Scrapbook Rabbit: Chinese Languages and Conlang Troubles

Hello everyone and welcome to another installment of Scrapbook Rabbit! These columns, rather than being arguments, essays or reviews, are a little more casual; they’re just me sharing my thoughts as I fall down research holes. My last one of these was about Neapolitan and Sicilian as dialects of Italian; this one is about a different set of languages entirely – Chinese. Or rather, Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese.

I feel like most people by now are aware that “Chinese” in and of itself isn’t a single language but a language group – or at the very least they’re aware of the existence of Mandarin and Cantonese, and how drastically different they are. I was kind of aware of this, but ever since my return to the project Lux Sanguinum Nox Animorum and trying to flesh out the Xingese characters in that fanfiction, I’ve been falling deep into the rabbithole, learning more and more about how complex Chinese languages are. Alongside this has been a growing awareness of the linguistic tensions between Han/Mandarin groups and linguistic minorities within both China itself and the Chinese diaspora, plus a realization of just how bad Western understanding of Chinese culture is. A lot of the fandom wars for shows like The Untamed or games like Genshin Impact have had white Westerners really showing their asses (and I’m not immune to this) in terms of taking a limited understanding of Japanese culture and norms, and assuming the same would hold true for Chinese media.

So, in taking some of my favourite aspects of the LSNA fanfiction and transferring them to an original piece, I’m trying to approach the linguistic parts with a lot of care. Me, I love languages. (Shock of the year, I know.) I love writing about their interactions and their changes, dialects, linguistic imperialism and reclamation — But when I have no business with a language, it’s important to tread carefully. That’s where I am with the Chinese languages. I’m falling in love with them, but I’m not Chinese – I’m not even close. Like most people my age in North America, my exposure is through food, my friends, and the environment around me.

The first thing I’ve been learning is just how fraught the linguistic issues actually are. I knew Cantonese and Mandarin were different, sure. I knew Cantonese was the main language in Hong Kong. Actually looking at the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is… significant! And even beyond that – I’ve never once been exposed to the dialects beyond Cantonese and Mandarin, or rather, languages, because calling Hakka, Min, and the other languages “dialects” is kind of like calling Italian and English dialects of Latin. My initial plan was to use Mandarin and Cantonese for my Elessa serial. The more I’ve learned, the more I feel like this is a bad idea.

“But couldn’t you just get a translator?” Well, yes, and no. One, I don’t have a lot of money. Two, there’s something to be said for having an understanding of what you’re using. When working on Kanet’valan, I’ve paid a lot of attention to how language affects culture and vice versa; I’ll be writing about Kanet’valan separately too, but even the Elessan lingua franca isn’t straight Dutch. It’s a mix of Dutch, Flemish (which, again, it’s kind of a stretch just calling Flemish a ‘dialect’ of Dutch, but People Are Silly), German and French – with the associated pronunciation and spelling changes in place names. So lifting a full language from our world with no edits, no changes, etc. almost feels wrong, especially if I’m just getting someone else to do it. (This is way more work than the vast majority of people would put in, I know. This is just kind of how I function as a writer/worldbuilder.)

There’s another issue at hand; while I could stick solely to Mandarin, I’m not so much interested in that. Learning about Hakka, Yue/Cantonese and other dialects has ignited my interest in dialects – and immediately caused its own problems, because as shown by several incidents, a well-meaning fool can cause untold damage to language preservation. It’s one thing for me to reproduce butchered Mandarin; it’s one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It’ll be fine; I’ll just have a lot of frustrated and annoyed Mandarin-speaking readers and possibly emails with corrections. But if I make a mistake with something like Hakka Chinese, the consequences are potentially a lot worse. Take, for example, the phrase ‘Alohomora’. JK Rowling, in her infinite wisdom, chose to appropriate the phrase for a spell in Harry Potter – already an extremely odd choice in a spellbook full of Latin and Ancient Greek. She then attributed it thus: “Alohomora comes from the West African area of Sidiki, and in the Malagasy language translates to “favorable to thieves.” This is completely inaccurate. While it gets harder and harder to find the true meaning, this comes from Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/harrypotter/comments/9gi8z5/the_real_origin_and_meaning_of_alohomora/)

“The real story: Alohomora comes from the Malagasy language, spoken on Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Sikidy (not Sidiki!) is the Malagasy word for the figures used in geomancy, a type of divination similar to astrology, which was introduced to Madagascar by Arabs. The Malagasy word sikidy comes from the Arabic word شكل (shakl), which simply means “figure”. One of the geomantic figures was called حمرة (ḥumra) in Arabic and rubeus in Latin, both of which mean “red”. When geomancy was introduced to Madagascar, the Arabic word al-ḥumra was adapted into the Malagasy language as alohomora.

If you’re performing geomancy in Madagascar, and you get the alohomora figure, that’s a favorable sign for thieves (according to one interpretation, at least). But the word alohomora itself doesn’t actually mean “favorable for thieves”. It originally meant “red” in Arabic, and in Malagasy it is just the name of a figure.”

While the sourcing on this is also a little hard to track, it at least makes sense. The first quote, for example, attributes it to Malagasy, and then West Africa, and then to the (completely non-existent) place of Sidiki. And all the words in the second source do exist, making it at least an etymology that makes sense. But good god, most of the results still give you the JKR version. And Malagasy isn’t currently endangered! Other cases include the butchering of a Scots Wiki by someone who was largely making things up, and other issues of false information being replicated without question. So imagine the pressure.

So, no, in the end it’s probably better not to try use actual Hakka or Yue/Cantonese (or, by extension, Mandarin) in Elessa. Which leaves me with a different problem entirely. When creating Kanet’valan, I took some of the basic features of Semitic languages, and hared off in a different direction entirely. The most prominent part is that Kanet’valan is centered on a three-consonant root structure, much like the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc.)

Turns out, trying to do something similar with the Sinitic languages has a much different result… in that it isn’t clear to onlookers in the slightest that the language is artificial. The most frustrating part is that it’s a mix of a single/dual-syllable system with a highly specific sound system… with people just not knowing very much about Chinese languages. People who speak Mandarin or any Chinese language will know pretty quickly that what I’m using isn’t Chinese; those who don’t won’t immediately catch on. And worse, the first group are pretty likely to assume that I’m doing what a horrific number of non-Chinese authors have done in times past; throw a bunch of Chinese-sounding things together and call it done. Never mind that I’m being very precise about it. Thanks, past racists.

However, there’s a lot of good coming out of this, too. As I study the sounds and grammar of Mandarin, Hakka and Yue/Cantonese next to each other, I’m somewhat incidentally picking up the language(s) – so if I end up using Mandarin in the end, it’ll be with a lot more knowledge than I had. Some people learn languages by using them. I, it would appear, learn them best by tearing them apart and putting them back together.

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