There’s a genre of Japanese stories known as 異世界 (isekai), which means “different world” or “otherworld”. They usually involve a person or people being transported from our world to a fantasy or virtual world, or to a parallel universe. Such stories appear in the form of novels, films, manga, anime and video games.
There are two main types: one in which the main character is transported to another world by magic, divine intervention or other means, and another in which the character dies in our world and is reincarnated in another world. The former are known as 異世界転移 (isekai teni), or “transition into another world”, and the latter as 異世界転生 (isekai tensei), or “reincarnation into another world” [source].
Such stories, or similar ones, are also found in other languages, including English, and have been around for a long time. Recently I’ve been reading some of them, mainly in the form of web serials. In the descriptions of such serials, the term isekai often pops up, which is why I thought I’d look into it in this post.
As a linguist, one aspect of such stories that interests me is how the characters manage to communicate with people in the new world they find themselves in. Some writers just have everybody speaking English, or whatever language the main character speaks natively. In some case there are magical, technological or other ways that help the characters communicate, or the main character acquires a skill that helps them to learn the local language(s). Or, the main character finds someone to act as interpreter.
In The Wandering Inn, for example, the main character is magically transported to a different world where everybody speaks English, except the goblins and a few others. So she has no trouble communicating with most people. Some characters have their own writing systems though, which she can’t read.
In Cinnamon Bun the main character finds herself in a different world where people and other creatures speak all sorts of languages, and she is magically able to understand them all and to speak their languages. She can even communicate through dance with the giant bee characters.
In Quill & Still the main character is transported to another world where everybody speaks different languages. The magical system gives her the ability to speak some of them, but she still has to learn about the local culture.
In Beneath the Dragoneye Moons the main character is reincarnated in a different world, so grows up speaking the local language. When she finds herself many thousands of year in the future after spending time in the land of the fae, all the languages have changed and she has to learn new ones. She gains skills to help with this, and meets a character who can act as an interpreter as she speaks all languages, thanks to a skill granted to her by the gods.
Do you know of any other stories, in English or other languages, which are linguistically interesting and worth a read?
If you’re familiar with Japanese isekai, how do characters cope with different languages, or does everybody in the other worlds speak Japanese?
In real life we are unlikely to be transported into a completely different world. However, we can find ourselves in different linguistic and cultural environments by travelling to other countries, or by visiting other parts of our own countries. We have no magic to help us learn languages, but we do have books, courses, teachers, classes and technology.
One thought on “Different Worlds”
In Japanese isekai, if the main character isn’t reincarnated in the new world, they’re usually granted the ability to speak the local language magically.
There’s an equivalent term in English – “portal fantasy” – but I see more and more people using “isekai” to mean this particular type of portal fantasy.