Ancient Models for Writing About Language Barriers

160718graffitoThe ancient Mediterranean was a multilingual place. Although a few languages were in common usage—Phoenician, Greek, Aramaic, Punic, and Latin, in different times and places—many other languages were spoken, including Iberian, Gaulish, Etruscan, Oscan, Hittite, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Numidian. Many people, especially in the great port cities like Carthage, Rhodes, and Alexandria, would have encountered numerous different languages in their daily lives. It is no surprise that this experience of a polyglot world was reflected in classical literature. The ways in which ancient writers represented multilingualism and language barriers offer some useful models for us as speculative fiction writers today.

No barrier

Some great stories can come out of characters who can’t communicate with each other, but sometimes you just want your characters to get talking, even if realistically they shouldn’t have a language in common. Homer accomplishes this in the Iliad by just letting the Greeks and Trojans talk to each other and not worrying about what language they’re speaking. Here, for example, is how the Greek hero Diomedes and the Trojan Glaucus challenge each other on the battlefield:

Glaucus, the son of Hippolochus, and [Diomedes] the son of Tydeus

came together from both sides, eager for battle.

When they had drawn near each other,

noble Diomedes was the first to cry out:

“Now, who are you, boldest of mortals?

For I have not seen you before this in glorious battle,

but now you charge ahead of all others

with the courage to face my shadow-casting spear.”

The radiant son of Hippolochus replied:

“Great-hearted son of Tydeus, why do you ask for my lineage?

The generations of men are like leaves.

The wind shakes the leaves down to the ground, but the forest

blossoms anew when the spring comes again.

So the generations of men are born and pass away.”

– Homer, Iliad 6.119-25, 144-9

Communication without a common language

At the other end of the spectrum, Herodotus tells a story about how people can communicate and understand each other just fine with no language in common, in fact with no face-to-face interaction at all. Here’s a story about how Carthaginian merchants haggled with trade partners somewhere on the Atlantic coast of Africa:

The Carthaginians say there is a land and people lying on the coast of Africa beyond the Pillars of Heracles [Straits of Gibraltar]. Whenever they arrive there, they unload their cargo and lay it out on the beach, then hurry back to their ships and send up some smoke. The locals, seeing the smoke, come to the shore and set down gold in front of the wares, then go back to the land. The Carthaginians come back to check and if the gold seems like a fair price to them, they take it and depart. If not, they go back to their ships again and wait while the locals come and add more gold until all are satisfied. No one cheats: the Carthaginians do not lay a finger on the gold until it equals the value of their merchandise, nor do the locals touch the goods before the Carthaginians have accepted the gold.

– Herodotus, Histories 4.196

Overcoming a language barrier

Sometimes a language barrier can be overcome. Herodotus tells a story about how some Scythian men managed at first to communicate by actions and signs with some Amazon women who wandered into their territory and the women later learned the Scythian language:

The Scythians deliberated and decided that they should not try to kill the women but instead send some of their young men, as many as there seemed to be of women, to camp near them and do whatever the Amazons were doing. If the women came after them, they were not to fight but to flee, then return and camp near them again once the pursuit stopped. This is what the Scythians advised, hoping to get children by the women. The young men sent on this mission did just as they had been instructed.

When the Amazons figured out that the men meant them no harm, they left them alone. Each day, the two camps drew a little nearer to each other. The young men, like the Amazons, had only their horses and weapons and they lived as the women did, by hunting and plundering.

It was the habit of the Amazons to scatter at midday, roaming apart from each other in ones and twos for their ease. Noticing this, the Scythians began to do the same. One of them, wandering alone, came upon an Amazon and approached her. She did not push him away but welcomed his attention. Since they could not understand one another’s speech, she signaled to him with her hand that he should come again to the same spot on the next day and bring another man with him, and (confirming by her signs that there should be two) she would bring another woman. Having returned to his companions, the young man told them what had happened. The next day he came back to that same place with another man and found the Amazon with another woman waiting for them. When the rest of the young men learned about this, they likewise courted the rest of the women.

