Language and World-building


(Image: Marvel Studios)

I’ve been thinking about language as a tool of world-building quite a bit recently (upcoming publications, yay). English speakers can live in a bit of an Anglophone bubble (though this can apply to monoglots anywhere) and go around believing the ridiculous claim that ‘everyone speaks English now’. Even in predominantly English speaking countries you will actually hear a babel of voices if you open your ears when walking around a city of any size. Encountering other languages is a normal part of life, in fact more than half the world’s population is at least bilingual if not multilingual.

When we create fictional worlds that are monoglot we are making worlds that are simply less interesting than our own. Invented languages can add tremendously to the sense of depth in an invented world. You don’t have to be Tolkien and work out the all the sound changes that would produce multiple languages from a common ancestor. Or Marc Okrand and construct a language that can actually be used (with a certain amount of clunkiness) as a day-to-day language. You don’t even have to invent the languages at all. George R.R. Martin got away for years with only seven words of High Valyrian. Writers have it easy like that. Even something as simple as ‘He tried to speak Yllish but kept thinking in Modegan’ or ‘She said something very quickly in Vadran’ help enormously.

Visual and audio media, where you actually have to hear the language (or at least see text) are a bit harder. Some films and television shows have paid linguists to invent languages for them or translate text into a suitable dead language. Frozen features a small amount of Old Norse, provided by the wonderful Jackson Crawford. Vikings features Old Norse, Old English and Latin (see here and here). For a while it looked like Mel Gibson was only going to make films in dead or minority languages ( no Scots Gaelic dub of Braveheart, sadly). In The Wrath of Khan the actors playing Vulcans spoke their lines in English and were then dubbed over in Vulcan. This restricted Vulcan phonology and tempo to approximately matching English articulation. Marc Okrand was allowed greater scope for inventiveness with Klingon in later Star Trek properties. David J Peterson developed Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones and later Castithan and Irathient for Syfy’s Defiance. In both cases it added a level of cultural variety and artistic potential not commonly available to shows previously. Darren Kent’s performance as a grieving father in Game of Thrones season four was even more impressive when given in Meereenese Valyrian.

It was beginning to look like the days of ‘all aliens speak English’ and ‘people have always spoken modern English’ were behind us. Which leads me to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe I’ve been spoiled but I’ve come to expect at least a bit of dialogue that’s not in English in a fleshed-out world, whether cinematic or literary. Early on in the film the Hydra villains Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and Dr List talk to each other, and to their henchmen, in English. I noticed this but thought it made in-universe sense given that Hydra is a global network of evil-doers and mercenaries and English would be a likely choice for their lingua franca.

We later learn that said Hydra base is in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia (taking the place of Transia from the comics, and actually filmed in Italy). The Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro, both speak with a stereotypically eastern European accent but speak English exclusively. For that matter everyone in Sokovia speaks English. Even distraught civilians. In one scene Pietro amusingly fails to get the attention of some police officers and has to resort to making a bit of a scene. I thought there was a missed opportunity here for a joke since he tried to get their attention in English.

The paucity of the linguistic world-building is at odds with the somewhat greater attention given to visual world-building. There are signs on the buildings in Serbian Cyrillic advertising opticians, pubs and bakeries, and the police wear suitably localized uniforms. It’s interesting to see the privileging of visual over aural world-building, though it admittedly makes sense given that film is primarily a visual medium. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had gone in for a little bit of linguistic world-building when Black Widow spoke a few lines in Latin and Russian for previous MCU films so it’s not as if the filmmakers never thought of the possibility. It does involve a certain amount of investment in terms of hiring a linguist and multiple dialect coaches and then adding to your actors already full workloads. There is also the risk that your actor will sound as silly as so many actors have when putting on a foreign accent. Still, I think there are undoubtedly benefits to be gained, both in terms of greater audience belief in a particular scene and a richer fictional world for future works.


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