Literary Archaeology: Second Souls – Using Other Languages in Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy

Jon Black

Welcome to a new series on our blog from the ever-spectacular Jon Black! He’ll stop by every other week to talk to us about historical fiction and fantasy, tactics for writing that, research, and everything you could imagine fitting under the banner “Literary Archaeology.” We hope you love it as much as we do!

To Have Another Language is to Possess a Second Soul – Charlemagne

The phenomenon of language unites (and defines) us as humans. As writers, what we do would not be possible with this most human of abilities. At the same time, languages subdivide us. While that creates problems for mutual understanding and harmony, it is a positive boon for writing…

Sprinkling the occasional word or phrase from another language into a work can serve a number of purposes. It can anchor a story in a specific time and place. A note of the exotic can be lent to a location, action, or item. And, while it’s important not to bleed over into stereotyping, a language can be used to provide some shorthand in conveying information about a character.

These are things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently. Much of the action in the series “Bel Nemeton,” which I am honored to be authoring for 18thWall, takes place in Sixth century Arthurian Britain. Its rich cultural tapestry of Celt, Saxon, and even lingering Roman influence was matched by an equally rich linguistic pallet. That is something I wanted to bring to life in the series.

But I am not a polyglot. Nor are most writers. How can we handle languages we don’t speak? As writers, we often treat subjects in which we lack deep expertise. Language does not need to be any different. Fortunately, resources are available, even if the language is extinct.

Before beginning such a journey in your writing, it is useful to decide what your level of commitment to accuracy is. There is no one right answer here. Accuracy is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. Remember, you are not a linguist, you’re a writer. As authors, we have finite time and must make hard choices about how best to spend it. It doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours ensuring that your presentation of two words of Gaulish is perfect when those same hours could be spent in more broadly applicable research, actual writing, or editing.

Depending on the language in question, the challenges and available resources for using it in fiction fall into three categories.

Scenario 1: Living Languages

Those seeking to drop Dutch, Swahili, Navajo, etc. into their manuscripts have a plethora of options at their disposal, at least compared to other scenarios. These options break into three general categories:

  • Reaching out to native speakers, translators, or academics. Some, understandably, will want to charge you for their services. Others, as long as your request is not terribly onerous, may be willing to assist a writer pro bono (do not forget to thank them in your work).
  • Online or hardcopy dictionaries, lexicons, and primers.
  • Online translators such as Google Translate and BabelFish. While decent and getting better all the time, remember these programs are not perfect. Be certain you’re okay with that before relying on them as your sole source.

When using the last two DIY options, be aware these often present words in the simplest form possible. If you are using a phrase or entire sentence in your work, the language likely has rules about case, tense, or part of speech which can modify those words, sometimes dramatically. Dictionaries and lexicons will have, at best, limited information of how to handle this. Primaries often contain the necessary information but that can be quite time consuming. Online translators attempt to make the necessary adjustments but, as noted, are imperfect.

Scenario 2: Well-Documented Extinct Language

Using an extinct language is a challenging proposition but often squite doable. Some extinct languages are relatively well documented or even effectively translated (Ancient Egyptian and Aramaic are commonly encountered examples). In such cases, online and hardcopy resources similar to those for living languages maybe available. A handful of these languages even have alleged online translators (though I cannot vouch for their accuracy). The surest bet is to work with a qualified academic (as above) but that doesn’t meet every author’s requirements.

Scenario 3: Poorly-Documented Extinct Language (Or “My Problem With Pictish”)

But what do you do if you want to use an extinct language which is poorly recorded and understood? While exceedingly challenging, it can also be intellectually engaging and very satisfying exercise. This is the situation I found myself in recently. Fortunately, even in this case there are options, which I will examine using my own challenge as an example.

The second novel in my series, tentatively titled Caledfwlch, features the Picts prominently. As part of bringing that ancient people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.

The Pictish language (or perhaps dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, after which it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.

First, a caveat. As with my delving into Pictish, our objective as writers is not a fully accurate recreation of an extinct language (a task that often beyond the world’s best linguists). Our goal is humbler, being able to drop an occasional “Pictish” word or phrase into our works for effect.

I began by looking at a language tree to confirm how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead. Understanding the extinct language’s relationship to other tongues, especially any descendant or related languages provides a foundation for “recreating” that language in your work. If you are uncertain what language family your tongue is in, that information can be quickly found online.

In my case, I learned that, outlier claims to the contrary, overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. Opinion is pretty evenly divided whether Pictish was a sister language to Common Brittonic or just a dialect of it. Either answer means that the living languages most closely related to Pictish are the ones descended from Common Brittonic: Breton, Cornish, and Welsh.

Of those three languages, Welsh is the one with the closet geographic proximity to Pictish. Decisively so, if one recalls the now extinct Cumbic dialect of Welsh. Cumbric was spoken well into now what is southern Scotland and probably directly adjacent to the lands of the Picts. So, I made the assumption that Welsh was likely the closing living relative of Pictish.

Therefore, I used Welsh as my baseline for “Pictish.” Whenever possible, I used Old Welsh or Middle Welsh sources … and was delighted to find a few online. When those could not give me what I needed, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good old Google Translate.

After identifying a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, I then made another decision. Sometimes I used it directly as “Pictish.” Other times I arbitrarily changed a sound or two. Obviously, this is not a scientifically sound way to actually recreate a language. But, as long as I’m upfront about the liberties I took, I hope it creates a plausible, if fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.

So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.

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