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The Fantasy Language Problem – Part One

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Django Wexler

Django Wexler

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.

From Russia With Love (poster)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.

Meleen's Silver Tongue by aaronmillerAll 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

– – –

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.

Title image by Sam Wolfe Connelley.

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Rating: 9.7/10 (18 votes cast)
The Fantasy Language Problem - Part One, 9.7 out of 10 based on 18 ratings


  1. Yes, this is one of my bugbears. It’s a fine line, though, between being careful and being silly. I don’t think anyone would argue that you can’t have assassins without mediaeval Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, or sabotage without French workers throwing their clogs into machinery.

    I’d say the line is defined by whether a reasonably educated person would think of the source or just the word without deliberate analysis. My favourite example is “spartan” and “laconic”. They both derive from characteristics of the same people, but whereas “spartan” tends to remind people of the historical context (or at least of the film) even a classicist like me can read “laconic” without automatically thinking in RW historical terms.

  2. No sardonic without Sardinia, no lunacy without Luna, no solar without Sol…you could drive yourself mad. Then again, you don’t want to jar your reader.

    It is definitely a fine line, but you can go too far eliminating words as anachronistic. I think the thing is to define your line for yourself, and then be consistent. After all, even Tolkien used ‘express train’ in a world without trains…

  3. Dan J. says:

    I’m not following the issue that’s being raised here. If we’re assuming a secondary world, then clearly the characters are not speaking English. To assume that an independent world, with no connection to ours, would somehow develop the exact same language that we speak seems to me to be a much deeper discontinuity error than words which relate to a specific historical period or event in English. If the characters are not speaking or thinking in English, but we’re reading the story in English, then clearly the story has been translated from that language.

    Translation clearly involved trade-offs and adjustments. The issues being raised here are not errors in world creation or historical consistency but are merely the result of translation. Languages do not exhibit one-to-one correspondence. The reason that we have foreign words and phrases in English (deja vu, faux pas, verboten, etc.) is that there does not exist an English word or phrase with the same precise meaning. If you’re translating from a completely foreign language, one which shares no common base or history with any real-world language, then clearly there will be words and references for which there is no direct translation. Thus the translator will choose a word or reference which conveys the same meaning to an English reader as was intended in the original, even if the nuances are slightly different.

    Suppose the fantasy world contains a culture which performed a coming-of-age ritual in deep caves where no fire was allowed. Say that ritual was called the Vertran. It might be common in that culture to refer to Vertranian darkness. In translating, there is no direct equivalent to “Vertranian” in English. So it may very well make sense to refer to “Stygian darkness” in translation, even if that world does not have a river called Styx or any of the historical context such that the word “Stygian” makes literal sense. That certainly seems better to me than to interrupt the narrative with a paragraph of background detail explaining the ritual and the meaning of the reference.

  4. Dan — Wait for the second half! I make more or less that argument. The tricky part is even with a translation convention, there’s a subjective element to it — some phrases feel so out of place they’ll break the reader’s flow.

  5. Brian says:

    Great post! To add to your list: riveted, tantalizing, adrenaline… Clearly, the list becomes as long as the dictionary, literally, when you turn the spotlight on etymology.

    I find this problem particularly vexing when it comes to cursing. I’ve got a post on that subject over here, if your’e interested: http://bstaveley.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/cursinginfantas/

    I’m going to hunt for more of your articles now…

  6. Thanks, Brian! I’m afraid you won’t find too much by me yet, I’m just getting started in this guest-blogging business. But stay tuned … there’s more to come …

    I always liked the swearing in Steven Erikson’s Malazan books — he does a good job of replacing our religion-based curses with stuff relevant to his own world, while mixing in the more scatological stuff from real life. It’s something I tried to replicate in The Thousand Names.

  7. Andy Storm says:

    Great post and something a lot of writers would do well to think about. Then again, I guess there might be as many opinions on this as there are readers.

    For me it’s varying from book to book that I read, how much I think about this. In some cases you can get away with writing “go to hell” even if there is no christianity and thus no hell in the world.

