Monday, 26 April 2010

How Foreign Languages Help Writers?

As I begin to learn Spanish, it seems ideal time to make few comment on the topic which I have found to be true since the beginning of my writing journey. Words are our medium. Perhaps some of us don't understand technicalities of how a language works, or perhaps we have instinctive knowledge of the language, but not necessarily the skill to debate about it to a linguist. It doesn't matter. For a writer, technicalities of a language, where did the words come from, is not necessary. But I also find that wider our scope of understanding language(s), the richer the field to pick and use in our writing.

I am not J. R. R. Tolkien, and though I dabbled at learning Esperanto (surprisingly easy), I wouldn't dream of creating my own language. But when I have created my various fantasy worlds, knowledge of foreign languages came in handy. In the fantasies / science-fiction I read, I always hate it when made-up names or words are just full of consonants (X and Z seems to be special favourites), and we have no chance in hell of pronouncing it. Just because words are made-up, doesn't mean they can't be at least pleasant. I mean let's think about "muggle" - now that's a word. I wouldn't even mind using that in my daily life. Of course it is a very subjective topic, but vowels exist for a reason.

Anyway, so when I was creating my Fantasy worlds - having resources of other languages to pull, it was a much simpler and instinctive process of combining words or meanings from different languages to construct new names, which are pronounceable, sound like proper words, and yet are still my own creation.

I love languages, always have, and if I ever become a full-time writer, one thing I plan to do is join in regular language classes at university or language school. I speak English, Gujarati and Hindi. I have dabbled in Esperanto, German, Italian and Latin - and I love them all, though Latin and Italian are my favourite. Even with my non-speaking knowledge of these four languages, it is amazing how different aspects of words become appealing. I only put aside language learning to focus on writing. (Damn 24 hours).

Even for non-fantasy writers though, I do not doubt that foreign languages could become a rich source. Imagine being able to read books in their original languages - all the more knowledge at your disposal; understanding cultures as a native could; or even just flipping through a dictionary and discovering a richer source of names or meanings that one can then translate into English. Complicated way for people not interested in languages, but simple (ok maybe not simple - but at least fascinating) way for those who are.

I have also found how different forms of writing come naturally to me in different languages. For fiction, in Gujarati, I used to write poems and short stories (quite good ones), where as in English, I am not that good at either poems or short stories and only love writing books - which incidentally I don't write in any other language. In Hindi, I only wrote poetry.

My life at the moment is pretty much English 24/7 - but at least for the next seven months, I plan to change that and make Spanish learning a part of regular routine. Let's see how that goes - and then I might have a few siesta loving, tapa eating people in my books ;)

How about you? Do you speak any other languages? Do you find they help you with your writing or do they hinder you?


  1. I think that language is the underpinning of any culture, the skeleton of it, if you will. If you understand the language, you can better understand the people.

    I am a typical American, I'm afraid, with a smattering of French, Spanish and the tiniest speck of Mandarin. I look at Rosetta Stone and wish I had the $$ and the time ... you reawaken my longings!

  2. I took two years of French in highschool, and one year of Spanish. But that was many moons ago and I only retained a few words of each.

    I actually have to credit Jamie with the creation of my alien language I've been using in my serial. It was she who pointed out how interesting the verification words for comments were sometimes. I've been compiling my list ever since. :-)

  3. Cynthia,

    Just a personal opinion here - but I think if you wanted to learn languages, there are courses far better and cheaper than Rosetta Stones. Michel Thomas, Pimsleur and Assimil are three I would personally vote for, as being better and more effective. Different things work for different people of course.

    C R,

    Jamie is sure inventive :-) That's a great idea. I don't use alien language as such because if I did, I would want it to "work" properly as a language, and then we are just going into dangerous area :P

  4. I understand Kurdish when it's spoken to me, but can't speak it. Through high school and college I took years of Spanish, German, and French and have forgotten most of it.

    Still, I love reading, saying and learning about foreign words. I wrote poems before I wrote novels, and I enjoy playing with words of all sorts.