“Unintelligible”: Creating Otherness through Language Choice

Curator's Note

As the Vikings travelled out into the world of the early Middle Ages, they encountered a wide array of languages, but representing this multilingual situation in stories for public consumption is necessarily impractical. We don’t speak these languages any more, and content makers must make decisions about when a modern language will be used and when it will not.

Whereas the issue is often avoided by simply using modern English at all times, one can have scenes where speakers of differing languages meet, where characters can use medieval forms and be subtitled, as in Michael Hirst’s Vikings. The inclusion of the original languages can serve as a means of highlighting differences between characters, and can even create a sense of otherness for the audience if left untranslated. This is one approach taken in the popular Ubisoft game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

Following the settlement of a Norwegian clan on English soil, characters in Valhalla usually speak modern English, whether they are Scandinavians or local Anglo-Saxons, except in background dialogue. This is partly practical, but also highlights the extent to which the characters are striving to create political alliances in the land. The player also encounters characters speaking Welsh – the language of the Celtic peoples who had been pushed westward by the Anglo-Saxons. Here we have Brigid, whose language is intentionally left untranslated: subtitles for her dialogue simply say “unintelligible.” In fact, the language she uses is intentionally garbled – the voice actress uses a mix of Welsh and English to create a hybrid representative of the multilingual situation in Brigid’s community. The modern player thus shares in the Viking characters’ sense of bewilderment in not understanding Brigid’s speech.

Moving much further west, the gameplay includes travel to the shores of North America, where we encounter the Kanien’kéha language of the Mohawk people. The language first appeared in Assassin’s Creed 3 and, this time, the audience is included in the Viking characters’ inability to comprehend their new surrounds by having the language remain untranslated in subtitles (although fans have themselves made the effort). While the true circumstances of contact between Vikings and Native Americans remain speculative, Ubisoft’s interpretation certainly enhances the immersive gameplay of perceiving the world from a Viking perspective. With DLCs set in Ireland and France giving further scope for language contact, Valhalla creates a world where the modern player can recreate something of the multilingual reality of the Viking age.



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Cryer, H. (2021, May 17). Assassin’s Creed Valhalla fans have translated all Native American dialog. GamesRadar+. https://www.gamesradar.com/assassins-creed-valhalla-fans-have-translated...

McGuire, K. (2021, March 26). What languages are they really speaking on Vikings? Looper. https://www.looper.com/366666/what-languages-are-they-really-speaking-on...

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