Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Speaking in Tongues


Many good books tell of ordinary people doing ordinary things during ordinary lives.
Others describe ordinary people doing extraordinary and noble things. Neville Shute comes to mind.
And we always have the stories of both ordinary and extraordinary people doing extraordinary things - time travelling, visiting strange planets, journeys to the centre of the earth, saving the world...
Sometimes in these scenarios, the need for another language becomes decidedly acute, if superficial logic is to be maintained.
In earlier comments I think it was, Robyn of Snarkling Clean voiced a certain irritation about language skills presented in a contrived and aliens arrive manner.
If you're going to have the check-out girl from Upper Wawa, Ontario, display proficiency in Sanskrit, for goodness sake have that ability imbeded in the narrative long before she has to call on it.
That applies to any extraordinary skill or talent I suspect.
Sci-Fi writers have it easiest, perhaps. They can always produce implants or translator tapes or some cool mechanic or standard explanation - like everyone speaks "basic," for example. In their world(s), solutions are already on scene and pre-programmed.
Some thrillers employ characters which by virtue of their profession, "spy" for example, other tongues are already part of their C.V.
Or a child of immigrant parents might be expected to know another language. Or a child of excruciatingly learned parents for more remote and esoteric languages. Or a child brought up in an ethnic neighborhood. Or who has been batted around from country to country.
Nationality alone may indicate tri-lingual comfort. Geography can suggest it without straining the fabric of belief.
The ability to navigate in another language can be reinforced in several indirect ways. Names, for example. If you call a guy Gregoire, or a girl Marie-Celeste, no reader is particularly surprised if they are adequate in another tongue.
Time travellers though, need every imbedded excuse and set-up the writer can manage if the character's been tossed to a distant time.
Mine needs to be able to understand and be understood in - not French but Norman French - and comprehend in minimal fashion, crude Anglo-Saxon. The deadly-but-comic potential is enormous.
And God knows where I'll send my Damie next.

31 comments:

Savannah Jordan said...

Nothing drives me more batty, when reading, than a bastardized version of a foreign language. I edited a paper recently, and the writer seemed to think it was 'fun' to throw French in at inappropriate (and unfortunate for her as I edited) times. I speak French, I went to France, please do not try to tell me a gentlemen calls himself 'homme Pierre.' I could have spat coffee and vulgarities at the same time

Shorthand... Yup, I agree with you, proper use of a foreign language is VERY important.

Bernita said...

A writer who handles the language quotes in French very carefully - Lowest Common Denominator carefully, even almost to the point of providing a context explanation/translation for "oui" carefully - is Kathy Reichs, whose protagonist dipsy-doodles between the U.S and Montreal.Further, she is careful to use French phrases sparingly for color and atmosphere.

Rick said...

Bernita - So ... how are you handling Damie's grasp of Norman French? If she's thoroughly fluent in modern French she might just be able to stumble along, more or less as we would with Chaucer's English. (But dialect won't help; compare Chaucer to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) If her French is Quebecois it might help a bit; I seem to recall that Quebec was settled by a lot of Normans, though the time gap is huge.

Old English ... oh, dear. Does she know any German? That might help.


Right now I am struggling with "code-switching," and whether it is useful or even possible to represent it. My protagonist is just back in (pseudo-) England, having grown up in pseudo-France. She will have a tendency to switch back and forth, even in mid-sentence, and especially to erupt in a flood of "Gallic" when upset or pissed off. It would be significant to her and those around her, but is there any non-clunky way to convey it?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think this is a tricky area. You do need to prep people for a special skill or talent that has relevance to the story.

But at the same time you don't want to kill your readers with pages and pages of backstory and personal history in the opening.

Very, very tricky balance. Interesting topic.

Dennie McDonald said...

aw man - I can barely handle plain old english half the time - I dare not try to do anything elaborate.

I love regencies - the flow, the visualization and got it into my head to write one - well forget it - it's all still english but I cannot master that, so I put it on the back burner for quite some time!

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, I would say there is. I have two cultures with different languages, with some bilingual characters who can move between them and some monoglots who can't. Sharon Penman handles this sort of language barrier neatly in 'Here Be Dragons', where the Norman-French Joanna is married into medieval Wales without having learned any of the language. Her husband Llewelyn Fawr is bilingual but most of the rest of his court either can't or won't speak French. You could do worse than look to see how she does it, because I thought it worked very well. Bernard Cornwell also has a jokier take on it in 'Heretic', with a Scot in medieval France who doesn't speak any French.

