August’s Writing Prompt: Tongue Twister

For July’s writing prompt, go here.

What if the residents of two countries suddenly switched languages?

Woodland speaks Woodlandian. All its written sources are in Woodlandian, including government documents, archives, reference materials, and even everyday labels like food ingredient labels and street signs. Plainsia speaks Plainsish. All its written sources are in Plainsish, just like Woodland’s are in Woodlandian. One day, every Woodlandian speaker wakes up knowing only Plainsish, and every Plainsish speaker wakes up knowing only Woodlandian. (The few who can speak both languages become poor at both.) No one can read anything unless people from the other country help them.

Somehow, these countries have to solve their problems together. They can’t simply switch homelands; no one could decide who took whose home, and what if they have different populations? Switching all written sources would take too long, especially when transcribing laws. What would they do?

First, they’d have to learn what had happened. That could take days. Thankfully, neighbouring countries’ news outlets would probably jump all over the first indications of people picking up the phone and speaking a language no one’s ever heard them speak.

Characters in this story could be second-language teachers, consultants, stenographers, or anyone who could learn a language quickly. Woodlandian speakers who live in a country close to the Plainsish border would be coveted in Plainsia, as would their Plainsish-speaking counterparts in parts near Woodlandia. If Woodlandia and Plainsia are close together on the same continent, this may not be as big an issue. If they’re half a world apart…

Plot could involve any number of travel plans between the countries. Maybe there’d be a Woodlandian-Plainsish romantic subplot. Maybe it’d be some cheesy thing about learning a common language… On a darker note, maybe living in a country where no one can read the laws for a short while encourages revolution, or lurking beside a country that has a temporary gap in its institutions results in an external invasion. Peninsuland always wanted a piece of Woodland, and now that all of Woodland’s military manuals are unreadable…

This is also where the importance of visuals comes into play. With road signs unreadable, traffic lights are paramount, as are the universally recognizable red octagons of STOP signs. Kinetics are the other saving graces for the Woodlandians and the Plainsish. If you can use a wrench, screwdriver, drill press, sword or gun, forgetting your native language won’t stop you from doing that. Besides, you’ll still be fluent orally in your new language. If you were having a conversation over a snack and a drink when the change happened, you might barely notice! …until you attempted to read the brand name on your food.

There’s definitely an inspiration in my post on L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Isolinguals” back in June.

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