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By couple I don't mean they are in a love relationship but that certainly might happen down the road. Just to be 100% clear I'm talking about man and woman here. The idea is that they start out as mortal enemies, then get thrown into a situation where both are out of their depth and have to team up to make it out alive. Alas a lasting partnership ensues. They begin as enemies because we first meet her and him on a battlefield as parts of two opposing armies trying to wipe each other off the map. The armies belong to different nations, hence they speak different languages.

There's a lot of potential here from a narrative point of view but as the story progresses there must be ways for them to communicate efficiently or they won't be able to survive. I imagine both to be of the "strong, silent type" as they are warriors as in experienced soldiers that have seen and done a lot that's not to be bragged about and that would mess up the minds of weaker willed people completely. They come to understand each other as being of the same breed.

Now the fact that they start respecting each other and share experiences that are new to either of them is a big incentive to start opening up and sharing. Just how would that happen when they aren't able to speak to each other?

Right now I'm leaning towards them both learning the language spoken in the place they end up at. I once had a semi-awkward experience where I conversed in an Asian language with a fellow European because I didn't speak his language well and he didn't speak my language or English at all, yet we had both learned the language spoken in the Asian country where we lived at the time.

But for them to learn the local language would be difficult to integrate into the plot as language-learning is a time-consuming process with flow-killing potential and their first attempts might just come across as awkward as my conversation with the European fellow in Asia. The awkwardness might make an already weird situation more believable though and few things lend themselves better to induce romance than to have the protagonists study together. It shouldn't become comic though as the undertone is serious. I can't imagine two elite soldiers going to school Harry-Potter-style! Them learning the local language would have the added benefit of being able to more directly engage with the locals.

It's gonna be fantasy so a magical element is possible. Magic could be used to speed up the learning process so as not to make it awkward. I'm open for ideas.

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closed as off-topic by Mołot, sphennings, Vincent, adaliabooks, Azuaron Sep 5 '17 at 15:48

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    $\begingroup$ They don't have a common language at all? For example from about the 4th century before the common era to the 5th century of the common era just about anybody who wasn't nobody in any country around the Mediterranean and in Persia spoke (or at least understood) Greek. Europe had Latin as a common language of education up to the end of the 18th century. Spanish was widely taught and understood throughout western Europe from 1500 or so to 1700. Then French became the international language of choice. Today it's English. If they don't then use this as a motivation for him to learn hers... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 5 '17 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ You might be interested in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok", if you don't know it already. In it, Picard is forced into a situation where he has to try and learn to communicate with an alien being. The universal translator can turn their words into English, but since their language relies on a lot of proper nouns and implied context, it might as well not be translating at all. It's an interesting take on a language barrier, but it might give you some ideas as to how the two characters might act around each other when they can't understand what the other is saying. $\endgroup$ – DisturbedNeo Sep 5 '17 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting question, but I'm not sure it's relevant to Worldbuilding - sounds more like a narrative element question... $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Sep 5 '17 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ 2 movies dealing with a similar situation rather nicely: Enemy Mine where a human and an alien crash after a space-dogfight with each other on the same secluded planet, and eventually cooperate in order to survive. And The 13th Warrior where an Arab ambassador joins a group of vikings to fight against a common enemy. Both movies show how two parties without a common language and starting from either enmity or mistrust learn to cooperate, communicate, and eventually to appreciate each other. $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Sep 5 '17 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ Them not speaking a common language now doesn't mean they can't learn it eventually. There were many historical examples of first contact, and the explorers managed to learn and teach enough to understand basic things, pretty quickly. Have you heard of Pocahontas? $\endgroup$ – vsz Sep 5 '17 at 13:57
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They do not need to communicate efficiently, merely effectively - nuance of meaning is not essential.

They are both experienced soldiers in a survival situation - most needs will be either self-evident or capable of being communicated by simple signs. They are both the strong-silent type, so are unlikely to be chatty anyway. They are likely to have some words in common, but being similar in terms of experience and need is more likely to enable a more wordless communication anyway.

Language, initially, would not be necessary - gestures, and the occasional unintelligible shout to get attention, would be quite adequate.

Other communication would develop in time.

