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Hand in the cloudsOne of the aspects of the main character in my story is her use of language to express the differences in culture between the dwarves and men. I have been interested in linguistics for many years and as part of the back story I decided to develop a separate language for the dwarves, not only to make place names sound authentically different but also to influence their use of the ‘common tongue’ when talking to men and to reinforce the sense of ‘otherness’. As with Diaspora everywhere, a person’s first language will always intrude on thinking, not only leading to changes in sentence construction but also substitution of words and phrases. Clearly I need not to overdo this so not to confuse the reader, but I have introduced a smattering of words in this different language, only where (I think) the meaning is fairly obvious.

Part of the process of learning French while I am here is the discovery of other ways of constructing ideas in a different language. The words and sentence structures in French are sufficiently different to English to allow a different way of thinking. So it is with my character: her mother tongue allows her to think in a different way, not just express herself differently. This set me thinking. I have often wondered why the French word ‘maintenant’ was so different to other European words for ‘now’. In German you can use ‘jetzt’ or ‘noch’, depending on the context.  Italian is ‘ora’ (which can also be translated as ‘hour’; ‘ahora’ in Spanish, from the same root. Dutch, Swedish and Danish use ‘nu’, a cognate with the English ‘now’, You get the point.

The French ‘maintenant’ and ‘actuellement’ seem very long-winded by comparison. Then it struck me that ‘maintenant’, was a construction of ‘main’ – ‘hand’ and ‘tenant’ – ‘holding’. So, the concept of ‘now’ in French is of something being held in the hand. This is an example of how language changes thinking. The concept of the present being something you hold in your hand is full of possibilities. The past cannot be changed, the future is unknown but you hold the present in your hand. It is yours to do with as you wish. A similar construction in English would be ‘the time is at hand’. (Of course the word for tomorrow, ‘demain’ – Italian ‘domani’ – also implies imminence or the time ‘at hand’).

Now I see ‘maintenant’ quite differently. It is an opportunity, a chance to profit. Time to use while it is in your hands.