RSS Feed Print
Languages in Fantasy
Posted: Friday, September 23, 2011 9:22 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

What is your preference?  Do you want the author to include actual dialogue in a fantasy tongue in the books or would you rather they ignore that and either not show the dialogue (such as for spells and things) or translate it (such as short snippets of a character speaking in their native tongue, like if they're swearing or something)?

I'm facing a bit of a dilemma here, if you couldn't tell.  The book I'm working on right now has three different forms of magic, two of them a separate language each and the third an amalgam of the two since the system is itself an amalgam of the other two.  (All of which is explained in the book enough for readers to understand but not get bored.)

My natural instinct is to use the captcha words as my "language" for the spells and such but then that makes the languages awfully similar.  Extending that I've begun leaning toward adding accents at random to the words in order to create one language and leaving them off to create the other.

The problem is that I've already used the captcha words in one book that I wrote.  I'm still letting that one sit in hopes that I'll find a way of saving the book someday very far down the road.  So it could be a moot point.

Would you rather an author try to be Tolkien and create a usable language or do you lean to the other end of the spectrum and would rather the author not try and so gloss over any instances which would require the created language?

I'm bouncing all over the place which is why for now in my drafting when I get to a spell I write [Insert spell here] in all caps so I notice it when transcribing.  (And it subsequently gets copied exactly like that into the electronic copy that I create from my handwritten original.)

L R Waterbury
Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 10:59 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

The trouble with including a made-up language in a WIP is that most authors aren't linguists and have no idea how to go about making up a credible language. Tolkien was a linguist. His languages are based on real ones, they have a grammar and a history. Most authors then just put together foreign-sounding syllables and phonemes (and they do this with place names and character names too) that often come off sounding rather laughable.

Putting this issue aside, however, I think it is wisest to follow a few simple rules when deciding what to write in English and what to write in something else.

1. Write in another language when the character they are speaking to doesn't understand the language. That way the reader is the same place of incomprehension as the character.

2. Write in another language when the language itself is important to the story.

3. Use a word in another language when there is no appropriate translation into English or when the word is important to the plot.

Perhaps there are few other instances, but that's what comes to mind now. Otherwise, I think you're fine just telling your readers the words are spoken in another tongue but mean x,y, and z. Obviously, of course, you would write that with a great more grace than I just did.
Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2011 4:31 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

I have a lot of languages in my book. That said, the actual text of those languages never really appears in them -- there are important words, such as references to certain parts of society, words for certain types of prisoners, and words that have very specific and important meanings to society.

However, in terms of what the reader sees, the characters just speak a language and if they have to *change* what language they are speaking, they switch via dialogue tags.

I'm not a linguist, I can handle a catch-word or phrase here and there, but I don't go so far as to use sentences in the language.

The one book I did use snippets of language in, I actually just had the sentence translated to an actual language. (My preference being latin or old english.) And when I need that, I go ask someone who knows the language to do the translation for me.
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 10:59 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I get that on an entire language level. And I've totally done that with the tag to tell the reader the characters have switched languages. But what about spells/incantations? That's really where I'm struggling because those need to be included but I don't want to just have it in English. The languages mix in certain instances and that's a key issue to resolving the overall storyline which is why I'm wanting to bring in the fantasy "languages" but I'm unsure of how to do so or how much research/study I should put into it.

I mean, I can always find a linguist later on and hire him/her to craft an actual language should people really like my books and demand it and/or the books become films.

Yeah, sorry. Got derailed in fantasy-land there.
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:28 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

So why not use an actual language? Latin, Greek, etc -- you can easter egg it so particularly dedicated readers can muddle through the translations. But, unless you're tolkien or someone who is a serious linguist, I think that the creation of a language just for the sake of a few incantations is, well, overkill. There is so much that goes into a language, unless it is the most critical element of the book... I'm just not sure it is worth the time. As a general rule, I'm just not interested in reading the specifics of the incantations unless it is translated to English.

