Sunday, February 10, 2013

Should You Create Language For a Broad Fantasy World?

Updated: June.18.2015

World building is a demanding task and for fantasy writers, it's a pretty serious business if it involves creating a set of phrases to indicate how different from ours is the characters' language and way of life. Language, which is also an indication of culture requires besides other stuff consistency or the writer keeps contradicting his/herself. You will find this article a lot different from what you're used to having on this blog (I had some help). This is my most ambitious effort, ever.

I tried to write an article discussing why it's necessary (or why it's not) for a fantasy setting to have its own language.
I already browsed online but wasn't satisfied with the answers I came up with. So, I asked a couple of friends to help me out. This is the question they gave their all to help me with. The ideas they contributed were damn good I couldn't help but copy and paste them here.

Peteriffic said:
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As with all creative processes, particularly those done with written or printed word, I think there is a level of authenticity that needs to be met before a story can actually begin to progress. Part of this is involved in the exposition and world building, and I am sure we can all agree that if those parts of the story are done poorly, then the story itself suffers as a result of poor backgrounding.
This being said, the language is just as much a part of the exposition and reality of the story as is a magic system or a political system or anything like that. However, the language gets used in a vastly different way because it is never actually used as a language in the context of the books. Sure, reading through Tolkien is great, but how useful would it have been for all of his songs to be in their "native" forms?
Furthermore, since language and philology and linguistics are actual fields of study, most readers are ill-equipped to pass judgment on any fictional languages. This is different from magic systems because there aren't actually magicians who can say whether it is silly or not. If a language were to be a pivotal part of the story (and I'd argue that it cannot) then I think that story is going to suffer in no small way as a result.
I would also argue that a good fantasy series does not need its own language. There is simply no reason for it to exist unless the author has a penchant for linguistics because any time it would actually appear in the book, it would have to be translated into an actual language, thus mitigating its usefulness as a distinct language. There are a few conceivable exceptions, like a short phrase or message that is presented in a native form, that is left concealed until later events. However, this usage is no different than a closed door or a locked chest in terms of plot devices.
Finally, going back to comparing with a magic system, we all get angry when the system is used illogically without consistency, or as a deus-ex. We look to magicks like Sanderson's or Jordan's as bulwarks of a logical system. Immediately several come to mind. How about languages (Tolkien is the exception that proves the rule IMO)? We can't submit a fictional language to the same amount of scrutiny that we can other elements of world building, because it isn't possible without linguistic knowledge, and the time and elaboration of that language which cannot really happen enough in a story written in English. There isn't time or a place for an entire fictional language of high quality. How many readers are going to be able to actually notice inconsistencies or logical fallacies in a fictional language across five books? Like "Oh dear, Mr. Author's syntax of those participles is all wrong! That isn't at all how FictionalLanguage goes!"
Sometimes its useful to create a language, and in some cases it can lend a TON of credibility to a work, but honestly at that point the fictional stories nearly become secondary to the language (as it was with Middle Earth). Creating a full and serious language is no small task. There are few who would be able to look at the few lines of elvish in LOTR and think "hot damn, that is a good fucking language". You'd have to go out and actually research it to find that out. So no, any made up language will do, so long as it is more or less consistent in its uses. Again, part of the idea of fantasy is to leave a little room for the reader's mind, and you just can't do that if you're spoon-fed an actual language.

beansworth said:
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Part of the current trend (by which I mean the last 50 years or so) in high-fantasy is world building, which means creating a world which doesn't exist but is believable enough in some ways to make the story work. Making it believable means making realistic culture. How do people work? What do they do for fun? What art and music do they make? What is their religion? Another question about a hypohetical, alternative world culture is: what languages would they speak?
That being said, no author has gone to the lengths that Tolkien did in creating languages. You don't have to take it that far. Any fantasy author, by at least throwing in a few words and phrases in a made-up language, can communicate to the reader that multiple nations or multiple culture-groups exist in this world, which helps to make it believable.

Evan1701 said:
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Tolkien: making every prospective fantasy author feel inadequate since 1937.

