Death to the Common Tongue: Telling stories with language in fantasy fiction

Most of the fantasy genre these days use constructed languages, to an extent. This may be as brief as the names of people and places (sometimes not even that), or as fully-fledged as a language with grammar and vocabulary. But what do they do for fantasy works, and why? And could more be done with them?

A lot of the time, and most annoyingly, it seems to be done to emphasise the “otherness” of fantasy settings and locations, trying to sound exotic and different from the reader’s current experience. But unless this is done well, it can just be a jumble of graphemes interspersed with occasional, ballistically-applied punctuation. It becomes especially infuriating when the characters carry on in an otherwise modern idiom, and then on occasion sprouts into thees and thous, or the equivalent. All for the sake of seeming different. This is what generally gets done in fantasy, but I’m not going to dwell on it any further as I think it needs to be discouraged.

One author that doesn’t seem to do this is George R.R. Martin. His knights even swear properly. The majority of places are all given in relatively normal-sounding names. King’s Landing, Oldtown, the Dreadfort and Winterfell being a few. These are all built The common thread here is the place that they are set; the continent of Westeros. Through the point of view of the writing, we’re getting these names translated as the characters would hear them. When the names in Essos are presented, they’re not translated because all the point-of-view characters view them as foreign. Instead of King’s Landing, Oldtown and White Harbour, you have Qarth, Meereen and Astrapor. Through the languages understood by the characters, we get a glimpse of their perspectives; what is foreign to them is foreign to us.* From this perspective, the swearing makes sense, as the meaning is what we read, not the precise words.

If languages are rarely used to shine a light on characters’ perspectives in fantasy, it is even rarer to find examples of where they are incorporated into a world’s narrative. The only example I can think of is Middle-earth; Tolkien is very careful to interweave the evolution of his world’s languages to its history. But real-world history is full of examples of how language has been key parts of the conquerors’ dominion (Norman invasion of England, the Roman empire), or the origin of or a supporting strut to a rebellion (Spanish-Basque independence, the Cathars of the Languedoc). Now I think about it, language is brought up in the Zhang Yimou film Hero as a reason why the Qin emperor is intent on uniting China; he finds the idea that there are 19 ways to write “sword” ridiculous, and another reason to unite the whole of the land under one spoken and written language. This element often gets neglected in fantasy, and that’s a shame as it’s a rich source of setting details that could add real spice to a world’s history.

Finally, I thought I’d shed some light on how language has evolved as a key element of Mists of Albion.

One of the key things about the magic of the setting as used by people was that it was to be ritualised, verbalised. The magic was to reside in the words. The following account of proto-linguistic evolution was written by Hypersleeper, and I’m now in the process of developing it. Note that the names for the various languages and factions are very provisional, and indicative of the origins of the various factions in the history

The first language was spoken by creatures who came to Albion from the Mists, the Sidhe (I’ll call the language Ur-Sidhe for now) as an attempt to replicate the ‘language’ of flowing concepts and energies which the Sidhe ‘spoke’ in the Mists. Ur-Sidhe was incredibly difficult to speak and also frighteningly powerful, as it originated in altering reality around the concepts under discussion. Even the early Sidhe couldn’t fully control it, as they didn’t understand how Albion’s reality altered their tongue, so they spoke as little as possible.

Humans developed a proto-language of their own, but they coveted the supernatural power of Sidhe language, which enabled the Sidhe to have a large degree of control over humans. By infusing elements they picked up from individual Ur-Sidhe words into their simple grammatical systems, they produced a range of simplified pidgin versions of the Sidhe language, originally as ritual languages.  I’ll call the language which came out of this ur-creole, although it covers several dialects spoken across Albion.

As the Sidhe learned to speak with their human slaves, ur-creole in turn influenced the development of Sidhe language. The Sidhe realized that rather than trying to regain and control the inherent language of the Mists, they could simplify their language to make it more magically subtle. I’ll call the result ‘old sidhe’. Despite being less overwhelming, it’s still an extremely complicated language in terms of grammar and pronunciation. Old sidhe still survives within Sidhe rituals.

The evolution of language until this point had been to recreate the language of the Mists, but as groups of humans delved into the earth in search of iron and encountered the Trow their languages began to grow in new and unexpected ways, becoming more and more gramatically distinct form its ur-Sidhe roots (while retaining a lot of sidhe vocabulary). This is the first genuinely human language, which I’ll call Fir’bolg. The humans who sided with the Sidhe never adopted Fir’bolg and continued to use different dialects of ur-creole throughout the war.

During the war, Fir’bolg ultimately split into two languages, a ‘high’ language used for ritual and magical purposes (and incorporating many influenced elements from the Iron Dreamers) and a ‘low’ language used in a more everyday capacity. I’ll call them high and low Fir’bolg, respectively. High Fir’bolg is the source of the Trow language, while low Fir’bolg is the ancestor of most human languages.

With the end of the war and the ascendancy of the Sidhe kingdoms, low Fir’bolg dissolves into different dialects, each derivative of the particular rituals in each of the Sidhe courts. This effect was more pronounced the closer to the Sidhe rulers people became, and so the use of low Fir’bolg became a class-specific action, and in the south in particular a recidivist action. Much of the language around the use of iron and horses across Leogaria dates originates in this period. Because they could communicate in a way unknown to their Sidhe overlords, they were able to organise effectively around the use of horses and other tools to overthrow the Sidhe in the south of Albion.

That’s as far as I’ve got, but I hope it gives you a picture of how language is used in Mists of Albion. I appreciate I’ve probably skimmed over lots of the history related to this, which will be clarified in future posts. If you want things clarified in the meantime, please comment below!






*The case of Daenerys, who learns many of Essos’ languages, causes problems here; the terms become familiar to her, but the terms remain “untranslated”, and in some cases persistently italicised. There is constant emphasis on the otherness of the terms, despite her increasing familiarity with them. Part of me thinks that this might have something to do with her constantly uncertain status as a quasi-outsider wherever she goes, but it’s still a point of uncertainty to the above hypothesis.


About CrucibleofWords

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I intend to explore it various ways with this blog, both through positing my own ideas, and reflection on that of others.
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One Response to Death to the Common Tongue: Telling stories with language in fantasy fiction

  1. Pingback: Language and Speaking in Fantasy | L.M. White

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