Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?
One of the most powerful abilities of language in fiction–and this is true in general, although we’re going to be talking about dialogue and foreign language in particular–is the ability to signify the unfamiliar. Going back to our previous posts, I can say the word “samurai”, and immediately we know that we’re no longer in our own personal culture. Unless of course, we’re Japanese.
To make a quick distinction, the unfamiliar is not the same as the exotic. There’s a perspective and an attitude in exoticism that the merely unfamiliar doesn’t have. With the unfamiliar, we lose our bearings and don’t really know where we are. The danger of the exotic is that we think we do know where we are, even though we don’t.
Now, when I said “samurai”, many people who are not Japanese may have believed they knew the world I was invoking. And that could have been true, if I was looking for the exotic Japanese ideal that informs Western stereotypes. But what if I said “Heian-era Japan”? You know we’re in Japan because I’ve said so, and you might even know if I just said “the Heian era”. “Heian” after all sounds like a Japanese word. But either way, you probably wouldn’t feel on as firm of ground as when I was just talking about samurai.
The fact that I can use words that are equally Japanese, and yet which conjure such competing feelings in the person reading them should suggest a bit about the power of words as signifiers. And as humans have amply demonstrated, for better or worse, if we can do something, it’s hard to keep us from doing it.
Humans will always use language to signal things, so the question to consider is not ho to get them to stop, but how to get them to do it better, more respectfully. There’s nothing inherently wrong in using words to signal the approach of unfamiliarity. It only becomes exoticization when it’s approached from the wrong angle and for the wrong reasons.
So, the prime use foreign words by a story-teller is to signal unfamiliarity. But how can we do that without falling into the trap of exoticizing?
1. Figure out why you want to invoke this specific unfamiliarity. Is it to explore a culture that interests you? Is it to speculate on the consequences of events in a specific context? Or might it be because you’re tired of the “same-old medieval pseud-Europe”. Or maybe an escapist fantasy? The first two reasons can be legitimate, but the other two are taken you dangerously close to the territory of exoticism, if not over the line completely.
2. Figure out whether the culture you’re invoking is really the culture you think you’re invoking. This is mostly for real-world cultures or cultures transparently inspired by them. But all of these steps can apply to a constructed culture, as well. This is the point where you start doing preliminary research. You don’t have to learn everything about the culture or the language. But you should be able to spot most of the big holes in your perception of that culture. If the two images don’t agree, seriously consider not trying to invoke your false idea of this culture.
3. Figure out whether the invocator you’re using really invokes the culture you intend it to. Does it signal what you want it to signal? Does that word really mean what you think it means? Are there connotations, or folklore relating to that word that makes it unsuitable for the use you intend? Do you really need to resort to such a problematic signal? Do you need a linguistic signal at all? Is there any reason you can’t just use English? Does your desire for an unfamiliar “atmosphere” really outweigh the danger of engaging in linguistic (or cultural) appropriation?
4. No one is a representative of their entire culture. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t run your signals and the work in general by someone who has a bit more experience with the language/culture than you. Make sure that your signifiers match up with what you want to signify. That possible disconnect is what’s going to get you in trouble. (I’m assuming a good-faith desire to respect the other culture here.)
Now, if you’ve passed all of those tests, then you have a chance of having done this right. It’s simply impossible for someone who isn’t a native speaker(liver) to never make a mistake. But if you follow those steps, you should have weeded out the big errors.
Now, a final piece of advice: It can be reasonable in some cases, especially the case of “inspiration” to move away from historical/linguistic/cultural accuracy. But the farther away you move, the more careful you want to be about what signals you use. Signals, linguistic or otherwise, are all about manipulating expectations. That’s why the four steps are focused so firmly on your own expectations. It’s hard to know how to signal others if you don’t know how you perceive those signals yourself. But because the expectations of your use of foreign words are so firmly rooted in the real world where those signals were developed, moving away from reality not only weakens the effectiveness of the signals, but makes it possible for them to betray you.
Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Exoticism