Swedish designer Niclas Hell, who speaks several different languages, brings us this post about how his multilinguality impacts his larp experiences.
”I’m certainly dumber in English”
–Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy 1999-2009
Engdahl and I have a few things in common. We both have nice diplomas from respectable English language institutions on our walls. We read Shakespeare and Herald Tribune and we hold presentations and write articles in English. And yet, we both feel stupid in English. This text, and any larp conversation, would sound wittier in Swedish.
How does it feel to larp in a foreign language?
Native English-speakers tend to be impressed by our performance; after all we have spent more than a decade in formal English training. But we’re also judged by a different standard of fluency. Larping in English does feel weird the first time, and makes most of us feel a little insecure. Before my first performance, I drank some wine and braced myself. Some players get so nervous that they avoid the international run of a larp, simply ditching the whole idea if that’s where they get a spot.
Larping in another language has real challenges. Perhaps you create an awkward situation by forgetting the word “negotiation.” (“Colonel, we need to engage in… Ehm… You know, talkings… With the Megalorians.”) Moving past this requires strength of character. All those insightful conversations in-game, love affairs and friendships probably would have come off better in your native language. Words stick in your mouth. Portraying someone known for his/her golden tounge, would feel silly in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style larp.
Speaking in English can make you feel alienated and dumb. Your accent feels like it’s probably a buzzkill for the other players.
Using your linguistic alienation for good.
Many larpers live in societies where they regularly interact with written English. Bookshops and libraries have specialized sections; Hollywood movies are subtitled, not dubbed; and most importantly, where World of Warcraft servers don’t exist in our own language. Hell, I read the word “Orc” in English before I read it in Swedish! Our life-long experience of English is limited to particular settings, though; it’s not the everyday vernacular. For this reason, at a historical larp, we don’t resort to silly old-timey language; we lack the whole “Forsooth! Thine bootlace iseth untieth, methinks” vocabulary you’ll pull out any time you want to sound like a real knight.
But more importantly, we have less sense of who we are in English. We don’t get flashbacks to last night’s dinner when we talk about food in English. I believe this is why Sir Knight uses outdated grammar, as normal chit-chat might feel too ordinary. Limited though we are, English is the equivalent of fine china—for use on special occasions.
Using native tongues can cause problems, even for multilingual Scandinavian larpers.
Our native tongues are similar, but have slight differences, which can be messy. You can’t always count on Danes and Swedes and Norwegians understanding each other, and asking your fellow player to repeat what they said several times will disturb the game. I’ve seen a Dane hold a heart-breaking speech, in Danish, to a bunch of Swedes. At best, they understood that he was upset. It did not, could not, have any in-game consequences, because the meaning was lost. The frustration of not being able to communicate properly affected the remainder of our game.
For Scandinavians, larping in English can feel arbitrary.
For the sake of equality, some Scandinavian games choose English as a common tongue even though most players would understand most dialogue among the languages. This can make some interactions feel fake. A group of five Swedes speaking English just feels artificial.
When your community is multilingual, designers can use language in game design.
For all but the Danes, Danish can serve as a difficult dialect. English might be the mafia’s language. Latin is often used as the Old Tongue, and cultural diversity may be reinforced by adding French slang to the one side and German to the other. Runes or Russian letters can create the feeling of illiteracy; players portraying literate characters must learn the writing system.
Making the language feel like an integrated part of the game, and being able to communicate properly, are vital whether you organize an English larp in Poland or a Scandinavian larp in Estonia. Having the confidence to larp in English or Danish – or even your native language – will be affected by the game design. My examples show some difficulties and some opportunities. And finally, Sir Knight approached you because s/he wanted to play, not ridicule your pronunciation of the ‘th’ sound.
Niclas Hell is a freelance copywriter and game designer living in Stockholm, Sweden. He speaks decent English, brewed the Knutpunkt 2014 official beer and will play some jazzy tunes if your larp is set in the 20th century.
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