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Language is deeply tied to culture so when trying to create distinct cultures or subcultures within a fantasy novel it can be a very useful tool. From what I remember of my Spanish translation class in college in many countries where they speak Latin based languages English is seen as a terse and scientific language, good for writing about technical things. Whereas Spanish, French and Italian are often seen as more artistic, less literal languages, or languages of love. Also when translating between English and Spanish you can generally expect the Spanish to be around 25% wordier than the English (translators always wanna get paid per word in Spanish). This says something about the culture, I remember there being an odd tradition of seeing who could come up with the most drawn out and obsequious letter closing (Instead of "Sincerely" think "Your most loyal companion with nothing but love and devotion and admiration for your great intellect." or something like that). Also run-on sentences are strongly frowned upon on English, in Spanish just go for it, you have a whole paragraph without a single period, question mark, or exclamation mark? Looks good to me. Also in Spanish all nouns are gendered either male or female which also says something about the culture by which things they see as male or female. Also when looking at language subcultures in Mexico it is interesting to note that a large quantity of their swear words refer to "madre" or mother in English.
Another interesting aspect is that Spanish is perfectly phonetic and there are very few exceptions to the rules of grammar, whereas French has tons of silent letters, sometimes like 3 in a row will all be silent. I was subjected to the 2 intro units of French in order to graduate with my Spanish degree and I had a lot of trouble with this. French like Spanish genders their nouns, but look at the word friend for example, "ami, amie, amis, amies" they are all pronounced the same yet spelled differently and have different meanings. They represent the male singular, female singular, male plural, and female plural, and don't forget that if it's a mixed group of friends then you always default to male plural. I remarked upon this to a friend, who spoke French, about how difficult it is to break into as far as just listening and understanding, you need so much context to know what they are talking about since many of the words sound the same and he said it is entirely on purpose. They do this in an attempt to protect the culture from outside influence. Also amusing is the RAE's (Royal Academie EspaƱola) constant attempts at preventing the inclusion of English cognates into the language). For example in most of Latin America "computer" = "computadora" in Spain? "Ordenator." This is literally just their attempt to prevent the inclusion of a word derived from English into their language.
These are just the examples I can come up with from my experience in learning romance languages. While I believe that creating a language or several languages to use in a book can make a culture and hence the world more believable, I also feel it is often improperly implemented. Either the language is just renaming things that we already have words for (seriously calling a rabbit a smurp is so stupid) or it is a fully functional language, but presenting it is incredibly dry. I used to teach Spanish and in my experience the vast majority of people have little aptitude or interest in learning languages later in life because the brain gets massively worse at learning languages past the age of 5 or 6. To do this right an author basically has to go to the trouble of creating a fully functional language and then present only the segments or slices of it that are interesting and meaningful to the readers.
TL:DR Language and culture are so inextricably linked that creating a language is essentially creating a culture and doing this really helps to flesh out and define a culture and particular characters from that culture, but it is incredibly difficult to do so convincingly and present it in an interesting fashion.

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naryn said:
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Language can be used well, but it doesn't need to be a full language. Tolkien is the prime example of possibly overdoing it, he created an entire language, but that doesn't need to be the case.
Basically language is great for an epic, a story in which we see different cultures, usually you would have the main protagonists language be that of the author, or the language he writes in. Then to differentiate the other cultures of the world it's useful to use different language, GRRM does this well in A Song of Ice and Fire, because he uses it sparingly. Old Valyrian is a language in the world, yet GRRM has only created a few words of it, true he uses Valar Dohaelis and Valar Moghulis frequently, but enough to create the illusion that the culture is different.
Basically language is a great way to separate cultures in fantasy, as it is in the real world.

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I actually think ASOIAF handles this fairly beautifully - we know there's certain languages, and then we get the text in English. I get the immersive nature of language, but I also see how using dialects and other languages can be frustrating and take me out of the story.

Akeii said:
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While it's only practical to have 'English' as a common language, any self-respecting linguist should instantly be able to tell you why languages are important. Firstly, it becomes less and less practical to have one common language as the geographical and cultural scope of the story increases. Having various languages that work will also show that the author has put extensive thought into how their ethnic groups have developed - trade languages, regional dialects and divergent forms can all hint at how civilizations have progressed given their relationships to each other and to any observable barriers.
If a distinct vocabulary has been established, the reader might also be able to see distinct cultural values given the right opportunities. Do family names come first or second for individuals? Is poetry terse and succint or long and flowery? Are there any unusual synonyms for words that the characters can discover?
Finally, a language is an excellent springboard into the simple connotations the sounds its words can evoke. Is it musical or guttural? Are the consonants rolling, sibilant or grating? A dedicated author would take this a step further and consider the languages nonhuman races would develop, especially since the sounds used to communicate should be vastly different.
None of these factors are strictly necessary, but an author should take them into consideration if they have a large world or decide to fashion their own languages. They may not be very noticeable when done right, but you certainly see the signs when a bad language comes up. Nothing makes the reader want to gag and toss away a novel in sheer disgust more than one with horrible words and names.

