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The Language of Fantasy: An Introduction

As I continue down my list of suggested topics for writing articles, I come to one that fills me with more trepidation than even the one about religion. This time, my fear comes not from offending anyone, but from a total lack of expertise in the subject matter! What is this topic I’ll be bumbling my way through?

Language.

I took exactly one linguistics course ever. One. And that was probably 15 years ago. Maybe 20. I’ve never developed a language for any of my worlds, and I have very few real qualifications to write anything on language creation. (I did take three years of high school Spanish, if that means anything.)

So with that disclaimer, let me dive into this topic headlong and see what happens. Linguistics is an enormous field of study, so I can pretty much guarantee this will be a multi-week series. As I write, I’ll also include web resources that I think might be useful for those authors looking to do further research.

Language in Fantasy

Before I start making a fool of myself with this topic, let me give a few opinions about the role and use of language in fantasy. First, I am not a hugely picky reader when it comes to fantasy language. I find it quite easy to suspend my disbelief and allow the author to just tell me about different languages without those languages being on the page. I don’t quibble over accents or dialects, and I don’t mind the random apostrophes our genre enjoys. As I come at this topic, keep in mind that I don’t have high expectations about foreign languages in my reading.

All that said…I think there are some things we should consider as we create our worlds. Some of these are quibbles I’ve heard repeatedly from other spec-fic fans, so even if they don’t bother me, I think they’re things to consider.

  • Random capitals, punctuation, and compound structure. I hear this complaint all the time. “What does the apostrophe stand for? It should replace something. Did you throw the capital in there just for fun? What’s with the compound word there? You couldn’t separate those?”
  • Accents for the Lowborn, but not the Highborn. Some fantasy readers say that authors tend to give accents to the lower classes of society, but not the high. I think this may be true, but I think there are reasons. Our stories tend to follow those of higher birth, and to write an accent for a protagonist all the way through a book would be taxing on both the author and the reader. And by the way, I think the books that follow those of lower classes on their rise to power tend to have less distinction in accent between the classes. We write the voice of the protagonist, and the others fall in place around that voice because the protagonist never thinks he/she has an accent (no one does). I think another reason this is true is because, to some degree, it’s historically accurate. The lower classes of society probably do tend to have more distinctive accents than those of a higher class. There are many reasons for this distinction that I won’t go into, but I think it’s fair to say the distinction is there and acknowledge it on the page.
  • Made up names that don’t seem realistic. This is probably the most subjective criticism I hear. It really is something very personal to the reader, I think. But it’s something to keep in mind as you write. If you can’t believe the name could actually exist, your reader probably won’t either.

I don’t think every fantasy book has to include a brand new language, and even if it does, I don’t think you have to be a linguist to write enough words to make a new language believable. In fact, I have a few cautions about writing a new language that don’t involve the actual science of it.

  • Don’t be so focused on language that you forget the story. I think this is a trap that many spec-fic authors fall into across the general worldbuilding category. They get really wrapped up in the worldbuilding—mapping, creating languages, building magic systems, etc.—and forget to tell the story or build the characters. Remember that the story is the key thing. If the story is good, most readers will forgive you for random apostrophes. I know I’ve tried to read books with exquisitely crafted worlds that have flat characters or non-existent plots. These books feel “gimmicky” to me—as if they tried to sell me on the world rather than draw me into it through good storytelling.
  • Don’t let yourself be distracted by the language (or any other element of worldbuilding). This one goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. I see many budding fantasy authors really focused on building the worlds and not actually writing anything. “But it took Tolkien twenty years to build Middle Earth,” they’ll say. To which I answer, “You aren’t Tolkien.” The thing is, any element of building a world can very quickly become a distraction, an excuse, or a self-defeating tool to avoid doing the actual writing.
  • Don’t get too hung up on the naysayers, picky linguists, and grumpy fantasy fans. Please don’t throw things at me. You know they’re out there—the folks who get irritated about everything in the genre either because they think it’s all been done or because they think they can do it better. Listen, if those readers want to write their own stories, they are totally capable of doing so. If you want to throw in random apostrophes and capitals, go for it. It’s your story. You tell it the way you want to tell it, and don’t let yourself wallow in worry about what other people will say about the way your characters talk.

With that, I think I’m ready to dive in! I think the best place to start building a new language is with real-world languages. Next week, I’ll look at some of the basic language families and what I think we can use from them to build our own new languages.

In the meantime, here’s a very timely link about the creation of Dothraki for HBO’s treatment of A Game of Thrones.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar Sarah Newton says:

    I think languages loom large as the big hidden issue behind a lot of speculative fiction, and are an absolute minefield and also a bit of a distraction. Because people like Tolkien created elaborate languages (based on real world languages) for their fiction, it seems to have become somehow accepted that that’s the “right” way to do things.

