How to write dialogue when English doesn’t exist in your world?

KloKandall

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So I’m writing a medieval fantasy novel. The problem is, English doesn’t exist in my world and I’m afraid that it will break the immersion if my characters talk to each other in English. Do I have to invent a new language? Please help, I can’t start writing until I figure it out.
 
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How did other writers deal with it? Did English exist in the Lord of the Rings?

It's been a long time since I read it, but I think there was a "common tongue", that got presented as English by the narrator, but words from other languages would appear, either with explanation or not. An elf might have to explain an elvish word to a hobbit or some such.
 

AnyaKimlin

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Modern English didn't exist in mediaeval times and nobody writes in Anglo Saxon or Middle English.

Nearly all fantasy books are "translations" of the language they should have been written in.

With mine I acknowledged it by using the names of the language - for example "Can you say that in plain Islander? You know so we can all understand."

His Islandic accent was thick etc.
 

Laura R Hepworth

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Just because you are writing the dialogue in English, doesn't mean that your characters are speaking in English. You can write what the character said and still imply that it was asked in another language. To use Timebender's example of buying the figs, you could add 'he asked in 'fill in the blank language'' to the dialogue tag. You wouldn't want to do that all the time, just now and then to emphasize that they are speaking in other languages.

Like Stephen pointed out, there is often a common tongue or universal trade language in any world and we just translate that as English when we write for an easier reading experience. Every now and then, you can throw in a word, phrase, inscription, etc. that is in some other language of that world, but you don't write in it entirely because your readers wouldn't be able to follow you. Instead of being more immersive, you would actually lose readers.

Tolkien wanted to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in Elvish, but his publisher wouldn't let him do it because no one would be able to read it (though I do wish they'd have let him release an 'Elvish special edition'!).
 

CupofJoe

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Tolkien wanted to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in Elvish, but his publisher wouldn't let him do it because no one would be able to read it (though I do wish they'd have let him release an 'Elvish special edition'!).
Special silver embossed [vegan] leather covers, velum like paper, a font that mimicked Papa T's own script, and three different gemstones inset on the cover to reflect the Elvish rings...
And another version without any gems but with gold lettering to reflect a very different ring...
 
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I think the main thing is ... write your story. Write it now. Don't let this stop you. Do it as best and as easiest as you can to get as much of it down now. You can then solve any issues you have with language in later drafts. You might also have better ideas on how different languages would fit the narrative once you have a completed draft manuscript.
 

Elckerlyc

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I think it would depend on the narrator and/or the protagonist. Are they locals from your medieval fantasy world? Do they understand the local Common Tongue? Or do you wish to convey a distance, an alien feeling, between the protagonist and the people of your fantasy world?
As mentioned above, there are dozens of novels about fantasy worlds with their fantasy language. But no one expects you to let all characters speak in unintelligible gibberish.

Suppose I were to write a novel set in Greece and the protagonist happens to speak Greek fluently. So, no language barrier. No one would think it weird or problematic if I wrote the entire novel in English, including the dialogs, with every now and then a Greek exclamation! thrown in to give it some color locale. Names though would be Greek.
If however the protagonist is like myself and Greek is something totally Greek to him, than that would be something I need to convey to the readers. All Greek spoken dialog must be in Greek and you will have to use different tools to let your protagonist (and your readers) know what's going on.
The main narrative must be in English, or nobody will read it, but replace 'Greek' with your medieval fantasy tongue.

Main thing is, what ever you do, make sure your readers won't suffer from headaches.
 

Cosmic Geoff

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I agree with the comments above. "Characters not speaking English" is an almost universal feature of fantasy fiction, and I strongly urge the original poster to read successful examples to see how well-known authors handle this issue. In my own epic fantasy novels, the characters live in an empire with a common language, and I have written their dialogue in English. Where the characters are supposed to be speaking in some rough dialect, I have (for better or worse) indicated that they speak in bad or broken English. Where one of the characters in my latest volume has an odd accent, another character comments on it.
In TV fantasy and animation, the dialogue is in English (for English-speaking markets) and occasionally minority characters who are supposed to speak in a different language will be saying something incomprehensible, with subtitles.
Same with all those popular historical dramas set in Tudor times - if you were really there you might have trouble understanding half of what the Tudors were saying.
 

Phyrebrat

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You won’t be able to write your story fluently if you’re using a made up language. And most importantly no one will read it because it will be untranslated.

Don’t worry about using a different language - you’re creating a world with verisimilitude, not a document of a new culture. Tbh the only time a different language is really noticed is the first time it’s used. Thereafter we read the subtitles and don’t think much more of it.

But... and this is a big but: if your story is just for you and no one else, then write exactly what you want to ;)
 

paranoid marvin

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To create a language from scratch, to use it consistently in your novel and at the same time write an interesting story is probably the task of half a lifetime. JRR Tolkien managed it, but for most of us mere mortals it's an (almost) impossible task.

Like with the 'universal translator' in Star Trek, writing a story in English is just one of those things we have to accept in order to get a story we can understand and enjoy.

As has been mentioned above, be careful of slang or idioms that aren't compatible with your universe.

And of course good luck with your novel.
 

