Learning A New Language When You're A Fantasy Writer
I've always had a love of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Celtic world. To this day, my mind associates those countries with faery tales and magic, and with good reason. They all have a rich heritage of faery lore (another of my passions).
So it was obvious to me when I decided to learn a new language that my first choice should be Irish (Gaeilge).
Why learn a new language at all?
Well, personally, I simply love languages. In college I started to get a minor degree in Asian Studies, but I ended up taking Intro to Linguistics as an elective and fell in love. I quickly switched minors and had no regrets.
In addition to that, it's amazing to me how we humans came up with thousands of different ways to communicate, and how those ways keep evolving over time. According to a quick internet search, there are between 6,500-7,097 languages spoken in the world today. Let that sink in for a moment.
Roughly 6,500-7,097. That's an insane number. And how many can I speak fluently?
1. Just 1. I aim to change that.
Also, it's good for your mind to continue learning. That doesn't apply to languages alone, that can be anything. You could learn a new skill, or learn about space, or about gardening, dancing, writing. There are so many cultures and periods of history to explore, so many amazing facts about animals and people and places. And with the internet, much of it is now free, and as easy as a quick search.
So, considering all of that, it should come as no surprise that I'm learning a new language. In fact, I plan to learn many over the course of my life. (German and Welsh are up next).
Now, how does this apply to being a fantasy writer? Well...
1. I now tend to add extra vowels to words while writing. Irish is full of vowels, many of them silent when used next to other vowels. For example, "Ólaim caife nuair a scríobhaim." (I drink coffee when I write), which sounds like "Oh-lum cafe nware ah shkree-vum." This is starting to carry over to my English spellings. Annoying? Sometimes. Mostly I just laugh at myself and fix it. (Can't wait to see how German and Welsh will affect that).
2. When coming up with names of people and places, new combinations of sounds and letters present themselves to my mind. Because I'm continually exposed to the way the Irish alphabet
comes together to create words, my brain is starting to replicate some of those when coming up with character names and place names. And really, this one is exciting. Irish has some really beautiful-sounding words.
Sionnach - fox (shuh-nahk)
Uisce - water (ishkuh)
Dlíodóir - lawyer (dlee-uh-dor)
Seanmháthair - grandmother (shawn-wa-hair)
Féileacán - butterfly (fey-luh-kahn)
3. I've acquired some new long-term goals. As in, really long-term. One of them is to be able to read books written in other languages. My boyfriend got me copies of The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland in Irish, and I am so looking forward to the day I can read them. There's also a German author I love whose books have been translated into English--except for one. If I'm ever to read that book, I'll need to know German.
But recently, this goal has morphed a little. It's one thing to read books in other languages. How neat would it be to have my own books translated into other languages? What if I was able to translate them myself? Or even write a first draft in another language?
These goals are still a long way off, but they excite me nonetheless.
4. I now have a bit of an advantage if I ever decide to create my own fantasy language. First of all, I minored in linguistics, which is the study of languages. This means learning how different languages work, how their phonemes and morphemes come together, how they change when next to other specific phonemes or morphemes, etc. By actually learning other languages, I get to play with this a bit.
For example, English word order is SVO (subject-verb-object). Irish is VSO. I get to experience what that type of language looks and sounds like firsthand, and have an example to refer to when constructing my own language, if I decide mine will also be VSO. And that's just looking at sentence structure. It doesn't even touch on how the phonemes and morphemes will behave around each other.
5. I'm gaining another way of looking at the world. I'm sure you've heard before that some things don't translate exactly across languages, and sometimes not at all. I've seen plenty of that just with the beginner's Irish that I've learned so far. It's probably clearest (so far) in the way they use their prepositions.
Tá brón orm - I'm sorry (literally, Sadness/Sorrow is on me)
Tá caife agam - I have coffee (literally, Coffee is at me)
Is maith liom leabhair - I like books (literally, Books are good with me)
Tá fáilte romhat - You're welcome (literally, Welcome is before you)
Tá orm scríobh - I must write (literally, It is on me to write)
That's just a smattering of examples, but I hope you get the idea. I'm having to think of prepositions in a whole new way, and I'm finding it both challenging and interesting. And that's just prepositions! What happens when we apply that on a day-to-day basis when considering another point of view or culture? What about while writing and using characters from different backgrounds/cultures/experiences? How can we use that to create cultures and individuals who really come alive on the page?
I'm sure I'll discover other interesting things as I continue learning, and I'll share them as I come across them. If you speak another language, or are currently learning one, I would love to hear about your own experience. (And if you know or are learning Irish, hit me up! I'd love to have a practice partner.)
If you're not currently learning another language, I hope I've inspired you to give it a try. You have absolutely nothing to lose (and Duolingo is free).
Until next time,