“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela
Talking a bit (on Monday) about how I tried to keep the characters honest and likable, in spite of the dark themes, got me to thinking about setting and atmosphere. Especially the aspects of culture and language that are vital to how you illustrate your characters.
In Wrath I very intentionally chose a mix of languages and cultures for dockside that would create a sense of “other” and “alien” without resorting to, well, actual aliens. Using Japanese and Thai was a deliberate effort to distance the setting and characters from modern day America. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I actually speak Japanese (although I’m rusty as hell).
In Silence* things are more complicated. Considerably more complicated. This story is set on a planet, after all, not in the close confines of a dilapidated, aging station clinging to the very edge of a star system. And that planet, with its many, many times larger population (about 30 million), has three distinct cultural/linguistic groups with which I get to play. Did I forget to mention that I also have a passion and knack for languages and linguistics? Well, there, I just did. Oh yeah, and the slang glossary for this story is gonna be fucking huge.
*Screw it, I was gonna wait to reveal the new title until I was…you know…actually done, but I’ve mentioned it (in part) a few times now, so I might as well get it over with. The sequel is tentatively titled “The Silence That Never Comes”. The whats and whys of that title will have to wait, however, as I am just not in the mood to dive into all the symbolism and meaning behind it.
Now for the important question: why the hell am I making things so complicated? Wasn’t it hard enough to figure out what people were saying in Wrath, with just one (and a half, really) language for slang? Shou ga nai. That’s just the way it is, so deal with it.
I am a big believer that language and culture (and outlook) are inextricably linked. Language is fundamental to the human brain, and it helps to define everything. Oh yeah, and as a writer it is one hell of a tool to separate cultures/peoples in order to illustrate many of the things I want to emphasize and play up. Hey, at least I didn’t go full-Tolkien and make up my own damned languages. Never go full-Tolkien!
Silence is going to be very concerned with the differing “levels” of society, and the contrasts and similarities that define them. The language and culture that created each of those will play an important part in communicating their thought processes and cultural norms. As a small illustration: if you really want to understand the different dynamics of, say, France and Germany, you have to learn both French and German. Trust me on that one; what each of those languages shows about how the cultures think and feel will open your eyes.
A final practical note: I speak a number of languages, but not nearly as many as I need to do what I want. Two of my new cultures I’ve got covered, but the third? Crap…now I have the added challenge of using (and “evolving”) the slang and cultural outlook of a language I don’t actually speak. And, no, Google Translate is not a legitimate option…