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.