I recently came back from a 10-day trip to Luxembourg and Germany, two beautiful countries. Today’s post will be about language in fantasy, something that I’ve been thinking a lot about since I returned from my trip.
While I enjoyed the insanely cheap beer and sunshine, I neglected my writing. Writing on holiday has always been a struggle for me. Maybe it’s because I can’t find a place I’m comfortable, maybe I’m just busy and thinking of anything but putting pen to paper. However, I have recently finished draft one of my work in progress so it was good timing to take a step back (at least that’s my excuse).
What the trip did do is remind me about the importance of language and communication both in this world and also in world building.
In Luxembourg there a big mixture of languages going on. The official language is Luxembourgish but in schools they also teach French, German and English. I visited a few bars in the same square and was spoken to in Luxembourgish, French, German and also Portugese. It can get very confusing.
Being a typical English person, I couldn’t speak any of these languages besides a few words. My language experience is with Spanish and a tiny bit of Italian so it was much harder to understand languages with Germanic roots.
The importance of language in fantasy
The whole experience made me think about how language works in my fantasy world. (It also made me want to start with Duolingo again because quite frankly, I need it.)
Language is an overlooked concept in a lot of fantasy novels that are very city-centric and don’t have narratives sweeping from continent to continent. Fair enough, if you’re keeping your story small scale, why bother with inventing new languages?
At the same time, I have nothing but admiration for those authors who create their own languages. Language is such an important part of our world, it brings people together and also breaks people apart. Language can form partnerships and start wars.
While there was plenty of miscommunication on my part in Luxembourg, nothing awful happened.
The same is not always true in fantasy, or history for that matter. If you happen to have a King communicating with another Kingdom about delicate political matters, the wrong communication could start a war or impact trade as well as overall foreign relations. Miscommunication even in the same language can have disastrous consequences – if you want to inject a bit more conflict in your story.
Sometimes as writers we get into the habit of making every character say exactly what they mean and have it fully understood by the other party in order to move the plot forward.
But it’s not that simple.
People often don’t explain themselves well, understand each other perfectly in real life, so why not introduce this into your writing? If done right it could add a bit of texture and realism to your dialogue.
I realised that I had neglected language in my own WIP. Although it’s not that I had forgotten about it. At first I simply noted down some half-arsed idea that everyone came from the same place and therefore speaks the same language but different dialects.
However, my world is fairly big and this is far too convenient! This is a trap I put myself in so often and a lot of people do the same. We get lazy and just create an idea that’s convenient for us so we can get on with the story but it makes no sense to anyone reading it.
My next move was to have a vague idea of what each language would sound like, mostly for my own benefit. For example, those in the south will speak an Arabic-style language and those in the north will speak Gaelic-ish. It’s all very vague and needs a lot more work.
How far do you go with language in your fantasy world?
Some writers create an entire language, others don’t, both can work. I personally don’t want to create 5 languages for my world but I thought up some pros and cons to doing a Tolkien if you’re considering it yourself.
- It enriches your world and makes it more impressive
- You can emphasise language barriers if they are a source of conflict
- Helps to establish different languages from each other to prevent confusion
- It’s incredibly time consuming to create a new language
- It can make the drafting/editing process much longer as you consult your new dictionary constantly
- You may be tempted to overuse this as a plot point to make the most of your language-making effort
The choice is entirely up to you and may depend on whether language barriers are going to feature in your story. If not, it might not be worth it.
How do you feel about language in fantasy? Have you created your own? Please share your thoughts on language and communication in your world!