The use of mixed languages in writing and entertainment.
Warning, VERY mild bad language ahead. Don’t read this if you’re under 10.
Once upon a time, when dinosaurs walked the Earth, I was involved in an argument with the guy running a role-playing game I was in, over the use of certain words. My character, who was quite upset about something or other at the time, used some sort of insulting term. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think I may have called the town mayor a dickhead. The guy running the game got angry at me and told me I couldn’t use that word. Not because it was a bad word that the FCC wouldn’t allow, mind you. No.
I couldn’t use it because that wasn’t a word that was in common usage in the middle ages, the rough equivalent of the technological level that his game was set in. As he scolded me, “Your character can’t use that word because they wouldn’t know that word, it didn’t exist yet.”
While at the time I rolled my eyes got into an argument with him (I was already pretty upset about a lot of other nonsense he dished out on a regular basis), it got me to thinking about the use of language in fictional settings. In particular, what I call mixed language.
You see, his argument was that I couldn’t use that word because my character would have never heard the word ‘dickhead.’ My argument was that my character would also never have heard the word ‘hello,’ since as a fictional character in a fictional country on a fictional world that wasn’t Earth, my character would have been speaking a fictional language that all the other locals also spoke, and ‘hello’ was just as foreign as ‘dickhead.’ I argued that while the actual word ‘dickhead’ might not exist in his world, there was undoubtedly some word in their language that served the same function as an insult. Since he wasn’t requiring all of the other players to learn an entirely new, fictitious language just to have their characters speak, then it was obvious to me that we were using English as a substitution language. My character didn’t say ‘dickhead’ or even ‘hello,’ my character said the words in that language that held the same rough meaning or served the same purpose.
But this is not just limited to one bad DM in one RPG. You see the same thing in TV and movies all the time.
Today, while waiting for the locksmith to come and change the locks in our apartment (it was recently sold to new owners who clearly don’t trust the old manager), I was watching my wife’s copy of Casanova to kill the time. The one with the late, great Heath Ledger in it, in case you’re wondering. And it reminded me of that argument in that RPG, because they were doing something similar, something so common most people don’t even notice it.
One character looked at another and said something like, “Good day to you, signore Casanova.”
Now, consider for a moment. While this movie was made by an American production company for American audiences (primarily), the fictional setting it was taking place in was Venice in the 1700s. The actors were speaking English, because that’s the language they all knew and the language the audience was deemed most likely to understand. As this was meant to be a big budget movie and not a independent artsy flick, no subtitles were used. But the CHARACTERS… the characters were assumed to be speaking Italian.
In other words, English was being used as a substitution language for Italian. The actor would say “Good day,” but what the audience tacitly understands is that the character is saying “Buongiorno.” However, since the audience was meant to be English speaking, we used English as a substitution language so that the audience could understand it.
But then, why say “Good day, signore?” Signore is Italian. Since we are using English as a substitution for Italian, that means that the character said something in two different languages. He said ‘good day’ in his own, native Italian, and then he said ‘signore’ in some other, unspecified language. Logically, this doesn’t make sense.
Before anyone tries to give me grief, I do understand that it is used to give a ‘flavor’ to the dialog. You see the same thing in other movies. An American translation of the French Les Miserables, for example, has people using “monsieur” and “mademoiselle,” while Pan’s Labyrinth had the people in Spain calling each other ‘senor’ and ‘senora.’ Even movies set in Japan, where everyone is supposed to be speaking Japanese, you would have people adding ‘-san’ and ‘-chan’ to the ends of names.
Mind you, I am not talking about a native French speaker who is supposed to be speaking English doing this. If Jean Reno wants to refer to Matthew Broderick as ‘monsieur’ in Godzilla, that’s fine. His character is speaking English and dropping a French word in for flavor. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about when English is being used to substitute for an entire language that the audience isn’t expected to comprehend. And I am also not talking about made-up words that don’t actually exist in English. If someone groks something, that’s fine (although it could be argued that by this point ‘grok’ has managed to merge itself into English, so perhaps I should find a better example).
It is not limited to screens big and small either. I have seen it in print, in books. If the characters are supposed to be speaking another language that the author either doesn’t speak him/herself or they assume that the audience won’t, they use English to substitute. That’s fine, I have no problem with that. But then you see them refuse to use ‘mister’ and ‘miss’ or ‘misses.’ They will almost invariably use the actual words from the language that the characters are supposed to be speaking.
So what do you think? Do you do this yourself? Do you have a reason when you do, or do you just do it without thinking about it? Obviously this is a trend that isn’t going to go away any time soon, and me trying to get the world to change is like yelling at a hurricane to please just settle down, but I’m curious what other people think. Are mixed-language words slipped into substitution language scenarios for ‘flavor’ a good thing because they remind the reader what language the characters are supposed to be speaking, or are they bad because by being in a language other than the substitution, they are implying, in a logical sense if not an actual use sense, that the word in question is not in the language being spoken?