English: An Open Source Language – A Ramble

Well, the night before I wrote this article, I happened to read some fascinating BBC articles about the inconsistencies in the English language and about how handwriting can vary from area to area. So, I thought that I’d talk about the English language today.

One of the really interesting things about the English language is the way that it evolved from several different languages (eg: Old English, Norse, German, Latin, French, Greek etc..) and how many English words are phonetic transcriptions of random words from various languages (eg: the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kohl”, a term that originally meant “the eyeliner”).

This evolution also added depth to the language by giving English formal and informal vocabularies, based on different linguistic origins. Generally, words that are considered informal tend to come from German and Norse and more formal words tend to come from Latin and French. For example, most current English profanities are just Anglicised German/Norse words for the “polite” words a Latin speaker would use when talking about copulation, anatomical organs and bodily secretions.

This has also led to lots of other interesting phenomena, such as the fact that there are different “standard” English spellings in Britain and America – with standardised spelling itself being a relatively recent invention (before dictionaries were created, people just spelled words however they thought each word sounded).

Likewise, the evolution of the English language also means that if you’re an English speaker and you travelled back in time more than a couple of centuries, you would have a difficult time understanding the English language. I remember having to look at a medieval Middle English text when I was at university, and one of the things that surprised me was that the English in the text was barely recognisable or comprehensible by modern standards.

Unlike, say, the Académie française in France, there is no formal body that controls the English language. In addition to being a brilliant way to wind up people who are ultra-pedantic about grammar (and, yes, you can split infinitives and begin sentences with “And”), this lack of an official body also means that the language is free to evolve quickly and naturally through common usage, and to adapt the best parts of other languages.

In short, the English language has a lot in common with open-source software. In other words, it is something that people can freely adapt, alter and use in different ways. It is something that belongs to everyone who uses it rather than to any specific organisation. And this is one of the language’s greatest strengths.

Generally speaking – rules, words and spellings that actually serve a useful purpose tend to stick around (eg: the order of words in sentences) whereas those that don’t tend to fall by the wayside. For example, the term “pen” apparently used to just refer to the nib of a pen, with the whole pen being called a “pen and pen-holder” or something like that. Of course, when pens became more available and widely-used, it became easier to just use the word “pen”. So, like open-source software, the English language is optimised for efficiency.

So, why have I spent so long talking about English? Simply put, to show the utter absurdity of being too uptight about things like grammar. If you love the English language, then you should love the fact that it is something that is constantly changing, adapting, optimising, expanding and improving itself. After all, the only true authority on the English language is however the vast majority of speakers are using it at any given moment.

Not to mention that it’s even sillier when people use the English language for the purposes of nationalism. If it wasn’t for words derived from other languages, English would be a very limited language. English is such a rich language because it is an open language.

So, yes, English is an open-source language, with no owner other than the millions of people who speak it. And this is awesome 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

A Random Ramble About Languages

2016 Artwork Languages Ramble

One of the the interesting things that I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that I’ve actually started occasionally dabbling in learning small amounts of other languages on rare occasions. I think that five years of compulsory French lessons when I was in secondary school probably put me off of language learning for quite a while.

I think that the thing that first made me vaguely interested in languages again was the fact that, when searching for bands on Youtube a couple of years ago, I found a few cool music videos from German-language bands (eg: Equilibrium, Eisbrecher, Blutengel and, surprisingly, Nena too) and have occasionally been curious about what the lyrics actually mean.

The huge irony here is that I went through a phase of listening to a lot of Rammstein about ten years ago, but never really became interested in learning any German back then. Likewise, I actually visited Berlin on a school trip when I was sixteen but, although we were given phrasebooks, I didn’t really have that many chances (I can only remember one) to actually speak any German.

Although I’m certainly not even slightly close to fluent in any other languages, I’ve found that I like the idea of knowing a bit about languages that interest me – even if, when it comes to German or Spanish, I can often only understand every third or fifth word of anything I read.

However, if something is written in French, then I can understand slightly more if I read slowly and think about it a lot. I can even actually speak a bit of broken French too, although I’ve forgotten most of the grammar.

Basically, I like the idea of being able to actually read things written in other languages. And I like to daydream about speaking other languages fluently, even though I’d probably make an absolute mess of it in reality.

And, before anyone says anything, I’m aware that the only reason I can have such daydreams is because English currently happens to be one of the more popular languages in the world- people in most other countries usually have to learn other languages for actual practical reasons.

Usually, I’ll become fascinated by a language for a few days and then pretty much forget about it until weeks or months later. I’ll usually just learn a few random words, a few interesting facts about the language and/or a few expressions though.

