How linguistics has affected my (creative) writing

There is a saying: “Writers write what they know.” It’s cliché and (of course) contested. As a science fiction/fantasy writer, there’s a clear limit to my own life experiences and what I put on paper: I’ve never wielded a magical sword, or rode on a winged horse, after all.

Still, since being exposed to linguistics, I’ve definitely seen a change in how I interact with art, mine as well as that of others. Two blog posts I wrote last year about language in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe (“If language in Avatar was more realistic” and “Deaf Language and Culture in Avatar“are a testament to that.

Of course, since I don’t post my original stories online, my readers would not get much of glimpse at how I incorporate language in my work. But it’s definitely there in my fanfiction.

In one story I wrote, “Sailor Philiopa: Surge of the Lifestream“, Princess Saara Yemaya wanders into a chamber beneath her home. Here is what she sees:

It was beautiful. On its smooth white and aquamarine walls, there was writing in the pictographic language of her people. But it was an ancient form, difficult to understand. What she could make out was that where was a record about an ancient battle depicted on these walls. And there was something about… protection… destiny…

Here in a single paragraph, I referenced language evolution and orthography. I didn’t simply say the writing consisted of  “letters” or “symbols”, but pictographs.

Language diversity is something that I’m far more aware of in my writing nowadays, and try to feature it in my works. For one of my Digimon fanfics, I even went as far as to create Hebrew Digicode!

But there’s sort of a balance that has to be made as a writer: The reader might not be as interested in how realistic you make language in your story. If you spend too much time going into it, they might even get bored. Having language (and communication) simple and easy makes for a smoother story, after all. Though Rowling referenced many languages in Harry Potter, she ensured all the important characters spoke and understood English, and it was a success.

Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, on the other hand, is more realistic in its representation of language, with even an interpreter helping the main character communicate in at least one scene. But Inheritance is more mature, and a lot less fast-paced. That Eragon has to learn the Ancient Language is one of the aspects of the story that slow down its pace.

Not every reader loves when things slow down… That’s probably why most sci-fi/fantasy franchises don’t make language barriers much of an issue. They completely ignore language altogether, or use some sort of Universal Translator.

I’m still working on how to perfect this… Maybe one day, I’ll get there.

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2 Responses to How linguistics has affected my (creative) writing

  1. Robyn says:

    Don’t forget Tolkien’s Elvish and Roddenberry’s Klingon, both of which have dedicated fans decoding and speaking the languages. Sometimes fans love the chance to be extra nerdy. 🙂


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