I think you need to ask this question: Would your average reader appreciate being able to understand the incantations or not? That should be the final factor. I don't include more than a few catch phrases of languages in my books because I don't think that many of my average readers would enjoy if I threw them in there. And if I did throw them in, I'd be obligated to include a glossary at the back, and I like when my odd languages are thrown in in such a way where I can figure out what they mean through context; hard to do that with an incantation.

Of course, this is just my preference.
Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 5:42 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I don't even like Tolkein's made-up language, so I'm a big no. I think it's nearly always a better choice to say "she said in [language]" rather than putting the language in.

I don't like a lot of crazy made-up words in a text because they throw me out of the narrative. I get stuck trying to pronounce them in my head, scan over them in large chunks, and basically wish there weren't there.

The only exception for me is personal names. If you want to give characters names that come out of their language or culture, that's fine. But they should be reasonably legible and easy to imagine pronouncing in English.

I wrote something a while ago that took place a great deal in France. My characters were mostly American and English, but living in Paris, they spoke a lot of French. I enjoyed writing dialogue in French in the first draft but went through on the second draft and cut most of the French, added some dialogue tags to help non-French readers make sense of the scene, used "she said in French," etc.
Posted: Saturday, October 1, 2011 12:22 PM
I like language in fantasy, personally.

The points people have made so far are good - about dialogue tags etc. As for incantations and not wanting to use english, I think context would work to help a reader understand a fantasy language if a character was using magic. Like [this is an overly simple example] "She said (insert incantation) and the bowl filled with water."

Though, that doesn't solve the problem if you are having trouble actually creating a language to use. This happens to me, and I also put in a big [X] or something in the text to fix when editing, like naming an instrument the main character plays.

But yes - I, as a reader, prefer to see (insert incantation in fantasy language) rather than "I CALL YOU, FIRE!" or however it would translate. And I think that - if you can - making at least parts of a language for spells is a good idea, if handled right.

This is what I do with it:
(This may or may not be helpful - feel free not to read it!)

As RJ suggested, I use real languages (specifically Latin and Gaelic) but there is one "older" language that I wanted to make myself - for character and place names.
Two things make it easier: If it's an older language, the ones used by newer peoples might have some basis in it, so aspects of the two I named above could be used.
I also name characters based on people I know( Like Daniel/Darnahl) and much later (a recent idea) I come up with a name "meaning" based on the personality and role of that character - usually two words joined, and so I have words for a fragmented language. Darnahl was Goldcrown for his hair - Dar being gold, Nahl being crown.
That doesn't solve the problem of the language being random, repetitive, or just ridicilous though - I'm not a linguist, and so rarely craft dialogue with the language, usually it's just place names.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2011 2:44 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I agree with most people here. Unless you're a linguist, or your mother/best friend/annoying roommate its, don't bother writing out full languages. I myself just use latin or something from a latin based language if I need something particularly foreign sounding. That includes spells, but I myself don't prefer the incantation route. (I'm more for the channeling of energies through concentration or a conduit.) As a reader I skip whole sentences that aren't translated, and sometimes I even roll my eyes, because yes, they can be awfully funny to try to sound out. And a pain in the ass. Unless it is necessary, don't add it.
Carl Rayer
Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 6:28 PM
Joined: 5/20/2011
Posts: 6

I agree, I think you have to be good at languages and dialects to pull it off, and if you're not, then it's best not to. The same rule is usually applied to regional accents. Even in English dialogue films, say, with Germans, it's considered rather distracting if ze actors speak vith a German accent.

The problem is there are examples out there, not just Tolkien, where other authors do pull it off, and so well that one's tempted to follow in their foot-steps. Here I'm thinking of Le Guin.
Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 10:55 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I think Harry Potter does a good job with this. The magic words sound vaguely romance-languagey in origin but aren't real.

Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 11:28 AM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35

I'm on the fence here, but if I think about it long enough I think I will be leaning in the direction of creating your own language is okay, so long as you a) don't overuse it, b) have rules that you follow, and c) do it because you need to, not because you want to.

