fb-pixelHow writers of endangered languages are embracing sci-fi - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

How writers of endangered languages are embracing sci-fi

Islwyn Ffowc Elis’s 1957 “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd” (“A Week in the Wales of the Future”).-

When you think about Welsh literature, the first things that come to mind might be Dylan Thomas, "How Green Was My Valley," miners, sheep, and so on. Time travel and alternate realities probably wouldn't be on that list. But Joanna Davies's new novel "Un Man" ("One Place"), the story of a woman who travels back to 1980s Cardiff and relives her lover's death by car accident again and again, totally does away with traditional ideas of what makes a book Welsh. She is, as she told me somewhat cheekily, "the first to write a Welsh book that combines sci-fi with horror and romance."

Sci-fi and speculative fiction (a broader category encompassing any literature with fantastical elements) aren't the obvious vehicles for preserving an endangered language like Welsh, the oldest language in Europe, spoken by 19 percent of the population, around 562,000 people in 2011. But the genre has been intimately connected to the Welsh revitalization movement over the past 60 years, its writers playing creatively with the language, mixing up traditional folklore with space-age hobgoblins, and imagining various linguistic apocalypses. In fact, for those concerned about endangered languages anywhere in the world — including in the United States — sci-fi is a very natural way to express the perilous experience of an uncertain linguistic future.


The novel that's generally considered the first modern Welsh sci-fi is Islwyn Ffowc Elis's 1957 "Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd" ("A Week in the Wales of the Future"). Published by Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, it tells the story of a young Welshman traveling in time to visit Cardiff in 2033. In one version of the future, Wales is bilingual, independent, and prosperous; in another version, Wales (known as Western England) has lost its language and crumbled into violence. Elis was quite consciously writing nationalistic propaganda, and the goal of using a popular genre, says Miriam Elis Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at Aberystwyth University who studies Welsh science fiction, was mostly "to reach out to more readers." (At one point, he tried his hand at American Westerns.)

But other supporters of Welsh language preservation continued to see creative possibilities in science fiction. David Griffith Jones wrote the 1964 novel called "Pe Symudai y Ddaear" ("If the World Moved") in which, in a sort of divine retribution for people speaking English during the National Eisteddfod, a yearly cultural festival, a giant tsunami rips Wales apart from England and turns it into a solitary island. Owain Owain, a former nuclear scientist, founded the Welsh Language Society, which campaigns for language rights, and designed its logo, an abstracted dragon's tongue. He also wrote the dystopian novel "Y Dydd Olaf" ("The Last Day"), published in 1976, purporting to be the 1999 diary of a boy who's about be harvested for his organs and cloned by evil robots — and written in Welsh, because (apparently) the robots can't read that language.


More recently, Jones points to what she calls a revival in Welsh-language science fiction, which she ascribes to a mix of "new confidence, and [authors] getting tired of the old and traditional representations of Welsh culture." And again, many sci-fi books published today in Welsh deal with language, and language politics, fairly directly. Lleucu Roberts's 2008 young adult novel, "Annwyl Smotyn Bach" ("Dear Spot") updates Elis with another futuristic look at a non-Welsh-speaking Wales, this one a bleak apocalypse. Jerry Hunter's 2014 "Ebargofiant" ("Oblivion") plays with orthography to build an entirely new Welsh that's intrinsic to the novel's post-apocalyptic universe.


There are some linguistic challenges to writing sci-fi in Welsh. According to Jones, there isn't really a word for "alien." The direct translation for "alien" is "aliwn," but, Davies said, "we don't really use that in everyday conversation." She prefers "creadur arallfydol," which means "otherworldly creature." Similarly, the term "science fiction" directly translated into Welsh — "ffuglen wyddonol" — has fallen out of favor, Davies said. A more common term now is "gwyddonias" (the name of Jones's blog), which means something like "thrilling science."

For a writer like Davies, Welsh gwyddonias is clearly a thrill, and an opportunity: "You have got an element with Welsh literature that can be kind of snobby," she said. "With my books, I'm trying to do stuff that's fun to read. Because a lot of people don't read a lot in Welsh."

For sci-fi fans who want to write in other endangered languages, though, there's often less support. Welsh has a relatively strong infrastructure, with government grants for writers and publishers, like Gomer Press, which published "Un Man." The situation is quite different in the United States, with its more than 150 indigenous languages, many of which are spoken by only a handful of people. So far, there haven't been any science fiction novels written entirely in an indigenous American language — at least, not that have been published, according to Grace Dillon, a professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University and editor of "Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction." Native authors of speculative fiction, including Celu Amberstone and William Sanders (both Cherokee), Dillon said, have used indigenous languages in their work, but the work generally is in English.


That said, though, she thought speculative fiction was exactly where writers working in endangered languages belonged. "As . . . an indigenous person, you're living in the post-apocalypse stress syndrome" already, she said, due to the dislocations and loss of language. She pointed to Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor's classic 1978 dystopian novel, "Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart," as an example of how the inventiveness of science-fiction could subvert what Vizenor calls "victimry."

In the process, Dillon said, "you really start picking up projects. You start thinking of ways to preserve your language. You play around with [language], which is what you want to do. . . . It works so much better when it's just a lot of fun."

Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.


Q&A: Talking to 'Game of Thrones' conlanger about building languages

The amazing endangered languages of Russia

Q&A: In Maine, the Penobscot dictionary project rises again

More from 'The Word'