They joined their camps into one, with each man having as his wife the woman he had first paired off with. The men were not able to learn the women’s language, but the women picked up the men’s speech. When they could understand each other, the men said to the Amazons: “We have parents and property. Let us live no more like this but return to our people and their way of life. We will have you and no others as our wives.”

The Amazons replied: “We could not live with your women, for our ways are not like theirs. We are archers, spearwomen, and riders; we know nothing of women’s work. Your women do none of these things but stay in their wagons doing women’s work. None of them goes hunting. If you want to be fair men and have us for your wives, go to your parents and ask for your share of their property, then let us go off and live on our own.”

The men were persuaded and did just this.

– Herodotus, Histories 4.111-14

Poor language skills

Just because someone speaks a language doesn’t mean they speak it well. Here’s a passage from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass where a Latin-speaking soldier tries to requisition a donkey from a Greek-speaking peasant in fractured Greek. The whole thing is written in Latin, but the soldier’s poor Greek is represented by mangled Latin, translated here into similarly awkward English. (Note: this is narrated by the donkey.)

Some lunk, evidently a legionary by his dress and manner, met up with us on the road and began to arrogantly demand where he was leading that unladen donkey. My master, still distracted by grief and knowing very little Latin was passing on in silence. The soldier, unable to contain his insolence and taking this silence for insult knocked him right off my back with his vine-stick. The peasant then humbly replied that as he did not understand the words he could not know what the man had asked, so the soldier asked in Greek:

“Where you take that donkey?”

The peasant replied that he was heading to the nearby town.

“But his work I need,” said the soldier, “for from the next fort our commander’s baggages with other pack animals he must carry.”

– Apuleius, The Golden Ass 9.39


Sometimes, translating across a language barrier can go very very wrong. In Spanish, “La sopa está fria” means “The soup is cold,” but to an English speaker who knows hardly any Spanish, it might sound like “The soap is free.” The Roman playwright Plautus uses this same effect in his play Poenulus. Here, the Latin-speaking Agorastocles is trying to talk to the Punic-speaking Hanno, using his slave Milphio as a translator. Unfortunately, Milphio doesn’t actually speak Punic and is just making wild guesses about what Hanno is saying.

This is a very free translation, based on how the Punic lines sound to an English speaker. Hanno’s actual lines are translated in brackets.

HANNO: Muphursa. [Open up.]

AGORASTOCLES: What’s he saying?

HANNO: Miuulec hianna. [I beg to enter.]

AGROASTOCLES: What’s he doing here?

MILPHIO: Didn’t you hear? He’s brought furry mules for the arena.

HANNO: Lech lechana niliminiichto. [A traveler begs for accommodation.]

AGROASTOCLES: What’s he saying now?

MILPHIO: He has lots of milk to get rid of. He wants you to help him sell it.

AGORASTOCLES: I guess he’s a merchant.

HANNO: Assam. [We are unarmed.]

MILPHIO: He brought some tea.

HANNO: Palu mirga detha. [Without gear.]

MILPHIO: There’s a dead pilgrim, too.

AGORASTOCLES: What’s that to me?

MILPHIO: He just wants you to be aware, so you’re not alarmed when they bury him.

HANNO: Muffonim siccoratim. [In the name of the gods.]

MILPHIO: Be careful how you treat him, that’s what he’s asking.

AGORASTOCLES: He’s asking or he’s saying? Explain.

MILPHIO: He asks you to give him muffins and make him sick.

Plautus, Poenulus 5.50-65

Translations by Erik Jensen

Thoughts for writers

Sometimes, like the heroes of the Iliad, you just want your characters to get on with business and not worry about the problems of communication. Universal translators and babelfish to the rescue!

Other times, though, a lot of good storytelling can come out of the struggles to communicate across a language barrier. There are plenty of opportunities for both drama and comedy when people have trouble understanding one another. We tend to think of our modern world as being uniquely interconnected, but we are hardly the first people to live in a multilingual world. The literature of antiquity gives us some good models for how to think and write about the barriers between languages.

Image: Graffiti from Pompeii (CIL 4.1684) with Latin and Greek text, copy by Fer.filol via Wimimedia (Pompeii; graffiti)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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