    For me, swearing usually makes or breaks it. Some authors have a tendency to have their characters swear a lot in a way that makes me think they are trying to write something mature and think that needs to be a part of it. I swear myself at times, but when reading it feels forced sometimes for some reason.

    This is something that can be the exact opposite of what you are talking about. I mean that its of course plausible for a person in a fantasy novel to say “F*** you” to someone, more so perhaps than “go to hell”, but for me something like that has a tendency to push me out of the immerion a bit. I can’t really explain why.

    I much prefer something like Jordans “Bloody ashes”. It conveys it perfectly without sounding silly or stupid to me. Using F*** you sounds way more unatural for some reason. I am not a native english speaker, so that might be part of why I have an easier time hearing something like bloody ashes as a believable curse.

    In the end though, I guess its up to the write to put whatever words he or she feels works best and then hope the readers agree.

  8. […] This is part two of Django Wexler’s guest post on fantasy languages. You can read part one here. […]

  9. […] First half of a guest post I wrote for Fantasy-Faction, on The Fantasy Language Problem. […]

  10. Erica Wagner says:

    Nice article. This is an issue that comes up in some of the online writers’ groups I partake in. I agree with Nyki and Francis above–there’s a point where you can make yourself crazy trying to purge words like “volcano” or “laconic” from your prose, even when writing in a very tight character pov. I try to be internally consistent at least. I tend to prefer fantasy that errs a bit more on the side of modern sounding diction, and have no trouble with characters saying things like f*** and so on, if it fits their personality. But that’s me, and I guess there’s no approach that will suit all readers.

  11. […] even vaguely.  For me this is related to the fantasy language problem (which I’ve written about: Part One and Part Two) and the trade-offs are similar: familiarity versus suspension of disbelief, depth […]

  12. Beth Turnage says:

    I think the issue goes a little further than fitting English words in a second world fantasy setting. Culture leaves its mark on language. What concepts exist, what does not? C.J. Cherryh talks about this in her Foreigner novels, where the main character becomes the only human who becomes fluent in an alien language, and actually thinks in that language. It gives him the capacity to navigate a society that up to that point was impossible for humans to do so.

    Still part of the fun of being a fantasy writer is to tackle these challenges. I myself enjoy it when one of my characters is trying to express a concept from another culture and finds him or herself stumbling on the words to do so. Sometimes they “use an odd combination of words” or simply lapse into another language. But it gives me an opportunity to point out a difference in culture that comes from the story instead of exposition.

  13. An excellent article on some of the language problems facing fantasy writers. I’m going to have to make sure no innocents in my current project aren’t ‘railroaded.’ I haven’t gotten to your second article yet (heading there after this post) but I’m guessing that there are some terms I’ll end up using simply for convenience rather than trying to find other ways to say it, or making up words (much as I enjoy doing that). I’ll just have to hope they don’t push readers away.

    Most of the curses in mine are just simple words and phrases like ‘fires’ and ‘by The Deep’ (The Deep being an actual place at the bottom of ‘The Hole in the World,’ in this instance, while also meaning a place where bad people’s spirits go [Hell]) It could also give a whole new meaning to the term ‘being in deep s***’

    One character wanted to say “Well that sucks” but couldn’t find the right words for it, so finally threw up her hands in frustration and asked someone to make up a new phrase.

    Anyway, I’ve got this and probably the follow-up articles bookmarked now for future reference. Nicely done.

  14. What a fantastic post! Whenever I’m reviewing chapters written by other hobby writers, I remark exactly what you named in that article.
    Writing in German, I try to go as far and avoid anglicisms (words like “cool”, “Hey” for greetings etc. are quite commin in German) or to ban them from my high fantasy writing alltogether.
    Sometimes, I admit, I do not replace words (yet), but mark them in a different color. Why? Because I know I must not use them (and they can be as simple as “queen”, really, I mustn’t use “queen”, “king”, “princess” in my high fantasy works) but the point is… I didn’t come up with a better term yet.
    So until I’ll find one, I’ll have to use those unsuitable words…

    Do you have an advice?

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