Forum: Languages in Arda

Discussing: Using ME languages in stories

Using ME languages in stories

I occasionally use snippets of Elvish in stories, mostly single words like talan or mallorn. Those don't bother me as Tolkien himself used them.

When I use words that he did not use in stories, for instance benn which means "male person" in Sindarin, I get a little worried. I have to footnote it or otherwise explain the meaning, especially if it's not readily obvious from context.

That raises the question of why I use words that need footnoting or explanation. Obviously I'm not reporting entire conversations in Sindarin (or Quenya, or whatever), so why use words or phrases in those languages at all? Doesn't it break the flow, so to speak, or seem a bit unnatural? If I'm talking to someone today, I don't suddenly lapse and say phrases in French, for instance. Unless one is writing a story in which persons of different cultures - a Lorien Elf and a Man of Rohan, for example - meet and might have language problems, does it even make sense to use Elvish or Rohirric words?

Does anyone else have this difficulty, and how have you solved it (if you have)?

Celandine

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

That raises the question of why I use words that need footnoting or explanation. Obviously I'm not reporting entire conversations in Sindarin (or Quenya, or whatever), so why use words or phrases in those languages at all?

I've been contemplating this a bit lately. If the conversation is in Westron but a word is used which doesn't translate or which has been borrowed more or less permanently then it makes sense to use it - as with Mallorn trees - but when it is a common word such as father then that does seem odd. If the conversation should actually be in Sindarin or whatever then the use of occasional words of Sindarin while the bulk of the conversation is translated is tempting but I think fundamentally flawed. I'm still arguing with myself over that situation in a story I'm currently working on.

Avon

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

I hear you. It’s tempting to show off, just a little bit, that you know these other language(s), and I’ve had to consciously stop myself from sticking them in where they’d not make sense – e.g. when two Elves are conversing, logically both in Sindarin or some other common Elvish tongue. Going with the assumption that the entire dialogue was initially in the Elvish and was “translated” to English, there wouldn’t still be words here and there in the original language. Basically, the rule of thumb that I’ve devised is that Elvish words and phrases only belong where the rest of the conversation or narrative would have originally been in a different language.

I can think of a few examples from my own stories where you could – at least I think – plausibly insert an Elvish word or two. In Arwen, Aragorn calls Gilraen naneth (Sindarin, “mother”) – I imagine that they would otherwise be speaking Westron, but since Aragorn was raised in Rivendell, it would not be inconceivable that he would have picked up on some Elvish terms of address.

I also have a story – very much in the works at this point – wherein Elrohir and Elladan meet a group of Laiquendi in Ossiriand. To represent the difference in language, I was able to extract a couple of Nandorin words from Ardalambion, and the rest of the Laiquendi speech is written in as near as I can come to Shakespearean English, which, compared to the relatively modern speech patterns of Elrohir/Elladan, indicates an archaic form of Quenya (which I actually do explain in the narrative, to clear up the matter).

Man, I hope that story starts talking to me again soon…

-Aerlinnel

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Unless one is writing a story in which persons of different cultures - a Lorien Elf and a Man of Rohan, for example - meet and might have language problems, does it even make sense to use Elvish or Rohirric words?

I've been wondering about this too. For me right now it's the question of whether or not to use some Old English/Anglo-Saxon terms in a story set in Rohan. Oddly enough in my explorations through various websites and my good old dictionary I've discovered a wealth of words which come directly from the Old English with very little change. Which only increases my apprehension over using the archaic forms because I don't want to seem pretentious.

You make a good point about using them when encountering those of a different culture. There it would make sense to use words that would emphasize the differences.

I may have to rethink some of what I've written already, though mostly the Old English has been used for place names or for proper names. There I think we're all on fairly safe ground using the other languages.

If I'm talking to someone today, I don't suddenly lapse and say phrases in French, for instance

I did have to chuckle a bit over this because my sons have a friend who does precisely this! But he is rather unusual!

I'm glad you brought this up. To me this is one more indication of the love and care that goes into your writing. And we all benefit from the discussion.

~Nessime

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

I'm glad you brought this up. To me this is one more indication of the love and care that goes into your writing. And we all benefit from the discussion.

Well, I'm obsessive about details. I'd probably make a very good archivist.

As I think Aerlinnel said she did, I also occasionally use an Elvish term as an endearment - specifically I use meldanya, which is Quenya meaning "my beloved," and I have it being used by characters who would normally speak Sindarin and/or Silvan. That seems to work out all right, rather equivalent to someone speaking English but using the French word "cherie."

It's kind of a fine line between wanting to show off all the cool language bits I've picked up, and being sensible in how I can do it without sounding pretentious or being confusing to the reader. Footnotes are fine but too many are a pain - this is, after all, fiction! How many novels does one read that require footnotes!?

Same with archaic forms - there are certain words that I will use, and others that I won't, and likewise sentence structures. Inverted word order works well to give an archaic flavor, but too much becomes irritating IMO - so I try to keep it limited.