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    $\begingroup$ In many jobs, professionals who know their trade well enough can cooperate just fine without using language - each already knows what they need to do, and what to expect from the other. The difficulties come in when those expectations differ (they are different cultures, as well as different languages) and when their objectives differ (if you are going to have them in a third culture, that culture had better be more alien/threatening to both than either is to the other, or you will have serious trust issues). $\endgroup$ – Ben Barden Sep 5 '17 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Good point. Trust issues will have to be overcome for sure! $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 5 '17 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ Non-verbal communication, not having to explain what you mean, is far more likely to increase intimacy, simply because it seems more intimate. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Sep 5 '17 at 16:27
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My grandparents met, in New York City, in the garment district. They were immigrants from different countries; one spoke only German, the other only Italian, and they were 15 and 16, respectively; both orphans on their own.

They worked across the street from each other. My grandfather, even at 15, was built like a quarterback. About one week into his job (cutting patterns out of cloth with a knife), he was taking a break smoking a cigarette outside, and crossed the street to push a guy that was harassing a girl. There was no fight, he told the guy (in Italian) to back off, the guy didn't understand him, so he gave him a hard push and the guy fell on his ass. Then rolled over, got up and walked away cursing. My grandmother said Thank You (in German), my grandfather nodded, touched his bowed forehead, and went back to work.

That night he waited an hour for my grandmother to get out of work; when she did she said hi and smiled; he slapped his chest and pointed down the street, said "I will walk you home and nobody will bother you," in Italian, then put his hands behind his back.

She nodded. They managed to exchange names, and walked two miles. He talked the whole way in Italian. She only knew German. They used what little English they were picking up. he walked her home every night for a week, then started showing up at her apartment (shared with half a dozen other girls) to walk her to work, too. He moved into an apartment (with roommates) a block from her apartment. They got married six months later, had six kids, and stayed married for life.

Actions speak louder than words. They did not share a religion, a language, a culture or have any common friends. I believe they were strongly attracted to each other (they were 16 after all). Entirely at random they ended up working on the same street. Not entirely at random, my grandfather did nothing but work his job and pursue this girl. Good luck, because she says she was in love from the start.

A couple will work to communicate when they are motivated to do so.

From a writing standpoint, if you must start them as mortal enemies; that should not be a personal issue (he murdered her parents or something), but a more ideological or abstract reason. In Romeo and Juliet, he is a Montague, she is a Capulet: The families are mortal enemies, but the kids can get over it. They could be from two countries that have been bitterly at war their entire lives. Or different religions. The "mortal enemy" label must be something they can forgive and forget once they get to know and trust each other.

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  • $\begingroup$ This story is so good I wish I could upvote it +100 $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Sep 5 '17 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ It won't be personal but ideological reasons. What will make the walls tumble is the realization that after all they were pawns and that there's no winners in war. $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 5 '17 at 16:15
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They can use telepathy.

As telepathy connect the brains, and language is a medium for the brain to express its feeling and intention, when using telepathy a common language between the sender and the receiver is not needed. They will connect directly sharing their feeling and intentions.

They only need to have a common emotions and feelings set, which being both of the same specie is granted.

I.e. let's say one is Dutch and the other is Italian. If the Dutch wants to express by language the meaning of being thirsty, then the word Dorst will be used, which having nothing in common with the Italian Sete will not be understood. Instead the brain signal of being thirsty will be understood independently from the used word.

This can also add some twist to the plot, as they can have some cultural difference which reflects on their behavior and thoughts. Think for example to the Bushido ethics and how it was perceived by Westerners in XIX century.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you recommend books where telepathy is used to communicate on a regular basis? $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 5 '17 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ @H3R3T1K, the first example which comes to my mind is The Mule in Asimov's Foundation series. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 5 '17 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ I can imagine that the event that took them to the place they end up at also linked their minds in a way to enable telepathy. I will have to read up on telepathy. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 5 '17 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ On second thought, developing romance would be hard if not impossible if the two can read each other's minds at all times. Or does telepathy not necessarily include that ability? Can a notion only be received that has been sent intentionally or is the channel completely open? Wouldn't you go mad when confronted by a continuous stream of thought that is not your own? $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 5 '17 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ @H3R3T1K, I am no telepathy expert, but I guess you can make the "read from" channel opened at pleasure. And if you add also the ability to close the "be read" channel you can cover the romance side. At the end is your story, so you define the borders of the capabilities. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 5 '17 at 12:33
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Interpretive dance.

interpretive dancer bent waaaay back

Obviously there is some point where pantomimes are going to happen. That is sort of boring. Imagine, though, one of these warriors is from a dance tradition, where stories are told through dance and movement. Instead of lame halfass charades type thing (s)he launches into a dance.

