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Languages In Fantasy

Language in fantasy: is it an outdated, often academically-gratuitous addition that bogs down a story and its world, or a clever quirk of setting that adds a sprinkle of the exotic and aids reader immersion?

It’s not just relevant in fantasy; science fiction has been known to offer fully-functioning languages to enhance a setting. Think of Klingon from Star Trek and the snippets of language in other similar science fiction shows like Babylon 5. The languages are dispensable, but it has to be admitted that a certain something is gained through their inclusion. However, here we’re talking about a visual medium where the imaginary-world languages can be freely spoken with the helpful aid of subtitles to translate precisely what is being said, without slowing down the pace of the scene or breaking immersion.

That’s not so simple in books where subtitles don’t exist. The writer has a choice: a) to give translations for the language, or b) to write the narrative around the language in such a way that the meaning can possibly be gleaned. Naturally, the writer can choose to do neither, leaving the alien language as something the reader cannot understand. Usually this means the characters cannot understand the language either, and a whole new question of setting and immersion is created. There are times in fantasy, where through the eyes of the current point-of-view character, you are introduced to a new language, and left entirely in the dark as to what is being said. This works if the character doesn’t have a clue, either, and can be a strong component—when used correctly—in transferring the feeling of suspense and tension from the character to the reader.

When it’s done badly, of course, you’re left standing there just as dumbfounded as the character. The use of language in an imaginary world setting can make or break a scene. It’s not much different when thinking of real world set urban fantasies, or science fiction: if the language doesn’t resemble any of our human languages (or at least one many people will be visually familiar with, such as Latin) then it might as well be a made-up language for all the difference it makes.

Pseudo-languages can work, but only if executed correctly. Latin naturally works best for this, as many people might have some impression of what certain sentences might mean—even if they only understand the structure. Of course, with this example, the writer must provide the reader with some way of understanding the language, or a way of gleaning the intention of the words spoken. All of this must be done through character: anything else can create a very prose-heavy story that is slowed down by the constant references of translation or jargon.

Generally, if fantasy writers choose to involve a new language in their work, they do so with great caution. Why? It can be very difficult to get it right.

One ring to rule them all...But Tolkien got it right! Twice!

Yes, Papa Tolkien did, undisputedly, create at least two languages that can be studied in our real world and, insofar as Latin can ever be spoken “correctly”, used in day-to-day life, just like any other language. Sindarin and Quenya: right there—two languages…and let’s not even start on the actual script of the elvish languages.

But, Papa Tolkien had two things going for him: first, he was one tooting-heck of an academic; second, he had a fresh, new audience to entertain, in an era where fewer people were open about writing and storytelling and fantasy was still young.

Language was Tolkien’s thing. It’s what he did. It’s what he loved and it quite obviously shaped the way he wrote his world. Furthermore, when he wrote his Middle-Earth, he never intended it as a mere story. To Tolkien it was a mythology, something that could stand in and fill the void created by England’s sheer lack of personal mythology. He went for authenticity and the language was part of that.

Furthermore, this level of immersion and detail in a world was new and exciting; when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (et al) the market was very different, and to a point, it was the writer who dictated the market, not the reader. Tolkien wrote the languages into his work, and they were soaked up by the reader. Now publishing is far more competitive and people are quite literally spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing their next fantasy yarn. Never mind the fact that our generation of fantasy readers (and the one before) are far more used to the speed and fluidity of different types of media: essentially, books need to keep up with the experiences movies, video games, and even comic books can offer.

Nothing can replace reading a book, so don’t throw potatoes at me just yet, but there’s something to be said for the various experiences offered across the growing spectrum of media. Fantasy isn’t just something we read anymore.

Silmarillion (cover)Fantasy grew up, went to school, and got its degree: as it changed, the way it was written changed. We’ve seen various (I’ll not call them “trends”: fantasy doesn’t really have trends, it has “popular and relevant themes”—Fifty Shades of Grey is a trend. Trends are faddy and transient and although fantasy goes through periods of having running themes, they’re never transient because they’ve usually been and gone a thousand times before) themes come and go and after each “movement”, we’ve seen the genre evolve. Imagine then, if another Papa Tolkien came along and wrote another Lord of the Rings, created another world as vast as Middle-Earth and proffered the Silmarillion with its hefty, dense mythologies and poems and languages.

It would be a surprise, let’s face it. We’d be surprised because fantasy isn’t written that way now; it’s more accessible. Not everyone enjoys poetry and not all fantasy stories have bards or minstrels, so why would all fantasy have three-page long poems in one language or another? They wouldn’t. Tolkien’s flavour of fantasy was only one of a long menu still to come. It was a glimpse of a world yet undiscovered. This puts me in mind of a quote on the cover of my paperback edition of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. The quote suggested (in close enough words) that Jordan had further explored and imagined the world Tolkien had only begun to glimpse.

Basically, they were saying that Fantasy (capital F) is a world of infinite vastness and scope, where anything and everything goes, and that early fantasy writers were standing on their small piece of the map, their little flag stuck in the ground and the light of their lantern only reaching so far. The space beyond was (and will always be) unchartered. You cannot fully explore the Fantasy map, because it is infinite.

