Using a Dying Language Today & its Challenges in Game Development
Languages and creoles die when they fall out of use and relevance from current contexts. Moved by Kodrah Kristang’s mission to revitalise Kristang, I also wanted to use this local creole in my new game that is based on Southeast Asian culture and folklore. But this comes with challenges due to Kristang’s limited and/or dated vocabulary.
“Hey Kevin, come to think of it, I don’t wanna use mod fasel to mean ‘Accessible Mode’.” I texted.
Fasel, in Kristang, means easy. With current connotations in game discourse where toggling a few features like infinite lives in single player to make it easier to progress further cements the divide between core gamers and casual ones, I wanted to avoid that in my latest project.
Kevin, the kabesa of Kodrah Kristang, is my teacher of Kristang, and a fellow creative who has written a novel, Altered Straits. I explained the discourse on game accessibility to him and he understood my intentions. However, it’s back to square one. With my limited knowledge and lack of heritage connections to the language, I replace the word fasel back into the haphazard guess of bagah-bagah, meaning slowly.
“But having to toggle infinite lives isn’t exactly slowing down a game lol” I shot my idea down again.
“Yeah I know what you mean” he replied.
The texts ended and I’m still drawing a blank.
Obviously, our Malay-Portuguese ancestors thought very little about accessibility during their heyday. Yet, they still had very detailed terms for the games of their time like bancoh karta to mean “to shuffle cards”. Bancoh can’t be used in any other context than playing cards, thus champurah takes its place to mean “to mix” when used generally.
On the bigger scale of language revitalisation, coming up with appropriate words for a creative work is insignificant; language is, after all, primarily a form of communication. Thus, communication should be the first thing that needs to be addressed.
When new things and technology are introduced en masse while a language dies, there would not be new vocabulary developed for these new things in the dying language. The word photograph was not part of the Kristang vocabulary until it was agreed by a group consisting of heritage speakers and representatives of Kodrah Kristang to produce pintalumi^ (noun) and pintalumih^ (verb), from the words that mean painting and light. Since this is coming from a group of people who has in depth and intimate knowledge of their language, I would think that their choices in which words to remember or introduce first would have more significance. The group, Jardinggu — a portmanteau of jarding and linggu to mean garden of language — allows for suggestions on which words and topics to focus on next, and they recently have concluded a meeting for words related to magnitude such as size, speed, and volume. All of these words are everyday vernacular for the game designer and the average Joe, and yet there are many more words missing.
Across the causeway in Malacca, there is also a group of heritage speakers trying to preserve the language and culture of Kristang. The community there might differ in their methodology of introducing new words too, or they are against the coining of new words in order to preserve the language in its most original form. However, I have no indication of its stance and its current status since the 2017 Festa di Papia Kristang.
This position of not wanting to “pollute” the original language with coined words brings about a whole host of problems, but it is a perspective that I understand. Introducing new words too soon too fast risks alienating older speakers who may have never thought of certain concepts and discourse within their heritage language. It is like handing over an iPhone to someone who has always used landlines to make a call — that person would be wondering where the rotary dials are.
Which brings me back to my current dilemma: do I want to keep introducing new words in order to keep its meaning constant in English, the native language I’m writing the story in? By extension, would introducing contemporary concepts help to revitalise and bring the language up to date with new ideas and discourse that, in theory, is inclusive of everyone?
Alienating older speakers is not something I want to do. And it also begs the question: what if the older speakers are fine with these new functions being called fasel because of its existing meaning that has a positive connotation? Would it still be inaccurate to the native tongue if the word in the dying language has a different implication? The flipside to this argument would be, if and when the dying language is revitalised with a healthy number of speakers, this terminology would feel dated. Seeing as games usually have a short product-cycle, this shouldn’t be an issue. However, on the off-chance that someone else might unearth this obscure indie game that uses a minority language in a period with less speakers far off in the future, they might think “This 21st century piece of work is still stuck with 16th-19th century vocabulary, has the language really frozen in time for this long? Were the choice of words deliberate or was the creator being regressive compared to other works in their time?”
But that’s just me imagining the extremities. This little game may be buried and forgotten in the collective consciousness far down the future like many other creators who went through their second deaths before me.
In the end, this little roadblock, and many more that would come, is something I have to think about as I figure out how to write dialogue that sounds natural while balancing the substitution of English words with existing Kristang words vs. introducing a new word if there is really no choice in that matter.
Two weeks later, after a bit of reading on how Celeste tackles game accessibility, I finally came across a word that exists in Kristang and conveys the meaning I was looking for.
“Kevin, I got it! Assist — Judah or Attendah”
*Coined words are indicated with a ^.
Teng bong tudu! Agora yo ta fazeh Narativa di Tera Sanud, ngua bringku fuzimera nubu kung linggu Kristang. Namas bos gostah isti ideia, bos podih judah yo na Patreon.
Hi everyone! I’m developing Tales of Tera Sanud, a new video game with Kristang language localisation. If you like this idea, you can support me at Patreon.