The challange of fantasy language

An earlier comment by Domm sparked a discussion about creating original language and terms for places, people, whatever in your writing.

I was going to comment in more depth, but it’s actually one of my, well, if not ‘pet peeves’, it’s certainly one of the subjects that I burn the most brainpower on when I’m writing. So I think it warrants a post of it’s own.

I know that when I’m writing, especially a story set in a pure fantasy setting, it’s one of my biggest weaknesses and concerns. And it’s a weakness that truly cannot be corrected by doing or practising, but by study and learning. By research and knowledge.

For getting the rhythym of a story down, learning character development, designing story arcs and having fun just writing… you can learn as you go, and get better by the simple act of doing.

But not this.

I’m talking about the etymology of words and the history of language itself. How our current words and usages developed from earlier languages and cultures, what informed and infused our language, and what the roots of words are.

For most fiction, it’s a minor but fascinating topic, because the best way to nail a character in a modern story is to work back to the style of language that person uses, and get the phraseology right. How someone talks is influenced by and indicative of how they think, and someone using the wrong words for their persona, in a well written story, sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s jarring, and for some thrillers and spy novles I’ve read, it’s been used as a technique to intentionally have someone be caught out in the story as an impersonator by those that knew the original person well.

How often have you seen the device used, where one person knocked out a guard, took his radio, and when someone asks if he’s okay, he tries to impersonate the guard he knocked out well enough to fool someone?

Okay, we’re geeks… I can reference Han in the cell block command post trying to run a bluff while Luke went down the row looking for the Princess’ cell.

It’s a device that works best when your grasp of character personality is consistent. The characters talk in a way that is evocative of who they are and how they think, and the reader gets a feel for that, and can even learn to recognise what is or is not ‘appropriate’ dialogue.

We have to delve a whole lot deeper for fantasy literature, though. Most especially when writing a book or books about a fantastic world with cultures and species completely divorced from our own, a world disconnected from our own language roots.

Not only do you have to develop dialogue specific to a character personality, but you don’t have cultural accents that you can use properly without riding the razor’s edge of farce.

How many people expect their dwarves to sound Scottish? Show of hands? Anyone?

Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

But far more than that, and the heart of it, is using terms that have a specific, traceable historical etymology that others WILL recognise, in a world that could not have developed a parallel.

It’s a subject I think about all the time.

As an example… I know from my own background what a Company, Regiment, Battalion, Squad, etc are, what they represent. 

I have military organizations in my own fantasy world.

Do I create a whole new organizational structure from scratch, with different terms, starting from base principles and reasoning, and let people figure out what they mean along the way, or do I use known terminology that the reader is already familiar with, take the hit on it being out of place, hoping that the time savings and familiarity have more benefit than irritation?

Many other people are comfortable with the size and organizational groupings that those terms represent. Using familiar terms will help them grasp sizes of forces quickly. Do I use those exact same tems to represent military organizational structure in my fantasy world, at least for this one culutural setting, knowing that for true military historians who know how these terms developed it will be jarring and even, possibly, irritating to see?

Everything has to be subjected to that kind of analysis. Do I go with the familiar, or do I create from scratch? At what level is it acceptable to use the familiar?

Ranks of aristocracy like Count, Duke… these are also prime examples. 

And then you get into naming conventions. Names are so redolent with the flavor of a particular culture, aren’t they?

I really don’t have a good solution for this. As I said, knowing the issue exists, and trying to research the origins of words and make conscious decisions as I go is the best I can do. 

When I call someone a Sergeant, or someone is a Duke, I have at least tried to think about how those terms came into use, and may even have worked into the history of the world why those terms may have come into being… or have knowingly developed an exact traditional reason why Duke Hope has leaders in his forces he has termed Generals, but not a single other Border Lord will promote someone to a rank of General in their own force structures, out of respect. Or why nobody, not even Duke Hope, will name themselves King of their area, why they each respect the limitation of calling themselves Duke as the highest position of authority amongst the Borderlanders.

