Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Language as an Immersion-Breaker

Usually, when I read a comment that I want to respond to, I just respond to it.  But a couple of days ago, a question was posed which I wanted to pontificate about a bit.  After all, who doesn't love a good round of pontification?  Click down below the break for the question, and my commentary, concerning linguistic conventions in fantasy writing.

First, let's start with the question which got this particular train of thought rolling.  From the comments section of my Mini-Reviews Round 13 post:

For most readers, this is a very fuzzy line.  What, exactly, is the difference between saying that Applejack wears a Stetson, and saying that she drank a glass of Coca-Cola?  In both cases we're dealing with brand names, but (to me at least) the former is non-intrusive while the latter is immersion-breaking.  There's a large element of "I know it when I see it" here, but I think there are a few rules of thumb that can be gleaned when it comes to language choice in fantasy (and thus, MLP fanfic).  And to find those rules of thumb, I'm going to turn to the most influential linguist/fantasy author who ever put pen to paper.

That's right, it's Tolkien time.

J.R.R. Tolkien's writings concerning Middle-Earth were based on the explicit conceit that they had been translated from the Elvish and Hobbitish languages of the time; Appendix F of Return of the King explains exactly how Tolkien went about "translating" LotR from Westron.  It's excellent reading for anyone interested in how to use language as a worldbuilding tool.

The problem with English is, of course, that most of its vocabulary is borrowed from somewhere or other.  "Yoga" comes from Sanskrit, as Magrigor notes; is its use appropriate?  What about loan words for non-European species, like raccoon or kangaroo?  What about words of Norman origin?  One could quickly reduce one's usable vocabulary to nothing if one was too zealous in applying the "English origin only" rule to their writing.

Although Middle-Earth is very much Anglo-Saxon in inspiration, Tolkien used words of external origin (Norman, Hebrew, etc.) liberally.  Considering his linguistic knowledge, it's safe to say he was well aware of what he was doing.  So the question becomes, how do we differentiate between foreign words which have been sufficiently naturalized, and words which still retain a distinctly foreign flavor.  Where's the line between the presumably non-immersion-breaking "beef," and words that are more likely to distract a reader by calling attention to word choice?

I think the first answer is to say that words of foreign origin are appropriate, if we assume that those languages have some corollary within the invented world in question.  This is a common worldbuilding assumption--I've used Old English as a stand-in for archaic pony writing, for example, and in the stories by NickNack which I just reviewed, he uses German as the griffon language (presumably taking the linguistic origin of "Gilda" as his starting point)--and one that most readers won't object to, if they even recognize it as a worldbuilding assumption.  Further, the word ought to represent something which has some place in the fantasy world in question; consider the difference between a pony using the phrase laissez-faire in a fanfic, and one referring to droit du seigneur.

If one wants to retain a strictly regional flavor, though--if one didn't want an unspoken implication that the ponies' language is as full of loan words as our own--more care would be needed.  Unfortunately, this comes down mostly to a combination of how "anglicized" a word has become, and how long it's been a part of the English language.  These two, in confluence, don't lend themselves to reductive maxims (no "pre-enlightenment is fine!" or the like).

And all this, so far, has excluded the question of brand names.  The easy answer is to say that brand names are right out--Coca-Cola, GMC, and all the rest.  However, what about stetsons?  If Rarity comments that another pony is wearing "shoddy" clothes, is that immersion-breaking?  In cases where a brand name is (or has become) accepted as generic, there seems to me to be a lot of grey area.  I know that I'd find "Stetson" perfectly acceptable, but would balk at "Kleenex," and I can't come up with any logically consistent reason for that preference.

So, to the question of "yoga," specifically: I personally don't find it jarring, because 1) the concept jives nicely with the setting, 2) there's not a more recognizably "English" word for the same thing, 3) there's no reason to believe that there can't be a race or nation in the world of Equestria which uses a language which could be translated as Sanskrit in the same way that the show ponies' language is translated as English, and 4) it's not a brand name.  That may seem like a cumbersome way to go about determining if a word is appropriate or not, but in the end, I think this question has to come down mostly to personal preference and judicious application of the smell test.


