Je suis un arbre

I’m learning French from a groovy little phone app by Babbel as something to do on the train to and from work. What has really struck me during this study are the differences between French and English. Some of them are only small, but I find them all the more jarring because of how similar these two languages are. It’s fascinating how two closely related cultures can develop such different ways of expressing the same thing.

Take numbers for instance. In English we have “two”, “twelve” and “twenty”. Just a glance shows how they relate to each other. The French, on the other hand, have “deux”, “douze” and “vingt”. Not sure what happened with the “twenty” but it’s a very cool word. And when you get to “eight”, “eighteen” and “eighty” it gets even weirder: “huit”, “dix-huit” and “quatre-vingt”. Translated literally they come out as “eight”, “ten-eight” and “four-twenty”. How fascinating and strange is that? Did someone sit down and say to themselves, ‘We’ve got “six”, “sixteen” and “sixty” but, just to shake things up, let’s go for “eight”, “eighteen” and “four-twenty”‘?

Of course, there are entire books written about the inconsistent madness that is the English language.

So why the post on comparative linguistics? Well, it occurred to me that this sort of knowledge is extremely valuable for sci-fi/fantasy writers, like me. We’re constantly looking for ways to make our non-human characters different and otherworldly. As far as language goes, there are three main approaches:

  1. The standard approach seems to be to drop articles and subject-verb agreement, and mix up tenses and maybe some syntax. As long as the author is consistent and doesn’t go too far, it works well. However, it can become annoying for the audience if they’re dealing with it for an entire novel or movie. At you looking am I, Yoda.
  2. Secondly, and sometimes combined with the first approach, authors sprinkle in some made-up words with just enough phonetic similarity to suggest a complete language. There are lots of examples of this but David Eddings’ Tsurani people in his Magician series were the first to come to my mind.
  3. Or they go completely verca*, like Tolkien, and invent entire incredible, beautiful languages–complete with dialects and scripts–from scratch. But let’s just calm down a little because who realistically has the time for that?

The thing is, writers generally end up with characters sounding like English-speaking foreigners.  If you look at Earth’s languages, there are radical differences that exist even between ones as closely related as French and English. Scale that up to non-human cultures and we should be looking at something a lot less recognisable than Yoda’s speech patterns.

Take trees, for example. At some point, everyone has suspected that trees can talk. Especially that time you were by yourself in the woods and night was falling and the feeling that someone was watching you was too strong to ignore. In one of my current stories, trees are going to be minor characters that somehow have to contribute to the story and interact with the protagonist.

But … should these trees really just talk like slow, old men with deep voices who roll their “r’s” excessively? For starters, they don’t really have the necessary vocal equipment. Sure, I could give my talking trees mouths and faces, larynxes and lungs. But then I’ve just got Tolkien’s Ents–some of the fantasy is gone and the audience is not going to be amazed a second time.

So I let my imagination go verca and came up with a couple of way less human methods of communication:

  • The wind–do trees have to wait for the wind to blow in the right direction to speak to their neighbours? If the prevailing wind is from one direction, a tree might ask its neighbour a question and never get a reply.
  • The shape of their branches and the position of their leaves–their conversations span lifetimes and everything they’ve ever said is written into their very shapes and selves.

Now, instead of a clichéd copyright infringement, I have a couple of fascinating ideas that, when done right, could certainly create a powerful sense of other. Of course, it also creates the problem of how to allow my readers to experience a language so far from human understanding. But getting readers to experience something new is what being a writer is all about.

“Come closer, little human…”



*Elvish for “wild”–yes, I am a geek.

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