The Language of Fantasy

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A hugely important part of the creation of any vivid and believable fantasy world is creating enticing cultures and languages for the various different characters that inhabit it. This is something that we often take for granted when we enjoy our favourite works of fantasy, be they in print or on the screen. However, as in the real world, language and culture are so integral to the way that people speak, think and react, that it is difficult to create an immersive world without putting some effort into these crucial components.

The works of undisputed master of fantasy J.R.R. Tolkien are an excellent example of the successful use of fictional languages and cultures to enrich a fantasy setting. As an esteemed professor of philology and an Oxford don, Tolkien had perhaps the best possible toolkit at his disposal for creating languages for his world of Middle-earth. Indeed, some of the languages he developed as background for the world in which the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place are so fully-formed that their status is almost that of “real-world” constructed languages like Esperanto.

Not every writer of fantasy has Tolkien’s expertise and resources though. Other writers are more pragmatic in their approach. George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels (now popularised of course through the HBO series A Game of Thrones) creates linguistic elements only when he is sure that they will add value to the character or situation for which they are being employed. However, even with this approach he has found it necessary to create “skeleton” languages for some of the tongues used by the main characters to help to shape and give consistency to the words and phrases coming out of their mouths.

In reality, in written fantasy fiction, the language we read on the page is generally our own, not a fictional language. Otherwise we would have to sit down with a big dictionary every time we pull out our favourite novel. For obvious practical reasons, most characters in most works only use the actual languages of their world sparingly: in songs or sayings, to add emphasis, or when it is expedient for the plot. The main body of the text is written in the language of the reader. So surely this means that these created languages are largely irrelevant then? An affectation of the author to make their particular world seem more complex, when the reader only gets to see the tip of the iceberg? Not so.

The point is that language is more than just the words on the page, more than what we hear coming out of the characters’ mouths. In the real world, languages have developed of a result of thousands of years of human development, adapting to cultural and social changes. Just look at the way English has changed since the advent of text messages, if you want a relatively recent example. Therefore, in creating a fictional language, how it sounds and looks and feels can act as a window for the reader or viewer into the culture and the society of the speaker, and will help a character, or even a whole fictional race or species, to feel more real, more tangible. It is a crucial part of developing believable characters that those characters speak and act in a way that makes sense. They have to act in a way that is influenced by their culture, their society, their history and, of course, their language. Just like we do.

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