  1. I honestly don't see the problem with "yoga" at all. It's an English word, in English dictionaries and everything. Sure, we borrowed it from another language, but English borrows pretty much all its words from other languages. Fantasy characters in-universe speak a different language, but it's being "translated" into English for us, and so English words are used. What's the issue?

    On the other hand, I do have a problem with "Stetson". Every time I read AJ's hat as being described as one I get jarred out of the experience as surely as if a pony was drinking Coca-Cola.

    I think this whole issue comes down to a per-person basis. Figuring out something everyone agrees upon is going to be difficult...

  2. I didn't even realize Stetson was a brand

    I'm a bit confused by Magrior's comment. "... that is usually directly transferred to English for the sake of understanding it" and "... the fact that each of these universes happen to develop the English language has always been kind of an immersion breaker for me" are inconsistent. English isn't being developed in these worlds, but is simply a tool of convenience. The ponies may be speaking with a series of neighs and whinnies, but we've got a universal translator!

    I also have to add that not every fantasy world has a common tongue. Tellene, for instance, has a wide variety of richly developed languages, even amongst the human races, and each of these has can have vastly different regional dialects and even archaic forms that have fallen out of use (though the elves may still be fluent in some Ancient Kalamaran). The closest thing in that world to a common tongue is a pidgin used primarily by merchants and is largely limited to arithmetic and topics of trade. A novel set in the world of Tellene would likely not substitute English for Merchants Tongue, but rather for that of whatever nation the story happened to be set in, assuming the main characters are human

  3. "Yoga" is a word I have no problem with. "Stetson" is one I've grappled with before, but ultimately came to accept because while it is a brand name, it's so dated it's almost unrecognizable as a brand name to most people by this point. "Coca-Cola" or "Kleenex" are still very recognizably brand names though, which is why I would flinch if I saw those.

  4. I also wasn't aware that Stetson was a brand name. Though given that my spellcheck often tells me to capitalise it whenever I do use the word, I guess I should have figured that out.

    I'm an idiot sometimes

    1. I've never had to write it before, and have only seen it with a lowercase "s", so that's my excuse

  5. On the other hand, you can always ponify words, but "ponga" and "Strotson" (seat of my pants here) might cause more trouble than they prevent. Honestly, I would much rather see authors in this fandom err on the side of readability than linguistic worldbuilding. Sometimes, it's just not worth coming up with your own words.

  6. If a brand name has become so ubiquitous that people rarely know that's what it is (see "Dumpster"), it's fine. In some regions of the country, Coke falls under the same umbrella.

    For me, it's a question of readability. If you don't use "yoga," what else are you going to say? Some complicated explanation? Or assume that it can't exist in that world if it couldn't also develop the associated word?

    Stetson is a bit of a tricky one. While I've use it in pony fic myself, I still tend to agree that it's inappropriate insofar as Applejack's hat doesn't actually appear to be a Stetson.

    I think it also really depends on the universe in question. Tolkein develops the far extents of his world so completely that if I saw a fanfic use the term "yin and yang," it'd raise an eyebrow, since there's not something akin to a Chinese civilization there. Equestria, however, is so modeled after our own world, and even North America specifically, what with the geography and place names, that any use of language that wouldn't be out of place here doesn't faze me at all, as long as it's not a reference to something so specific that it's ridiculous that such would exist in Equestria. Examples would include things that are clearly brand names (Ford), historical references (Quisling), and specific pop-culture references (jumping the shark). Everyone's tolerance is going to be different, though.

  7. Like some other commenters, I wasn't even really aware that Stetson is a brand name, so I don't really have an issue with it. I also find yoga perfectly acceptable.