I would say it is definitely valuable to convey it, because it's part of building a convincing world. (Sci-Fi authors weaselled out of it so often that Douglas Adams invented the Babel Fish to poke fun at all the space operas where the aliens miraculously speak modern American)

Bernita said...

Eary I indicate she has some language skills in both Norman French and Anglo-Saxon, which are consistent with her education and professional interests.Some proficiency in modern French is hopefully assumed or suggested to the reader because of her association with a character who is clearly Quebcois.
Phonics, Rick.
Trusting that the reader will believe a reality.That simple phonics reduces the visual difficulty produced by the written form.
I posted this before but I think it's a good illustration of what I mean. It's from the 13th c.
"Quant je voi yver retourner, Lors me voudroie sejorner...Que ust porc et buef et mouton,Maslarz, faisanz et venoison...et bons fromages en glaon."
Read it aloud.
The only word that sends me running for the dictionary is "marlars" - until I think of "mallards = ducks.
And it is surprising how many words in Anglo-Saxon are easily recognizable today. She overhears a conversation and is able to extract enough. I think I will possible post that passage, maybe tomorrow, to illustrate how I handled it and invite comment.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I first learned of time-travel romance at a read and critique. The lady who was to read was picking up somewhere into the story. Her protag got hit on the head and ended up in Arthur's court. She read for a bit. My first question: How can she speak the language?

Author: That's explained earlier.

My second, third, fourth, unspoken questions: Why does everybody sound like twentieth century people? Why does everybody sound so clean and fresh? Why should they even let your protag at court? Why would Lancelot want to go on a date with her?

I didn't ask the unspoken questions because, as might be apparent, I didn't believe her answer to the first question. Her writing didn't indicate any kind of real knowledge of the time or place. I honestly think the author who plans her novel and writes about topics well-understood will have the ring of truth from start to finish.

Bernita said...

Dennie, I think Regency tone and flavor are mostly conveyed by the use of "slang" - for lack of a better word. The exclamations and phrases ( like "gaming hell", just as a quick example) current to the period. Some writers have researched letters, diaries, etc. of the period to acquire the stuff for the authentic "tone."

Bernita said...

One thing, M.G., I'n not so sure everyone in medieval periods were quite as dirty as some have assumed, all the time.
NOT bathing, for example, was considered a penance; and some castles had quite effective and ingenious systems of running water. Henry III's palace in Westminster had both hot and cold running.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Holy maird!!

I'm with Dennie.

I have a hard enough time conveying myself succintly in english. I'm not even going to attempt a foriegn language, unless I have someone speak foriegn and my protag acts as confused by it as I am!

Rick said...

Bernita - Since I can't read French of any period, the snippet was somewhat lost on me, though I did pick up pork, beef, mutton, pheasants, and venison. (The mallards flew right past me, till you pointed them out.)

But point well taken about Old English - the written language has a false strangeness due to different spelling conventions. Expressing sophisticated ideas would be tough, because we use so many loan words ("sophisticated ideas" a perfect example!), but the language of everyday life won't have that problem.

As a side note, in spite of the Normans, notice that the most basic vocabulary even of feudal aristocracy is mere English - lord, lady, knight, earl, king, queen.

I'll have to hunt down the Penman book - it sounds like a good example.

Dennie - Read Jane Austen! She'll help you get into the speech rhythm, and every Regency that ever was or will be written is basically an Austen ripoff/tribute anyway.

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books are very good with the language; in fact, I once described them as male Regencies.

Bernita said...

Relax, you two, succinct is good, modern is good.
Sticking people in a different century is a little the same as what Arthur Hailey did with books like "Hotel", etc.

Yes, it is, Sandra. I had the most trouble "explaining" her professional qualifications. The language bits come out indirectly, and in dialogue when she's challenged.

Carla said...

MG, Bernita - quite true that you have to be very careful with modern ideas of what a period was 'really' like, as often these ideas can be quite wrong or at least based on only partial evidence. Like, the Vikings were all hairy barbarian ruffians who never washed or shaved, right? Well, that's how a contemporary Arab chronicler (Ibn Fadlan, if memory serves) described the Rus slave traders in Russia, but representations of Norsemen in contemporary carvings generally show men with neatly-trimmed hair and beards, and the word for Saturday translates as 'bathing-day', which suggests that Ibn Fadlan was either exaggerating or that his Rus traders were not representative of Norsemen in general. I'm afraid I tend to be immediately suspicious of stories where the all the peasants wear drab brown sackcloth and mud and resemble the dung-gatherers in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'.

