When most people learn a foreign language, it’s usually for school credit, work, or because they’re going out of the country. In class or however they learn, there might be a small snippet about the culture of the major countries that speak the language. While what little is taught about the culture is better than nothing, it is highly disappointing. Languages have such a profound influence on culture, and vice versa, that it needs to be explored deeply in our writing. Which is why it is our next topic in our world-building series.
Most people are aware of the fact that many words do not have a word-for-word translation into other languages. For instance, there is gene say qua. It literally means that special something. In German, the word Fernweh means the desire to wander or travel, essentially wander lust. Now an excellent English word is defenestration. This is one all writers should know. It means that act of throwing someone out a window. Who knew?
As you can see, different languages have different words for various ideas, feelings, and actions. If your characters use these unique words, have them bring it up. It will add a more excellent dynamic to your story.
Now, I know I haven’t discussed culture in languages yet. This is where I do that. Numerous polyglots (people who speak more than one language) have expressed that they have different personalities when they speak different languages (Fluent in 3 Months). Keep in mind their personality change has nothing to do with the stereotype of the country of the language. Instead, it has more to do with how they can express themselves with the words available and the syntax of the language.
Let’s take the word love. In the Greek language, there are many different words for love depending on a specific aspect of it; Eros, ‘’’, ‘’’, etc. In English, it is all shoved into one four-letter word. Someone can love a movie, but it doesn’t mean the same when they love their spouse. As a result, in English love has been diluted by its numerous meanings thrown together. We say we love things so often that when we mean it from our hearts, truly and deeply, it doesn’t have the impact it should. This can lead to some awkward moment of misunderstanding if you’re not careful. Play around with this if you’re creating your own language.
On a similar note, play with the grammar. Russian for instance, doesn’t have any articles (a, an, the) in the language. This is one of the reasons why when a Russian is first learning English, it can sound very Tarzan like. It’s literally all syntax. However, they do have their own very logical system to get around the lack of articles.
As an example of how to use this thought process in your writing, I’ll show you what I have done. In my medieval fantasy story, I have a morally corrupt kingdom. Everyone is out for #1 and lie and cheat to get what they want. In their language, instead of conjugating the verbs, it is the nouns and pronouns that are conjugated. This shows how their culture is directly tied into their language. They are both focused on self and object instead of being in general.
These are just some ideas for you to use in your writing adventure. Please look up more information on languages. You won’t regret it.
On another note, here’s something you can try out for fun. Go to Google translate and put in a piece of your writing, then put it through several layers of translations. What I mean is translate it from English to another language, then from that language to another and so on and so forth about four or five times. Then translate it back into English and see what you get. A lot of times, the text will be completely different. However, sometimes, if you are lucky, it will have improved the passage. Though improvement is rare and usually only happens with descriptions.
Anyway, have fun playing with languages, whether they are made up or real.