Welcome to Part 1 of my World Building blog series :D I’ll be posting twice weekly, covering just about every topic I can think of that goes into world crafting. If you have any topics you’d like me to write about, please let me know :)
Language is a defining characteristic for a lot of people. It indicates cultural and geographical divides, links some and separates others. There are thousands of languages in the world today and likely thousands more that were lost to history.
Most fantasies that I’ve read will have two to four mentioned languages, with all relevant characters being fluent. It’s quite rare to encounter someone who just flat out can’t communicate with your main character. It makes sense for the most part, since it can stall the story if it’s not handled properly, but it also takes away from the truth of the situation. Obviously you don’t need to have a thousand dialects, but if your story is set anywhere but within a singular province or state the characters are probably going to encounter someone who speaks another language.
If you’re going to have characters fluent in multiple languages, state why. Did they study it in school because they live close to the border? Did they learn it because of diplomatic relations they’re in charge of? Do they have someone visiting and they want them to feel welcome? Are they an immigrant who speaks multiple languages out of necessity?
We’re also not limited by verbal languages. Sign languages, writing, art, etc. are all part of language too. If you have a deaf or mute character, besides handling the representation with care, you need to understand how sign languages work. Do you research here and have someone who uses sign language to check your accuracy in how you’re presenting it. Most people when learning a language will either be more comfortable with speaking or reading. You can incorporate this. If you’re working with a character that uses sign language and another character doesn’t understand it yet, work up to it, have them write out what they need to communicate.
If your characters are not fluent in a language they encounter, how can you write this without disrupting the flow of the story? Make it a plot point if it’s relevant to do so. Is it something the character needs to overcome? Presumably if you’re introducing a character speaking another language or you’re putting your characters in a situation where they can’t communicate, this will be something for them to work through. You can show character development as they grow their understanding and connection with the people around them through this new skill.
If you’re going to be using real languages and you want your character to be bilingual or multilingual, and you are not this yourself, then you need to communicate with people who are. Understand how language works for them, how the languages are incorporated into speech and how to respectfully portray this.
Language is complex and multifaceted. Consider how it relates to your story and do the research. If your story spans nations and empires, let the language setup reflect that.
That’s all for now :)