacted the story in no meaningful way. Sometimes I treat them as if they were mute, but this rarely works out either. I find it to be very hard to make a character with a different language engaging essentially.

    then again, if you actually take the time to work yourself through all these hurdles I find that it can actually be somewhat rewarding. My favourite is when the character in question slowly comes to learn the language of those around him/her, and how this makes the character more relatable.

    But I am uncertain of what to think about it honestly, and I personally find myself defaulting back to the common tongue, just because it's so much easier.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this matter

  2. #2
    To be honest, Solus, I have never given this much thought. I guess it would depend what the point is, within the story, of having a character - main or otherwise - speaking a unknown language. I think the potential of getting bogged down in the slow process of learning how to speak the common language would be a death knell to the story itself. Unless you said something like, Joe Blow did not speak our language when he first arrived, but has since learned to speak it quite well, Then, I suppose, some lapses could occur for humor or just an aside type of thing. Can you say what you would be thinking of, giving a character such a trait? Thanks.
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  3. #3
    It's not only hard on the writer when there's no common language, it's hard on the reader. So we try to avoid it. Everyone in Oz speaks the same language, and the people in the future have something that lets them immediately understand people from a different planet that they got to by traveling faster than the speed of light. Fine, get on with the story.

    The exceptions get interesting. How people communicate without language. Switching points of view from one language to another. (I loved writing that scene.) In my current WIP, most of my MC's interactions are with people with a different language. That's for effect.

    Which is to say, that can be worthwhile, sometimes, but it should be interesting. And it will never be more than exceptions.
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  4. #4
    Member Guard Dog's Avatar
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    Leave me to be the odd one...

    If everybody speaks a common language... how can ya have fun doing this:
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    She wore a simple dress made of animal hide, tanned to leather, and sandals of both skin and vegetable material… something that was akin to rice straw.
    Finally, he decided to speak, and said “Hey, I’m not gonna come back out’a there. I’m right here.”
    Hearing this, the girl whipped around, back against the tree, and drew a knife from a belt sheath at her hip. It had a short blade, maybe three or four inches long, and a bone handle.
    Holding his hands up, palm toward her, J.D. continued; “Hey, now… no need for that. I’m not going to hurt you. I just wanna talk to you for a minute. That’s all.”
    The girl’s eyes narrowed, but she lowered the knife slightly, and spoke in a strange language, “(&$%[email protected]!()), !&%$$#@%&**%$#@!”, in a tone that J.D. understood quite well: Stay put, or I’ll hurt ya!
    J.D. shrugged, and dropped his hands. “This ain’t ever gonna work… How th’ hell am I supposed to communicate with you if neither one of us can understand the other?”
    The girl simply looked confused, but held her ground, knife still at the low-ready.
    So J.D tried the old “Me Tarzan, you…?” routine, pointing to himself first… “I’m J.D. J… D…”, then pointing at her, and saying; “You…..?”
    A few repetitions of this and the girl finally pointed to herself and said “Marhi. #$&* Marhi.”


    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    By the way, the reason I didn't try to make up a language here is because the girl's an android, and what she's speaking is an ancient, long-unused machine language.



    G.D.
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  5. #5
    Give them babel fish.
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  6. #6
    How one tackles this must depend on the point of view that one has adopted. If it is subjective then the narrative can only describe the subject character's perception of the alien language. If they actually understand the language then the narrative should describe their understanding of what was said rather than the actual sounds. Even if one uses an objective point of view the narration has a native language of its own which should be used for dialogue if the narration is regarded as omniscient, i.e. able to interpret all languages.

    In such discussions I am always reminded of an incident during a touring holiday in Iceland many decades ago. There was a young Icelandic boy on the coach, a relative of one of the tour company staff, and he would listen to the various languages being spoken by the group and try to imitate them, only being able to speak Icelandic himself. He made valiant efforts to imitate the Swiss, German and French passengers but when he got to my angel and I all he could manage was "Woo woo woo woo woo woo ...". Yes, British English can be a very lazy language when spoken between two people who know each other well. All vowels migrate to the middle of the mouth, all words run together and many of the consonants vanish. All that is left is a flow of noise that guides the listener's thoughts within the shared context.

