Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Define Your Standard: a language workshop

This post is part of a series to augment The Worldbuilder's Handbook available for free download.

This and other world workshops are gathered in my Worldbuilding Directory for you to explore.

Find more linguistic content in my Language Directory.

A lot of invented worlds feature a common tongue, sometimes referred to as a lingua franca, that unifies the various peoples of that world. A standard world language can be useful, steamlining your storytelling and allowing you to avoid pesky language barriers when working on dialogue.

However, defining a standard language for your world also raises some rather tricky worldbuilding questions. Unifying languages start out as regional languages and gain prestige over time. Like all languages, they take their names from the people and places where they were first spoken. They have history, and they bring cultural baggage with them wherever they spread.

The language a person chooses to speak is influenced by the prestige he assigns to every language he knows. Each culture assigns prestige to the various languages it has been exposed to, based on that culture's perception of the language, the nation of origin, and the people who speak it. In the Language of the Known World, you can see how various cultures of my world perceive each other's languages.

Individuals also assign prestige based on their own opinions. A person with limited access to a language will assign prestige differently than someone with more exposure. Older individuals are less inclined to learn new languages, and they may dislike a language their culture generally finds prestigious. People involved in communications or trade assign prestige to the languages that help them succeed.

Even if a culture or individual doesn't speak the language in question, they still assign prestige. For example, most Americans do not speak French, but they generally perceive the language to be sensuous and romantic. However, a specific individual may find the French language snooty or obnoxious, based on their own personal beliefs and experiences.

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When a language gains enough prestige, it begins to absorb speakers from neighboring language groups, acting as a unifying language for the cultures involved. At this point, younger generations are bilingual, but generally prefer using the prestige language over their heritage tongue. Their own children may learn their heritage language, but those children are unlikely to pass it on to the next generation.

Within three or four generations, the heritage langauge can be totally lost, driven to extinction by the unifying language. In modern times, for example, younger members of many Amazon tribes are shifting to Spanish and Portuguese, and their isolated native dialects are losing prestige. With little exception, all of these tribal languages will go extinct in the coming decades.

As you define your world's language standard, try to think about the cultures of your world and determine which languages they assign prestige. The socioeconomic and military influences of a nation play a key role in the prestige assigned to that nation's language. Consider how the power and reach of the British Empire elevated the English language to the lingua franca of today.

A religious significance can assign prestige as well, like the Roman Catholic church maintaining the use of Latin after the fall of the Roman empire. While the Romance languages evolved as the Latin spoken in Spain diverged from the Latin spoken in France, Italy, Romania, and beyond, the clergy continued to practice the unchanging Latin written in religious texts, and the language was never completely lost.

The value a culture places on its own heritage may also impact prestige, as seen in the resurgence of Hebrew as a spoken language upon the formation of Israel. During the Zionist movement, immigrating Jews decided to resurrect the Hebrew of their scripture and use it as a spoken language once more. In an unprecedented show of cultural solidarity, they assigned enough prestige to Hebrew to reverse its extinction.

Plain old usefulness earns prestige as well. Countless trading languages called pidgins proved useful enough for children to grow up speaking them as native languages, which are called creoles. In modern times, software languages like Python, C++, and Javascript earn their own sort of prestige.

If you plan to feature a unifying language in your world, save yourself some headache by deciding on these language features ahead of time. This is especially important if the language is named something like Common, Basic, or Standard. How did it come by that name? Whose language was it before that? And how did it grow in prestige to become the world's default?

That's it for this post! Check out the latest worldbuilding workshops for more.

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