Follow TV Tropes


Artistic License – Linguistics

Go To
Ah, the two languages: American and Foreign.

"Son, my digitized consciousness will now teach you science, mathematics, and Earth facts for the duration of your journey. Of course without any stimuli other than my voice, there's no way for you learn what any of these words mean, so prepare for three years' worth of indecipherable blathering I guess."
Marlon Brando (talking to baby Kal-El on the spaceship), The Editing Room's abridged script for Superman: The Movie

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.


    open/close all folders 

    Author's Mistakes — General 
Basic mistakes in the way languages work, evolve, and differ from each other.

  • 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 '20s. 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 later 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.
  • Hollywood Apocrypha: The Theme Park Version of the Early Modern English used in the King James Bible, applied to all fictional religious texts.
  • 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 an error, depending on the time and the opinions of the 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. (In fantasy settings, this may be Hand Waved as the result of the language itself being imbued with some sort of magic that prevents its speakers from lying, rather than some kind of grammatical/lexical paradox.)
  • Period Piece, Modern Language: Not even bothering with any semblance of historical accuracy, instead choosing to have the characters speak in casual, contemporary language.
  • Primordial Tongue: The earliest language spoken by human beings must necessarily be related to all other languages, and they must therefore be mutually intelligible.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: The Theme Park Version of Elizabethan (Early Modern) English, applied to any and all times before the Regency.
  • 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?
  • Personal Dictionary: Someone giving their own idiosyncratic definitions to existing words. Communication doesn't work that way.
  • Twisting the Words: Willfully ignoring the context, definitions, or other cues that can affect the meaning of someone's remarks.

    Author's Mistakes — Translation 
Examples of these tropes ignore the differences between languages and assume they all translate perfectly 1:1. And then they get the translation wrong.

  • 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 pretense.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: A foreign character speaks foreign-sounding gibberish, which is passed off (to the audience) as another language.
  • The Backwards Я: Instant Russian, just flip the R's! See also El Spanish "-o" below.
  • 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, resulting in a translation where the words are understandable, but the meaning and nuances are changed.
  • 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 Incidental Multilingual Wordplay for legitimate, real-life examples).
  • Cypher Language: 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.
  • El Spanish "-o": Trying to fake a foreign language by adding the most known traits of that language into one's own.
  • 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.
  • Just a Stupid Accent: A foreign character never speaks their own language, but speaks the local language like a native, only with an intractable accent.
  • Learnt English from Watching Television: While this one is definitely true to an extent as many people will tell you, writers often assume that this is possible with ALL languages whether they share inherent similarities (like most Latin-based languages) or not.
  • Poirot Speak: A foreign character will occasionally grasp for the right word, and will revert to their 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.
  • Recursive Translation: A second- or third-hand (or more) translation that loses more and more nuance with each successive step.
  • Translation Trainwreck: What happens when a "Blind Idiot" Translation is taken to extremes. Like an actual trainwreck, however, it can be morbidly fascinating.

    Mistakes with Usage 
Many people assume "linguistics" to be all about correcting spelling, pronunciation and grammar "errors". In fact there is no such thing as objectively correct usage,note  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.

Other examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Fan Works 
  • Into The Veesha-verse: "My Treasure" has several examples.
    • Masha says that "Kannst du die Tür bitte schließen?" is a polite way to "ask someone to close the door." In German, there are two ways of addressing a person, du and Sie. You would only use du with children or people close to you and would use Sie for either people you don't know or people you are giving respect to.example  Masha is correct if they are only talking about people you know, but it isn't if you are talking to someone you don't (or your boss).
    • Vee says that du is the way to address someone directly in German, ignoring the existence of Sie. Though Sie can be used as an equivalent to a plural they, it wouldn't be capitalized in that context. This could be justified, because Vee is still learning the language.

  • In The Heroes of Olympus: The House of Hades, Piper suggests (and the others generally accept) that when the prophecy says "the world must fall", the "world" means the earth, and therefore in Greek means Gaea. Except the Greek word for "world" isn't Gaea (Γαῖα) or even the generic word for earth, ge (γῆ). The most common translation of "world" to Greek would be kosmos (κόσμος), which isn't a synonym for "earth"/"Gaea".
  • In one of Rihannsu: The Romulan Way's exposition chapters, Terise Haleakala-LoBrutto relates how the proto-Romulans constructed their own language to distinguish themselves from the Vulcans by going back to Old High Vulcan and "aging" it in a different direction, comparing it to the relationship between Latin and Basque. Basque is the one widely spoken southwestern European language this is completely wrong about: rather than being a Romance language like Spanish or French, Basque is famously a linguistic isolate with no connection to any other currently known language.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In the Futurama episode "A Clone of My Own," a brief gag has Professor Farnsworth showing his new clone Cubert his universal translator... which, so far, can only translate into an "incomprehensible, dead language" that turns out to be French. A dead language has no native speakers, but is still knownexamples . An extinct language (which French would be in this scenario) would be the proper terminology.

Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence Linguistics