Eilinen[F] said:
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I don't know how apparent this is to somebody who lives in North America, where everybody speaks English and certain mutual understanding is retained due to mobile population, uniform writing standards and popular culture, but languages change A LOT inside even relatively small areas.
But first examples; The area of Wheel of Time was somewhere between the size of Europe and USA. Nevertheless, all people spoke the same language with only few unique phrases per country (and semi-forgotten old language that doesn't seem to have any relation to the modern one - where did that come from?). The same goes for many other American books. In Song of Ice and Fire the Seven Kingdoms are the size of South America, but there is only one common language (and one or two semi-forgotten ones).
Meanwhile, Scotland and England share the same small island and even they have hard time understanding each other (the language-differences in WoT are more akin to the differences between two counties next to each other - not those of two countries on the opposite sides of continent). 1500 years ago all the Mediterranean spoke Latin, but the off-spring languages of French, Spanish and Italian are hardly identical.
Learning new languages in immersed environment isn't very difficult. Even today, exchange students are thrown into the deep end of the pool without any earlier language skills and three to six months later they return home speaking the language with only few minor missteps.
I'm not saying that author SHOULD create several languages just for the authenticity, but it's easy enough to say that the main character speaks three languages and the author translates to the reader - and the languages the protagonist DOESN'T speak are just given as descriptions ("all Bob could tell was that the merchant was angry and he spoke to his nose.."). You can think few phrases that are often repeated to give examples of what the foreign languages are alike - this brings something to the world as well!
Or you can have trader's language or some sort of lingua franca for the charactes to speak in addition to their own languages!
Of course, like software programmers say, each feature like this takes time to write. It takes pages or time from something else. The trick is finding the features that are important for the story (and important for the readers) while avoiding the stuff that very few will ever spot. That Tolkien had elvish dictionaries was fun for him, but it isn't important for the story and other authors should feel it important to ape him on this -- but putting some thought into languages is important. First language, second language, dialect etc. tell as much about the character and of his society as does his wealth, dress, body-appearance, customs.
In a way, language tells MORE about character than any of the above; you may lose wealth, you may change your clothes, you may be adopted and even customs are easily learnt. But language, accent and dialect? Those aren't easily ironed out! Just by opening his mouth a person tells where he's from, how he's been educated, how high he has prioritised the learning of foreign culture etc. That so many fantasy writers completely ignore this is one of my biggest gripes with the genre.
TL;DR: Languages are important in fantasy-setting, particularly in a setting where the land wasn't colonised in the very recent past in haste.

rockeh said:
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In addition to all the world-building aspects discussed in this thread, I would like to point out that language is a mutable concept. For instance, the English you use today, while nominally the same your grandparents spoke, is a different language. See, languages evolve, and people in different time periods, places or even professions will use one subset of a language, while others will use a different subset.
For instance, a miner will use certain words that an astronomer might not know, understand, or interpret correctly, because the astronomer's language includes concepts the miner's language does not, and vice-versa.
Thus, it's simpler to create a language that has at its core the concepts which may not exist in your readers' language, have them explained once (or not, let them figure it out from context), and be done with that.
As an example, I'd point out Stephen King's Dark Tower series (if only because that's what I'm currently reading): They all speak English, but in Roland's world if you want a quick snack, you don't have a sandwich, but rather a popkin, and when your grandfather was a kid, he didn't walk five miles (uphill both ways) to get to school, he walked three wheels to get there. Then you have words/concepts like ka-tet, which are made up (or more so that "popkin"), which are concepts central to the series, and frankly, ka-tet sounds a lot better than group of destiny-linked brothers-in-arms.
So on the whole, even fantasy which doesn't deal with arcane magic, Elves or fundamentally different universes does benefit from a foreign language, be it Quenya, Latin or Minnesotan.

Swicc said:
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It doesn't need it's own language no. However when you are creating a new race or species I don't think it's far fetched to come up with a new language. Else you have orcs or goblins speaking Spanish, and maybe some ogre's thrown in there speaking Cantonese.... just pointing out that it's strange to use real world languages for them.

Serpentira said:
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I'd say the previous posters have it- it's not necessary exactly, but it does add an extra layer of authenticity to the people(s) that are being created. Personally, I also think it's a useful tool for highlighting items or ideas that are of importance in the world- it makes the reader take note. Names of people, places or items, words of endearment, oaths and sayings- all are things that can picked out. Examples from modern literature would be Aes Sedai or ter'angreal in The Wheel of Time series. The very unusualness of the words make them stick out, and stick with the reader.
So, while plenty of fantasy books stick to plain English (or the local equivalent) and can work perfectly fine that way, I feel that the importance of language as a device for highlighting themes and emerging the reader in a foreign land is one that can hardly be discounted. That said, I don't think that creating the entire language down to every verb tense and all common words is a requirement- it never hurts for the consistency of what words you do choose to use, though.

jaself said:
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Well, I'd say building a good world is one of the most important parts of fantasy. Part of that is differing nations, perhaps races, and there's no way those are all going to develop the same language. You can explain how everyone came to speak the same language, but not why there is only one everywhere.
That being said, the definition of a "good" world changes depending on the story. If everything takes place within one nation, you can probably skip the whole language problem. If the story doesn't take itself too seriously, you can probably skip it too. But ya know, WoT has one language, and it didn't bother me too awfully much.
EDIT: WoT had the ancient language, which is not especially important to the story, but a good way to add flavor to the world.

ansate said:
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No. Quirk words or phrases in a made up language are kind of fantasy essentials, but an entire language, while cool, is overkill to me. I wouldn't fault an author for doing it, but I would enjoy it just as much without.

