Hello everyone! Here on our first Magic Monday we have an article from Gwen Perkins, author of The Universal Mirror, on language-building in fantasy fiction. Here she discusses something many of us are all aware of (the infamous 'common' word in fantasy fiction) and details how, with a little work, an author can truly magnify their fiction by adding just a little more spark to their writing.
Anyone who’s ever read more than a handful of fantasy novels or played D&D is likely to be familiar with the term “Common.” In many fantasy settings, Common is used as a term for a language that all characters and races have the ability to speak. Is this a convenient tool for writers to use? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only option available to writers, even those who don’t want to spend all of their free time writing a new language.
Language is a great way to indicate culture, particularly how people communicate with one another. Think about cultural stereotypes that emerge from the sound of an accent to your ear. How do accents affect you personally and/or emotionally? I know when I hear a Scottish or Welsh accent, I automatically think the speaker is attractive. (Don’t lie–at least one reader agrees with me.) On the other hand, growing up with Swedish relatives, I hear Scandinavian accents and think of easygoing people, often associating my own childhood memories with the speaker.
Using different languages (or accents) gives you, as the writer, a way to further develop your character. It might be that your jaded rogue thinks of all speakers from a certain region as manipulative. Other accents might give the impression of that speaker possessing certain characteristics (romantic, hot-tempered, slow-witted…the possibilities are endless). And how much more naive does your innocent farmboy seem if every foreign accent he hears automatically makes him think that the speaker is exotic?
Language also reflects its culture. There’s the popular misconception that the Inuit have 400 words for snow–imagine if your fantasy race has another concept that is just as spoken of. If someone tells you that the man you’re speaking to is from a culture with 400 words for war, for instance, what might you think of that person? How might that have changed his outlook on the world? Alternately, what is a culture like if it doesn’t have a world for a specific concept or idea? (Many ancient cultures did not have the word “zero”…ponder that for a moment.)
It may be unrealistic to showcase a number of languages in your fantasy story. There are a number of ways to hint at this without having to develop languages in full. The easiest, of course, is to give the characters knowledge of foreign languages and simply use a phrase/description here or there to give a sense of what they are speaking. Alternately, they can be utilizing the services of a translator or, if the entire story takes place in one area where one language is spoken, this issue doesn’t apply.
Can you use Common and not have it seem unrealistic? It’s possible (and in fact, quite interesting) if you think about it as a trade language or jargon. Trade languages have been utilized throughout time as a way for multiple cultures to communicate. The trick with using one is to define what the language was used for and what words it might not have. Most trade jargon is focused on terms that are used in negotiating–higher-level concepts and philosophy are not likely to be easy to discuss. It’s also likely that two characters using the same jargon might have great misunderstandings based on the language that they’re trying to communicate in.
Thinking more specifically about your use of language in worldbuilding can lead to great ideas (and consequences) for your characters and story. Feel free to share your thoughts and any examples of great use of language in fantasy worlds below.
Gwen Perkins is the author of The Universal Mirror, a fantasy novel published in 2012 by Hydra Publications. Read more about this book and her upcoming projects at theUniversalMirror.com.
Get Gwen's novel The Universal Mirror in paperback (left) or on the Kindle (right!)