Previously, I was mostly interested in German but, a while before I wrote this article, I found myself absolutely fascinated by Spanish again. Although I don’t currently have any plans to learn it extensively, it was surprisingly interesting to read lists of Spanish words and to see how it differed from English.

The interesting thing, from the very basic things that I’ve read about it, is that Spanish actually seems to be an easier language to learn than French (from what I can remember of my GCSE French), however I also read somewhere that it becomes more difficult to learn after a while.

Even so, the gender system for Spanish nouns makes slightly more sense to me, and quite a few Spanish words sound similar to either French or English words – due to the fact that they all come from the same Latin words. And, no, I haven’t tried to learn any Latin.

It’s kind of like how a few of the German words I know sound a lot like their equivalent English words when spoken aloud (eg: the German word for chair, “stuhl”, sounds like “stool”). Of course, in this case, it’s because both the English and German languages share extremely old historical links that pre-date the introduction of Latin into the English language.

Another really that I like about Spanish is the pronunciation. Don’t ask me why, but pronouncing “j” as “h”, or pronouncing “ll” as “y” just makes any word sound about three times more interesting. I guess that it probably sounds drearily mundane if you’re a native speaker though.

It’s kind of like how, in Welsh, “dd” is pronounced “th” (and I really should know more Welsh than I actually do, given that I lived there for several years….). Of course, English certainly has it’s own share of intriguing pronunciations too (eg: “ph” etc..), but these just seem kind of ordinary and mundane to me.

But, like with all other languages, Spanish grammar just seems perplexing. If languages consisted entirely of vocabulary, then I’d probably have a lot more of an interest in learning them. Memorising vocabulary can be kind of fun but, as soon as I see a grammar table, my mind just goes blank in pretty much the same way that it does whenever I see any computer code. I dread to think how ridiculously complicated English grammar is to anyone who hasn’t learnt it from an early age.

The interesting thing about reading about all of these other languages is that it makes me think more about the English language too. Although it can be a bit disconcerting to speak English after spending a while reading about another language, I suddenly find myself paying more attention to what I’m saying and – in comparison to my very limited abilities with any other language – I suddenly feel much more articulate than I usually do.

But, the most important thing about learning a little bit about other languages is that it makes you realise how foolishly ignorant a lot of the “everyone should speak English” brigade actually are. Seriously, if English is even half as difficult to learn as any other European languages are, then I really don’t blame people for not learning it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

A Very Basic Tip For Using Other Languages In Fiction

2015 Artwork Using Other Languages in fiction article sketch

Although this is an article about classic ways to use other languages in fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about my own (fairly limited) linguistic skills for a while first. Trust me, there’s a good reason for this and I’m not just waffling about myself for the sake of it.

For a long time, I thought that I only knew about three languages. It goes without saying, but English is my first language. As such, it’s probably not that surprising that I’m absolutely awful when it comes to learning other languages.

Thanks to five years of French lessons at school and several trips to France, I can sort of at least partially understand written French and possibly even have a very basic conversation in French. So, French is probably my second language. But my French is probably fairly rusty by now. C’est une catastrophe!

And, thanks to listening to various songs by Nena, Rammstein, Eisbrecher and Equilibrium, as well as visiting Berlin when I was sixteen and having various history lessons at school, I understand (a relatively small amount of) German. So, German is probably the closest thing I have to a third language. Mein Deutsche ist nur rostig.

But, after a random conversation a few weeks ago, I suddenly realised that Spanish was the closest thing I had to a fourth language. Although I’ve never taken any Spanish lessons and couldn’t hold even the most basic conversation in Spanish, I know at least a few Spanish words and can understand a few basic phrases in Spanish.

So, how did I learn this? Well, I mostly just kind of picked it up from American movies, songs and TV shows. Since Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the US, Spanish words are going to turn up in a lot of things that are made over there.

Still, this raises a lot of interesting questions about how to use other languages in fiction. Most of the advice I’m going to give about this is fairly classic and/or obvious advice, which you’ve probably heard before or have seen examples of before. So, none of this is particularly groundbreaking.

The general rule when using words from another language in fiction is to only use a few of them and to use them in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious. This is because you can’t assume that all of your readers will speak more than one language. Plus, having to look up the meaning of words from another language on a regular basis can seriously ruin the flow of your story.

So, if one of your characters speaks another language, then most of their dialogue should be in English – with a few carefully-chosen words or phrases in their language, in order to show that they aren’t actually speaking English.