    On the other hand, I would have an issue with Coca-Cola or Kleenex. The former can possibly be explained by not only being a brand name, but also a product we've never seen in Equestria, and one that doesn't really seem to fit, chronologically speaking, with most of the tech shown on-screen (arcade machines notwithstanding); ponies drinking cola would appear weird to me in and of itself, even without brand names.

    In the case of Kleenex, it's more specific to me; the product does exist in Germany, but its name has not become a general synonym for "tissues", mostly because we have a home-grown brand (Tempo) that already holds that position, so the term holds far stronger brand associations for me than it probably does for most Americans.

    Ultimately, it's an individual thing, but as an author, I'd mostly try to avoid naming brands unless they've completely merged with the product in the public eye ("zipper" was once a brand, and I honestly wouldn't know what to use instead...).

    1. From this thing I just looked up, apparently "slide fastener" is an acceptable replacement for "zipper." Though I know if I saw that in a story, I'd be all "o.O?"

  8. Well, first of all: Thank you for the answer! I was hoping for one, but this clearly exceeds my expectations!
    Also, I'm glad that my English didn't really put anyone off yet. (Except from Professor Oats)

    I think it's already interesting that some readers trip over "Stetson", others don't. Also that I'm apparently the only one felling a little uncomfortable with yoga.
    The problem might be that Equestria, since it's still a children-cartoon-world, is not as developed as many "adult fantasy universes", especially wen compared to Middle Earth. (Even though Language and Tolkien pretty much accompany each other)
    It is easy to say that somewhere in the world that houses our ponies some race might have developed a language close to Sanskrit and that "Equestrian" borrowed from that.
    Though, lately I found it interesting to see how languages develop and to think that in a universe so different to ours, where life and probably physics are so "alien"(talking, colored ponies and magic), that the languages still develop nearly exactly like ours is just a little off-putting for me.

    But, as was said above, it really comes down to personal preference and unless I want to learn a new language for every other novel, I probably shouldn't be so picky about that :P

    Again though, thanks for taking the time for a response like that!

    1. I think I understand what you mean when you say you are put off by languages developing in the same way. But then that raises further questions. How is it that our languages developed in similar fashions around the globe (assuming that they did. I'm pretty sure they did.) despite not developing anywhere near each other? Is there any evidence that languages in these fantasy worlds could not have developed in a similar fashion? Did that even happen? For all we know, a meteor could've crashed into what is now the Frozen North, deploying some strange alien fumes that caused whatever cave ponies that inhaled it to suddenly start communicating with each other. These fumes also happened to grace some cave sheep, cave donkeys, cave cows, cave griffons, and cave dragons, but it as only one meteor so it's effect wasn't very wide spread. All went on to spread the knowledge to their like kin, but found that interspecies teaching as impossible for some contrived reason and... uh... wow, I don't know where all that came from or here it was going, but hopefully you get my point.

    2. That can be explained by the migratory routes from early humans, as well as the mixing that comes from wars and trade routes. In fact, most of the languages spoken today can be traced back to an ancient Indo-European proto-language. Still, there are isolated tribes, mainly in Africa, with essentially alien languages, that don't conform to most of the conventions by which you would identify a language.

    3. You don't have to assume the development of a Sanskrit-like language. Rarity is practicing something similar to yoga, so the author simply refers to it as that when translating from Equestrian to English. Otherwise they'd have to use whatever term ponies call it, say neigherharhar and explain what that means

  9. I'm still lost. @.@

    What I'm taking away from all this is that Stetson, Dumpster, and formerly Zipper are all brand names. A shocking, revelation, truly.

    These will go on the list right next to Band-Aid and Saran Wrap. The latter being a particularly interesting case, but that's a story for another day.

    1. Speaking of, did you guys know that "Happy birthday to you" is a trademarked (or whatever) song? Shows like MLP can't use it.

    2. Yup!

      Also! Saran Wrap! Is it my imagination or is my family the only ones who use that anymore? <.< It seems to have gone out of parlance.