I’m really curious if any of the other writers amongst my readers have insight into learning more about etymology, or using it in your writing, because really, I would love to learn more about it. The entire subject fascinates me.   

I think that the better you understand the root of language, the better you can work your true meanings, or layers of meanings, into what you write without everything being right there on the surface.

16 thoughts on “The challange of fantasy language

  1. As long as you explain to the reader what you’re talking about, you’re fine. Just like why the Earth Alliance calls their bigger ships Destroyers and every other race calls their smallest ships Destroyers.


  2. “For example, most anyone who has studied psychology has studied the relationship between language and psychology knows that the Eskimos have something like 28 different words for snow. Why? Because each kind of snow presented different kinds and levels of challenges to survival.”

    Urk, no no no no no no no!

    I throw a linguistic tympanic tantrum whenever I hear this. While it’s technically correct, this statement misrepresents the facts, and similar statements (“the eskimo have hundreds of words for snow!”) ) all go back to one anthropologist desperately wanting to show how culture and language reflect one another and failing to understand the complexities of the Inuit language. The Inuit have a number of terms (lexemes, really) for snow not much greater than an English speaker’s, but their language, being agglutinative, allows them to construct words very differently than our own; where we would have a phrase, Inuktitut has a single (long) word. It’d be roughly analogous if we claimed “yellow snow” and “white snow” were different words for “snow” in English; they’re not.

    Language and culture often have very interesting links, but even ignoring this particular example, one must tread carefully here. Many languages lack the range of color words found in English; but just because some language has no word for “blue” doesn’t mean its speakers can’t see blue, or think blue things are unimportant.


  3. Ursula K Leguin wrote an essay about language in fantasy in her book “The Language of the Night”, less from the etymology and more focused on the voice of the characters. She dissected a Katherine Kurtz novel (Deryni Rising) and showed how most of the characters spoke in 20th century colloquial English, and how characters in fantasy fiction shouldn’t do so. I’m not in 100% agreement with her (I don’t think close associates ever speak all that formally to each other, and a novel is always going to be a sort of ‘translation’ into modern terms anyway – it’s not like the characters in most fantasy would speak English), but it’s an interesting read if you’re trying your hand at fantasy writing of your own.


  4. I have been playing around at this site. It has many dying languages in it. There is an also good, if brief, explanation of relationships between the languages and example of how they grew, plus many links to other sites with more information. Very fascinating and I am afraid a distraction from the main issues at hand. How do you give a sense of history to your story without descending into exposition? The thing about fantasy is that place and history can be the story. How do you keep naming conventions from being too recognizable? Call the capital city of a made up country Gzoldak or Fesarai (I just made them up they are mine don’t steal them) ha ha. :-} fill our minds with an Eastern European or desert open setting before we get a chance to describe anything. Major, Duke, King, Maid all very restrictive terms if your goal to create something completely new. So the mind fights with itself how far do I go?
    I have decided that the things mentioned very few times like it is 15 miles Fesarai to Gzoldak use miles. For something you are going to use many times that is entragal to the story, the rank of the religious folks involved in the revolution. There will be sufficient space in the narrative to describe them over time without have to resort to the wise scholar telling the young student about how the Glas Nom Grie came to dominate the Ras Asfa and win the hearts of the people. Peace is finally declared and the Glas Sombulat became ruler of all the churches in the land. I just made all this up too your welcome to it ;-}
    Look what James C. did with Avatar. Over the course of the movie we have several speeches, from the scientists and the hero, including excerpts from a book we actually see, explaining the Navi. I felt a twinge every time it started, thinking here it comes the dreaded exposition but nope short sweet and spread out. I never felt like I was being lectured too. To do that I think you really have to know the cultures in your made up land. So you know what is important to reveal at what time. It’s going to take some time. Here’s hoping we all get enough time to do it right. If not lets all have fun trying.


