Take a look at this map of the Caucasus region. I count twenty-nine languages, in eleven different branches of three different language families.

Here’s the question: when was the last time you read a fantasy or scifi novel with that level of linguistic complexity? Heck, when was the last time you read a fantasy with three languages, let alone three language families?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The other interesting thing is how jumbled together all the language groups are. The boundaries overlap and bleed into each other and dance around, with little islands of one group inside the boundaries of another, and several tiny languages that exist only as enclaves within a bigger area. Keep in mind, this is a historically normal linguistic situation. We here in the USA are used to the idea of enormous, homogenous linguistic areas like contemporary North America, and so we project that assumption into our sff. If we do bring in linguistic diversity, we do it in the European style, with a simplistic “one language per country” assumption.

This is ridiculous. The really large mono-lingual areas (the Americas, Russia, Australia) are all the result of imperial expansion obliterating earlier linguistic diversity. And Europe’s “one language per country” is nothing more than an illusion: the national language of most European countries is really an amalgam of highly divergent dialects, and every European country is pockmarked with minority linguistic and ethnic enclaves. To give two examples close to (my) home, there are Germans in Romania and Romanians in Hungary.

<<Sigh>>. Well at least I’m doing my best to solve the problem :).

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8 Comments

  1. My dad points out that SF is essentially monolingual in another way – it’s hard to find science fiction written in languages other than English. He was going to practice learning French by reading SF in French, but couldn’t find any.

    How do you reflect linguistic diversity without getting readers lost in languages they don’t understand?

  2. There are strong German and Russian sff traditions, so not all sff is English. I couldn’t say about French, though.

    Tolkein did a reasonable job of reflecting linguistic diversity, with at least five languages mentioned in LOTR (Common, Quenya, Sindarin, Rohirrim, Black Speech). The trick that he used was to have one lingua franca, then conveniently make that lingua franca into the native language of the two most important locations (the Shire and Gondor). This is cheating a little bit, but at least it’s an effort.

    The other thing is, why not just let your characters be lost in languages they don’t understand? It’ll contribute a lot to your setting to have a more realistic linguistic situation.

  3. The shatterbelt region has been one of conflict and migration for millenia. The picture you paint of the type of linguistic diversity is quite interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Aside: The only country that has tried to address extreme linguistic diversity is S-Africa, which has 11 official languages. But with time, it has devolved to English as the lingua franca…

  5. Are you sure about that? I believe that India is in a similar situation. IIRC there are ten languages on India’s currency, and something like 100 languages with more than 100K speakers in India.

  6. Of course the big exception is Tolkien who created the languages first and then the world.

    But I have a slight bone to pick — it is not just “imperial” (i.e. directed by a single state) expansion that creates swaths of low language diversity, still less just modern imperial expansion. Pre-modern (but literate and historical) imperial creations of low language diversity include the expansion of Latin which homogenized (relatively) the languages of Southwest Europe, the expansion of Arabic in Fertile Crescent and North Africa, and the expansion of Turkic in Central Eurasia. Pre-literate, pre-state examples of the same thing include the expansion of Indo-European and Bantu. And its not just farmers either. The spread of Evenki and Yakut through Siberia with resulting low language diversity has been taken as the result of recent (i.e. AD 1200 to 1600) expansion at the expense of Paleo-Siberian languages.

    Where am I going with this? That the Caucasus situation is one normal language diversity situation, but the Latin American (large swaths of Spanish), or Central Asian (large swaths of Turkic), and Australian (large swaths of English), is also another normal language diversity situation. There is no known era or condition of human history in which rapid expansion of peoples is totally unknown.

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