New Worlds: The Games Languages Play

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When my Russian translator was working on Turning Darkness Into Light, he kept sending me queries about how I wanted him to handle certain bits. You see, that novel contains snippets of mythological text which refer to the primeval deities that created the world with the English pronoun “it,” and he was concerned because not only does the neuter pronoun mostly apply to inanimate objects in Russian (as it mostly does in English), but the form of the past tense verb changes by gender, too — which would really hammer down on the “but this sounds wrong” effect if we went the neuter route. (Curious Russian speakers may find it interesting to know that he wound up changing the relevant verbs to the “present in past,” whatever that is.)

For most writers, these kinds of grammatical features will only become relevant when their novels are translated. But as we get more authors working in English who are also fluent in other languages, I’ve been seeing more instances of linguistic quirks becoming a matter of worldbuilding, too: stories set in fictional societies where the language does things differently from English, and that becomes a part of the culture the reader experiences.

Let’s take gender as an example — not just the cultural concept, but the grammatical one, and the way those two things interface. In English, we only gender the third person singular, with “he” for masculine, “she” for feminine, “it” for neuter (mostly applied to objects, but we also use it for animals and sometimes babies), and then for alternatives, singular “they” (which has a long history, whatever the grammar books tell you) and a slew of neopronouns. We’ve got a handful of nouns that reflect gender as well, like “man/woman,” animal terms like “mare/stallion” (and the literally neutered “gelding”), and some occupational words like “actor/actress,” though many of those have gradually fallen out of use (when’s the last time you saw a woman called an “authoress”?).

But step over to Japanese, and things look different. In that language there are multiple options for a first-person pronoun, some of which are neutral (e.g. watashi), some of which sound more feminine (atashi) and some of which are more stereotypically masculine (boku). Conversely, while there are gendered third-person pronouns, it’s actually quite easy to avoid these: Japanese often uses names instead of pronouns, or omits the subject entirely and just relies on context. You can’t do the latter in English! Meanwhile, many Indo-European languages gender not only their third-person pronouns but all their nouns, too, and their adjectives to match — and Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic gender their verbs! But of course the grammatical concept of gender is not the same thing as the human social concept of gender, so yet another subset of languages distinguish their noun categories along the axis of animate and inanimate, with no reference to masculinity or femininity at all.

What all of this means is that what linguistic options exist for human gender and how easy it is to avoid implying one at all depends on what language you’re writing in . . . and along with that, what language the characters are speaking. To some extent you can do that through how you deploy your English (or whatever language you’re using on the page), but at other times you’ll need to call it out specifically in your description — as I did in Voyage of the Basilisk, where Isabella comments on dealing with a language where the noun classes are animate/inanimate.

That need for a call-out especially applies to other features that English really doesn’t pay attention to at all. One of the places I’ve most commonly seen this show up in fictional worlds is around the idea of respect: going back to Japanese (which is the secondary language I’m the most fluent in, though nothing like actually fluent), there is a rich array of grammatical features you can use to adjust how polite you’re being at any given moment. English may have things like the difference between “yep” and “yes” and “yes, sir,” but Japanese has different verb endings for familiar and formal speech, along with different grammatical structures for how you use those verbs, and even (in a few cases) different verbs entirely that you deploy when you’re talking about your boss or some other superior. (Some languages even have “in-law speech,” a specialized style used with specific relatives by marriage, most commonly a man with his mother-in-law and a woman with her father-in-law.)

So if you’re writing in Japanese, you can encode a huge amount of characterization and narrative force into what registers of politeness the characters are using, and the moments where they switch gears. Doing the same thing in English-language fiction is harder, because while you can elevate or drop your diction in a more general sense, it won’t have the same degree of nuance. But you can still nod in the direction of it, including when the society and the language they’re speaking are fictional: “He agreed to do as she asked, but she bristled at his phrasing, which insolently dropped to the informal register one used with servants.”

Some of the possibilities get even weirder, from the perspective of an English speaker. Take the intertwined concepts of evidentiality and epistemic modality: fancy terms for saying “how do you know this” and “how confident are you in what you know.” Again, we do have ways of expressing this, using phrases like “I saw that X happened” or “X probably happened.” But you can (and often do) just say “X happened,” with no additional information. In other languages, though, this kind of thing gets grammatically encoded into the verb — when reporting on a thing, you have to specify your evidence and/or your certainty. Which makes life a bit different for liars! They can’t assert X to be true and then, when proved wrong, backtrack to say, well, I only heard that it was true; they have to specify at the outset whether their information is first-hand or not. In context, that can be the difference between people assuming they were mistaken and people assuming they’re deliberate liars.

This obviously gets pretty far into the weeds of how languages work, and it’s certainly not going to be the type of worldbuilding element every author has the desire or ability to include. (Nor, for that matter, does every novel benefit from it.) If you put something like this in, it will almost certainly be because you’re reasonably fluent in another tongue, or else you’re a linguistics nerd who knows a lot about the different features languages can have.

But hey — if you are one of those people, cool! Especially if you’re writing about characters fumbling their way through the subtle connotations of a language not native to their lives, which is a structural approach that gives you all the reason in the world to discuss in-story grammar. Even within a homogeneous speech community, though, there can be a place for this kind of thing. And it can be very interesting when it shows up!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: The Games Languages Play — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: The Games Languages Play - Swan Tower

  2. In a blog post, Scott Alexander described features he imagined his not-actually-constructed language Khadamic would have.

    * no unqualified plural, you have to say ‘all men’ ‘some’ ‘a few men’ etc, not just ‘men’
    * evidentiality, saying your source for belief
    * probability, saying your strength of belief
    * only hypothetical or subjunctive imperatives: “you should” must be followed by an “if”, i.e. “you should do X if you want to accomplish Y”; I’d probably generalize to “you should X because Y”

    Non-existent grammars aside, I find it fun to try to speak/write within those constraints in English.

  3. One corollary of this is purposeful grammatical errors as it reveals character, starts fights, etc. Is the North/East German townsman who refers to the lord’s horses all using the feminine being ignorant or insulting? (Generic “horse” — Pferd — is neuter; “mare” — Eselin, more recently Stute — is feminine; “stallion” — Hengst generally, Beschäler if a proven stud — is masculine.) Constantly referring to the prize stud in the feminine is mildly insulting; now convert that from the stable to the cousins and watch the run!

  4. you’d LOVE the relationships encoded into serbocroat. There is no such thing as a simple “cousin” or an “in law”. The husband-side in-laws have a set of words that describe them; the wife-side in-laws have a completely different set of words. Your uncles and aunts change depending on whether they’re your mother’s or your father’s siblings; your cousins are sorted into specific roles (for instance, my mother’s sister has a daughter. She is not my cousin; she is my sister-from-aunt…) Your husband/wife’s brothers and sisters are called different things depending on which marital polity they fall into. I once tried to explain some of this to my English-speaking simple-relationship-brought-up American husband and his eyes were crossing by the time we were on the third set of words that seemed to describe things that in English were pretty much interchangeable…

  5. This is one thing I found frustrating about Leckie’s ‘Ancillary’ series, though in general I really loved the books: the apparently strong relationship between Radch genderless language and the Radch gender-blind culture. Because there are certainly languages today which have no gender but still have no trouble having different cultural roles for men and women.

  6. Having somebody say “I have hunger” or “This chair, she is comfortable” can be a way of signaling “The person speaking Isn’t From These Parts” without having to explicitly dive into the linguistic weeds.

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