  5. There’s an xkcd for that:

    (Especially appropriate if you’ve read Anathem, which I loved, but averaged a dozen new words a page for the first hundred pages it seemed.)

    But I think using, for example, roman or roman-esque terms for units, especially if they’re well disciplined foot soldiers, might give someone a general idea if they’re familiar with it. And it also gives you a chance to explain unit sizes to someone who doesn’t know modern military sizes. (Hold it, which is bigger in a modern army, a company, division, or battallion? How many fantasy buffs know that?)

    And in most fantasy worlds, you don’t have need or ability to organize above about 5 or 6 levels of rank. i.e. 10 men run by a Sargent, 100 men by a “lieutenant”, 1000 by a captain, 10,000 by a major, and 100,000 by a general. And sometimes the general’s (or Major’s) job is handled by the King/Duke. That’s part of what gets talked about above in the “modern military” structure and thinking. (Not to mention that up until WWII, units were frequently raised by the local noble from their farmhands, perhaps supplemented by their own guards. So the “sarge” or even “lieutenant” position is actually a minor noble on war duty for a season. That was true of county-organized military units in the Civil War even.)

    And unless you’re clear on what a title means in your world, and are clear which culture you’re stealing from, it might also add more confusion. Dukes of England were somewhat different than Dukes of Germany in power and rights and responsibilities. I assume the equivalent rank in Turkey or Iraq would have been even more different. So sometimes creating new terms without baggage isn’t a bad idea.


  6. Remembering the cultural and environmental aspects of a people are critical in language. For example, most anyone who has studied psychology has studied the relationship between language and psychology knows that the Eskimos have something like 28 different words for snow. Why? Because each kind of snow presented different kinds and levels of challenges to survival. But did you know that in some Native American tongues there are no words for cardinal directions or even left and right. Everything is related to the world around them, mountain-side, river-side etc serve as their directional references. Some have a tense based on where the information came and how sure the source was of it’s accuracy. So there is a lot to think about.


  7. Oh, aye, it’s not worth beating yourself up over it. If nothing else, it’s your linguistic “fingerprint” of sorts. You could even look at that as a way to give characters more personality. Not so much that they craft typos, but that they always say something a certain way. Personality quirks are useful for identification, and imperfections are what make people and things interesting. (Which is pretty much what you wrote in the OP, so I’m just restating.) 😉
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Ends and Means =-.


  8. Oooh, that’s a great example, Katt!

    And Tesh… nope, not a brilliant title, just me writing as fast as I can to try and keep up with the words coming out of my head.

    I do not ever use spell check… so if I don’t catch it on a reread as I can for the many mistakes I make as I speed type, then it goes live. I can sually catch a lot more if I walk away for 15 minutes and then come back, but you know, I don’t beat myself up about it.

    I use the word “Anyway” at the start of a paragraph far more than I should as well. I have a whole list of personal pet peeves about my blog writing, patterns I repeat while in the flow that are just poorly written. Habits of thought are pernicious, my friend. And habitual spelling errors are moreso.


  9. It probably goes without saying that one should research the master of fantasy literature (J. R. R. Tolkien) and study the way he evolved the elven and dwarven languages, complete with runic letters, and various dialects. “Speak friend and enter” Moria Gate

    In most cases tho, I don’t believe that using a term found in our own history through the ages would detract from the flow of a story. (ie. a battalion of orcs will get across to the reader there’s a whole boatload of them you have to sneak past. even if many of us couldn’t compare the sizes of a company vs a battalion.

    There is a very good short series of books written by Lois Mcmaster Bujold, (The curse of chalion, Paladin of souls) that does use a different set of terminology for social titles (ie duke/king) Roya (king), Royina (queen), Royse (prince), Royesse (princess), Provincar (duke), Provincara (duchess) after the first few times encountering the terms, they made sense in the storyline and became second nature.
    .-= Kattrinsaa´s last blog ..Katt the second awake again =-.