    So the only advice that I can give on this subject is woo woo woo woo woo ... You know what I mean.
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  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Guard Dog View Post
    By the way, the reason I didn't try to make up a language here is because the girl's an android, and what she's speaking is an ancient, long-unused machine language.
    Yeah, I have my doubts if that's a good idea, simply because I, as a reader, don't know how "&$%[email protected]!())" is supposed to be pronounced. If you read, you often have a "voice in your head" which reads the words. At least I do. But I can't read this because I don't know how my inner voice should read it.

    Just as an illustrating example, if I see "我喜欢吃鱼" I don't know how I should pronounce it because I don't know how the signs map to a spoken language, but if I read the pinyin version, "wǒ xǐhuan chī yú" I at least have some idea on how to pronounce it and my inner voice can read it - even though I have no idea what the actual semantic meaning of this sentence is (I can't read or speak chinese, this was just an example I grabbed from Google to illustrate my point).

    Even if your character speaks in binary, it's not intuitive for the reader to write "and he said 0101000101010". If the sounds are out of this world, at least describe how they sound, "metallic", "like a distorted radio", "guttural", "high-pitched buzzes", so that I can, as a reader, at least have an understanding of how I'm supposed to imagine the scene. Right now it just reads like you had a stroke and fell head-first on your keyboard.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by fschutt View Post
    Yeah, I have my doubts if that's a good idea, simply because I, as a reader, don't know how "&$%[email protected]!())" is supposed to be pronounced. If you read, you often have a "voice in your head" which reads the words. At least I do. But I can't read this because I don't know how my inner voice should read it.
    It's a MACHINE LANGUAGE. It could be like an old telephone modem, it could be a series of clicks and beeps, It could sound like R2D2.

    The point is that it's unintelligible. Even J.D.'s own Constructed/Engineered people can't make heads or tails of it. It's just too old, and not based in anything an organic life form would have a chance of being familiar with.

    The one thing I hope the reader eventually catches on to is that Marhi translates her own name into a human language.


    G.D.
    Last edited by Guard Dog; September 30th, 2018 at 10:19 AM.
    Leave it be and it won't bother you.
    Screw with it, and it'll eat you alive.

    Soon enough, nations will play second fiddle to corporations.

    "The world is not what we wish it to be; it is what it is."
    "Freedom is the value, not protection."

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Guard Dog View Post
    It could be like an old telephone modem, it could be a series of clicks and beeps, It could sound like R2D2.
    Then describe it that way, describe it as "clicks and beeps". Still a way better description for a reader than "()§($="($!!". Remember that a reader can't read your thoughts, he can only do so if you write them down. It's not the job of the reader to figure out how it sounded, you need to paint the picture, you need to describe the scene. Describe how it sounded.

    Yes, it is unintelligible, but it still makes a sound, doesn't it? Then you need to describe the sound, even if you can't describe the meaning of the sound. Special (or unknown) characters don't make sounds (because you can't pronounce them). Like I explained with the Chinese example. Or find the closest matching sound: "She began to yell at J.D., but her language, while completely alien, sounded like... [a microwave filled with needles turned up to the maximum] [a dialup connection sound mixed with the sound of scraping metal] [a heavy metal rock band heard stuck in an 8-bit game]". A reader can't know that you meant that by using special characters. At least to me, the character is silent, because I don't know how to picture her speaking in special characters - because these characters are un-pronouncable.

    The only place where I think a description using special characters is appropriate is in comic books, when characters use expletives. See, I get what you're going for, I just don't think that idea transfers very well to the reader.

  10. #10
    So, from what I've gathered from reading this, the common tongue is simply what is expected and exceptions from this "rule" must be warranted. Essentially, that unless the author has a specific idea that requires a character with another language, it should be avoided for simplicity's sake, both for the reader and the writer. That viewpoint seems to align with what I've read in many books, where every major character speaks the same language, and where only people who are living remotely or isolated speak a different tongue. I sadly have a hard time coming up with a good example right now, but most of you will get what I'm saying.

    Quote Originally Posted by Olly Buckle View Post
    Give them babel fish.
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