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Monday, January 27, 2014

GUESTPOST: The Babbling Tower: Language, Immigration, and Complexity in Fantasy Fiction by Kameron Hurley


I’m sixteen years old, standing on a medieval street in a small Italian town, getting yelled at by an old woman who’s blocking my entrance to the public bathroom. She’s yelling at me in Italian, naturally, which I don’t speak. I can barely order a Coke in French, let alone converse in any other language besides English. The entrance fee for the bathroom isn’t posted. I’m holding up notes in various denominations. She keeps shaking her head.

I fear I’m going to wet my pants. Finally, she pulls a coin from her apron, holds it up to me, says something I still cannot understand, only louder this time.

A coin. She wants the entrance fee in coins, not paper notes.

I rummage through my purse for a coin and hand it over.

She scrunches up her face and nods sharply.

I’m allowed entrance.

Another language barrier negotiated.


I wrote a post recently about pet peeves in fantasy fiction. One of the ones on my list was “Everybody speaks “Common”/every country has a monolithic language.” I tend to see a lot of fantasy fiction fall into this trap (especially from US authors), even those with a dozen countries and eight magical races across half a planet. Somehow, everyone speaks the same language. Or they have a common tongue that everyone uses. And hey, this is fantasy! So I, as a writer, can do whatever I want, right?

I understand the utility of this. It makes writing faster. Untangling who speaks what can slow down the narrative. But this complexity can also add a lot of tension. And I find that when many writers construct fictional worlds, then tend to forget the incredible complexities of our own. I often see a lot of folks argue that we have a “universal” language in English, which makes me snicker a little, because I think they’re missing the boat, here. 

Even with languages like English – which has become one of a handful of our world’s go-to languages for travelers in this century – only became that way because England invaded so many other countries, and the U.S. wielded its own dominance, especially post-WWII. As the US and UK continue their slow decline, however, this has already started to change. English’s place among the “common” languages for business and travel is going to be seriously different in 50 years. Languages, empires, people, social mores, aren’t static. Having one “common” language for three thousand years is stretching it even in fantastic terms.

What’s glossed over even more in much fantasy fiction I read is how problematic it can be for foreigners to come into a new country and speak the language of the oppressors to the local population; your approach to language, and understanding of the history and nuances of using it, are important in any interaction. I remember being coached by my French teacher to never go around just assuming people in France knew English. It was rude. Start every conversation with, “Je ne parle pas francais bien” translated as: “I don’t speak French well.” Because then, at least, you’re making a fucking effort. Or ask, in French, if they speak English. Don’t assume. And it was true, as a teen running around France: I found that just nattering on in English often got me sour looks. It demonstrated an unintentional arrogance. So how do people view a character from a conquering country in a fantasy setting, swinging into their territory spouting off like everyone should understand her? 


What I also didn’t realize, back when I was first traveling as a teenager, was that even in Europe, outside of the big cities, you’re pretty much on your own. You may find yourself being yelled at in Italian, or French, or German, and have to extricate yourself with a lot of gestures and the one or two words you actually know in the native language. People in the U.S. tend to be especially unprepared for these kind of encounters. We live in a big country, and many go their whole lives without traveling any further than its borders. It often leads to a kind of myopia, where you know, intellectually, that things are different elsewhere, but emotionally, make assumptions based on crooked media and narrow lived experience. I’ll never forget getting on a train in Switzerland and going from – in less than an hour – a region that spoke primarily German to a region that spoke primarily French, all without leaving the country. If I’d grown up in Switzerland, I’d likely have learned three or four languages as a matter of course.

These are the sorts of scenes, in fantasy fiction, that can create both comedy gold and incredible tension. If a character can’t figure out what the guard’s asking for, or the vendor thinks they’re stealing something, language suddenly goes from an invisible assumption to a source of active tension and depth. When you get off the train and you don’t speak the language of the people around you, well. There will be some negotiating. And fear. And anxiety. But also, of course, great humor.

My French teacher liked to tell the story of when she was sitting in the back of a cab in France as a teenager, making out with a French boy, who kept telling her “Je t’adore, je t’adore,” which means “I love you.” She kept thinking he was saying, “Shut the door, shut the door,” and found herself looking around the cab, trying to figure out which door was open.

Folks who you might think would know a particular language (or two or four or six), may not always be as fluent as you assume, either. My grandmother was from France, and my father lived there the first seven years of his life, but I can’t do much more in French than ask where the bathroom is and request the restaurant bill. I can remember my grandmother singing in French as she cleaned the kitchen, but she didn’t actively seek to teach my siblings and me the language. It was incredibly important to her that we were American, that we fit in. She was self-conscious of her own accent; she had come to the States and taught herself English on her own. No online classes back then, no ESL, no friends to help. Just my grandmother pushing through, dealing with astonishing amounts of prejudice and annoyance from folks who found her accent “impossible” to understand.


I write a lot about immigrant families in my second book, Infidel, sequel to God’s War, and I had one reader express shock that somebody like me, who’d been born and raised in the U.S., could capture that type of experience. The truth is, I spent much of my childhood witnessing what it was like to be an immigrant through my grandmother’s experiences. She could “pass,” sure, until she opened her mouth, and then her accent became of intense interest to everyone. I could understand her just fine, of course, but living in a pretty small town at the time, a woman with a foreign accent was still considered a novelty. It also meant she hated to go to the doctor without someone else to translate in case the staff couldn’t understand her English, and that annoyance with doctors and their knee-jerk assumptions about her based on her accent only got worse as she got older, and led to increasing complications with her health. She paid particular care and attention to her appearance, as well, and had her hair done every week. In part, I suspect, she did this because she knew early on that as an immigrant housewife from a working class family, people were going to treat her better if they thought she had money. Even if it was all a show.

