Artistic License – Linguistics
aka: You Fail Linguistics Forever
There are a whole lot of science-related inaccuracies in fiction, with some fields of knowledge bearing the brunt worse than others. In the case of linguistics, the vast majority of people have no idea it exists, never mind the basics. Obviously, this includes writers. Indeed, the prevalence of this trope (and its relative lack of being noticed) can be attributed to this fact - most people recognize that when dealing with questions of physics, biology, chemistry, etc., they need to ask an expert, whereas with linguistics, many people don't even realize that there are experts to be asked.
Many language/linguistics tropes are attributable to this, and are split up here into errors in academic linguistics, translation errors, and errors in usage.
Author's Mistakes (General):
Basic mistakes in the way languages work, evolve, and differ from each other.
Author's Mistakes (Foreign Languages):
- Aliens Speaking English: Ignores the difficulty of near-instantaneous translation between very different languages, to say nothing of differing physiology. Often acceptable, since aliens speaking a completely different language can get very annoying.
- Antiquated Linguistics: The Theme Park Version of Victorian (essentially Present Day) English, spoken by everyone post-Regency up until the end of The Roaring Twenties. note
- Did Not Do the Bloody Research: mismatches the strength of Foreign Cuss Words.
- Eternal English: Ignores the process of linguistic change, with people 1,000 years ago or 1,000 years hence speaking in the same dialect as the creators.
- From The Latin Intro Ducere: Just because an alleged etymology seems relevant to your point doesn't necessarily make it the word's true history. Also, just because a word was derived from an older one doesn't necessarily make that part of the word's definition today.
- Language Equals Thought: Follows the controversial Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language dictates (and limits) the ideas people can have and how they experience the world. Note that this is not necessarily error, depending on time and opinions of author.
- Language Of Truth: If it is impossible to make a false statement in a language, it's impossible to make any statement in it at all.
- Omniglot: Languages take time to learn; very few people in Real Life speak more than four or five well. These people speak more, flawlessly.
- Orphaned Etymology: Hold your horses? What's a horse?
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: The Theme Park Version of Elizabethan (Early Modern) English, applied to any and all times before the Regency.
- Hollywood Apocrypha: The Theme Park Version of the Early Modern English used in the King James Bible, applied to all fictional religious texts.
Examples of these tropes ignore the differences between languages and assume they all translate perfectly 1:1. And then they get the translation wrong.
Mistakes with Usage:
- Accent Relapse: Characters who've been demonstrated to speak fluent English prefer to speak with a heavy native accent if they no longer have to keep up the pretence.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: A foreign character speaks foreign-sounding gibberish, which is passed off (to the audience) as another language.
- Bite The Wax Tadpole: Cultural and linguistic pitfalls playing havoc with ad copy in a foreign market.
- "Blind Idiot" Translation: What happens when the translator is not fluent in one (or both) of the languages being translated.
- Cypher Language / Fictionary / Wingdinglish: When everything in your fictional language just so happens to be exactly the same as your real-life language, only with new words or symbols substituted. That's not inventing a language; that's inventing a code.
- Either World Domination or Something about Bananas: An in-universe translation that comes up with two options, one of which is close to the intended meaning and one of which is ridiculously off.
- Translation Trainwreck: What happens when a "Blind Idiot" Translation is taken to extremes. Like an actual trainwreck, however, it can be morbidly fascinating.
- Canis Latinicus: Latin-sounding gibberish, or Latin words put together nonsensically (or mixed with Greek), because everything sounds more dignified in Latin.
- Conveniently Precise Translation: A perfect 1:1 translation achieved between disparate languages far more often than should be possible. (But see Lucky Translation for legitimate, real-life examples.)
- Gratuitous Foreign Language: Using a foreign language to add a certain je ne sais quoi... which is not a good idea if you can't actually speak it.
- Indo-European Alien Language: When aliens don't speak English, their language still conveniently adheres to the same grammatical conventions as most European languages—unlike many languages found on this planet.
- Recursive Translation: A second- or thirdhand (or more) translation that loses more and more nuance with each successive step.
- Just a Stupid Accent: A foreign character never speaks his own language, but speaks the local language like a native, only with an intractable accent.
- Poirot Speak: A foreign character will occasionally grasp for the right word, and will revert to his native language when stumped. So far, so good, but the words in question will always be ones the audience is likely to understand in the other language, rather than the sort of vocabulary a non-native speaker would have difficulty with.
Many people assume "linguistics" to be all about correcting spelling, pronunciation and grammar "errors". In fact there is no such thing as objectively correct usagenote
, as languages evolve over time - linguists concern themselves with studying actual usage, warts and all, rather than trying to be a Grammar Nazi
. The following tropes are not strictly linguistics failures, simply poor usage:
Audience's Misconceptions (Linguistic Dissonance):
While not made up of mistakes in itself, these tropes can cause difficulty with audiences who are unaware of the difference within languages over time and from place to place: