Pleaser Don’t Doed Thising

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Ises thisist difficulting to readed? Does its makely youred teeth’t hurtist, seeinger Englished butcher’ll withs randomen endingt thating don’tst fitted the wordly they’re ons?

Then don’t do it when you’re using Latin.

Or any other language, for that matter — but Latin is where I see this most frequently done. The general populace recognizes the “look” of Latin and knows there are these endings that crop up a lot . . . so they grab some roots (or things they think are roots), slap on a few of those endings, and call it a day.

It happens with people who are trying to represent Actual Latin. It happens with people who are not trying to represent Actual Latin, but want to leverage the recognition factor of Latin because it looks cool and they can’t be bothered to get it right. Result: fantasy book after fantasy book (or TV show or whatever) in which my eyes start metaphorically bleeding, because it looks pretty much like the first paragraph of this post.

I don’t actually mind people borrowing phonology without trying to use the language itself. If you wanted to call your Scary Magical Book of the Dead the Cascis Tarnutis, I’d give you a thumbs-up. Cascis could be an actual word in Latin — the dative or ablative plural of the adjective for “old” or “primitive” — but “tarnutis” is clearly made-up, so in my head that phrase translates to “this is a book written in a language that serves a role in this setting much like Latin did in Europe.” But when you call it the Libris Mortis, I wonder why there are plural books in the title, and why they’re in the dative or the ablative, and shouldn’t it just be Liber Mortis? (And that’s far from the most egregious example out there. It’s just the first one I could remember when I set out to write this post.)

It’s bad enough when it’s Latin: a language which enjoyed such cultural dominance for such a long time that it isn’t really hurt by people’s bad usage. And, I should note, a dead language. But although I dearly love the RPG Legend of the Five Rings, ye gods and little fishies, the “Japanese” in that game. The Rokugani language is clearly intended to be a stand-in for the real Japanese language, but place names like “Shiro sano Ken Hayai” translate to “I have a Japanese dictionary and no idea how the language works.” Those words do indeed mean Castle of the Swift Sword — mostly; that “sano” thing was someone’s random replacement for the particle “no,” I have no idea why — but that is not how you would put together that phrase. At all. (IANA expert, but I believe those words would combine to be something more like Hayato-jou. Because compounds in Japanese are not remotely like they are in English.) As with my Latin example, if the castle were called Taru sano Min Okai, I’d be fine with it: because then the writers would clearly be nodding toward the look of Japanese (i.e. its phonology), but not attempting to make it Actual Japanese. Even if there are homonyms floating around in the made-up phrase — a nearly unavoidable occurrence, with a language like Japanese — they would be less distracting to me than vocabulary that’s mostly right paired with grammar that is hysterically wrong.

Mileage varies, of course, and there may well be people out there who disagree with me on the right way to handle this. (Also people who know Latin and/or Japanese better than I do, and will tell me I got something wrong above.) The “phonology but not vocabulary” approach may also be highly distracting to them, or they may just dislike the entire concept of a fictional stand-in for a real language. But I think we can agree that half-assing your treatment of a real language is pretty much never going to be a good choice: unless it comes paired with a worldbuilding scenario that makes me believe the people in the story have taken the starting language and butchered it (which is actually how I read most of the magic phrases in Harry Potter), then it looks like the writer doesn’t care enough to get it right. Either do your homework, or do something else. I’m tired of my eyeballs metaphorically bleeding.