Nue_Garro said:
Most fantasy stories inherently involve sentient species other than humans. It other human cultures have their own languages in the real world, it follows that other species would have entirely different languages. Creating those languages, even if it's a few phrases or words sprinkled throughout the book, helps world building. World building is a huge part of a successful fantasy story, because the made up world most often needs to feel real.
I wouldn't say that a fantasy universe needs to represent fictional languages, but it would seem strange if large groups of disparate cultures all spoke the same language, so I think it should be addressed where necessary.
I'd say that if a writer only wants to create a few words, they don't need to be a linguist. However, if they do want to reach for the mark of so many thousands of words for the language to be considered functional, I think a solid understanding of linguistics would help immensely. Knowing etymology and the construction and history of foreign languages could only add to the sense of authenticity in a fantasy language.

merewenc said:
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I'm more likely to go with the last option. Language isn't just about exchanging words in one language for another. You have grammar, syntax, and a bunch of other stuff I probably am missing because I'm not a linguist. You should have continuity, which many non-linguists don't manage when making up a language. You should know how it's pronounced and maybe even figure out how to speak it in a fluid manner so that you can write it in a fluid manner.
Don't get me wrong. The occasional curse or animal/plant/thing name sprinkled in by a "foreigner" or to make up for a fantasy creature that is nothing like what we have on Earth is fine, but it shouldn't be overdone. It's a fine line.

rexarooo said:
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ALL modern fantasy comes back to Tolkien. He is the first one to do epic fantasy well and all epic fantasy since has followed his lead. 
Tolkien was a MEGA nerd and also a linguist and he included many languages in his work, not so much for realism, but because languages came naturally to him... they were a natural extension of his expression of HIS elves and HIS dwarves and HIS men.
keep in mind that Tolkien wasn't "writing novels" or "creating epic fantasy" he was creating a mythology for the english who, being such a hodgepodge of peoples, lacked a unifying set of myths. he is very upfront about that.
EDIT: spelling

Subodai said:
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I've never even heard anyone talk about this before. Most fantasy that I know doesn't have its own language beyond a few words. There's no reason beyond the specific needs of a specific plot for it to be necessary. Lord of the Rings didn't need the languages Tolkien spent so much time developing.

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Personally I don't think it added much, and I could've done without listening to conversations I couldn't understand. I understand he went into far more detail in developing the languages than was remotely necessary for the stories, and I suspect it was necessary for his writing process. I've also read that the language was the main point for him, and the stories were a by-product, but I have no idea if that's true.

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Lord of the Rings didn't need the languages Tolkien spent so much time developing.
Yes, it did.
You can look at any one of the elements that makes Tolkein's work so immersive and say "well, it really didn't need THIS one thing", but what made his work so amazing was ALL of those things.
Take away the language, and the poetry, and Tom Bombadil and soon you are left with a half assed action movie with (the beautiful and talented) Liv Tyler in it. It still might be good, but it isn't great.
All the little things, the "I can't believe he spent this much time on this" things are what make the work capture the imagination of generations.

Cosman246 said:
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Lord of the Rings didn't need the languages Tolkien spent so much time developing.
The conlangs were the point....

DeleriumTrigger Worldbuilders said:
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Does a fantasy story inherently NEED its own languages? No. But  fantasy, more than most other genres, tends to be in more, well, fantastical worlds, often in made up worlds during made up time periods, inhabited by made up races and classes. With these kinds of worlds, you tend to have more creativity involved in making them up than if you used a "real" setting. I believe the type of people who write and create these types of worlds are the type who enjoy those little details, such as language or unique races. And I believe the fantasy reader who enjoys these made up worlds also enjoy the authenticity given to these worlds by the addition of some languages.
Can they be a hindrance to the story and an unnecessary complication? Of course. But personally, I like a little touch of things like language in my fantasy worlds. It just adds to the experience, the immersion. Does it need to be Tengwar-esque levels of complexity? Hell no.


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  1. This was very useful to me, thanks, it really helped me to decide weather i should create a language to my novel or not.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Gabriel. I'm glad I could be of help


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