The other one watches, jaw agape. When the dance is done and turns to glare are the other, she mutters "holy s..." then slowly nods.

The warrior who watches this is not a dancer and her culture has no tradition of dance. But she is trained in martial arts. She knows katas.

enter image description here

She perceives the similarity of how body movements can convey a narrative and so presses her katas into service.

I like the idea that by putting words into the dance / kata, the two wind up speaking a language that is a hybrid of both.

None of this is easy in prose: describing dance / body movements is challenging and describing the learning of a language using words in a language is also challenging.

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    $\begingroup$ I know of an Illithid character that had too few points in telepathy who was reduced to communicating through actual interpretative dance for several levels, it was hilarious. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 5 '17 at 14:54
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EDIT - this link might be helpful! Learning a new language without any reference

I don't know if this would fit your story at all, but if your couple (who speak languages A and B) are travelling through an unknown environment, perhaps they would have a guide who speaks language C fluently. The guide probably would have snippets of languages A and B (because they're a professional guide), but both characters would have to become used to communicating in language C.

It might give them a way to break the ice as well - if they can empathise with the difficulty of learning another language from scratch, perhaps that could bring them together.

A similar(ish) scenario appears in Patrick Rothfuss' "The Wise Man's Fear" - the protagonist journeys to a foreign country with a mercenary band, one member of which speaks the language Ademre. The protagonist knows nothing of Ademre, and the Adem speaker knows minimal English, so there's a lot of miming and charades to try to understand each other. Simple concepts like "tree", "road", "food" etc. are easy, but communicating something like "existential dread" by charades? A bit more challenging... Either way, attempting to learn each other's/a whole new language is definitely a good way to make friends.

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Seems like you solved the main problem already: they have to work together to live, and then do so.

Why complicate it more than that? Hormones flowing, able bodies in isolation, cold night one blanket... why wouldn't they get it on?

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Solutions in fantasy include Common.

In D&D there's a common tongue, and in history there have been 3rd languages used to communicate certain ideas--a merchant tongue of some kind could work here, but it's likely that they will be using words like TRADE or VALUE with a limited vocab related to commerce.

In Medieval times, French and Latin was learned by the educated. If they have a little of a 3rd language that isn't native to either, this can help.

The third language option can actually be fun because they might use common phrases to communicate larger ideas.

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Some ideas for you...

  • Are they alone? Is there someone else with them who can teach them both a third language?

  • Could it be that the guy studied the gal's language in school? Let's say he got terrible grades in it, but enough foundation to start learning for real.

  • Could it be that the gal's equivalent of Church Latin is similar to a language the guy speaks?

  • Might their languages be derived from a common root, a la English and German? They might stumble through with cognates (false and real) until they evolve a private patois.

  • Just throwing this out there ... is it plot-necessary that they share no common language? I note that in real history it's not uncommon for high-ranking people of enemy nations to study one another's tongues, for insult purposes if nothing else. ;D Also, if one of your countries swings a lot of cultural weight (think Greece, China, France) it might be expected that educated folks nearby have to learn the "language of culture".

Now for practical matters...

  • Depending on how much you want to make the learning process part of the plot, you can have a few inner-monologue scenes where one of them needs to tell the other something and is frustrated that he cannot.

  • You could drop in a paragraph or two here and there having them sitting around a campsite, sketching pictures on the ground or teaching one another words.

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With gestures and a mix of their own languages.

Think Hell in the Pacific. If they are warriors of some kind they share way more common ground than any other two random individuals, and information exchange required for survival is really minimal. Strategic planning is a different world, but if the goal is surviving, and they need each other to do so, communication would develop organically without any need to appeal to magic or technology (which is a really lazy approach). That's if you want to explore the relation at that level, which is both interesting and easily transferable to many other contexts.

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