Continuing with my series of posts analyzing the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a writer’s perspective), I’ve decided to look at the following trope:
TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:
In Real Life, there are more languages than there are cultures speaking them. There are dead languages, sign languages, dialects, slang, and a thousand other variations. People ten miles away from each other might not understand a word each other says.
This makes communication difficult. So, many speculative fiction writers use a shortcut: Everyone speaks the same language.
This is an important trope. How will you deal with language in your fantasy world? Will it be more or less a non-issue (everyone speaks the same language), a semi-issue (some people do not speak the language of the heroes), or a major issue (many characters cannot communicate because of language barriers)?
The common tongue is a trope that allows for the writer to have most of the characters, even ones from distinct backgrounds, on the same page linguistically, while still allowing for there to be linguistic variation amongst the different cultures of the fantasy world.
My problem with it, however, is that the non-Common-language-speakers are usually barbarians. Think the Dothraki of Ice and Fire or pretty much any non-”Basic”-speaking alien species in Star Wars. Obviously in Middle Earth, Elvish is “higher” than the Common Tongue, but there’s still a hierarchy: Elvish and the Common Tongue are educated and proper, the rest are barbaric and guttural.
This creates the problematic idea that English is a superior language and those who don’t speak it are lower than us. Some get around this by suggesting that “Common/Basic” is not actually English–we are reading a translation of it instead–but this is ridiculous. It obviously becomes a metaphor for the idea that language-variation is unpleasing to some people and the solution is to make a specific culture’s language the “Common” language of the world.
For me, I’d much rather see a fantasy world where language was depicted realistically as a real problem. Too frequently language becomes an obstacle that writers must overcome rather than a challenge that should be explored. There are numerous tropes that help us get over the problems of language: A universal translator. A montage that compresses the difficulties of learning a language into a couple of lessons that end with the character automatically being able to know the entire language (and it didnt seem to take more than a few weeks). Why do we run from the reality that people have differences?
That’s not to say that you should never figure out ways for characters of different populations to communicate, but I wouldn’t run right to the old universal translator standby or the Common Tongue trope to solve the problem. Think first about how it would look if two characters couldn’t communicate verbally. How would that change the flow of your story? If it leads you in interesting directions, go there. If it just seems messy and unnecessary then figure out a shortcut. But instinctually wanting take a shortcut to circumvent this narrative problem is just unimaginative. We can do better.
Really though, I think I prefer the translator or the impossibly fast learner of new languages to the Common Tongue trope. How is it that in all of these medieval-esque fantasy societies–societies that lack such things as democracy, women’s rights, emancipation from slavery–the various cultures of the world have figured out how to come together to have a common language? It strains credibility, and it spreads (perhaps unintentionally) offensive ideas.
- The Noodle Incident
- Killing Off Characters
- Mouth of Sauron
- Indy Ploy
- Fantasy Slurs
- Stuffed into the Fridge
- The Nice Hat
- The Bechdel Test
- Disney Villain Death