Applied etymology: constructed languages

The best part of successful localisation is understanding that what makes for a successful project is not only being accurate, but sounding great while doing it.  Anyone can translate, but fewer can do so with style and elegance.

Continuing our series on how a deeper study of language can help with this, it is worth looking at constructed languages, and what they can tell us about translating in the real world.

Most people will be able to name one or two constructed languages – most recently, Dothraki, tongue of the horse lords in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, and older ones like Klingon (from the Star Trek universe) and the Elvish dialects Sindarin and Quenya invented by famous linguist J R R Tolkien.

Unlike Martin, whose languages were created after the fact by specialist David Peterson, Tolkien is well known for his philosophies of language invention, famously declaring ‘cellar door’ to be the most beautiful phrase in English, and totally wasted on its very ordinary meaning!

His work was largely founded on an appreciation of Welsh, Norse and Old English, which he used to create fictional idioms which sounded natural and consistent – based on things like the quantity of hard consonants in words, which affect the harshness of the sound.

Another famous language inventor was Poul Anderson, who wrote the treatise Uncleftish Beholding – a joking attempt to translate the concepts of atomic physics into an alternative form of English had it never been diluted with French after the Norman conquest of 1066.  Accordingly, it only uses words of Germanic origin.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mighty small: one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in chills when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike unclefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff. [1]

To create these words, Anderson either switched one English word of French origin for another of Anglo-Saxon beginnings (‘motes’ for ‘particles’), coined new ones (‘firststuff’ for ‘element’, following the German pattern of compound words) or loaned words (‘hydrogen’ in German being ‘Wasserstoff’, and therefore ‘waterstuff’ in Anglish).

This might seem like just a bit of fun, but there are practical applications for translators, when you consider they may be asked to localise words and concepts which might not even exist in the target language – or at least to pick the best equivalent of several.  At the end of the day, you may be hiring someone who not only switches between languages, but just like Anderson, Tolkien and Peterson, creates it.

[1] Poul Anderson, “Uncleftish Beholding”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, volume 109, no. 13, pages 132–135, mid-December 1989, Davis Publications.

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