View Full Version : Dealing with language in a fantasy world

Mark Moore
01-18-2015, 11:52 PM
In the medieval fantasy world that I'm developing, it starts off with all of the people speaking one language, and then it mutates as certain regions break off into separate kingdoms - and even within the "original" kingdom (the one with the deity-appointed monarchs), much to the dismay of the royal family, which tries to keep the "proper" language in use.

The assumption that I'm going to be writing under is whatever language that they're speaking is being translated into English. That would probably be more probable than them actually speaking a language that's exactly like English.

But how would I deal with regional variants, local slang, and hard-to-understand accents?

As a random example, if an out-of-town character shows up at a local inn, the owner might ask "Jeet yet?", and it would take in a while to realize she's asking "Did you eat yet?"

Is it okay to type it out in its mangled form, or would that pull the reader out of the story?

Should I simply note the character doesn't understand what the woman is saying?

And what about the similarities between the correct version and the mangled version? It's similar in English, but this wouldn't be English that they're speaking. Would the reader assume there's a similar similarity between the two sentences in the characters' native language?

On a related topic, should I avoid any "modern" greetings, like "Hey, what's up?"? I don't mean I'm going to fill my stories with "Hail and well met" and such phrases, but I don't want to put in anything that would sound anachronistic.

Katharine Tree
01-19-2015, 12:02 AM
I'm trying to do something similar in my WIP... express different dialects that don't actually exist, that is. Quick research suggests that most readers loathe phonetically written dialect. I have settled down to differentiating via sentence structure, word choice, and characteristic curses.

01-19-2015, 01:42 AM
"Jeet yet?"

I could hardly understand her through that thick north coast accent. "What?"

[And that's the last we see of the accent; from now on we can assume that we have to work to understand this person's accent.]

However, I think dialect in writing is less convincing when their language isn't actually English.


The foreigner produced a spate of incomprehensible gabble that MC finally interpreted as, "Did you eat yet?"

Or: choice of words, as KT suggests.

Or all of the above.

King Neptune
01-19-2015, 04:40 AM
I agree with Reziac. The least possible use of dialect is the best amount. Establish that there are accents and write the rest in standard language, but you can have characters from some regions have an odd word or two that they use to differentiate themselves.

01-19-2015, 02:15 PM
Realism is the path to the dark side. Realism leads to complication. Complication leads to info dumping. Info dumping leads to boredom. Boredom leads to suffering.

King Neptune and Reziac, wisdom they speak.

It's tempting to write in tongues because it's realistic. On planet Earth we have many different languages. So it's only reasonable to assume that planet Quargg will also have many different languages.

But it's very difficult to do a polyglot story without boring the nurdles off your readers. After a while your reader is screaming in frustration. "Okay! Different languages, I get it!" And shortly afterwards we get a bookwall moment.

That's why we have babel fish and universal translators. That's why U boat commanders speak in English. Why every other sci fi or fantasy world has a common language - sometimes called "Common".

I'm not saying that it can't be done. But it's often not worth the effort. Readers will be far happier with a good story than with linguistic verisimilitude.

By all means sprinkle in the odd alien word. Give your characters different ways of mangling the English language. But I'd definitely vote for having an easy life and not making a big deal out of multiple languages.

01-19-2015, 03:26 PM
I can only agree with the above replies. The learning curve needed to teach a reader a new language is almost always too steep and most readers will not want to do it . A clock work orange is probably the most successfully book to use an invented language, but it was just a few word and you could, mostly, guess meaning of them .

01-19-2015, 07:19 PM
I have the same issue with my fantasy ms. In it, the elves vacated a portion of the continent to allow the other races to develop. The human kingdoms' dialects are loosely based on elven terms, which makes them distinct yet somewhat relatable.

Reziak nailed it. You can thereafter on occassion throw it in again as the protagonist hears someone else speaking or to add to developing the setting.

01-19-2015, 08:04 PM
Why every other sci fi or fantasy world has a common language - sometimes called "Common".

And for such reasons all my planets speak a common tongue... mention is occasionally made of the 'old speech' but it survives mainly as names and swear words and the odd antique mode of speaking, and that's all we ever see of it.

I actually have historical reasons for a single language; also, language tends to get unwittingly shared among my telepaths, which in turn tends to enforce a single language everywhere civilized men may roam.

01-19-2015, 09:45 PM
Everyone else has hit it solidly, so instead I'll say why people dislike weird languages/dialects in reading. Or at least a guess for it.

Anything that gets in the way of plot falls into one of two categories: description/characterizing, or garbage. Anything the reader can't actually read will get in the way of plot. It can be used sparingly to show characteristics or add descriptive spice, but in any significant doses it transitions to garbage. I mean, who wants to read half a book? Or spend three minutes deciphering a dialog scene into language they understand?

On the other hand, I wrote a fantasy book where the main character (human) ends up living with another fantasy race and can't speak to them at all because of the language issue. Very rarely do I ever show any words from this other race, and in scenes where the reader sees their perspective, it is written in plain English (different sentence structure though). In this case, the language difference is key to plot and provides for a lot of interesting situations, but the reader is still reading it all and understands as much as the character, so no frustration occurs.

Mark Moore
01-20-2015, 08:22 AM
Thanks for the advice, everyone. :) I'll probably avoid bringing up language issues in the early stories (this setting is short stories, not a novel), and then I'll likely bring it up only when someone in the royal family is speaking with a commoner.

01-20-2015, 10:20 AM
Whenever I read a fantasy or SF story where someone is speaking in a language that the pov character doesn't understand, I can only marvel at their ability to make out the complex sounds and spellings of a language they don't speak.

"Eloalana Ha Doanim," said the first elf.

"Se Hala Tuana Ni," the second replied.

And so on.

If I were that person, my ear and brain would sort it out as, The first elf said something that sounded like "Elo ha do something," and the second one answered with a string of equally incomprehensible gibberish.

Liosse de Velishaf
01-20-2015, 10:44 AM
Just going to mostly agree with everyone else.

I'm actually massively against "Common Tongue" in fantasy, unless you're willing to provide historical reasons.

But I do agree that less is more with non-English being present in the text.

Give a few hints for spice, and let the reader remember the language issue or not unless it's specifically plot-relevant.

01-20-2015, 10:45 AM
Whenever I read a fantasy or SF story where someone is speaking in a language that the pov character doesn't understand, I can only marvel at their ability to make out the complex sounds and spellings of a language they don't speak.

That's a good point. If your ear isn't tuned to a given language, you'll tend to run sounds together, mishear them, miss them entirely. How do we expect our characters to do better?

Frex, even tho I speak a little Spanish, my ear is not tuned to it, so rapid speech or a non-Castilian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castilian_Spanish) accent (that being the variant I was taught) will either sound like mush, be misheard, or I can't make words from it at all. Owa tagu siam. ;)

01-21-2015, 11:22 AM
Wow, this is great. I have a supporting character which is a raven that speaks for a mute character, and it can't say L's. Inside joke because I can't either. When I wrote the text, I replaced every L with a W. Matt Warner who introduced me to this site and marked up the chapter said "Get rid of the freaking W's before I kiww you" or something to that effect. I guess he was right. Sheesh, tough crowd. :)

01-21-2015, 02:54 PM
Rob - linguistic tricks like that are the culinary equivalent of salt and pepper.

We need a little bit of seasoning otherwise our food would be too bland. Incidentally, that's a large part of the reason for Columbus discovering America. He wanted a cheap and safe way to get to Asia to trade in spices.

But too much pepper makes a meal inedible. You quickly get to the point where all you can taste is the pepper. Everything else zones out.

A pinch. That's all we need.