If you’re working with a country the size of, say, England, or even France, language doesn’t really become an issue except on an international level. But, when you’re working with a country roughly the size of Europe (excluding Russia and Fennoscandia) you run into the issue of multiple languages intermingling on a constant basis.
This is a very real problem in history. For a long time in England much of the nobility spoke French while most of the general population spoke a smattering of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tongues. You’d often have kings who never spoke a word of the native tongue of his people. When you mix ethnic groups in large numbers, especially suddenly, a lack of communication often results.
With Belanor this is no different. With seven major ethnic groups (which I’ll discuss later), there are a number of languages spoken across this vast and complex nation. The nobility in general is now mostly of Selile descent, thus the language of the nobility has become Selilase. The lingua franca of most of the general population, though, is Uldane, the language of the Uldanes, the most populous ethnic group in Belanor.
The Uldane tongue functions as a sort of bridge-language, as it can be generally understood by the Relgar and Snowlander populations, whose people are thought to be culturally derived from the later Uldane population. They are linguistically familiar with each other, and thus a Relgaroch and Uldane could understand each other with a little visual aid or only some linguistic crossover, and the same goes for an Uldane and Snowlander, even though the Relgar and Snowlander language is too different from each other to be mutually intelligible.
Most merchants would speak or learn Uldane, as it has become the language of trade and war.
The Selile tongue has no similarity whatsoever to any other language in Belanor due to a long period of isolation, and being the only ethnic group besides the Gwyu to successfully retain their freedom from northern invaders when the peoples of the northern nations crossed the sea and began invading as the last holds of Edhaman in what is now Belanor crumbled. Because of this, much of the nobility is taught in a bilingual manner. Not all attempts to learn a second tongue in childhood are successful, though, and so often times there is a disconnect between the nobility and the local population.
The only tongue similar to Selilase is Gwyu, as they are thought to be from the same original stock of people. Specifically, those who came over in the Second Exodus. Although they are entirely different languages, some roots are the same, and the sounds is very similar. The Selile language has developed under an Ataeran influence rather than another human influence, therefore it holds appeal to the nobility because it allows for easy communication with their southeastern neighbors.
The final two ethnic groups, the Drephan and Kzenci, or Grasslander, people are the most culturally and politically isolated, as their languages are too far removed from the major groups.
The Kzenci live in the Eastern Marches and what is called the Shieldlands, placing them on the frontiers of Belanor. Politically isolated as well as being geographically removed, there has been little attempt at spreading the Kzenci language as their presence in the capital is minimal at best, and their merchants are generally land-bound caravans that trade with Uldanes in the Black Lands. In other words, they have become isolated as a language because there’s no need for the general population to need it. This causes minor difficulties only, though.
The Drephans originated as southern refugees from the Isles of the Long Ships in the south, now forming small urban communities in the major Belanorian coastal cities in the south and west. While they have gained a minor foothold politically, it is up to the Drephans to be taught bilingually, as their language is too different to be understood by most native Belanorians. The Drephan community is largely treated with suspicion and distaste, and as such there is no attempt at integrating their language, or their culture for that matter, into Belanorian lifestyles. The only non-Drephans who learn anything of their language are some merchants who frequent their wares.
Languages are divisive, but they are also very difficult to learn. Polyglots are common in fiction, but in the real world they are few and very noteworthy when encountered. Learning from childhood, you can function well in a bilingual environment, but adult language learning for real proficiency usually takes years. In a nation like Belanor this is a real problem. If a southwestern lord who speaks Selilase and Gwyu goes to war and is placed in command of a number of Uldane mercenaries he would need to hire a translator or hope for a learned captain. Translators take away from the power of the person needing them, as their nuances can be lost, as well as translated words altered to what the translator believes would be more appropriate or fitting. The translator could even manipulate the relationship by dishonestly translating.
In other nations this isn’t as much of a problem. Normally you have a situation like the one in Belanor about 150 years ago, where Uldane was the main language, with Relgar as the secondary language, allowing for almost all of the population being mutually intelligible with some exceptions among the Gwyu, Selile, and Drephan population. But, with the relatively recent Selile domination of the courts of nobility, the balance has been upset, creating unrest in the kingdom.
Language unifies people, and it also drives people apart. It’s part of the culture. Being ruled or commanded who literally cannot understand you on even a basic level creates a feeling of unrest and extreme discomfort in many people. It might not effect you, but when push comes to shove most would like to be able to understand their overseers.
I want to create a real sense of disconnect between much of the Belanorian nobility and their people. This rift in language tends to affect the idea of loyalty to one lord or lady, or even the lack thereof. A noble who speaks the Relgar language ruling over a Relgar population is going to be far more popular than a Selile noble in Snowlander territory who doesn’t speak the language (hell, he might even get lynched, but that’s an explanation for another day). Nobles in large kingdoms and empires in the Middle Ages often didn’t understand their people on a cultural or literal basis. This widens the difference between those with money and those without. It creates an entirely new culture of its own: the culture of the privileged.
This would come out a lot in times of war. It would be hard for Selile levies to be sent to assist a struggle on a Relgar border, as most leaders would not be able to understand them without translators, and so on. Although Belanor is a nation united, the lack of an ethnic and linguistic bond for much of the population also makes it a nation divided. Traveling from the capital to the border with Edhaman you might encounter four different tongues, and maybe even no one who understands you for almost a thousand miles. This makes politics very interesting when it comes to nationally maintaining control.
Popular lords and ladies exist, quite often, in fact, but for the most part there is no relationship between a noble and their people unless it is forced in times of war. Otherwise they’re content to let the peasantry do their work unmolested if they are being sufficiently productive to the noble’s liking. There does tend to be, though, a more palpable sense of loyalty to the lord from a similar ethnic or linguistic background, though.
So, as I said, language is hard. Dealing with languages is just as hard, in certain ways. It helps me to maintain the sense of diversity I want, but, at the same time, it makes life very difficult.