    But think about historical fiction for a moment. Let’s say you’re setting a story in, say, Ancient Rome. Would you feel duty bound to include piles of Classical Latin? I don’t think so; the only reason you’d dip into Latin would be to ensure names were correct and that you had terms for cultural ideas and artifacts which didn’t have direct parallels in 21st century English. And even names go by the wayside somewhat: you might try and refer to your characters in the same way the Romans did, but in all likelihood you’d treat the Roman names just as if they were English ones, or according to the accepted usage (ie you’d probably call Brutus, well, Brutus, rather than Marcus Iunius or Quintus Servilius (etc)).

    I’m a linguist by training, and the urge to coin words is very strong, but when writing fantasy or far future fiction where understandable English isn’t the vernacular, I find the golden issue is this: given that your whole novel is linguistic artifice, in that you’re translating your characters’ words into 21st century English so your reader can understand them, why would you *not* translate certain elements of text? There has to be a reason: perhaps no analogous word exists for your fantasy / scifi concept; perhaps the character in question doesn’t understand an utterance; perhaps you want to emphasise that you’re writing about an alien world, and would rather write “To’olemayaki Tharkri” rather than “Doctor” 😉

    I recently wrote “Mindjammer”, a novel set in the 17th millennium. And I wanted my characters to swear. I started off by coining expletives, but they sounded appallingly cheesy. In the end, I used 21st century expletives. I tried to avoid direct religious references, but even then I ended up using “thank god” and “oh my god” sufficiently frequently that I felt I had to de-capitalise the word “god”. My realisation was that I had to translate the concepts into their 21st century equivalents, rather than coin a mouthful of unpronounceble consonants to obfuscate what was a fairly standard reference.

    So my own opinion about fantasy / futuristic language is: less is more. Tolkien loved constructing elaborate poems in made-up languages, but that was part of his character as a linguist, and less as a story-teller. I’m unsure how many readers delight in reading those poems; I know some do. But, for me, created languages are a tool, a way to reveal depth and meaning, rather than obscure it. But that’s me – I’m as crazy as a gargathrand and as passionate as a nim-bytor-thrux who’s overdosed on mananga… 😉

    • Sarah, I completely agree with you–100%. Perhaps you should write this series! No, I’m not kidding. 🙂 I think you’re absolutely right–less is more, and you can convey a lot through slightly shifted syntax or a few unusual idiomatic phrases.

      I suppose a lot of it comes down to my theory that the best writing is invisible. The main purpose of writing should be to tell a story, and the best writing lets the story shine without confusing matters. I think sometimes we’re tempted to show off how smart we are, and really, that’s more about us than the story, you know?

      Thank you for the really thoughtful comment!

  2. Avatar Nathan Tweed says:

    I tend to go for language-lite: it’s all about names for people and places. Decide sounds (maybe they don’t use the S sound?), feminine/masculine structure & letters, word length. A good resource is http://www.omniglot.com – take a look at the syllabi and diacritic-based alphabets.

  3. I love languages, but I don’t do any elaborate language creation for my world, just use it to create names. Having said that, I do put some work into the structure and phonology of the language to make the names rising out of a linguistic culture consistent.

    Incidentally, the apostrophes aren’t “random” when they’re used correctly (which they’re not always). In RW languages, this most commonly represents a glottal stop – a kind of gulp which is as much a sound as A & B in many languages. If a world’s languages are going to be varied, some will include the glottal stop.

    • Nyki, no, I know apostrophes aren’t “random,” but I hear that complaint from readers sometimes. But yes, if it represents a glottal stop or a missing letter or what-have-you, the the apostrophe is appropriate. I think perhaps some readers just don’t know that…

  4. Avatar wolf hood says:

    Story development over language is better. also thanks for bringing up the accents of low and high society. I feel writers need to go beyond stereotypes in the fantasy world they are creating.

  5. YES! This is a topic I’ve long sought resonance in. Now being in the writing group, its particularly of interest to me and likely to all the chums between the dragons and knights. I feel this is a great place to start the low and high born being a good entry point. I’d like to hear more about British oriented accents and dialects as they are so very common in so many facets of the genre (pirate variations, bandits and thugs, even the high born high annunciation accents, etc etc. I eagerly await part 2!

    • Thank you! The idea of British-oriented accents fascinates me, and I wonder why we fall into this pattern. It’s not as if we DON’T have accents in the US. But perhaps they aren’t quite as associated with social strata as they are in British English? I don’t know. There is some stigma associated with some accents in the US, especially Southern accents. This is a concept I’m playing with in my current WIP, which is a western set in a world similar to the Southwestern US. There aren’t any British accents–just some slow-talking cowboys and some native people with a rather undefined language. It’s quite a bit different to work with than the varying British accents!

  6. […] weeks ago, I started this series on language and ended with a promise to look at some of the major language families this […]

  7. Avatar Emily says:

    Bear in mind, there are situations where conlangs can be justified. Recently I started to write a story about some fresh-off-the-boat immigrants. ‘English’ is their first language, but the language of their new home is very much a second language, and they’re constantly having to parse and translate everything in their heads, not to mention work their ways around cultural differences. It gets especially bad when one of them gets lost and has to figure out how to phrase asking for directions.

    Hey, come to think of it, Ellis-Island style immigrants aren’t done in fantasy very often, are they?

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