These are the types of details and experiences that I find missing from a lot of general fantasy fiction that pays inordinate amounts of attention to maps and geography and fighting styles but neglects a lot of potential depth, nuance, and tension by pretending everybody looks and sounds and thinks the same. Like, “all of race X worship X” and “all of country Y speak Z language.” I continue to see folks (mostly in the U.S., it’s true) argue that with instant communication comes an elimination of accents, but even in the U.S., where there are televisions and mobile devices in nearly every home that connect us, we have anywhere from 18-35 different types of accents. That means encountering words and regional slang pretty much any time one travels more than a few hours outside where they live (and sometimes less than that).

I challenge more writers to explore this kind of complexity in their fiction – and encourage readers to have greater expectation of it. What are the current fantasy authors you all think do this well? Did you find the multitudes of languages and cultures overwhelming, or did they add to the greater experience of the story?


Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of God's War
Read Bastard Book's review of God's War
Read free short stories from Bel Dame Apocrypha series

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Kameron Hurley was brought up in the state of Washington. She has led a nomadic lifestyle living in different places such as Alaska, South Africa and Illinois. She had been a participant of the Clarion West workshop in 2000 and received a BA at the University of Alaska in 2001, and also got her Master's Degree from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (South Africa) in 2003.

Kameron is the award-winning author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha seriesGod’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF 12. Visit her website for news of her upcoming projects.

NOTE: Tower Of Babel picture courtesy of HQ Wallpapers. author picture courtesy of the author herself.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are right about Americans not wanting this type of linguistic complexity in their fantasy.

When I was at a fantasy workshop, I presented a story set in an imaginary Slavic country in Europe. The city had one name used by German speakers and one name used by Slavic speakers. My classmates accused me of deliberately making things too complicated to follow.

Then after a while, someone remembered that cities can have both English and Welsh names.

Bibliotropic said...

Common language makes the most sense when one is looking at an empire or something of the sort, but even then, to assume that everyone is going to speak it with absolute fluency and that there's no degree of regional difference or dialect is just, well, naive.

I can't speak from a writing standpoint, exactly, but I know when I've run some tabletop fantasy games, I often try to trip my players up with linguistic and dialect issues. Having to negotiate with people who don't speak the same language, throwing in things to represent different regional terms for certain things, all that. I'm am amateur linguist, really, and languages have always fascinated me, so I like to make them part of what I create. And it makes a lot of people really uncomfortable and frustrated that I don't just cater to "common language" in games I run. Mostly I do, for convenience's sake, but like the real world, communication isn't always so convenient. One such incident created a running gag among my players, with a character referred to as "Two Money" Guy, after a toll bridge guy kept demanding "two money" for them to pass, repeatedly and with as many hand gestures as he figured made sense to try and communicate his point as could think of. he was offered money, but not the right currency, and the guard didn't have enough of their language to be able to communicate that, knowing only that his currency was "money" and that was the end of it.

Sadly, players got around that by throwing the guard into the river out of sheer frustration, but it created such a frustrating sticking point for them, having this guy repeat "two money" repeatedly, that it became a joke. I was reminded of that by your story about the toilet.

Or my French teach explaining dialect differences between French in Quebec and French in France. On a visit to France, she expressed, in Quebecois French that she was excited to be there and that the meal she'd just eaten had made her full. it wasn't until later that someone explained to her that thanks to regional differeces in the language, what she'd expressed was that she was sexually aroused and had just gotten pregnant.

Seeing more stuff like this in novels would be awesome. Aside from just creating some amusing scenes and potential character development, it could challenge readers to think outside the box a little more. Maybe not consciously, maybe not immediately, but maybe the next time they run into a similar situation in their own lives, they'll think back to that one scene in that one book, and be a little more capable and understanding.

TL;DR - Awesome post, and I agree on all counts!

Amanda said...

SO MUCH AGREE with all of this, which may be why in recent years I've tended to read more historical fantasy than the high/epic fantasy I was reading as a teen. Historical fantasy depends so much on the setting itself, so it tends to dig more deeply into issues of culture and language. (Not true across-the-board, of course; Tolkien was a linguist before he was a fantasy writer.)

I do find it a bit distracting when authors sprinkle in random words in different languages, without explanation or context, in an attempt to add quick linguistic or cultural color. I think Lian Hearn handles this particularly well in her Otori series, based on feudal Japan: rather than simply coopting Japanese words and scattering them through the narrative, she finds ways to translate the concepts behind the words. So you still have the cultural feel of feudal Japan, but without the distraction of wondering why certain words get translated into English while others don't.

steve said...

Thank you for this wonderful and amazing post. Every word of this book was so true.

Fanfantastic said...

Wow, its almost deja vu. Looks like a LOT of authors are looking at the same things.

There is an excellent blog post by Django Wexler on Fantasy faction about pretty much the same thing.

Forget about foreign languages, even English has so many "loan" words from foreign languages and historical phrases that would be out of context in a "fantasy" world which has a different history and mythology compared to our own. I wouldn't want to paraphrase but pretty much everything from our history in music, literature, art, fashion, cuisine etc have influenced our vocabulary immensely. Trying to produce a true "fantasy" narrative even in English would be "Herculean".

Anonymous said...

This is such a great point! There's not much more I can say that other commenters haven't already expressed more succinctly; but I can tell you that I haven't read one of your books before and, because of this article, I will be remedying that asap.

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