Language in Fantasy Fiction

Recently, I read a blog post by a fantasy fan, in which the person lambasted the Sword of Shannara TV series for its language. The writer said it was too modern. No one talked like that in the middle ages. Harrumph!

The blogger had a point. One. The rest was actually off the mark, historically. According to the blogger, all fantasy should be written in J.R.R. Tolkein’s formal English, especially the dialogue. Sorry, blogging fan, but that’s just wrong.

People in the past did not use perfect diction. They did not speak in formal language. They peppered their sentences with as many slang terms, colloquialisms, sentence fragments, and clichés as we do. The only people who spoke in formal language were nobles, priests, and scholars. Soldiers, farmers, merchants, and everyone else who made up the bulk of society jived like the rest of us today.

Here is a case in point. If you want to understand the English Renaissance, read William Shakespeare’s tavern scenes, especially in Henry IV, Part One. Many mavens of old lamented those scenes, wishing Shakespeare had stuck to the courts. As my Shakespeare professor said, “If one king says the crown weighs heavy upon my head, they all say it.” No, Shakespeare lived in taverns. That was his world. Those scenes are alive! His tavern scenes are chock full of common slang and clichés from the times. In fact, Shakespeare made up his own.

If that was the Renaissance, the era of Elizabeth I and James I, then why wouldn’t the times of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror be the same? Or any other era commonly used in fantasy stories? Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Hittites, Huns, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings were every bit as prone to slang, sentence fragments, and vulgarities as we are today.

When Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was first released in English, the editors thought the subject was too important and heavy to leave in its original language. It was translated into formal English. In doing so, the story lost its energy, and even the true point-of-view of a teenaged girl. Recently, it was re-translated, just as Anne Frank wrote it. Now, it is alive and vibrant, full of the hopes and dreams, fears and anxiety, of a teenager in harrowing times. The blogger may not have intended this, but his view of language in fantasy would create stories like the original version of Anne Frank; lifeless and stilted. We readers want the second edition, with all its raw life and energy.

The blogger was correct, though, about one thing. It is important. That is the use of our contemporary slang and word usage. This is not correct: “You’re a wizard. Not!” This is better: “You’re a wizard. I don’t think so!” Using our 20th and 21st Century phrases is an issue. Using slang, colloquialisms, and contractions is not.

With the exception of urban fantasy, most fantasy stories are set in alternative worlds. Do you mean to tell me that all alternative worlds follow the linguistic patterns of the Earth we live upon? Now, that isn’t fantasy. It’s delusion! An alternative world will develop its own linguistic patterns from ours, as much as Japan is different from France. In fact, we see it within languages. Compare Great Britain to the United States and Australia. They speak the same language? Well, technically, all three speak English, but at this point, Canadians walk away shaking their heads and New Zealanders are overjoyed to live in the isolation of their islands. If the speakers of the same language use different linguistic patterns from each other, why would we expect less from the speakers in Middle Earth, the Four Lands, and the D’Haran Empire.

At its best, fantasy encourages the reader to change the world. While the reader may not have Aragorn’s steel or Gandalf’s magic, he or she does have Frodo’s courage, Sam’s loyalty, Merry’s intelligence, and Pippin’s optimism. Fantasy helps the reader realize that he or she can use those to change the world, if only the world immediately around the reader. Often, that is enough. At the least, fantasy diverts the reader from the angst of the evening news. Such stories need to be as alive as possible. This is modern myth-telling, and myth conveys deep truths in the form of enchanting tales. There is no room for formal language, if that formal language stifles the energy.

Something the blogger did not mention is the use of words that obviously belong to a particular language, other than the one in which the story is written. That is a common trap. A case in point is the word mercenary. It is blatantly French. That word belongs to our Earth, and not in a story set in an alternative world. Oh, you can get away with it, but it may be glaring. George R.R. Martin uses the word sellsword, meaning a sword for hire instead of one sworn to a lord. I use the term free lance. It’s the actual origin of our contemporary word freelancer. It means a knight whose lance does not bear the banner of any particular lord. In other words, a mercenary, by another word. Other words are solstice and equinox. Many fantasy writers use them, but I find them a bit too Greek and Latin for my tastes. That is a personal choice. It isn’t as jarring as using the word guerilla.

Other examples are plants and stones. An emerald is an emerald. It’s universally understood. No need to change it. Amazonite, however, is named for the Amazon River, and not likely to be found on any other world or planet by that term. The same with Icelandic Spar. Lapis lazuli stands between those two extremes. Lapis is Latin for stone, and lazuli comes from the Arabic for the place where it is mined. In classical literature, such as the Bible, lapis was called sapphire. The problem with using that word is we now have an entirely different gem named sapphire. If you’re writing sandalpunk, you might want to use it. For the rest of us, that would cause too much confusion. Despite being Latin, the word lapis is common enough to use, but it is probably a good idea to just call it lapis. Readers will understand. A rose is a rose. By any other name. Belladonna, however, is a blatant Spanish word. It means beautiful lady. Science fiction writers can use it, because Spanish is likely to be taken to other planets in the future. We fantasy guys can’t get away with it, unless we’re writing urban fantasy set in 21st Century Topeka. It’s better to change the name to sorcerer’s nightshade.

There is a movement called Anglish. It’s goal is to eliminate all non-English words from the English language. It’s an experiment, mostly. I thought writing A Path of Stones in Anglish would not only be interesting, it would be more accurate. It’s too bloody difficult! Even though I have a master’s degree in English, I had no idea just how many of our words are French, Latin, Greek, or Asian. Not only that, but the old Saxons didn’t have words for some of our contemporary concepts. The concepts themselves come from Romantic, Slavic, or Asian nations, and bear their names. Try removing those and see what remains. One chapter was enough to convince me to abandon the idea. Besides, I approach the story as if I’m translating it from Aura’s Ayrdish into our English. The effort did, however, coach me in catching foreign words that could be a slap in the face to the reader.


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