Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Languages in Fantasy

One of the more intricate parts of world building, the use of language has always been something of a bugbear for me.  When first crafting the races and cultures that populated the realms of Ihr’Vessen, the obvious character differentials popped up:  elves are lithe, weapon masters; dwarves are stockier and hardier; orcs were bulkier and brutish but had an intricate culture based on slavery, et cetera.  The humans were largely divided between the nomadic Plainsfolk, the more stereotypical samurai J’in Empire, and finally the mercenary barons of the Free States.  There are, of course, the outliers of humanity, such as a Romani-inspired gypsy clan culture and the independent colonies and settlements throughout the wilderness.  That said, everything was largely based on the elven language.

This basis, and the fact that humanity took centuries to get away from the hunter/gatherer stages, meant that there had to be some significant differences even among the human powers.  The differences between elven and dwarvish was easy enough to encapsulate; it’s a trope, but one that works with readers and is readily accepted.  But what about the Plainsfolk vice the J’in Empire vice the Free States?  I’ve established the elven language as the baseline for all other languages, so where do I go from there?

The real kicker was when I realized that humans were a much shorter-lived species than the others, particularly the elves.  Humans would have a much clearer and dramatic divergence, simply because they go through so many more generations.  This would imply a more vivid change from the other races.  It also meant that between them, there must be enough differences to demonstrate this fact.  Expressions and idioms needed to be distinct and relevant to how I envisioned the culture’s development.  As such, the J’in Empire’s generally cold view of the Plainsfolk would include derisive expressions that centered on their nomadic lifestyle, their lack of settlement, the differences in how they treat their women, and on.  The Plainsfolk on the other hand would be aghast at anything that meant they were too weak or infirm to roam the plains, fight in close combat or have to build a hut to find any kind of comfort.  The truly frustrating part is having to go back and ensure that the interactions between different cultures and races are depicted with enough clarity; there is only so much a bilingual character can translate phrase for phrase.

The other aspect of this is trying to create these expressions and idioms without drawing on our own world.  The realms of Ihr’Vessen is a secondary world, thus there is no place for some of the more common expressions.  In a world where worship is divided amongst a pantheon of gods, the various Fortunes and even a family’s ancestors, something as simple as “Oh my god” or “bloody hell” wouldn’t work – aside from the extremely devout, cursing some other god has little import, while the concept of hell is typically associated with Christianity.  Since most curses are derived from religious terms and crude references to copulation and bodily functions, this seemed to be a good starting point.  It took a little more than a cut-and-paste exercise, but the expressions I’ve developed seem more in line with the source culture, while enabling the reader to understand the intent.

The two links below provide a great précis on how to address the issue of language within the SF/F genres.  I’m certainly not expecting to accomplish anything near the integration of language development that Tolkein presented in his books; that level of realization is simply an unrealistic goal for most.  It does, however, present both a significant challenge to how characters interact with persons from another race or culture, and an opportunity to weave some world building into the text without relying on another bugbear of authors and readers alike, the info dump.

Part 1:

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