It’s more about the undiscovered worlds and those that populate them: it’s not always about the young hero leaving home; it’s not always a quest or a coming-of-age saga. It’s about everything: people, events, changes, pain, joy, love, hate, discrimination, compassion, the human condition, the scope of existence—it’s about a thousand smaller things than what Tolkien wrote about. It’s no longer about creating a world and filling it with characters that serve a purpose and are there to advertise and bring to life that world. It’s about the world coming to life through the characters. The world is secondary. If the world is secondary to the characters, then the nuts and bolts of the world are secondary also. The world belongs to the characters; not the characters to the world.

Language is one of the things that went first, quite frankly because it was one of the hardest and heaviest things to lug about. The language wasn’t necessary the second we were introduced to characters who could do the same: immerse us in a fantasy world that almost, almost, could exist, somewhere or somewhen.

ScrollIn modern fantasy, writers still use language, but they do so sparingly, like a little pinch of salt in a recipe. Throw in too much, and you’ll spoil the pudding. Instead of sweeping poems and pages of curling foreign script (unless entirely necessary), we have glimpses of these imaginary-world cultures entirely through the characters eyes, and the use of language has diminished to a minimum. It’s not just a matter of what works best; it’s a matter of practicality. Imagine how many paper pages you’ll have if you clump together every last published (posthumous or otherwise) shred of what Tolkien wrote. There would be a lot and a lot of it is heavy-going and serves only to build a clearer, tighter world, than to tell a story.

It’s all about the story, now—and that’s a good thing. Putting it bluntly, fantasy languages are a little old-fashioned and heavy for the harder and faster genre we’ve come to know, and if something is bogging you down, the best thing is to let it go.

If the language is part of the story, then keep it. If the story can roll on merrily without the fantasy language, then ditch it. If there are characters who speak a different language, and someone is there to translate, then translate; we don’t need to know every new and strange word they say. If there is nobody to translate, then let’s hope our character is good at waving their hands and miming their intentions.

When it comes to using a made-up language in fantasy, as many writers skilfully demonstrate: less is most certainly more.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar Dan Thompson says:

    This isn’t a fantasy example, but one of the best examples of a foreign language is in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner/Ateva series. The language is an alien language based on an alien psychology, but instead of presenting it directly, she *renders* it into English.

    That is, all dialog presented in that language is in a very distinct style that makes it immediately recognizable as being not English, even though the text is grammatically correct English. She spices it up with a few untranslated words here and there for items/concepts that have no English equivalent, but she explains what those are in the narrative. But it’s that distinctive style that is so engaging.

  2. I agree with this on the whole. Unless it’s done brilliantly (as with Tolkien) there’s really no need to quote chunks of languages. The point is, if the POV speaks the language, it might as well be given in English, since the whole thing is theoretically a “translation”. If s/he doesn’t speak it, it’s just going to sound (as the Greeks put it) like “bar bar bar” (which was why they called non-Greek-speakers barbarians). The only contexts where it really makes sense are if the POV is learning the language, or learning phrases by rote (like the Latin spells in Harry Potter).

    Personally, I do try to get a general feel of the languages my characters speak, but the main reason is to make the names created from those languages believably consistent. I never use anything other than the names in the text.

    • Well said, Nyki. You need some sense of the language(s) for naming purposes and in certain specific contexts such as language-learning. Otherwise, it’s almost always best to appeal to the translation convention.

  3. Avatar Jamie says:

    I tend to read fantasy with the viewpoint as if some Earth-bound scholar has translated the text from the original language into ENglish. What I love about fantasy languages are the borrowed words i.e. the words that remain in a character’s original language but have no English equivalent. That’s the little bit of flavour that I think adds an extra depth to fantasy, but it can sometimes be overdone. I definitely agree that less it more.

  4. I think you’ve covered quite a number of good issues here, and I agree that the way that authors use fantasy languages has changed. In a sense, I think it has bifurcated – one path has been the path to full vocabulary etc. for use in movies and audiovisual media, and the other has been the path to more minimal usage in written form. I would hate to have people read this and conclude that this means the languages shouldn’t be created in the first place. The presence of a language as a basis for cultural influence and for linguistic influence on the story’s language has an incredible value, in my view, even if the language occurs only as names for places and people and never gets fully articulated. The absence of such an underlying structure can in some cases become very obvious and make a fantasy world seem shallow or ungrounded. For the most part, I think we’re simply seeing a different approach to the execution of fantasy languages, but the languages themselves are alive and well – and in some cases, gaining in strength, as with David Peterson’s Dothraki.

  5. Avatar MKHutchins says:

    I’m a complete Tolkien nerd, so…

    With Tolkien, he didn’t actually invent languages to suit the story. The languages came first — he started inventing languages as a teenager. His guardian (Tolkien was orphaned) chided him for doing that and for seeing a certain young lady named Edith instead of working on his schooling. He didn’t have the money to get into Oxford and needed the scholarship.

    Instead, after creating these languages and histories/changes of these languages, he started to write stories about the people who spoke them. I think that’s part of the reason these languages work so well in LotR. They weren’t an afterthought, or a bit of world-building: they’re the foundation of the story.

  6. […] Elijah Cristea has posted some thoughts and observations about made-up languages in fantasy (and science fiction) over at Fantasy Faction. The bottom line: nobody who doesn’t have a Ph.D. in linguistics is […]

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