Fantasy Languages

This article is part of a series. Here are the links to Part 1; Part 2.

I have talked about crafting distinct cultures in fantasy before, but today I’d like to focus more specifically on fantasy languages. I grew up with three languages at home – French, Farsi and English. I spoke English and French fluently from a very young age. My little sister, being smarter than me, swapped languages depending on context: she notably told the French teachers at school she only spoke English to avoid having to participate in class. We both spoke a tiny bit of Farsi, not enough to hold a proper conversation. I remember being scared of answering the phone, because I never knew which language I would need to use.

When it came to writing a fantasy culture, the question of which language to use cropped up. I am lucky to have friends as nerdy as I am, who also have a specific interest in languages. They recommended using the same language group for the same fantasy culture. The language group the fantasy words are inspired from can help give the world a flavour, a tone, which sounds consistent.

A good example for this is The City & The City by China Miéville. If you haven’t read it, the novel is well worth the read, if only because it has such seamless worldbuilding. The two aforementioned cities each have their own culture "tone". Besźel and Ul Qoma sound like two very different places. Without being officially set in Eastern Europe, terms like Yovic Bridge, policzai or KünigStrász mean the reader mentally maps the architecture, food and social structure of Besźel on places they already know who use similar-sounding words. Ul Qoma manages to have a very different feel, just in the language they use: Illitian script, Dhatt, Ul Maidin Avenue, etc.

In The Collarbound, three broad cultural groups can be found: the Duskdwellers, the Sunrisers and the khers – the iwdan, in their own language. The aim was that all three languages should sound different enough that the reader, when hearing a word, had a good chance of guessing which of the three cultures it belonged to.

I also coined a few portmanteau words, because those are easy for the reader to understand: mindlink, fleshbind, soulworm and, obviously, collarbound. When I didn’t want to invent a word, but wanted to indicate this was a unique concept, I simply capitalised the term: the Edge (as in, the Edge of the world where the land abruptly stops and falls into oblivion), or the Nest (the castle where the mages live, “nesting” on the cliff at the end of the world).

This is an easy solution, as it’s immediately clear for the reader, avoids crowding them with made-up terms, and gives the story flavour. It also spares the reader from having to remember too many new words.

To briefly go back to The City & The City, Miéville also uses this solution.

mieville-city.jpg

Terms such as ‘crosshatched streets’ don’t rely on invented words, but we can guess, because of the context and the way they are used in the sentence, that this refers to some element of the unusual setting. The idea that the two cities overlap in crosshatched areas is an easy one for the reader to understand. Or he uses terms such as Breach, for the very specific crime of breaching the invisible border between both overlapping cities.

Similarly, I use expressions which are clearly from the fantasy setting, but written in English in the novel. The Duskdweller greeting is “May you grow tall”, a reference to their beliefs about giants and what happen to them after their death. Expressions such as “as silent as a kher grave” indicates that humans don’t bury their dead in graves, but khers do, which worldbuilds without having to delve into lengthy explanations.

When writing the iwdan language specifically, because they weren’t human, I had a long think about the terms they’d have in common with the humans – and those they wouldn’t. I introduced concepts such as gendered greetings – “tidir” is the proper way to say hello to a woman, “idir” is the proper way to say hello to a man – because the gender divide is important in iwdan culture. Words for family, as they have a different family structure from humans, don’t map over perfectly. It’s a lot of fun to create a culture by thinking about what words they need. It’s very telling about who they are as a people.

Obviously, this can, and has been, overdone. A good rule of thumb is Orson Scott Card’s rule: “If it’s bread, call it bread.” In his book How to write Fantasy and Science-Fiction, his advice is: “Nothing is more tacky than to have a bunch of foreign-sounding words thrown into a story for no better reason than to have something that sounds foreign. If it looks like a rabbit and acts like a rabbit, calling it a shmeerp doesn’t make it alien. If mugubasala means bread, then say bread!”

So, to summarise: there is a number of ways to create a believable fantasy language and introducing new concepts to the reader. Capitalising some words; using expressions or idioms which jar a bit in modern English, but are immediately understandable; portmanteau words; words which exist in modern English but are being used in an unusual context. Inventing words is always possible, as long as the words are introduced gradually to not crowd out the reader, and have a common flavour/sound which means they could believably belong to one culture.

Probably mixing all of these to strike a balance is the best way to go about it. And bear in mind Orson Scott Card’s advice – don’t overdo it!

14 Feb. 22

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