The Fantasy Language Problem – Part One
(Click or mouseover links for humorous footnotes.)
From the very beginning of the genre, one of the biggest problems fantasy authors have had to solve has been languages. It’s an odd sort of problem, actually, because for the most part readers don’t actually seem to pay much attention to it. Some writers seem to be able to comfortably ignore it entirely, but to a particular kind of mind (mine, say) it can present an intractable quagmire.
Before we move on, let me define my terms. By fantasy here I am referring to what is sometimes called “secondary world fantasy”; that is, fantasy that takes place in a world that is recognizably not our own. [#1] This excludes urban fantasy that takes place in a modified, modern-day Earth, historical fantasy that takes place in the past, and so on. We can also exclude, by convention, cross-world fantasy that involves characters from Earth visiting a secondary world. All these sub-genres have their own variants of the problem, of course, but we can save those for another day. [#2] Instead, consider the works of George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, K. J. Parker, Ellen Kushner, etc. [#3]
The problem, in essence, is that when writing a book of this nature the author is confronted by the need to write from the point of view of a character who was born, raised, and educated in the alternate world and has no knowledge of anything from Earth. The author, however, must write the book in English[#4], as books written entirely in fantastic languages tend to sell poorly. [#5] Dedicated authors often spend thousands of hours equipping their secondary worlds with geography, history, religion, prevailing weather, local cuisine, and so on, and language is one more such element to be carefully deployed. However, this presents some unique challenges, because the language in which the character thinks about his world is also the language in which the author describes it to the readers.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like such a problem. The fantasy novel is always a delicate balancing act between the fantastic elements, which amaze and intrigue the reader, and the mundane elements which help him understand and provide verisimilitude. Presumably readers, understanding something of the author’s dilemma, will forgive the fact that the point of view character thinks in English in the same way the audiences at James Bond movies overlook the fact that the bad guys speak English with Russian accents. [#6] And, if you don’t look too closely, that’s true.
For those with the inclination to look at things more carefully, alas, things begin to fall apart. The problem with language is that, as it evolves, it includes various concepts and references that once were specific and meant particular objects, places, or people, even if they are now used in a generic or symbolic sense. This means that common English idiom is littered with words and phrases that are, if you think about it, inappropriate in a secondary world. Some of these are obvious — most authors would concede, for example, that referring to “the labors of Hercules” or having a character exclaim “Jesus H. Christ!” [#7] in a fantasy world would threaten the suspension of disbelief. The closer you look, though, the worse the problem gets.
One category of problematic terms for fantasy are anachronisms, words or phrases that refer to things that are beyond the fantasy world’s level of technology. [#8] Assuming for the moment that we’re in the Standard-Issue European High Middle Ages Fantasy Setting hallowed by a million D&D campaigns, think about how many phrases have to do with guns and gunpowder. Inhabitants of that world cannot own something “lock, stock, and barrel” (referring to the parts of a musket), refer to someone as a “loose cannon” (as on the deck of a pitching ship), or disparage common soldiers as “cannon fodder”. They should not be able to “go off half-cocked” (trying to fire a musket without fully readying it), be distracted by a “flash in the pan” (a musket shot that fails to go off) or say some issue is “hanging fire” (a musket shot that fails to ignite immediately).
Also dangerous are terms that sound generic but refer to fairly modern inventions, which sometimes lead to head-scratching moments. Our fantasy worlders cannot demand that someone “cut to the chase” (movie Westerns) or claim to “call the shots” (movie directors). They cannot go “balls to the wall” (steam engines) or “pull out all the stops” (pipe organs). They probably should not refer to things as “third-class” if they live before the invention of railroads or ocean liners.
All right, fair enough. A vigorous author could police his work against that sort of thing. The task becomes much more difficult, however, once we consider words that originated as meaning a specific, historical thing, but are now used generically. In a secondary world, such terms would presumably be different. After all, without the Ancient Greeks, how could something be Herculean, Sisyphusian, Spartan, Stygian, or Stoic? Ancient gods and goddesses are deeply embedded in our speech, too — no volcanoes without Vulcan, no martial arts without Mars, no hermetic seals without Hermes. No mercury with Mercury[#9], no helium without Helios. And so on.
Problematic in an entirely different way are things which are named for particular historic figures, gods, or heroes, but which are nonetheless used in everyday conversation. The fantasy author can easily devise his own versions, using his own carefully-worked-out history and religion, but most readers’ tolerance for that sort of thing is fairly limited. The biggest offender here is the calendar, which features Augustus and Julius Caesar, as well as the days of the week: Tyr’s Day, Wotan’s Day, Thor’s Day, and so on. Less relevant to most heroic fantasy, but still disconcerting, are the multiplicity of scientific laws and formula that bear the names of their creators: Euclidian geometry, the Pythagorean theorem, Platonic ideals[#10], and so on.
Next time: What you, as an author, can do about it, plus whether you should make up your own words! (Preview: No.)
#1. Or is at least separated from our own by enough time, distance, or both that it’s not linguistically related. Tolkien’s world in The Lord of the Rings is implied to be the distant past of modern Earth, and Robert Jordan’s world in The Wheel of Time is implied to be its distant future, but intervening events mean that both might as well be separate universes. (Though it’s interesting to speculate that this means Wheel of Time‘s distant past is Lord of the Rings!) Back
#2. Noting in passing that cross-world fantasy in particular is susceptible to hand-waving in the SF fashion, with “universal translators”, so long as the POV character is the traveler. Back
#3. Not intended to be a representative sampling. I’m staring at a pile of books on my desk. Back
#4. Or whatever his or her local language may be. I write in English, mostly for the United States and the UK, so I am going to use ‘English’ to mean ‘the appropriate Earth language’; please substitute your own language and nationality as needed. Back
#5. Or so my friends in “the industry” tell me. Back
#6. One of my friends, a native Russian speaker, tells me he actually prefers this to the alternatives, since in movies that do use actual Russian it is usually distractingly terrible. Back
#7. I love doing the swearing for secondary worlds. You can communicate an enormous amount about a culture by the way its members choose to blaspheme. Back
#8. We will excuse for the moment words that were simply invented later in actual history. Back
#9. Duh. Back
#10. “Sorry, baby, I don’t know what you mean by a ‘platonic’ relationship!” Back
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Django’s novel The Thousand Names is due out this July from Del Rey (UK) and Roc Hardcover (US). You can learn more about the Shadow Campaigns series on Django’s website or follow him here on Twitter.