Contractions are another issue - only in dialogue, definitely (at least for me), but then to what extent? Do Elves speak more slowly and therefore use fewer contractions than, say, Hobbits? If I ever wrote about an Ent they would certainly use no contractions - far too hasty!

Cel

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Contractions are another issue - only in dialogue, definitely (at least for me), but then to what extent? Do Elves speak more slowly and therefore use fewer contractions than, say, Hobbits?

I see only Hobbits using contractions, and even then only those at Sam's social/educational level or lower, but for reasons unrelated to speed of speaking - contractions just sound less cultured than saying the entire phrase out. Since Hobbits, except for oddballs ( ) like Frodo and Bilbo, were written by Tolkien with a more rustic, dialectal style of speech, it seems that they would be best suited to using contractions.

-Aerlinnel

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

This is very interesting. I've found myself wondering about this, too. I believe it would be appropriate to use words, or even snippets of dialogue, in another language if you know the conversation takes place in that language. For instance, if we were to set the story in Lorien and two elves are speaking and we have the hobbits nearby, the elves speak Sindarin, and so a word or two might remind the reader of the fact that they all come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. I understand when you say that it's a thin line between showing off and doing something to truly benefit the story. Including foreign language dialogue in a story is, I think, tricky -and risky- because, if you don't do it right, then you will lose credibility as an author, in a way.

I am struggling against this at the moment, because I have my story with Morwen and Theoden and one of the things I wanted to highlight was that she took great pains in learning rohirric (because she is a foreigner in this land). So, I thought I needed her to say a phrase or two in rohirric. But, I've no idea how to go about OE and I'm afraid I'll make a terrible mistake if I do it. So, I guess I'll just have to say "...and she said in a slow but melodious rohirric _______ ....."





 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Maybe HF could help you with this. Check the thread on Old English/Anglo Saxon. The offer was put out there, so it can't hurt to ask.

~Nessime

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Just keep in mind that Old English is not actually bona fide Rohirric; you may do well to put a note to that effect in the story if you do end up using OE to represent the language of the Rohirrim.

-Aerlinnel

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

I see only Hobbits using contractions, and even then only those at Sam's social/educational level or lower, but for reasons unrelated to speed of speaking - contractions just sound less cultured than saying the entire phrase out. Since Hobbits, except for oddballs ( ) like Frodo and Bilbo, were written by Tolkien with a more rustic, dialectal style of speech, it seems that they would be best suited to using contractions.

All the hobbits use contractions, for instance Bilbo from Many Meetings:

"He got up and came towards Frodo Well, that's over,' he said in a low voice. 'It went off better than I expected. I don't often get asked for a second hearing. What did you think of it?"

They do tend to cut them out in formal situations though, for instance when Pippin is speaking to Denethor or "I will take the Ring" he said, "though I do not know the way".

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

For instance, if we were to set the story in Lorien and two elves are speaking and we have the hobbits nearby, the elves speak Sindarin, and so a word or two might remind the reader of the fact that they all come from different backgrounds and speak different languages.

Sure, if the Elves are speaking Sindarin and the Hobbits wouldn't understand, then this would work very well to give the flavor - especially if it's also made clear in other ways that the Hobbits missed out on the conversation.

I did something like that in "Shadows of the Past," in which I had Legolas and Haldir speak in Sindarin, and Gimli think to himself that he only understood part of what they were saying. But in that case I didn't use any significant Sindarin phrases, just a word or two - it didn't seem terribly critical and I wasn't going to go to the effort of figuring out Sindarin grammar for a throwaway!

Cel

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Avon referred me to this thread from a posting in my own discussion.

In the review process of a story, I received criticism from someone who disliked my use of elvish words for terms of address and terms of endearment. It is seldom that I use it for anything other than that and I use them throughout the length of the story.

For anyone who has read History Lessons or May the Valar Protect them, you know that I tend to write rather long stories. I typically have a wide array of characters, both canon and original. I was very afraid of dialogue early on, and have now made a point of trying to use more dialogue – to engage the characters and build relationships between them.

In doing so, I realized that terms of endearment and the familiar forms of address are often cultural and colloquial. An elvish child saying ‘daddy’ or ‘grandpa’ seems unrealistic and the terms of endearment one might use for their child or lover are often silly or slang (honey, sweetie, baby etc). So, I turned to elvish to fill the gap. Using Tolkien’s Sindarin familiar terms of address (ada, nana) or an endearment (tithen muindor) sounds better than daddy or little bro. It implies (at least to me) something intimate between the characters, can indicate the familiarity of the address, and even if the words mean something simple in English, like little brother, it implies a familiar relationship when used in elvish.

