31 March, 2014

Guest Post - Robin Riopelle - "It's High Valyrian for 'Culture'"

Robin Riopelle is the author of Deadroads, the latest from Night Shade Books, which comes out tomorrow. I'm extremely excited to have her on the blog today, discussing a very important aspect of fantasy ... language. If done right, language can add such depth to the fantasy world and it's been a focus of many authors from Tolkien to Delaney. It also plays a key role in Riopelle's novel, so without further ado...

Valar morghulis: It’s the tagline HBO is using to sell the new season of Game of Thrones. Who knows what it means? Hands, everyone. Thanks. Yes, all men must die, that’s right.

See what I just did there? I used a fictional foreign language, and I almost immediately provided the translation. That way, you weren’t too annoyed if you didn’t know or remember what the hell those words meant (though given HBO’s relentless marketing campaign, I’d be surprised if you didn’t). If writers drop in foreign phrases without unduly pissing off the reader—particularly words from a language they’ve gone to the trouble of making up—it’s a convenient way to convey the rich complexity of a particular people.

At a bare minimum, language adds atmosphere. Taken at its deepest point, language underpins the very fabric of culture.

There’s a good reason passels of cultural theory folks* have had a whack at dissecting the role of language in the formation, development, and retention of culture. Simply put, language is culture. It’s why languages other than English** should be protected and supported, especially in places like French Canada, and among aboriginal communities. Loss of language is a precursor to loss of identity.

For writers, constructing a new language (a conlang) or weaving in an established one, allows an entry point into the values and beliefs of the people they are writing about. Imagine if the Lothlorien elves spoke English all the time, or if we never had the pleasure of hearing Daenerys mangle the dour Dothraki vocabulary. Our world would not be a richer place.

In my novel Deadroads, the main characters have a Cajun father and an Acadian mother. The French phrases and syntax that occasionally surface reflect these roots, are part and parcel of cultural identity and the characters’ sense of belonging. Lutie, the sister fostered away from her family, grew up without the language, and her inability to speak in the cadences of her brothers hampers her efforts to connect.

The use of actual non-English languages in fiction is established and not without its critics. The Guardian’s Daniel Kalder plaints that the use of untranslated foreign words is a “cheap bus ticket to bogus exoticism.” Tell that to Ernest Hemingway, or Cormac McCarthy, or Vikram Seth. Hell, tell it to Anthony Burgess and Irvine Welsh.

The omission of a non-English language would be paramount to ignoring it. Worse, to assimilating the people that speak it, to steamroll their unique words and associated culture into the mainstream tarmac.

Other critics feel that the use of a language other than English is distracting, confusing, and distancing. Unbridled, the language runs amok, destroying plot and overturning the narrative furniture. Myself, I’m pretty happy not to be spoon-fed. I don’t mind puzzling out the language when the author’s given me enough context, and my friend the Internet is usually just a click or two away anyway.

Where language goes, the rest follows. Guy Gavriel Kay is aware of this, at no time more poignantly than in his wonderful novel, Tigana, where an entire nation is dispossessed not only of its land, but of the very name of their land. They can still say the word—the title of the book—but no one not born there can hear it. Their past, their very identity, has been made less, rendered null.

It’s a terrible reality for many people(s): the aboriginal children of residential schools, beaten if they spoke their native tongue; new-arrived immigrants, desperate for their children to assimilate, losing them when they can’t speak the same language anymore. I can pin the time when French left my family: my grandfather spoke it fluently, but his wife forbade him from passing it along to the children, even going so far to Anglicize the family name.

Reclaiming language once it’s gone isn’t easy, but not writing of it at all is worse.

* Foucault, Bourdieu, Barthes, Chomsky, etc. – take your pick, they’ve all written about language and culture. A handy starting point would be the Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader.
** In Western culture, particularly North America, English is the dominant language and is arguably pretty robust. This in no way demeans or negates the efforts of organizations such as the Apostrophe Protection Society or every grammar nerd ever born.


Twitter: @Robin_Riopelle