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You pick up a fantasy or sci fi book, or your ipad or kindle, and you start reading about a different world. The characters start speaking, and you can understand them, because they’re speaking English. But what are the chances of a culture that developed independently of English speaking countries on earth speaking the exact same language? Very, very unlikely, except for some cases which I’ll talk about in a bit. So how can we understand the people of middle earth or Luke Skywalker in a galaxy far far away? The same way we can understand a biography about Napoleon. We assume that it is not necessarily English, but that it is translated so we can understand it. Because no one is going to want to learn a new language, probably made up, just to read a book for pleasure. Heck, no author is going to make up an entire language just to write a book for pleasure (Tolkien excepted). But authors often want to show that their world is different than ours, so they make up words for a fictional language to add flavor to their world. If you happen to speak a different language, you probably realize that there are words that don’t translate very well into English, that have a concept that is hard to express in English. So sometimes these words are defined but left as they are, because the word is better left compact in a different language than expressed as complex concept in English. Example: Ohana, which in Hawaii is the concept of family, including extended family, and the concept emphasizes that families are bound together and members must cooperate and remember one another. So in Lilo and Stitch, if every time that word was replaced with the definition, the movie would be a lot more awkward and two times as long. This same idea can be used in made up languages. Usually, it is pointless to actually have people speak in their language, especially if the viewpoint character doesn’t understand it, because then the reader won’t understand, and if the viewpoint character does understand, he might as well translate directly for the reader. So it is best for the author to use different languages sparingly, letting the reader know that not everyone speaks English in their world, but not distract the reader too much. Plus, if they try too hard, there will probably be discrepancies that a reader might catch.
The only time that English should be used as English is when it has some relation to our world, like in science fiction going out to other worlds or fantasy being transported to a magical world.
Another thing that must happen in these stories is explain how different cultures with different languages get along. There have been conflicts over misunderstandings, or people treated badly because they don’t speak the dominant language. It is not realistic for the main character to be a super soldier who knows five languages which just happen to help him make friends with his enemies. I learned Spanish. It was not easy. Very few people, especially if they are learning once they are adults, can take on five languages. Learning a language is not easy, and that effort should be reflected in the story. The story can be much richer if learning a language is not easy and done by everyone. In fantasy or science fiction, there can be more interesting ways of using language. For example, Han Solo can understand Chewie and vice versa, but it appears neither can actually form the sounds for words in the other’s language. So any time there are several cultures, there should be different languages or dialects and some way to communicate, whether by computer or magic, or just hard work learning.


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