Sunday, 14 August 2011

Linguistic Conundrums in Narnia

I promised myself I wouldn't get into the language issue in my Susan Fic, but try as I might, I have failed. How can I, in good conscience, motivate a new world that just "happens" to speak the same language as Susan Pevensie?

I thought I had a solution, but I've already hit a snag. My initial idea was to do what Lewis did, and ignore the question completely: the people (or animals) in this new world speak the same language as some kids from England? So what? Deal with it. Accept it. The story works.

I guess it does, but I'm not Lewis, and it's already starting to plague me.

Lewis (or perhaps some of his fans) have explained the situation in Narnia quite eloquently. The saving moments come from one of the last of the books written, The Magician's Nephew. In it we learn that Narnia was created in the presence of some English people: Digory, Polly, Unle Andrew and Frank the Cabby Driver (I won't deal with the question of  Jadis at the moment - after all, she was a witch ;-) ), and the Narnian animals became talking animals in their midst. It was convenient that Aslan would make them speak the same language as the visitors. The first King and Queen of Narnia were English too. Aslan was being practical. Problem solved.

But is it really? I recently had a discussion with some of my TLC friends about how it was that the other people-groups in the greater Narnian world also spoke English. The answer to this is given in Mr Lewis' proposed timeline, created after the completion of The Chronicles. In it we learn that the people of Archenland and Calormen are descendants of King Frank and Helen, the first rulers of Narnia. It is only logical, therefore, that their descendants also speak English. That solves that problem. (I have personal reservations about the fact that the Calormene culture so closely resembles aspects of Eastern cultures - Arabian, Turkish or Indian - as does their physical appearance. I'm not sure how this works if their their ancestry and language is purely English/Narnian. But maybe that's just me, and things can change drastically in 1 000 years. So, I won't make too much of a fuss about that issue).

Another question which arises is how it is that the Telmarines also speak English. We know they are descendants of pirates from our world and the natives of an island in the Southern Sea. The nationality of these pirates is unclear, and various suggestions have been made. The idea that they were Mediterranean, Spanish in particular, has been popular since the release of the Disney Prince Caspian film in 2008. Whatever their native tongue, the argument goes that they picked up English after conquering Narnia, since that was the language spoken there and in the surrounding lands. I wonder over such a suggestion, that the conquerors would pick up the language of their conquered (especially since the conquered included few men and mostly talking animals and other creatures with whom they would have very little to do). But such a situation is not completely unreasonable. It was, after all, the most wide- spread language in that eastern part of the world.

Okay, so here we have a few nice little arguments. All lined up, they explain why English was the language spoken by Narnians, Archenlanders, Calormenes and Telmarines. There I have no problem. But language is not that simple. And here I do have a problem.

Language is not static. It never has been. And despite various desperate attempts, it never will be. Every language has mutiple dialects. And as time passes, languages shift and change. The English language is divided into three time spans: Old English (also called "Anglo-Saxon"), Middle English (the language of Chaucer) and "Modern" English (the language from Shakespeare's time until today).

And one only needs to look at the language of Shakespeare to realise that it will not be long before people will accept that Shakespeare's English and that spoken by present day society is hardly the same language at all. Within the next generation I foresee a new category of English: Post-Modern? O.o (lets hope they coin a better name for it).

In sociolignuistics, we learn about two things that lead to the creation of dialects: geographical separation and societal seporation. Add to this temporal seporation and we have three important factors.

People that live in different places, different social groups and different times, (even those who started out speaking the "same" language) adapt their the way they speak to suit their needs. The further apart in space, society and time, the more different their speech becomes. This is why we have the phenomenon we call "dialects". And the longer and more distant the separation between groups that speak different dialects, the more different those varieties of the language become. Given enough separation and time, the dialects eventually loose their "mutual intelligibility". This is the ability of speakers of the one variety (dialect) to naturally understand speakers of the other.

One needs simply to look at the English of Britain and that of America (or Australia or South Africa or India etc.) to see evidence of dialectal differences. Thanks to global connexions brought about through modern technology, these dialects are still mutually intelligible. This is not the case for languages that started out as dialects of Latin. French, Spanish and Italian, though they bear some resemblance to each other, were once mutually intelligable dialects spoken by different groups. Separation has lead them to the point of diverstion they are at today.

So what does this have to do with Narnia? The answer is simple. While I can accept that Narnians first spoke the English of Digory and his companions, how do we explain that when the Pevensies arrived, the creatures of Narnia speak the exact same form of English, the same "dialect" they had spoken 1 000 years ago. That would be equivalent to discovering that, Chaucer's English was actually exactly like ours (and the stuff he wrote was him just having a bit of fun).

It's not possible. Even if we were to argue that language changed more slowly in Narnia, that the White Witch's presence kept language more static. Even an individual's language changes over their life-span. I'm pretty sure that hers would have changed a little in 1 000 years. Even if 1 000 years had passed in our world between the creation of Narnia and the Pevensie's visit, we would expect the English in Narnia to have diverged significantly from the way English had shifted in our world. But there is only one generation between the two visits of English children in Narnia. The English spoken by the Pevensies is not mouch different to that spoken by Digory and Polly or Frank and Helen. But how is it that Mr Tumnus and Mr and Mrs Beaver, speak the same form of English that their ancestors, the crow who was the "first joke" and "Fledge" spoke?

