Word Usage in Non Existent languages


In fantasy (and in many scifi novels) your protagonists probably are not speaking English.  They are likely not speaking and actual existing language, unless you want them to.  You could just decide by fiat that they are speaking English, but some people might have a problem suspending belief (especially if they know enough to know different Old English is from current English, and that language constantly evolves).  If you do decide that they speak their own language however other issues occur such as; can you use any puns then, what about rhymes, or wordplay like homonyms or clever phrasings, and what about modern idioms?  Below is some advice to help with these issues.

The most important advice is to stay consistent.   If you sprinkle your own (or another language’s) words for something, or an ancient word for something use it every time.  Do not use the phrase katana and broadsword as if interchangeable.  Don’t call an animal a k’ysen most of the book, and then suddenly call it a dinosaur later even if the description you gave made it obvious.  If you do pepper modern idioms into your world, decide which ones fit and why and stick with it.  Nothing is worse than having what parts of our languages are used in your world seem arbitrarily.  If the whole world seems like an allegory for the ancient Vikings, and then you use all modern English rhymes in their poetry it may pull a reader out of your world.

Modern phrasings in particular can be tricky, including what is “modern.”  Even phrases that often are in our language and seen as conventional are actually references to real life cultural events and would not probably exists in your fantasy world.   This means extra care must be taken of what types of phrases you use to keep your world feeling consistent.  Decide why those phrases are allowed. It might be because of cultural similarities, it might be events in that world, or you might let all modern idioms apply and assume that those modern idioms are translations of whatever they are really saying. If attempting to weed out modern phrasings then you will need to think hard about anything allowed.  Even my last phrases “weed out” assumes the speaker’s culture has familiarity with the process of keeping a garden.  If trying to be rigorous on phrasings, I recommend having multiple beta readers that keep an eye out just for that.

If you want your own jargon (this happens particularly with magic or technology in fantasy and sci fi) it helps to keep it to a level that does not overwhelm your reader with new words they must learn.  Also, if there is something analogous in our world you can use that as an alternate way to describe it as long as it is not too rooted in one particular cultural identity.  If a person has a specialized curved sword called a dyten, calling it a sword later is fine.  Referring to the dyten as a scimitar later is not advised however, as it weakens the idea that your world’s sword is this unique thing you called a dyten.  If you can keep all your phrasing to a small amount (maybe a dozen or two words) the reader won’t feel like they need to check a glossary each time a conversation occurs.

Puns, homonyms, rhymes and the like very much rely on deciding if: the language is for all intents and purposes modern English, the language is not at all like English and you do not want anything to break that illusion, it is not English but you assume that there is some sort of wordplay in that language that the people in that world are seeing that we are not and let our version of the wordplay stay as a way your reader can connect.

Most fantasy seems to go with the third one.  The language is not English but it is treated like that in the rhymes, songs, and puns its characters use.  This is the easiest way to write, but can sometimes pull your reader out of the book much like using modern idioms.  This seems to very by reader.  Some readers actually prefer this technique for familiar wordplay draws them in more.  If firmly rooting your novel in history, or emphasizing the “otherness” of your culture you might want to write it differently.  Instead use analogues, related concepts, and wise observations for poetry instead of rhymes.  Make humor contextual instead of pun related.  When writing think  “Will this joke be the same for my Spanish, Japanese, German and Italian readers?  That sort of mindset can give you good guidelines of who to keep language integrity throughout your work

Poll:

Do you prefer your languages in fantasy and sci fi to be:

A)Modern English.  Who cares if that’s not feasible, it gets rid of all other barriers.

B)Its own unique language, and nothing modern or reliant upon being English should show.  The translated version of this novel will easily be able to use actual translations with little to no localization needed.

C)Functionally similar to modern English, but only as a device to allow the reader to be more immersed in the world.  It will have differences, but rhymes and puns are allowed and it is just assumed the world has an equivalent for them.

World Info:

Mandatory Paradise will be the focus again, since it is the newer book and I have more questions about that from people who have wondered how one structure can cover the entire island.  The truth is the Palaces are essentially connected and wind their way around the island and jut into the center of it at parts.  There are, however,  places not actually part of the Palace as a whole.  These are not residential places, and do not have the running water the rest of the island does or entrances to the catacombs.  This is where the markets are, smiths craft their wares, and the vineyards for the grapes are located.

Also thePpalaces are broken down by areas and quarters have different feels to them.  I will describe the differences between the quarters in a later article.  In general they are broken down by class and occupation, but occasionally by philosophy.  It is still all one Palace, but the culture is not nearly as homogenous as the Senate would probably prefer it to be.

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About mdkenning

E-book clockpunk fantasy author View all posts by mdkenning

3 responses to “Word Usage in Non Existent languages

  • SuperCraftifFragilistic

    I think either A or C. It actually (and maybe this is weird) kind of pulls me out of the book when I have to think about how they’re actually speaking another language. It is a fantasy world, but I am reading it in a modern English-speaking world, so I am more immersed when it just flows and I can understand it well. And I like puns and rhymes. So the kind of books I tend to want to read aren’t B.

  • Andrew Toynbee

    We need to be reminded throughout a fantasy story that we ARE in a different world and language can serve as a constant indicator of this. If a dryad emerges from a misty forest, gifts us with a benign smiles and then coos;
    ‘We don’t want your sort round here,’ as opposed to ‘Pray tell, what brings thee to this peaceful dell?’ then it’s a major throw-out for the poor reader.
    Different worlds – different language, even if it is still english.
    Three Examples;

    Avatar – Alien language, but only a few words for the audience to learn.
    Cool.

    Stargate – The planet of Abidos’ language dismissed as ‘It’s the same language spoken by the early egyptians – I can speak that.’ Yeah, but hasn’t it evolved in 3,500 years, dude? Oh, right, not supposed to notice that.

    Dune – everyone speaks English with the odd Fremen word thrown in here and there. Cool.

  • amkenning

    I like the firefly approach. English with curse words in Chinese because future humans all picked up some mandarin. 😉

    Or the lotr approach. Mostly English, with other races throwing in words or phrases of something else.

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