The Sunday Salon: Fantastical Language

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?

11 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Fantastical Language

  1. I entirely agree — even with the “I know it when I see it” bit. The way I feel is that if you are forced to stop and figure out the meaning of these new words each time they crop up, the author has not done it well. And like you said, it shouldn’t be a few random vocabulary words sprinkled here and there either.

  2. I’m with you one hundred percent–if you can really pull off a fake language, go for it, but most people only think they can. In general, I tend to think that the conceit of a fantasy book is always that it’s been translated into English, so it’s better if the author repurposes English words where necessary, rather than tossing in pretend foreign ones. Though again, this can be overdone very easily.

    • I do have to say, I haven’t seen enough of fantasy authors repurposing English words to see it done poorly, although of course it can be done. Personally, I’m quite fine with capitalizing English words for Dramatic Effect and going back to the Latin- Gregory Maguire’s “matronizing” is one of my favorite invented words ever.

  3. I think that invented language is fine for fantasy, as long as it’s used purposefully. I think that a lot of times, fantasy authors (especially new ones) tend to make up a new language without giving much thought to it just because they think it’s expected (I agree that sometimes you just want to say to an author “You’re not Tolkein!”) But I’m personally a huge fan of repurposing English words to create new meanings and implications in fantasy fiction.

  4. I agree whole heartedly on the annoyance of authors who do what xkcd pointed out, but I was oddly not that annoyed by The Way of Kings. In Brandon’s favor, I should point out, is that while he isn’t 100% linguist, he does have his Masters in English and has taken several upper level linguistics courses, which comes into play in his naming schemes quite often.

    To the casual word replacements, such as the Alethi word for aunt, I think it is a trade-off. The first time or two you see it, it is jarring, but after you get used to it, it adds to the immersion. The important part is that the word is at least organic, though. If it was something like “Maidisherinia” for “my favored aunt”, then it is painful. A casual and loving title needs to be smooth and easy to say, which I recall the Alethi-aunt (which right now the exact word escapes me) being.

    • It escapes me as well. As an editor, I’m a bit of a minimalist- why invent something when we have an English equivalent right here? It breaks the translation conceit for me personally, although it’s certainly not a dealbreaker.

  5. I had to read this because xkcd is awesome.

    The sad thing is that making up a language can fail utterly even if the author only does a word or two. (Such as Suzanne Collins’ “morphling” for a drug–maybe morphine?–in Mockingjay that irritated quite a few.)

    Thank you for linking to my giveaway–and I’m quite jealous about DragonCon. I hope it was great! 🙂

    • It has to feel organic and fit the subject. And “morphling” sounds pretty bad; why not just morphine? It’s a very delicate thing, creating a language or creating a slang, and it’s almost disheartening to see so many people treat it as part and parcel of the genre instead of that. Sigh.

      It was fantastical- this week’s Sunday Salon is about the Brandon Sanderson panel I went to.

      • Ha! That’s the whole irritation with morphling. It’s so close to a real-world word, but does it add anything at all to change it just that little bit? No, I don’t think so… 😛

        One book series I thought did well creating a certain language/culture was Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts. She only creates a few words (mostly for drugs) and a little slang, but she develops a whole new sort of syntax for the Downside, or bad side of town. But it makes sense and sounds good.

        Heading to the panel post now!

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