For example, in History Lessons I wanted to show that Elladan and Elrohir used a different familiarity of address between Celeborn and Galadriel. Having them call Galadriel 'Grandmother' seemed fine, but I was very hesitant at using 'Grandpa' for Celeborn. I ended up deriving 'Daer' - great - and combing it with the formal and familiar forms of address - so Daerada/Daeradar and Daernana/Daernaneth. Interestingly enough, many of the readers at ff.net picked up on this and got my point. (yeah!)

In working with people who speak multiple languages, it seems in particular that terms of endearment and familiar address are two occasions where people slip back to a native tongue or their first language. While in this case the usage is not for the characters, but for the readers, I thought I had thought this through.

So, what does everyone else do? I have only had the one negative comment about using elvish in this way. While I have put considerable thought into why I do it, I think it is a rare thing for a reader to consider. But for those who are annoyed by it, please share your thought on how you would address these situations, particularly the ones I have mentioned – familiar forms of address and terms of endearment – in dialogue.

Thank you!
Nilmandra

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

I am struggling against this at the moment, because I have my story with Morwen and Theoden and one of the things I wanted to highlight was that she took great pains in learning rohirric (because she is a foreigner in this land). So, I thought I needed her to say a phrase or two in rohirric. But, I've no idea how to go about OE and I'm afraid I'll make a terrible mistake if I do it. So, I guess I'll just have to say "...and she said in a slow but melodious rohirric _______ ....."

Meep! If you need help, feel free to ask... I'm HA's unofficial Old English consultant =D

Consultant... I like the sound of that.

As for Rohirric!Old English/Elvish/Westron being inserted into regular "translated" text, I think it only really works if there's a term we can't translate properly into English -- that is, if our closest translation of the word has connotations that might not be appropriate, or seem awkward.

Old English presents the problem of being, in some cases, too close to Modern English, so that using OE as a substitute seems contrived. Tolkien was aware of this, I think; Firefoot (Eomer's horse) and Steelsheen (Shine? Do not have books, but I believe that's Morwen of Lossarnach) are pretty much the same in OE as they are in MnE. Fyrfet and Stylscin(u), either look ridiculous -- or, if you know OE pronunciation laws, sound too much like Firefoot and Steelsheen, so the OE seems somewhat ridiculous. The names that Tolkien doesn't translate are sufficiently far from MnE to justify him keeping them.

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Hmm. Toughie. At the risk of hypocrisy, I will say I prefer stories that do not rely too much upon different languages being tossed back and forth.

The exceptions I tend to write and read with sympathy are:

Endearments--it happens in real life, so why shouldn't it happen in fiction that an Elf who otherwise is politely speaking Westron should toss off a "my love" in Silvan, Sindarin or Quenya? Or that an elvish child or the child of Sindarin-speaking Gondorrim should say "Naneth" and "Adar" to his or her parents? I tend to draw the line at that, however, since those are the only familial addresses that sound natural to me.

Very short phrases that don't go beyond one exchange (two lines--one per speaker).

If a character is surrounded by others who do not really have a reason to be speaking his language or Westron, then I have no real trouble if whole chunks of dialogue are written in another language, provided it's done skillfully. Usually for me that means that if the reader didn't understand the dialogue, s/he wouldn't need the literal translation at the end to follow what was happening--the actions and responses of the characters would be cues enough as to the general drift of the conversation.

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

Having read through the thread the past five minutes, I say I have to agree with most people. I like it when a few words in the respective character's native tongue, but I usually just get overwhelmed by complicated constructions in Sindarin (it is better with Quenya, because there I am at least trying to become familiar with it beyond a few words) and their even more complicated explanations in footnotes. There are a few instances where I would use Elvish/ Rohirric/Adunaic etc. which have not been addressed yet:
Solemn oaths like the oath of Cirion and Eorl (that includes wedding ceremonies for me)
Swear words: because people usually lapse into their native tongue when they are shocked and angry, I suppose
"Technical terms" most people and cultures are familiar with: Anor, Isil, Ea etc.
Any thoughts on these?
~Maka

 

 

Re: Using ME languages in stories

I like it when a few words in the respective character's native tongue, but I usually just get overwhelmed by compliated constructions [snip]

Oh, I agree. Usually I will only use one or two words (partly because I haven't studied the language enough). But there are a few exceptions.

In many cases, the character doesn't know the language, or knows it but not well enough to comprehend it in a given situation. I used this situation a lot in my short story "Cold Be Heart", mainly in conversations between the Barrow-wight and the hobbits.

Then there are instances where two characters need to talk without a third character (present at the time) understanding them. I used this in a scene between Gandalf and Treebeard when an OFC from Gondor couldn't know what was being said. So I had them speak in Quenya. It was just like two sentences.

In other cases I do it because it adds a sense of other-worldliness. For example, in "Lady of Gondor" Treebeard from time to time says something in Quenya, then translates for whoever he's with, having forgotten he's with other peope, or Elladan initially welcomes Boromir to Imladris in Sindarin. But in those cases, I usually translate in-text.

 

 

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