Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Language as Culture Part 1

Talecraft has always brought aspiring Filipino Writers workshops to help develop their craft. And we're at it again with our Fantasy World Building Workshop Series! For the series, I was tasked to give a talk for the third workshop, the Language workshop. So for that, I decided to talk about language and grammar, and how it defines a culture. If a writer is to make his own language, it's good to know how it defines the people they create.

Language is linked to culture. It:
  • Defines a people's take on rules
  • Shows their outlook in life
  • Gives a glimpse of their past
  • Shows what's important to them
  • Shows what kind of hierarchy the society has

BASIC SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Let's compare three languages for this.

English: S - V - O
examples:
I like books.
I catch thieves.

Filipino: V - S - O
examples:
Mahilig ako ng libro.
Nanghuhuli ako ng magnanakaw.

Japanese: S - O - V
examples:
Watashi wa hon ga suki desu.
Watashi wa dorobo o kyacchi shimasu.

As you can see, English starts with the Subject, I; then the verb, what is going on; then ends with who or what it's happening to. If we take the Filipino language, the structure is different. It starts with the verb. The Japanese language looks a bit more like English, except the object and verb are flipped.

Now a language's basic sentence structure shows how a society is driven. The English and Japanese languages start with the subject, which means these societies prioritize the "character." The Filipino language starts with the verb, showing that the Filipino People are more concerned with the "plot." Case in point: When someone jumps off the train, what's a Filipino's first reaction? It's not, "Sino tumalon?" (Who jumped?), it's "Bakit daw?" (Why?). Filipinos like to know the story. The Filipino, as a people, is very plot-driven people.

What about the difference between Japanese and English? Both put priority in the subject, but Japanese put a bit more priority on the object than English does. Which also means they probably put more value on non-protagonist characters. And true, in literature, English literature started out with a lot of clean-cut main-character-is-absolutely-good-and-antagonist-is-absolutely-bad type of stories. While Japanese stories, from the start, have a lot of grey characters.

So, if, for example, I create a language called Rian, and I adapt the following sentence structure:
Rian: O - V - S
example: Agrap erek laken.
(Books - like - I)

My created society is probably a more "other"-centered society. It's probably one that values others more than the self. Maybe it's a race created for servitude.


PLURAL FORMS
English
examples:
bird -> birds
house -> houses

Filipino
example:
ibon -> mga ibon
bahay -> mga bahay

Japanese
examples:
tori -> tori
ie -> ie

Plural forms show how a people hold quantity in importance. In English, to make a noun plural means to change the word. When you say a sentence in English, you have no choice but to choose the singular or the plural form. Quantity is a big deal. In English-speaking societies, more is really better. "What's making that scratching sound on the roof?" "Bird," is not a correct answer if there are several birds on the roof. You really have to say, "birds."

But if you're speaking in Filipino, where the word is not changed but rather just given an additional word before it, to answer, "ah, ibon," is correct even if there's more than one bird on the roof. This doesn't, however, mean that Filipinos don't value quantity. We do, actually (see Polite forms), but the fact that we can drop "mga" without destroying our grammar means that there are things other than quantity that we value more.

In the case of Japanese, the word doesn't change. The plural form of the noun is the same as the singular form. This indicates a more qualitative society, one that is more concerned on the high quality of an object rather than the quantity. And this is apparent in their machines as well as in their food. I'm not talking about taste, alright? I'm just talking about quality.

So back to my created language. I think I shall adapt the English style and add a letter to change the word to a plural form. But I will also adapt the Filipino take on "dyan" and "doon" to indicate how much plural the noun is, indicating an even higher importance on quantity than the English language.
Rian
example: Edum -> Eduma -> Edume
(singular -> plural (a bit) -> plural (a lot))


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