Taking this further, we would expect the Calormenes, living cut-off from Narnia during the 100 year winter, to speak yet another dialect of English. There is no evidence of this beyond slight "stylistic" peculiarities in their speech (and generally only their formal speech). There should be differences in vocabulary, semantics and even possibly grammar after all these years. The Telmarines, if they did speak another language and picked up English from their Narnian captives, should at least have had some affect on changing the language. Look what happened with the Norman invasion. Why don't we see a similar influence by Spannish or "Telmarinian" on the language of the Narnians? They would have at least contributed significantly to the vocabulary. After all English loves to pick up vocabulary from other languages.

And so I find myself in a pickle (no not a hedgepickle, but a linguistic pickle). Not only do I take issue with Lewis' explanations for the language in Narnia, but how in the world (or worlds) do I motivate that 20th Century English is also the language spoken the the world I created for my Susan Fic? There is probably some solution. I'm writing the story for fun, not as a serious writer, and so I could probably go back to my original plan and just "ignore the issue". It may require a few changes to my plot. The reason language is about to become important is because the creatures have a mysterious scroll Susan must interpret. I'll make a plan on that. But there you are. A puzzle indeed. Sometimes I wish I didn't "think" so much! ;-)

PS. CS Lewis is one of my favourite and most respected authors. He himself had an amazing intellect and a way with language that I could never emulate. He does much better justice to the language issue in his Sci-Fi trilogy. I know the Narnia stories were written for children, which is why he doesn't address complicated linguistic questions there. And these questions really take nothing away from the brilliancy of the stories. Some may wonder at all why I even bother to ask them at all. It's only because they interest me and are messing with my own writing. Selfish reasons completely.

10 comments:

geoffrey-f said...

This is fascinating - you make some excellent points. We're never really told where the Calormenes came from, but it's pretty clear they're neither Narnian nor Telmarine, so it makes no sense to have them speak the same language, let alone the same dialect. I suppose Lewis wasn't a linguist, and this isn't the kind of thing that concerned him too much, I think; Tolkien complained to him all the time about this stuff.

Arguably taking the same approach (i.e. ignore the problem) is a valid one for the purposes of a fanfiction, even one where you've created a new, non-Narnian world. (Remember, Jadis spoke English in Charn too, and that makes even less sense.) It's always possible that other languages existed, I suppose, and this could certainly apply in your world; English could just be the "Common Tongue", as it were, which also makes it less likely to evolve quickly.

WriterFreak101 said...

This was very interesting Aj. And there are indeed lots of good points here. Of course, Lewis wasn't a linguist (or much of one anyway) and I suppose we must make do with what we got.

But then again, I guess that's what fanfiction is for. Look at my story and how I have the various Narnian cultures all speaking their own language. I love going into things that Lewis didn't. It's what makes Lewis's world more fun to play in than with Tolkien. (Looks up to Heaven, no offense Mr. Tolkien.) I mean with Narnia, we have more liberty in expanding and developing the Narnian world. With Tolkien, you got to practically study it before you know anything about it. While I admire how much time he put into Middle-Earth in developing language and such, I admit, I can't really do anything with that world without feeling like I'm destroying something.

Wow, long comment. But I think it brings up good points. Love the post Aj. You bring up lots of good points. Though if I remember correctly, Tirian in LB seems to speak a different kind of English than what Eustace and Jill do. Ah well. As I was saying, pretty good.

You're fellow TLCer and a linguist in training,

Wilf :)

Ajnos said...

Thanks ^.^.

And I think you meant "your" ;-)

WriterFreak101 said...

"I think you meant your"

Yeah that. :P

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

The preservation of English over thousand years is indeed unprecedented. It is not impossible. Every language change ever made, except at Babel (and that one was miraculous) could theoretically have been resisted.

But I just picked out the question of Calormene non-English terminology.

My solution is Tash was a new arrival into the Narnian world - the ancestor of Aravis and Rabadash, not the demon featured in LB. He was more darkskinned and picked up English in the Narnian world.

Telmarines in my view were English pirates.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Middle English (the language of Chaucer)

AND of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, please!

Chaucer is so to speak direct ancestor of Modern English, that other language is more like remote uncle. Chaucer can be read without translator, I think, that other poet was translated by Tolkien.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"But how is it that Mr Tumnus and Mr and Mrs Beaver, speak the same form of English that their ancestors, the crow who was the "first joke" and "Fledge" spoke?"

THAT would probably be that non-humans have other socio-linguistics than men!

The Narnian non-humans are part of my tentative solution.

For one-hundred years, so would the presence of Jadis be. However she came to speak English in the first place, she would keep the English she had "at the dawn of time" until her death. If Lady of the Green Kirtle was a relative, the Giants of Harfang would have had a linguistic reference.

Other part would be the Narnian language was accepted as norm by non-Narnians, largest difficulty with this being Calormen.

Hana - Marmota said...

"non-humans have other socio-linguistics than men" is a very good part of the solution - as someone pointed out somewhere (I lose track of the several Narnia-centric places I visit...), trees can live for centuries (if not millenia in some cases!) and could conceivably preserve much of Narnian tradition - probably including language.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Trees, of course!

They live about as long as the pre-Flood men who preserved Hebrew from Adam to (most of the time down to) Abraham!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Btw, since I am excluded from both The Lion's Call and Narnia Web, those frequenting either (I see some TLC's at least), feel free to invite those remembering me to reading of my blogs.

Φιλολoγικά/Philologica
Showing posts with label Inkling related.
http://filolohika.blogspot.fr/search/label/Inkling%20related


I plan to add some literary subforums to my forum Antimodernism too. Like, matter of Rome, matter of Bretagne, matter of France, Tolkien, CSL. And a history one.

Obviously, some of the titles do show where "my bias" as admin is, but I hope to be less excluding of those not sharing my views than certain admins and moderators elsewhere. If you get my drift.