  10. The language – especially names – in fantasy stories is one of those things that, if it’s right, you won’t really notice it, if it’s wrong then it really jars.

    Military structure and terms are one of my pet peeves – partly when you get anachronistic ranks, but more significantly (if we’re going for typical medieval style fantasy) when the whole army structure is wrong, being far too modern and westernised. Bad medieval fantasies will have a monolithic army that acts with a single purpose. Good ones reflect the structure of the times, with each baron’s forces looking out for their own interest as much as the interests of the king or realm.

    The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts is an example of the military done well in fantasy. An example that springs to mind is of allied forces sitting on their hands and letting troops on the same side be massacred because their leaders are politically opposed, and then joining in just late enough to put on a good show of trying to help. Which is odd because I’d mark down Feist’s Riftwar trilogy as an example of a lazy/ modern portrail of military structure.

    On the other hand, writers who try and re-invent the wheel are just as annoying to read – using a modern shorthand is so much easier than inventing an entire new naming structure and then expecting their readers to take it on board.

    Or, as a short answer to nearly any question – “it depends”… 🙂


  11. Mmm… etymology. Writing is all about using words to express ideas. Words are fascinating tools, well worth studying on their own… along with a side of psychology and history, of course. I hear Tolkien was of a like mind.

    I took a few minutes a while ago to chase down the etymology of the word “mancala” (that African stone-moving game) because I wanted to make a new game loosely based on the mechanics, and title it “Hexala”, a portmanteau of mancala and hex. It turned out to be a fascinating origin, and interestingly enough, the original Arabian root word shares an uncanny resemblance to a term in the Stargate mythos that is key to the ‘gate’s function. “Naqara” is one of the original components of “mancala” (itself a portmanteau, curiously), meaning roughly “transferrence, or moving from one place to another”. “Naqada” is a key mineral in the stargates’ function and construction… it’s close enough to make me wonder if the Stargate people had a linguist on staff, or perhaps just someone with a passing interest in etymology. That sort of linguistic fidelity isn’t apparent to someone just looking for guns and action, but it’s a nice nod to those who want to buy the fiction as something plausible, set in a world just one step away from the reality we know. It’s also telling that I’ve only now noticed this, after loving the show for more than a decade now. It deepens my appreciation of the IP just a bit more. Good research and worldbuilding will always be appreciated, I believe.

    Speaking of Stargate, though, the SG-1 series never gave more than a token nod to linguistics in their day-to-day activities. Sure, Daniel Jackson is a linguist of sorts, which proves useful when the plot dictates, but almost all of the humans they meet on far-flung planets happen to speak perfect American (or slightly Canadian) English. They could be called to task for that, but in the end, they sweep it under the rug to *get on* with telling the story. Perhaps that’s a good rule of thumb; if it gets in the way of telling the story you want to tell, don’t worry too much about linguistic fidelity. If you can get away with making it interesting, though, linguistics and etymology are a great way to lend authenticity to your worldcrafting and individual characters.

    I’ve been looking to Norse language a bit for a story I’m working on, set in an alternate history for our world. I can’t help but think that such fiction would benefit greatly from efforts to stay true to recorded history before the divergence I employ as a fictional conceit. The way cultures changed from then on would naturally change, but there should also be parallels. To be sure, I can fudge things when I want to, but the fudge has to ring true to “what might have been”, or it’s not going to work. Some of that will naturally be in using words properly, but some of it will come from using *ideas* properly. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing. It’s as you note with Han on the comm, and if I may use another geek reference, a Klingon’s core philosophy will almost always betray them for who they are, no matter how human they may appear. Words are expression of ideas and thought, and thought patterns just aren’t as superficially malleable as appearance.

    This is a great article, BBB. I love these “writing about writing” articles. Yeah, yeah, I indulge in MMO banter here and there because it’s a passing interest, but writing is something I really mean to keep digging into more. Oh, and you know me, I mean absolutely no offense… I just can’t help but smile at the delightful irony of a post about etymology with a typo in the title. I’m undecided whether that’s intentional and wickedly clever of you, or just an honest mistake that happened in perhaps the most inappropriate place.

