A Problem With Language

Something’s been bugging me for a while.

In The Voidstrider Saga, I’ve sketched out the idea of a Mars colonized several centuries earlier by refugees from the last world war. The first colonists came primarily from East Asia and South America.

There are two official languages on Mars. Lingwa, which is essentially the common vernacular, the lingua franca. Yes, the name is obviously related to that. No, I didn’t make it up. Not entirely.

Lingwa de planeta is a real-world con-lang built from the most commonly spoken languages on Earth. The fictional Lingwa in my universe is not the same language, but related. Specifically, it is a conglomerate of multiple Chinese dialects, Spanish, and Portuguese. It has developed over the course of at least 350 years. I have not bothered to try and codify it any further than that.

This isn’t what’s bugging me. What’s bugging me is the other Martian language, Guanhwa. Occasionally referred to as “High” Martian. It’s the official language of government on Mars, though it is not widely spoken. In fact, most common Martians know very little Guanhwa, typically just the curse words.

I envisioned Guanhwa as essentially a linguistic descendant of modern Beijing Mandarin. In much the way that modern Portuguese is a descendant of ancient Latin. The official language of Mars is not modern Chinese, but a speaker of one would find certain words in the other to be familiar or even the same. Its basic rules are the same or near enough to be accounted for by dialectic drift over a couple centuries. Its vocabulary has evolved as well, borrowing words or phrases – especially from the other languages of the Martian settlers – but it is essentially just a new dialect of Chinese.

No one in The Voidstrider Saga speaks a modern language, by the way. Some speak “Anglic,” which is probably about as close to modern English (UK or American, either one) as modern English is to Middle or even Old English. Others use Outer Belt Unish, which is very similar to the modern constructed language Unish. Still others speak Interslavic, another constructed language.

Of course, the bulk of the text is in English. It is my first language and, despite a lifetime of fascination with and study of languages, the only one in which I feel comfortable writing or, indeed, reading for pleasure. (I have never studied Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect, for the record.)

When a character speaks English, it is an implied translation of the Anglic, Lingwa, or Interslavic. The one scene where Unish is featured, some of the dialogue is rendered in that language. I spent about four hours studying the basic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of that conlang in order to get five extremely simple sentences right.

Guanhwa is another story. For one thing, it’s not a real language.

So I did something a little lazy. In the way I’ve used English to stand-in for most of the other languages, I tried to use something else to stand in for Guanhwa. And what I used was not one of the languages I’ve actually studied and learned, but the one modern language which is (in-universe) actually related to Guanhwa.

I didn’t just go to Google Translate, of course. Give me a little more credit than that. I spent far more time on it than on my five sentences in Unish, using a number of different resources, comparing, selecting, occasionally running what I found through Translate to English to double-check.

I’m a language nerd, but I was in a hurry. I spent hours on my few phrases of Guanhwa, but not days. I was writing what I initially intended to be essentially low-concept, pulpy sci-fi with an eye to churning out a quick beach read every few months. I wasn’t trying to be overly lazy, and I certainly wasn’t trying to be disrespectful.

But it started bugging me almost immediately. If someone who actually speaks standard Chinese reads this, I thought, they’ll probably slap their forehead and think “here’s another clueless author just using Google translate, for fuck’s sake.”

But I reminded myself it’s not modern Chinese. It’s a made-up language closely related to modern Chinese but separated by at least 350 years of drift. So if it comes across grammatically incorrect, that’s why.

This sounds like an excuse because it is, not because it isn’t true. The above statement is 100% correct, it just doesn’t really speak to the real problem, which took me a while to resolve in my head. I accepted my self-provided excuse because I couldn’t immediately figure out why it didn’t feel good enough.

The problem isn’t the fucking accuracy. It’s the fact that I’m cherry picking bits and pieces of a language I don’t speak or understand. It’s more than a little appropriative. The reasoning behind it is fairly stable, but not exactly sound. After all, I just used English for no less than three other made-up future languages. Why not just use English for the Guanhwa too?

Because it’s so very different from the ones descended from English; or Spanish and Portuguese; or Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czech?

I don’t like what that suggests about me. It’s something to confront, and I believe it is simply an unconsciously internalized bit of nonsense that I will have to be vigilant against, rather than a deliberate bias.

Mars has been thorny for me beyond the question of Guanhwa, and that was part of how I figured this all out. I could say a lot here about how I imagined this future Mars, a post-diaspora melting pot community that has solidified rather than fragmenting. A culture that is dominated by the centuries-long project of terraforming a hostile planet, assembling itself piecemeal over time and only later on trying to seize bits of the more distant past, throwing up tea houses and water gardens in an attempt to recreate bits of an ancestral past poorly remembered or understood. I could go on for thousands of words about my vision of Mars, and future books in the series will explore these concepts as well as my imagined society/governmental structure for the Red Planet. I remain excited about this, because of all the bits of worldbuilding I’ve done in Voidstrider, Mars is my favorite.

But I have decided going forward to render any spoken Guanhwa dialogue in English, just as I have with the other languages. Sure, there’s the odd word in French from Martine, or the Martian grunts calling each other ‘mano as a shortened “brother,” and so on. And I may, when appropriate, use something like gan bei again in much the same way. There’s a lot of alcohol being consumed in the story, after all. I will consider it carefully, however.

Here’s the TL/DR:

I made an error in the way I handled one of my fictional languages. That mistake is appropriative, suggestive of an unconscious cultural or even racial bias, and generally smacks of disrespect. I regret taking the lazy route I did, and will be correcting course in future books. Nobody yelled at me, nobody (to my knowledge) is offended. But I have been bothered by it from the start, and now – having determined exactly why that’s so – I am disappointed in it and myself. I meant no disrespect to anyone.

My fictional world is for everyone, and if my choices have alienated even a single reader, I have fucked up and am sorry.

2 thoughts on “A Problem With Language

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