For example, you could write something like: “Walking out of the cinema, Franz shook his head muttered ‘Dass film war scheiße‘. As films go, it wasn’t the best one that I’d seen either.”

Because Franz shakes his head and because the narrator says that they both didn’t like the film, you don’t have to speak German to guess that Franz’s dialogue wasn’t exactly complimentary towards the film.

As long as the meaning of this scene can also easily be understood if the German words were removed (or replaced with blank spaces), then you can add them.

What this means is that you don’t have to be a fluent speaker of another language in order to use other languages in your fiction. As long as you know a few basic words, then you can give the impression that one of your characters speaks another language fluently. In fact, you could even use an online translation program or a phrasebook if you absolutely have to.

Plus, if you use other languages in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious, then your readers might even end up learning a few new words too. After all, this was how Spanish ended up becoming my fourth language, without me even realising it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Thing That Sci-fi Writers Can Easily Get Wrong….

2014 Artwork Sci-fi languages sketch

Although I’m terrible at learning other languages (I understand some French, a small amount of German, a few random words in various other languages, how to use online translation sites and that’s about it) and even the technical details of grammar leave me somewhere between bored and mystified, I occasionally become fascinated by languages. The only exception to this is probably programming languages for some weird reason.

Don’t ask me why, but a couple of weeks ago, I briefly became fascinated by the Icelandic language for some reason and I ended up reading lots of articles about it on Wikipedia.

First of all, I now know how to pronounce two cool-looking Icelandic letters that aren’t in the modern Latin alphabet ( “þ” and “ð” – pronounced “th” and “eth”. Plus, apparently, both of these letters also used to be used in English quite a few centuries ago too.)

I also love the fact that Icelandic has a similar linguistic origin to English, which means that there are a few words that sound surprisingly similar in both languages and the sentence structures in both languages are apparently similar.

However, Icelandic apparently doesn’t really have all of the various French, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Indian etc.. words that are also part of the English language.

Plus, the structure of Icelandic names is really interesting, since Icleandic surnames consist of their father’s (or, occasionally, their mother’s) first name with “son” or “dóttir” (daughter) added to the end of it.

I’m probably not going to visit Iceland (since I’m not really interested in travelling at the moment) and, when I heard spoken examples of Icelandic on Youtube, it sounded completely different to what I expected it to sound like (although I learnt that “hi” is spelt “hæ” in Icelandic- which sounds about ten times cooler).

But, nonetheless, I was absolutely fascinated by the history and structure of this language.

I suppose, as someone who writes every day (unfortunately just non-fiction at the moment) and as someone who enjoys stories about interesting places, language is a big part of my life. In fact, like the air around us, languages are a big part of everyone’s lives. Not only that, languages almost all have fascinating histories too.

Despite William Burroughs’ cynical idea that language is a virus of some kind, it’s a virus that has turned us into the most sophisticated and intelligent organism in the world. Without languages, we probably wouldn’t be able to think or communicate in any complex or deeply meaningful way. Still, the fact that there are literally hundreds of different languages on the same planet absolutely fascinates me.

You see, I’m a sci-fi fan and the one thing that has always puzzled me in many of the sci-fi shows I’ve seen on TV (and in some sci-fi novels that I’ve read) is the fact that, whenever the main characters visit another planet, everyone who lives there almost always speaks the same language.

Even if, for the sake of convenience, this language is either subtitled in English or instantly translated into English (via futuristic technology) it’s still odd that literally everyone on another planet speaks exactly the same language.

To use an example from “Star Trek” – literally all of the Vulcans speak Vulcan, literally all of the Klingons speak Klingon etc… The only people who speak a variety of different languages in “Star Trek” are the humans.

And, as linguistic development goes, this is just unrealistic.

I mean, if life on another planet has evolved in a similar way to how life evolved on Earth, then people in different parts of the planet are going to develop different linguistic traditions independently from each other. They’re going to have different ways of referring to the same thing, different sentence structures and possibly even different ways of naming themselves.

And, no, you don’t have to develop several entire fictional languages for your sci-fi story if you don’t want to (usually just coming up with a few new words, to give the impression of different languages being spoken, can work quite well).

But, if you’re showing your characters travelling to other planets, then it might be a good idea to at least acknowledge the fact that several alien languages will probably be spoken there, rather than just one.

Yes, this is a really small detail – but, even if you just mention this fact briefly in your story, then it will add a lot more realism to the world of your story and help to immerse your readers further into the fictional world that you have created.

Come on! If fantasy writers can get this sort of thing right, then so can sci-fi writers….

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Sorry for such a rambling article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