    And now I have the writing bug again. So much to do, so little time…
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Ends and Means =-.


  12. I love conlanging (constructed language-ing). I get into the etymology stuff once you go past ciphers for English and try to actually create a language and evolve it like natural languages do, because it has a major bit to do with the culture of the speaking population. It’s just thoroughly fascinating. You learn amazing amounts about cultures…just in order to make a simple sentence.


  13. It depends on just how foreign you want to get with your setting.

    The more exotic the language—the stranger the terminology or names or units of measurement—the more you’re going to emphasize the different-ness of the world or culture you’re describing. The more familiar it is, the more your audience will feel “at home” and identify with the party or setting in question. Consider works that REALLY change the language, like Clockwork Orange or 1984, and how uncomfortable that different language makes us feel. (Those works especially seem to fall into an interesting linguistic Uncanny Valley, as both feature heavily modified but distinctly English language.) Language and identity are very closely intertwined, and there’s no easier way to make a person feel lost than to jabber at them in an unfamiliar tongue.

    When I want to emphasize exoticism or develop very strong verisimilitude (particularly where nonhuman sentients occur), I’ll depart from conventional linguistic constructions; when I want to keep things relatively light and comfortable, I’ll fit existing constructions to the setting. If it is helpful, one may consider the latter practice to be translation—and one would not be far wrong.

    Regardless, there’s never need to completely abandon linguistic patterns or etymological traditions. Human language is such a rich and varied field that there’s really no reason not to draw from it. As a linguistics major, I’ve absorbed enough knowledge that I rarely have to “create” anything; I’ll just apply, say, principles of semantic shift to, say, some bit of Old Norse, and I’m left with a word that sounds evocative and even, somehow, “logical” or plausible to others.

    I don’t think readers will balk at a foreign term or two. Indeed, if your linguistic creativity is exemplary, your story may even flow more smoothly. And if you do go all out and re-create an entire military organization from scratch, you can always include appendices or footnotes as an aid for your readers.


  14. I’m fascinated by etymology and will quite often be distracted by an interesting looking word. Etymology itself for instance is from etumos and -logia so originally meant “the study of truth” which is in itself a wonderful concept.

    Quite often words have changed meaning in fascinating ways. Sinister comes from the Old French sinistre, from the left side. Did Julius watch Brutus’ sword hand on those fatal Ides of March, not his left hand?

    Accurate use of language can absolutely make a fiction. Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books are enhanced by the painstaking efforts she has taken over the language, with the majority of her characters being given convincingly Welsh names. Tolkien of course did a similar thing.

    Another fascinating thing about the study of etymology is it frees the student from the shackles of “correct” English. When you understand that language is changing in a historical process then new ways of communication are not wrong, just new. Some may stick, some won’t. And of course like a jazz musician your ability with the language allows you to break its rules and still be effectively communicating.


  15. Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is more or less a good place to start. It has a lot of what I think you’re after in talking about the origins and structure of English and how it compares to other languages, and Bryson is extremely readable and enjoyable… but it’s also riddled with errors. It’s a very nice way to rapidly dip into the subject, but don’t trust any factual assertion he makes 100%. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by McWhorter is a much more rigorous and also much denser read.
    .-= LabRat´s last blog ..I’ve Gone and Jumped Off The Bridge =-.


  16. It is a hairy subject. Usually, on my first draft I like to use whatever the “Our World” terms are, just for clarity and easy reference. Then, on my second draft, when I am hacking my way through all the crap. I like to flesh out the ‘little bits’, as my wife calls them, that make the world feel unique. These are usually minor changes in titles, organizational structure, and naming protocols. However, I only change things if the difference is too jarring. It’s a question of balance between giving people what they know, and shoving XXXX years of tradition and history down their throats to teach them that Telio=Sergeant without breaking the narrative flow.


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