A long, rambling introduction.

A few weeks ago I released phonix 0.8, the latest version of my phonological modeling language. And now that you’ve read the previous sentence, assuming you haven’t already clicked away in boredom, I hear you saying What the heck is a phonological modeling language?

Let me explain. No, let me sum up.

Languages change their sounds over time: Spanish and French have different sounds than Latin, and different sounds from each other. However, there are regular correspondences between the Latin sounds in a word and the resulting sounds in Spanish, and with a good set of rules you can generate Spanish words from Latin ones. However, to do this you need a model of the sounds in Latin and how they relate to each other, and a set of rules that describes how those sounds change over time and what the conditions are for turning one sound into another. This is what phonix does: it defines a special notation for describing a language’s sound system and the rules which apply to that system, then it allows you to apply those rules to lists of words.

All of this demonstrates that I’m a huge language nerd. I majored in Linguistics in college, and I was (as one under-motivated classmate said) "one of those people who reads linguistics books in their spare time". As a language nerd I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the languages used in my stories. And sometimes I think I’m the only one, since most fantasy and science fiction writing sucks a big one one this.

I feel a rant coming on.

Common failure modes of language in SF

Here they are, in decreasing order of fail:

  1. There are only two languages, the Modern and Old-Timey. Everyone speaks Modern, and no one can understand Old-Timey except maybe for the wizard. Guilty of this: Robert Jordan.

The problem with this model is that if the language has changed enough that the older form is incomprehensible, then unless the language community is very small the language should also have split into multiple daughter languages.

  1. There is one language for every country on the map. They are all obvious knock-offs of some familiar language in this world. Nonetheless, the protagonist never meets anyone that he can’t speak with. Guilty of this: Tad Williams.

This is a lot better than option #1, but it contains the problematic assumption that countries only contain one language. Americans, in particular, seem to fall into this assumption because we’re used to our vast, linguistically homogeneous country. But the majority of the countries in the world are home to multiple, mutually unintelligible language groups, and often dozens or hundreds of such groups. In a pre-modern setting, our protagonist should fine that the local vernacular becomes incomprehensible as soon as he’s traveled more than a few days from his house.

  1. There are multiple languages, but there is one common language that everyone speaks, so let’s just use that and keep all of the other languages out of it. Guilty of this: J.R.R. Tolkein.

This is tolerable, and it’s this approach that’s taken by Tolkein and those of his followers who bothered to care. There is often something of a handwave to this explanation—the author has posited this in order to avoid having to actually think about the languages in their setting too deeply—but at least it’s superficially plausible and has historical precedent.

  1. OMG SO MANY LANGUAGES. There are lots of languages, and they all have a distinctive phonology, syntax, and vocabulary. The historical relationships between the languages are well-documented and understood. They have their own writing systems. Really, there’s far more information about the languages of this world than anyone could reasonably hope to assimilate.

I actually don’t know any published authors in this category. Mark Rosenfeld has done amazing work in documenting his world of Almea, but alas he’s never been published. Such is the fate of many a conlanger.

So now you’re depressed. Your options are to write about language in your setting badly, or to spend years and years elaborating something that most readers don’t care about anyway.

There is one more option.

Pretend that it doesn’t exist. I read an interesting article the other day about how language is handled—or, more accurately, isn’t handled—in the Magic: the Gathering tie-in novels. (Scroll down to the "Letter of the Week" to see the discussion.) A letter asked how characters from different planes of the Multiverse can talk to each other without needing to learn a foreign language, and the author responded quite directly with "just ignore that":

The risk is over-explaining. To use a Star Trek example again, this time in a negative way—it’s like the episode where they explain why all the humanoid races on the show all basically look alike. Ugh. It’s one thing to poke fun at the show’s makeup budget and do armchair xenobiological critiques of how the aliens resemble each other so much, but it’s quite another to expect the show to provide an in-universe explanation of those budgetary or story-based limitations. Either you didn’t think it was a problem before and now this explanation throws an awkward spotlight on it, which diminishes your enjoyment of the formula, or you did think it was a problem but you had learned to live with it but now suddenly you have to live with the show’s one groan-worthy and set-in-stone explanation forever.

An explanation like "Well, everybody across the Multiverse happens to speak the same language because a long time ago blahblahblah" or "Well, all planeswalkers find that they can communicate just fine because the spark blahblahblah" may ultimately cause more problems than it fixes. It might actually reduce enjoyment to patch over one of those weird, load-bearing plot-holes that are kinda ugly but that make the fantasy genre possible.

Though it makes me want to cry a little, this guy has a really good point. No amount of world-building will cover everything. And if you don’t have the skills or the patience to make the languages, why bother? More importantly, if your story doesn’t need the linguistic detail, then maybe you should just leave it out.

Not me, though.

We all have our obsessions. I’ll be using phonix to apply the sound changes for deriving Prasi from Old Tzingrizil. And I’ll be having a great time of it, even if no-one cares.