For example - in the story I hope to begin uploading before the end of this year, I have an older language whose remnants still exist in the moden lexicon of words.  When I began writing, I had already decided what "old" words I would use, how I would use them, and what they meant.  I crafted simple rules that I follow (in case I come across an instance where I need a word I had not considered) and I keep a "dictionary" of the terms I have used to keep them from overlapping and to keep them consistent. 

That being said, in the second book in this series (Did I actually say that?  Did I just commit to writing a series?  I hope I didn't jinx myself.) I will be using a group of people who speak no "common" at all, and I have yet to decide what I will do with that.  I am certainly not a linguist, so developing a complete language is well out of my ballpark.  I guess I will have to jump off that bridge when I come to it.  For now though, my thoughts are for not creating a new language and keeping it as vague description.  But that may chance, as do many things when it comes to planning and writing.
Angela Martello
Posted: Monday, December 5, 2011 8:13 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

I think well-constructed made-up languages add to a story's sense of place (and time) and give more depth to characters. That said, however, I also agree that if multiple languages are used heavily throughout a book, it can make the work difficult to read.

In my writing, I've sprinkled the text with made-up words mostly for objects, different species of animals and plants, and different peoples. As for dialog and text that a character may be hearing or looking at, if the language is not understood by the character(s), I make a reference to that somehow.

I have mixed feelings about using an existing language like Latin, Ancient Greek, or Old English. If the story is set on our world in either an alternate history or parallel plane, then I can see using a real human language. If the story, however, is set on another world, then I think it deserves its own language, even if it's just a smattering of words.

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 9:36 AM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I'm firmly in the camp of made-up language haters.  As has been said by most others in this thread, the average writer is not a linguist.  But it's more than just that.  Sometimes authors insert terms that are wholly unnecessary, and I think this is why my reaction is so visceral.  Some examples (from actual published works I've read):

*There is a mammal with humps that can travel in the desert and doesn't need to drink water very often.  You don't need to make up a word for this -- there already is one.  If it looks like a camel, and walks like a camel, well...

*There's a meal you use to break your fast in the morning.  Please don't call it anything other than breakfast.

I'm willing to give leeway if there is some concept in your world that just doesn't exist in real life.  Aliantha from the Thomas Covenant books, saidar from The Wheel of Time books, etc.  (Though I'd argue Robert Jordan includes a few too many of these.)

The other caution is: make sure anything you do decide to include, is internally consistent.  Don't have two names (or words) from the same language with wildly different sounds "Feng" and "Shingnapurkar."

Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 2:45 PM
Joined: 7/25/2012
Posts: 25

There's too many "don't" and not enough "do's"! Is life not restrictive enough already that we must make our fantasy worlds suffer death-by-don't

1.) Add as many made-up words as your reader can comfortably handle.
2.) Add made-up words that contribute to the reader's experience.
3.)Add made-up words that feel consistent with the made-up languages that produced them. 
4.) Add made-up names that are short and easy for the reader to pronounce and memorize.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 7:52 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Wow, this thread is old.

Hagenpiper is right, we do have a lot of, "Don't you dare do this!" and not enough advice when it comes to made up languages. I agree that the occasional made up word is fine. I have a creature called a dohmei, that is an ancient breed of magic hunting animal. I was thinking of what would happen when a mastiff and a shark cross bred. (Can't tell you why that was my inspiration, but it was.) I could have gone the Avatar: The Last Airbender rout and called it a sharkstiff or a mashark, but dohmei is what I named it. People haven't complained about it., even when I said the word out loud in screen writing class.

That said, I do call my flying domesticated cats isis
Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Saturday, August 11, 2012 1:32 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

LeeAnna: it sounds to me as if you are actually taking the sensible approach.  A magic hunting animal like the one you describe certainly does not exist in real life, nor does anything close to it exist.  It's a new concept and is therefore one of those cases when a new word needs to be generated to describe it.  Using an existing animal name would give readers the wrong impression, and some of the compound words you suggest are -- as you suggest -- horrible.

