When it comes to suggested constructed languages in speculative fiction, I find there’s a very, very fine line between enjoyably believable and disappointingly, annoyingly affected. In fact, xkcd says it best.
But where is that line and why do so many speculative authors gleefully leap over it, and what can they do instead?
The entire reason speculative fiction goes in for constructed languages is the same reason we have orcs–The Lord of the Rings did it. But every time I come across a suggested constructed language that doesn’t work, I always say, “You are not Tolkien!” I’ve mentioned before my love for writers who aren’t trained as writers. Tolkien doesn’t exactly fit into that, as he was a linguist, but then again, he does–Middle-Earth evolved language first. There’s a joke about Lewis trying to get Tolkien down to the pub but Tolkien is too busy working on Dwarvish runes, which I woefully have forgotten at the moment. The point is, all of Tolkien’s languages are completely constructed languages, which, of course, does wonders for believability. But I can’t think of a single fantasy author who is primarily trained as a linguist besides the good Professor.
Now, I think there’s a difference between completely constructed languages, a la Tolkien and Klingon, and the suggested constructed languages that tend to make me roll my eyes. Completely constructed languages are usually constructed by linguists and thus, have the natural rhythm and flow a natural language has. Obviously, “complete” is a bit of a misnomer, as language is a fluid, living thing, but for fictional purposes, I find a proper grammar system and a wide vocabulary to be markers of a completely constructed language. Suggested constructed languages do just that; merely suggest a full language. It may have grammar, it may have a decent vocabulary, but it lacks a certain level of depth. That’s vague, and I apologize. Much like the Supreme Court and obscenity, I know it when I see it.
But it’s rarely the simple existence of a suggested constructed language that bugs me. It’s how it’s used in the text, especially when it breaches what I call the translation conceit. The translation conceit is the idea that the dialogue you’re reading (and the narrative too, depending on the narrator) is being translated from its fantastical language into English (or whichever language you’re reading in). Tolkien, God bless him, plays with this in the Appendixes of The Lord of the Rings–he talks about translating proper nouns into English so the audience can glean the full benefit of the wordplay in the “original” Westron. However, since suggested constructed languages are usually composed of a grammar system and a very small vocabulary, authors are tempted to drop the translation conceit and replace common words with their fantastical counterpoint. Brandon Sanderson is guilty of that in The Way of Kings, when several characters use the Alethi word for “aunt” for no real reason other than to show off the word, as opposed to when a character later retells an ancient verse, which is why we have the suggested constructed language in the first place. There are, of course, times when the translation conceit must be dropped; a particular concept that doesn’t have an all-encompassing word in English (or whichever language you’re reading in). But for the most part, enjoyable suggested constructed languages stay on the right side of the translation conceit.
There are other options besides a suggested constructed language to suggest depth in a world, however. J. K. Rowling delightfully uses Latin as the language of magic in Harry Potter, and Scott Westerfeld astounded me by using existing period slang in Leviathan, which really brought the alternate history alive (once I cottoned onto the fact, of course!). Sometimes it really pays to think about the language and what you’re trying to convey with it. I’m, of course, not saying that suggested constructed languages shouldn’t be used, but they should be used well. As every other component of fiction should be used, really.
This week, I did finish an essay focused rereading of Pride & Prejudice for my Jane Austen class–Sense & Sensibility is next! I’m also still getting through The Three Musketeers. But mostly, I was working my butt off so I could enjoy Dragon*Con without worrying about homework. I’m there right now, so I’m not going to be able to respond to your comments until Monday evening. It’s Sunday, so I’ve got my Harley Quinn costume on (no, it’s not the jester outfit) and I’m going to see if I can’t get Paul Dini to sign my copy of Mad Love. (Yesterday, it was Lady Kirk.) Tomorrow, I’m going to Brandon Sanderson’s panel on The Way of Kings, but I think I’ve missed my shot at getting him to sign anything. I’ll have a proper report up next Sunday, but I thought this topic was quite suitable for Dragon*Con weekend.
Celia at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia is giving away a copy of Shades of Milk and Honey; that closes September 15. T. J. at Dreams and Speculation is giving away a possibly signed copy of The Way of Kings, as well as a copy of The Adoration of Jenna Fox; both end on September 18.
What are your thoughts on suggested constructed languages (and, I guess, constructed languages) and how they’re used in fantasy?