242. On Fantasy: Language

Up sword, sayeth Sir Gallant, lest I cleave thee where thou standest.

Yeah, that’s pretty bad, and it has been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of fake-ancient language used in fantasy, except as a joke.

Language in fantasy is both a necessary tool, and a dangerous one. You can’t just throw in some thees and thous and -ests, but you also can’t speak in modern, colloquial English. Simple formality is the easiest way out. Even Zelazny, for all his smart-ass-with-a-sword characters, wrote with intelligence and a great deal of formality. If you want your characters to speak slang, you have to invent slang appropriate to their world, and that takes some effort.

Remember, whatever language your characters speak, even if you are setting your fantasy in early England, no one on Earth speaks that language today. In my fantasy world of the Menhir there are three languages in play, and a mid-sea island has a bastard language drawn from all three. It doesn’t matter. The book gets translated into English, whatever language the characters are speaking.

Whatever your genre, you are likely to have characters from different levels of society. Whether you are writing about nomads from the desert encountering the Pasha of Nevermore, or a Bostonian talking to a southern slave in 1845, you need to find a way to make your characters sound different from modern America, and from each other, but still be comprehensible. And it needs to sound natural. ‘Taint easy.

Languages – note the difference – are also dangerous, but at least you don’t have to invent one if you don’t want to. Tolkien did, to a degree far in excess of the needs of his stories. Almost no one else ever does.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on the world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom; just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.

**      **       **

I’ve told this story before, but I can’t leave the subject of language in fantasy without repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language. Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

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