Same for flying domesticated cats -- while my cats can certainly get into high places, thankfully they can't fly.  "Cats" isn't descriptive enough, and "flying domesticated cats" is too long of a phrase.

I'm not completely against made up languages, of course.  I don't want to read entire sentences in them and have to flip to the back to translate.  I'm not likely to actually do that.  But if there is a concept that defies description by a single word of brief phrase, which often happens in fantasy, that's entirely different.

The strategy I prefer, when reading published authors, is for the fact that two people are speaking different languages to be established at the outset.  Perhaps a translator is mentioned, and the initial part of the conversation is marked by clarifications in the translation or a few inserted made-up words.  But as time goes on, the translator takes a step back and the conversation proceeds as if both characters were speaking the same language.  (Unless, of course, the translator has an ulterior motive or one of the parties actually understands the other just fine but isn't letting on.)  The point of the scene isn't that the two parties don't share a common language, but that there's something else going on -- a cultural misunderstanding, or a request for help, or a declaration of war, or something of the sort.

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2012 3:33 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Thanks, Sneaky. I try to be sensible. It's also is apparent that I'm pretty awful when it comes to real languages, so I try to stay away from making a fake one.

I also have a very low tolerance for prolific use of fake languages in writing.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 7:40 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Sneaky Burrito:  I wanted to have different races and cultures have different languages in my fantasy story-universe, but did not want any of them (other than the English I was writing in) to be too much like any familiar language.  I was mixing enough different mythologies as  it was. 

I made the assumption that people living in a multi-lingual environment would probably know more than one language, and there would also be a kind of creole that the monolingual could grasp quickly--and that might develop (as such things have) into a "real" language as time went by.  Also that those living in a monolingual environment would--like many US citizens--have no exposure to other languages and would thus find it very difficult to learn new ones (unless it was a race gifted in learning languages.)

With that in mind, I used root-words from a lesser-well-known language as the basis for special terms (kuakgan and kuaknom, for instance, and daskdraudigs) that needed a new word--they sound foreign but all the words of that type "fit" because they are built of real root words and related through that language.)  Luckily my best friend is a native speaker of it, and helped out with this.  For the languages of other races, I made a  choice of typical sounds and again made up individual words for meanings they would have that we do not.  

It's fairly easy to make a single word's basic meaning clear in context, and then refine it in later use.

The most verbal of the other races sometimes goes off on a spiel in their language (quickly interrupted by at least the thoughts of someone listening who doesn't speak it)  but most of the "They don't all speak the same language" is carried by individual words and changes in syntax so someone sounds like a person who can't quite speak the joint creole-language fluently. 

As characters become comfortable with one another, their language "merges" with only occasional stops to explain.  So far readers seem not to have had a problem with this approach, though some want to know exactly what something is that doesn't exist ("What are red-roots, really?"  "A root vegetable."  "Like a beet?" "No.  It's a made up vegetable: it's an orangey red..." "Like a sweet potato, then."   "No, it's not sweet, even when cooked.  That's why it's often served with a honey glaze.")

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 10:44 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

@Elizabeth Moon: I think you make a very important point regarding choosing typical sounds and considering using root words from a real language.  This is what makes a made-up language actually work, at least for me as a reader who happens to be rather opinionated on this issue.  Side note: I find fascinating the small details people ask you about your books.

I think a good portion of the problem I have with made up languages in fantasy novels is that some writers give the appearance of inserting words as they go along, without considering the big picture.  (Or at least, the made-up words -- and I would definitely include names, and not just nouns, verbs, etc. in this group -- seem haphazardly created, whether or not they actually are.)

I would encourage people who want to create a language to study another language or two (unless you happen to be multilingual already), to see how things fit together, to get a sense of what sounds are and are not present.  (For one word, maybe this is not necessary.  For a whole bunch of words, take the time.)

But don't go to the extreme of my boyfriend, who has spent so much time creating a language that I've written and edited one manuscript and am working on a second, and he hasn't actually typed a single word of a single story yet!


Jump to different Forum...