    3. Nope, I used it earlier this week after making far too many beans for one person

  10. Certain brand names I think are fine. Stetson would be one. So would something like velcro. They're too ingrained with the object in question and we don't have an easy to use word otherwise. Kleenex (like Band-Aid) is trickier because it's pretty much a synynom in my household, but I can easily understand why others would object. Now stuff like Coca-Cola or Xerox should not be used without the proper setup (see below).

    Pasocite brought up quisling and I would actually question excluding it. Sure, it is based off a real person's name, but so is casanova, and that was used in the show itself. With that being the case, I don't think it would be wrong to use either of the two words or something like maverick or scientific terms like watt or volt that owe their existence to a person's name. However, while vandal would not bother me, but hun and mongol do despite all three owing to the name of an ethnic group. I would probably always cringe at seeing something like Freudian, Orwellian, or Dickensian, or words and phrase that are based off locations ("when in Rome do as the Romans") in pony fiction (puns are an exception).

    There's also words that owe their existence to fictional characters, like scrooge, svengali, sherlock, shylock, trilby, quixotic, or atlas. Do we assume that the works themselves exist? I don't, but I wouldn't object to using the last three (I might have a problem with the other four).

    Speaking of atlas, one thing no one has brought up about yoga is that while in the western world, people associate it as an exercise, it actually has religious connections with Hinduism. As we know, there's no Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Ancient Greek, Scientology, etc. in Equestria. Should we allow a word like bishop, which is used specifically for people at a certain hierarchy in a christian church (unlike say priest, which has become religion neutral)? If not, what then do we call the chess piece? If you do use bishop, are you informing your readers that the there exists a christian like religion or something of the kind? I don't have the answer, I suspect that many wouldn't have a problem with most christian specific terms for a made up faith but would probably raise their eyebrow at words like pagoda, imam, or, rabbi, even though there's no real difference for me (pagan, on the other hand). Same with words that are summon up a specific ethnic group; why disallow something like kaiser, tzar, samurai, or khan but allow knight or duke, which don't for most of us?

    I guess it would depend on the type of story as well. I don't think it would a problem in human in Equestria stories, provided the human introduces said object (i.e. one of them brings up or introduces Coca-Cola to the ponies) or some other "acceptable" way (now I keep imagining Twilight picking up a Coca-Cola bottle that fell from the sky as if it was the scene from "Gods must be crazy"). But most others, I would say it would be a problem.

    Some of this comes down to "Ignorance is a Bliss" and when it's not, it comes down to personal preferences.

    1. Reading your comment, I couldn't help but be reminded of a long-winded post I made once years ago deconstructing the potential of Christianity existing in Star Fox based on Falco Lombardi saying "Geez laweez".

      I think, at some point, we have to step back from the minor hints and realize the show creators don't think about this stuff nearly as hard as we do. Otherwise, you're gonna drive yourself crazy making all the tiny details fit together into a single, consistent narrative.

    2. The obvious solution is to just use puns out the wazoo! Puns solve everything

      All this talk of Coca-Cola makes me want to re-read Pepsi® Twist

    3. Ah, Pepsi® Twist. What a trip that was. It introduced me to the greatness that is...


    4. Pepsi® Twist is a true classic.

  11. I don't find it an immersion breaker.
    I read a lot of stories that were not originally in English. Since it's the only language I can read technically everything I read will be in English, regardless of what language the characters are speaking.

    Also every story written by humans will be about humans, regardless of the cosmetic or cosmic differences.

  12. >One could quickly reduce one's usable vocabulary to nothing if one was too zealous in applying the "English origin only" rule to their writing.

    Poul Anderson wrote about that: His text "Uncleftish Beholding" is a short discussion of atomic theory, written in a weird alternate form of English with almost zero loanwords. And where English only has a loanword for a concept (like most scientific terms), he invents words to fill the gaps using Anglo-Saxon roots.