W Collier

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You may not be able to write your story in a different language, but you can drive home the point that they are speaking a different language by making the language part of the story. For instance, an easy one is to have two words that are not at all related in English make a pun in another language. (In the English and accents of Shakespeare's time, "loins" and "lines" were pronounced essentially identically, so the line in R&J, "From forth the fatal lines of these two foes..." is a double entendre. I am reminded also of a joke, I think in Babylon 5, which a character tried to explain to the others, which depended on the similarity in his language between the word for spiritual enlightenment and the name of a small species of fish.) Also, a fictional language might have two or three words which make subtle distinctions between things English labels collectively. Legend has it that the Inuit have words for every different kind of snow, and the Ancient Greeks had words for every different kind of love or affection.

You can go beyond that, though. Think about languages other than English which you have studied, even a little bit. If you know how Latin works, or the other Romance languages, or Greek or German or Japanese, then you have models--not for creating a whole new language, but at least for having an idea of how the language your characters speak is different from your own, and what features it might have. Is it lyrical and flowing, like Italian, or guttural and staccato, like German and English? Does it mark gender, declension, tense, number, etc. with endings, like Latin and the Romance languages, or using particles or phrases, like Japanese and English?

(If I want to say "George's book," in English or in Latin, I convert George from the Nominative, for use as the subject of a sentence, to the Genitive case, indicating possession, by changing the ending. In English, George becomes Georges, which we shorten to George's. In Latin, Georgius becomes Georgii, giving us "liber Georgii." Literally "book of George," or "book belonging to George." In Japanese, a particle, rather than an ending, is used to mark the function of the word in the sentence. It would be something like "Jioju o hon." And where a word serving as the subject of the sentence lives in its nominative form in Latin, i.e. Liber, in Japanese the subject--or rather the topic--of the sentence is marked with another particle. "Jioju o hon wa..." ...which you might translate literally as, "Regarding George's book...")

The effect of all of this is that languages have different... talents. Some languages rhyme easily, like the Romance languages where practically everything ends in a vowel or some other set ending, because a limited set of word endings are used to mark how words are being used in the sentence. If all of your words are going to end in certain endings marking plural, singular, past, present, masculine, feminine, then the frequency of those same ending syllables makes rhyming easier. If words frequently end in vowels, the language will be more lyrical and flowing as well, leading to the invention of operatic singing styles. If the language is more guttural or staccato, that might cause other kinds of music, perhaps instrumental, to be more prevalent than operatic arias.

Or, it might be something simple but crucial. In a D&D (technically, a Pathfinder) campaign I played in, we decided we would use real-world stand-ins for all the game languages. Latin would play the role of Common, Ancient Greek would play the role of Celestial, and various modern languages would play the roles of the vulgate tongues. For instance, one character decided that his character's homeland had a Germanic feel, so whenever it became relevant that he was speaking his native language, we would use German as the stand-in. (I think we used Tolkein's Elvish for Elvish, though.) One of the big ways this played out was in messaging spells with word limits. Latin has no articles, and you can roll most pronouns into their verbs (similarly to Spanish) so, "He is going to the Forest of Beasts," might be simply, "Ad Silvam Bestiarum eat."

Your languages aren't real languages, so you don't have to learn them, and you don't have to invent them. But seeing how different languages work in the real world may inspire you as to how these fiction languages, in their differences from English, allow for small details of your story that drive home the point that they are speaking a different language without you having to actually represent that language. If you narrate that a certain joke works for a certain reason, or a certain line of poetry works for a certain reason, or a certain idiom works, or that two words in their language sound alike and could be mistaken for one another, or what have you, you've gotten the best world-building aspects of a fictional language without having to actually create one.
 

Wayne Mack

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As a writer, the goal is to provide the reader with an adequate feeling of the world that one describes. The goal is not to accurately portray that world. For a medieval setting, make use of few more archaic words and perhaps borrow some common words from other language of the area. One just needs to provide the reader with the sense that the setting is not modern day Earth and then avoid any jarring, uniquely modern day phrasing. All in all, if the text is not pretty close to standard English, I am not going to be able to understand what is written.
 

Laura R Hepworth

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To create a language from scratch, to use it consistently in your novel and at the same time write an interesting story is probably the task of half a lifetime. JRR Tolkien managed it, but for most of us mere mortals it's an (almost) impossible task.

As someone who is currently working on a conlang, I can vouch for that!! It is super hard to create language that feels 'real.' Coming up with what will act as the 'root words' for my language was easy enough, but I'm at the stage where I actually have to start assigning meanings, word morphology, grammar, conjugations, etc. and that part is an absolute nightmare!
 

Droflet

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I get that you want to write something original but you can write around the issue in any number of ways.
You could go down the path of the universal translator or anything else that makes the book accessible to your readers.
 

Tamarantula

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I agree that you'll probably lose readers if you write the entire dialogue in a different language. I for one have never read a book where it bothered me that I had the "translated" version of the dialogue. I put much more focus on how individual characters talk, or whether they all sound the same.

But you could decide on one laguage as the spoken tongue of the location your story takes place in and use English as a substitute for that. If a character from a different location appears they might speak a made up/ different language. So, you could have that person talk in that language and have some other character translate it. I think that would feel more immersive, than writing the entire dialogue in a different language.
 

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