Arthurian stories also have either a real problem, or a lot more leeway, depending how you look at it, than most historical fiction, because there's no hard evidence that Arthur ever existed in any time or place. If there was a historical Arthur, the gap in British history into which he must fit is the span between 410 AD and 597 AD where just about nothing is known for sure. But you can put him anywhere in that two-century period, you can make him Christian or pagan or both, and you can place him in Wales, Cornwall, Wessex, Cheshire, Cumbria or the Scottish Borders as you see fit. It's also quite acceptable, in my view, to treat Arthur stories as a retelling of the High Middle Ages romances of Malory and co, complete with turreted castles and knights in shining armour, even though those are out of place in the 'historical' period.

However, a story that features being hit on the head, arriving in Arthur's court and going on a date with Lancelot does sound suspiciously like a relative of the 'Mary Sue Falls Into Middle Earth and Gets Off With Legolas' stories beloved of the fan-fiction boards.

Bernita said...

One hundred percent, Carla!
There's another delicate balance in play as well.
Authenticity vs. reader expectation.
One has to lead them gently if one is deviating too far from the accepted cannon of "common knowledge."
I don't avoid the word "keep" for example, even though it came into use to describe the conventional donjon much later. I tend to restrict such terms to my Damie's thought processes though.

Gabriele C. said...

Well, I could probably get along in 12th century France or Iceland, thanks to me learning a lot of "useless" (to quote my uncle who's only after money) stuff. Latin is a bit trickier, though contrary to most Latin teachers, I would at least not be surprised to find the actual spoken Latin less educated than the texts we had to read at school. ;-)

My characters tend to be multilingual. I think it's partly because I am *grin*, and partly because of environments that make it plausible. Roderic, the Norman descendant Scot has Norman French, of course, and has picked up Sots and Norse because his possessions are in Caithness. Since he's literate, he has some Latin. But when he's exiled and joins Heinrich Duke of Braunschweig, he employs someone to teach him German. Alastair has been to France where he picked up French besides his native Gaelic, and later he'll learn Norse, too.

In earlier times, Latin was spread a bit, though not in the literate variant. I have no problem with my Visigoth élite speaking (some) Latin and Greek. Ciaran, the young Dál Riatan (who already speaks two variants of Gaelic: Irish and Pictish) is very interested in the Roman culture, so when he captures an officer, he takes the chance to not only learn better Latin but also to read and write. Talorcan of the Selgovae on the other side can make himself understood in Latin, but never gains fluency or literacy. For him, it's the language of an enemy and ursurper.

And yes, I thematise those problems in my novels. Not everyone can speak with everyone without problems. :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Btw, I don't get it why all those Mary Sues want Legolas. I'd rather take Éomer.

Rick said...

Carla - does sound suspiciously like a relative of the 'Mary Sue Falls Into Middle Earth and Gets Off With Legolas' stories beloved of the fan-fiction boards

LOL

Has anyone recently put Arthur back in the high-medieval setting where he spent the previous 800-odd years? It certainly is justified, since that is still the image of King Arthur we carry in our heads. But I think it would have be done now as honest fantasy - not necessarily meaning magic or dragons, but set in a world that we accept on its own terms, not purporting to be the "historical" Arthur of our own past.

Hmmm. You could present this setting without reference to our world, or even frame it by hinting that our Arthurian tradition is "leakage" from his world. It would be fun to dump a modern character there, seeing the castle of Camelot, and thinking, "Umm, this sure doesn't look like the 6th century!"

I would guess that Ibn Fadlan was giving his readers a bit of what they expected. Barbarians are supposed to be filthy and scraggly, no doubt as much in 10th c. Baghdad as in those recent TV ads where the poor guys have to make an honest living.


Gabriele - Weren't ordinary Romans speaking Vulgar Latin? (In the case of soldiers, surely in more than one sense!) Bits of it can be reconstructed from "errors" in Latin texts, and from the romance languages. An example that sticks in my mind is that by the mid-Imperial period people were probably calling a horse caballus rather than equus.

Bernita said...

I love accidental typos - especially when they still parallel the subject.
"Picked up Sots and Norse"
Pass me a wee dram there, Grettir,..hic...haec... hoc.

Robyn said...

sound suspiciously like a relative of the 'Mary Sue Falls Into Middle Earth and Gets Off With Legolas' stories beloved of the fan-fiction boards.

Thank you. I haven't spat coffee on my monitor for a week, and was losing my skills.

One thing the Regencies do, and do well, is a certain formality of speech. There are not many contractions, for example. Period slang is interesting, though I can get too much of it. One Regency I read had a character saying, "Lud, this fairly beats the Dutch, coz. Should have told me you had got yourself pummeled by a demned rival the night before you got leg-shackled. I would have had planted
him a facer for you, very skilled with my fives, y'know." I don't want to take the trip that badly.

