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The Language of Fantasy, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I started this series on language and ended with a promise to look at some of the major language families this week.

I’ve changed my mind.

 

After several of you posted some really insightful and educated comments in response to my article, I’d like to humbly request that one of the linguists in the audience give more of a primer on real-world languages. Just post your comment on this article if you’d like to write something, and our esteemed Overlord will be thrilled to look at your article if you send it to him. (By the way, one reader posted this fantastic resource for language creation.)

I did want to share a few ideas around the creation of language and worlds in your work. First off, a few of the “don’ts”—or at least the “use cautions.”

 

  • Swear Words: There is a risk of offending readers with the use of real-world swear words. The temptation to create new words to convey the ideas is strong, partly to avoid offense and partly to build the world, but when I’ve tried it, I find it doesn’t work. The words are cheesy, and I find that they don’t convey the same weight as real-world swear words. Plus, since you have to somehow convey that your substitute means what the real word means, don’t you still run the risk of offending? I think it’s frakking rare for a made up swear word to come off as authentic, so use extreme caution when going down this road.

I do have one caveat: Sometimes, idiomatic phrases can be a great substitute for swear words. Robert Jordan’s “blood and ashes” comes to mind. There’s nothing inherently rude about it for those of us who speak English, but because we’re told all through the Wheel of Time that it’s a rude phrase, we understand in context that those people who say it are swearing. (By the way, here’s a great list of curses and swear words from The Wheel of Time series.)

  • Heavy Accents or Dialects: I made this mistake in my first published version of Ravenmarked. The accent was too heavy, and whether readers found it natural or not, it was too hard to read. I’m currently reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and I just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the slave accent is almost unbearable to read in both. I find myself translating in my head, and every time I have to slow down to translate, I’m jerked out of the story.

It is possible to convey a dialect or accent with just a few words here and there. Drop an occasional –g, use a contraction like “’tis” or “y’all,” or find alternative words like “aye” for “yes.” Just a few words sprinkled in here and there can convey the idea of an accent without making the reader want to claw his or her eyes out.

  • Entire Languages: Be really, really careful with creating an entire language system and/or alphabet . Unless you are a linguist, you run a risk of coming off as an amateur who has no idea what he or she is doing. Also, you might very possibly forget the story in your zeal to create a language. It just really isn’t necessary to create an entire language to convey the idea that different places speak different tongues.

I can think of two reasons to create a whole new language: 1) You really are a linguist and you just want to for fun;  and 2) language plays a pivotal role in your story, one that you really can’t pull off unless you do create a language (or revive one—Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book comes to mind with her use of Middle English and how it functions in the story). There may be other reasons, but make sure they are compelling enough for you to spend the time on the language.

Now for my list of “dos.”

  • Use idiomatic phrases. Aside from using these as swear words, think about other ways to convey character, language, and setting. The one I always think of is “you’re pulling my leg” in English. A similar phrase in Spanish is “me tomas el pelo,” which translates to “you’re eating my hair.” Both mean essentially the same thing—“you’re trying to trick or fool me.” Think about how you can create similar phrases to show different cultures and languages.
  • Remember your setting. In the same way, consider how climate, setting, and lifestyle might influence idioms, phrases, syntax, metaphors, etc. If your people live on a coastline and eat mostly fish, whales, and berries (like the coastal natives in the U. S.), they’ll have vastly different reference points from a people who live in the desert and drink milk and blood (like the Masai of Africa). How will those climates, settings, animals, worlds influence the idioms, metaphors, and similes the people use?
  • Mix up the syntax. This can be very simple stuff. I’m not sure if this falls exactly under syntax, but I heard a Grammar Girl podcast once that revealed the Irish do not answer yes/no questions with “yes” or “no.” Rather, they repeat the verb of the question. I loved the elegance of this small change, and I integrated it into the grammar of my character Igraine. Study other languages to see what kind of simple ways you can mix up syntax. In Spanish, for instance, the adjective comes after the noun. How can you turn your sentences around just enough to make them different but still understandable to your reader?
  • Flesh out your character’s voice. Remember that your character doesn’t have to be a perfect speaker of his or her language. Language is very fluid and individual, and it rarely follows perfect class or geographical boundaries. Look at Littlefinger in A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s really a man sort of stuck between classes, and yet his speech is refined and elegant because he speaks to the class he wishes to become associated with. Use language to flesh out your character’s individual voice. The character’s personality will influence his or her language as much as anything else.

A final thought. I think it’s often enough to simply give your languages names of their own and describe how they sound. You could say the language is guttural and harsh, smooth and lyric, lilting, slow and methodical, etc. Think about the sounds people make in different cultures—uluating, clicking, whistling—and gestures as well, and remember that those are part of language. Most of the time, the creation of language in a fantasy or science fiction world is simply one way to flesh out the world. You can do most of that without language development from scratch.

 

Next week: Themes

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting article. I didn’t realize there were so many curses in the Wheel of Time series. Some on the list I don’t even remember. Anyway, some good advice here. I’m a fan of creating unique curses for my stories. But, like you said, care must be taken or comes off as silly.

  2. Avatar Jonathan Shirts says:

    I love the “pull my leg” bit – reminded me of a phrase in Romanian: “S? nu-mi vinde?i gogo?i” Literally translated it says, “Don’t sell me donuts” but is used as a way of saying, “Don’t you dare try to rip me off.” Love that.

  3. There is another called the Language Construction Kit that has been around for ages, something many people reference to assist in their new worlds. They have a website and a book that compiled everything together as well.

    However, if you really want to startle your reader and make them aware there is something alien about this world, you should pepper in the phrases into your work instead of describing the sounds. Readers aren’t going to remember that your protagonist is making an o sound with his tongue, but they will remember a phrase that catches their attention.

  4. Language is a huge part of my worldbuilding, and it’s the trickiest. In my series “Space & Time”, the main character is not human; in fact, all but two of the players are aliens. Ergo, they have different languages (though the series is written in English) and different idioms. Here are a few things I did to give them their uniqueness:

    The MC is Yerbran and therefore has three eyes. Instead of “on the other hand,” she says “in the other eye.”

    Hunsids have two more fingers than humans, so they “weave with seven strands.”

    Yerbra Home is a dry, wind-scoured planet, so the swearing uses things like sand, grit, blast, and “by the sands-blasted bones of Ee’wqrl.”

    For some of the alien Races, I used real Earth languages run through an online translator. Not elegant, perhaps, but effective. For other languages, I made up words.

    Whatever you do with languages, be sure you keep comprehensive notes! I have several portions of text that I don’t remember what their meaning is, and I can’t figure out what translator I used to get the text I pasted in. Ooops.

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