The conflict of language

There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.

There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.

1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.

English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)

But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.

That’s what language means.

2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.

A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.

That’s what language means.

And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.

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