The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Language – Fantasy Friday

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So Tolkien was a linguist. In his works (of which there were many) he had developed specialized and peculiar languages to integrate into his world.

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Holy shit right? That’s just Elvish, one language, and a brief example of it. A lot of different mediums have now attempted to do the same. For example, Klingon in Star Trek.

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Wookiee in Star Wars.

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Okay, maybe Wookiee doesn’t count, but who are you to judge? My point here is that some writers have a natural gift for the complexities of linguistics. Other’s, not so much. If you’re an author that is writing about a Sci-Fi or Fantasy setting I think it’s important to know which side of the fence you’re on. You don’t NEED language to make an engaging story, often times by inserting complex and unfamiliar phrases will detract from your tale. If you’re someone that genuinely enjoys creating linguistics (like Tolkien) then you may be able to organically incorporate it into your story successfully.

I bring it up because I think that a lot of writers are intimidated by the success of well known Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors that have some type of linguistic offering. The good news is, you shouldn’t be. An authors job is to tell a story, not invent a new language.

In my personal opinion I think that it IS important to include some type of slang. Something about your world(s) that differs from ours and is used in an organic and simple way. If you write a Fantasy that isn’t based on Earth, don’t ever mention the word Earth. Unless they knew about the planet they wouldn’t define something based on it right? The ground would be dirt, rock, soil, or the name of the planet that they’re on. It wouldn’t be referred to as Earth.

Make sure that people speak in a way that makes sense to your universe, not everyone else’s. What I mean by that is have phrases, profanities, cultures that aren’t defined by Earth Standards. This doesn’t mean you need to completely break the mold, you don’t want to confuse your readers, but make a couple of minor adjustments and you sell the reality of your world. Instead of a character saying ‘Damn it’ maybe they say ‘Zarquon’. I don’t know why I chose Zarquon, it’s what my fingers picked at this very moment.

It’s important that you differentiate your world from others, especially Earth. As long as your tale is based around Earth. It’s not important to completely invent (or reinvent) when it’s not your specialty or prerogative. You can make a perfectly good piece of literature without having to resort to Tolkien-esque Linguistic Creation. Take solace in that.

Tell me how you feel about Fantasy and Sci-Fi languages. Do they intimidate you, bore you, excite you? What are some of your favorites, or least favorites? The Comment’s are waiting.

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Have a great Friday!

  • Sam Hurt

    I think it’s a tricky thing to compare any fantasy fiction that isn’t Tolkien specifically to Tolkien’s works in terms of pseudo- or created languages. His job, and his life’s work, revolved around translations and interpretations of Anglo-Saxon and Northern Germanic poetry and prose. He had a functional knowledge of Old English, Old Norse, and most likely Finnish given his works on the Kalevala early in his career.

    His scholarship on Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry turned studies of epic works from northern European areas on their head, forcing academia to shift a hundreds of years old paradigm about how to interpret those old poems and sagas, from fallacious comparisons to the Iliad and Aeneid to taking them at face value in the context of the cultures from which they sprung. And it wasn’t just languages, he became intimately familiar with the themes, motifs, and archetypes of those lands as well as their preferred poetic and storytelling mechanics, and the textured differences from one tribe to the next. If I can speculate, given that studies of other epics such as the Avesta and Vedic poetry and prose radically changed around the time he published Beowulf, I would say he was either responsible for, or at the head of a massive sea change in how world culture is studied in the west.

    That was his primary goal in life, and the Legendarium is itself just a byproduct of the sheer mountain of knowledge he possessed, both mechanical, technical, and cultural. It was also spawned of his recognition that the Anglo-Saxon “creation myth” only survived in vague allusions in the Beowulf text itself, and so early on, he set out to create a comprehensive myth that would appear, like Beowulf, to be the compendium of all that world’s myths as told from the sole perspective from a single time and place, much like Beowulf contains (inadvertently) vague mentions of Sheave, Beow, the Volsunga Saga, and even Heorot itself.

    The Red Book of Westmarch is similar to Beowulf in that it was recorded at a later age (the Fourth Age or immediately prior), has reference to earlier periods not otherwise expanded upon (Numenor, Isildur, what a Balrog is and why it is in Moria), and focuses on a single people operating within a larger world (Mankind between Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, and more, while Beowulf focuses on Geats between Jutes, Frisians and other tribes).

    All of that is to say that Tolkien’s deep, articulate background in a specific group of similar cultures fueled the Legendarium, and his languages did not exist as mere glosses for English like Klingon or any other language in any current speculative fiction, and to attempt to repeat his process would involve years of study and fluency in no less than 3 to 4 dead languages, doesn’t matter which.

    The point is, Tolkien’s a terrible example because Tolkien’s life work was not the Legendarium, but studies of Northern European cultures, language, and poetic construction.

    There’s also the fact that neither Tolkien nor Howard, the other best possible example on how to build a similar-but-different world, took to excessive use of made up words. I would posit that no extraneous language inventions are ever “necessary” to sell a reader on an alternate world, because the understanding is that of anything written off planet or in an alternate dimension is, in some way shape or form, the text you are reading is still a “translation” of some sorts. So while calling your biggest city on some distant alien world or dimension of hell “Bayonne” or “Moscow” would be disconcerting, referring to the ground as a lowercase-e “earth” or having a character say “damn” doesn’t negatively affect the authenticity of the setting.

    Really, only words that could be “untranslatable” should be left fictitious, such as proper nouns.

    • Thank you for the lesson on Tolkien! You know a lot about his background and history as well as the linguistics that he was familiar with. I can honestly say that I wasn’t aware of much of that and it adds credence to how successful he was at implementing language into his novels.

      That being said I have to disagree that he is a poor example. He’s the prime example, history of Anglo-Saxon knowledge or not. His ability to articulate linguistically in his novels was an extremely potent part of his tales and part of the reason he was successful.

      I do agree that you don’t need to create language to sell a story. My examples of earth and damn are just a couple of examples that someone could switch up to sell their setting if they are so inclined. I think that the biggest message I was trying to convey is that it’s important to be able to tell your story without language getting in the way. If I did not convey that well enough I apologize.

      Once again I think that your knowledge of how the Tolkien-esque thought process was is fascinating!