Bernita said...

So many seem merely
rip-offs of Heyer, unfortunately.
Almost like fanfic.

Carla said...

Rick - well, there was the film 'First Knight', if that counts. I don't know about recent fiction. You could Google for it, but be prepared for a million hits.

Gabriele - I've heard it argued that in oral societies (without writing) people were more attuned to speech than we are and could pick up languages more readily. No idea if there is any truth in that. Dorothy Dunnett uses a lot of multilingual characters - e.g. in 'King Hereafter' Macbeth has Norse, Gaelic, English and I think Latin too. Sounds not unlike your Roderic.

BTW, I think the Legolas fixation reflects the teenage demographic of the ff boards. My friend (same age as me, i.e. not teenage any more) is in the queue for Aragorn.

Gabriele C. said...

That's a pretty long queue after what I've heard.

Some of the LOTR fans I know aren't teenagers, either, and I even have competition for Éomer. :-)

ali said...

I'm trying to write a scene at the minute in which the protag can't speak the language of the people around her. It's bloody difficult.

So I'll have to find the two books Carla mentioned. And hey! Here's a teenager who prefers Aragorn to Legolas.

Carla said...

Ali - try being creative with sign language, or have someone (either the protagonist or one of the people around her) know a dozen words of the other language. Even that makes a huge difference, and if there's been any contact between the two cultures, or with any language that has common roots with either of the two in question, it's fairly credible. I can get the gist of most written French because so many of the words are cognate with the Latin roots of English words (e.g. vert and verdant). But for anything complex you'll probably find one side has to learn at least a broken form of the other language - like Ghan-buri-Ghan in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien pretty much always found a bilingual character to deal with that sort of situation.

Oh, dear, my friend has more competition than she thought :-)

Tsavo Leone said...

Bernita; have you considered that Damie might be mistaken for an Alsatian?

I'm also wondering about the 'level of authenticity' required in modern fiction. Whilst I appreciate that a certain amount of charactisation of speech should be a given for any character of note, are we merely giving the reader a hint of flavouring or are we expected to cook them a full three course meal and serve it with the most appropriate wine?

Granted, I don't write tales set within a socio-historical framework. However, from a layperson's perspective, I would find 'foreign' dialogue to be something of a turn-off. Obviously there are certain key words and/or phrases which an author might use for positive and/or negative characterisation, based on what might be (rightly) regarded as National stereotypes, as well as the Frenchman-speaking-English-badly stereotype (I find myself mimicking Oded Fehr's delivery in The Mummy/The Mummy Returns when writing for one Arabic character). That, for me, is usually sufficient to convey the use of a foreign language by a character...

Besides, given that History isn't always historically accurate, why should 'Historically Accurate' stories be historically accurate?

Anyone here read Craig Thomas' "Firefox" (or seen the movie adaptation)? In that story the lead character had to not only speak Russian but he had to think in Russian too, since the (entirely fictional) warplane he was stealing was thought-operated...

M. G. Tarquini said...

Bernita, Carla. I know about the bathing issue. Reader expectation doesn't play into it if one is being historically accurate and has established that early on. I'd think the reader should be delighted to find those surprises. That's why historical fiction is fun. Anyway, it's off topic from the original post about people popping in out of nowhere and being able to converse perfectly well with the natives.

Made me think of that story, 'A Man Called Horse', which portrays the opposite.

Bernita said...

I assure you, m'lord Tsavo, she is not a...nevermind.
Actually, I do have someone wonder if she is from further south than Normandy.
Even though her name, when given, is mistaken for d'Amori, which is a Norman name.
I go for flavouring, mesel', a pinch of herb, a little salt, some pepper....

Rick said...

Carla - Movies are more loosey-goosey about history, figuring the audience doesn't know or doesn't care. I think the recent King Arthur movie, with Arthur as a Roman, was the first big movie not to put him in the traditional high-medieval setting.

(The ad campaign kept me from going to that film. On general principles I'll happily look at Kiera Knightly in a bra top, or indeed out of one, but it was such a brutally obvious pander to the teenage male demographic ...)

Tsavo - Level of authenticity is sometimes a bit less in practice. I've heard of a Regency in which the heroine somehow finds herself in France, and in case she had any doubt she sees the Eiffel Tower out her window.

Bernita - Is Damie her full name, or is it short for something? I've been wondering about that!

Bernita said...

Her full name is Damery Dionysia Tempest.

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