Welcome to another episode of Elements of Fantasy! Last time, we talked about The Quest and looked at why the hero’s journey is so prevalent in fantasy fiction. In this episode, we’ll be exploring Language…
Google ‘fictional languages’ and you’ll turn up hundreds of references to the fantasy genre, as well as equal amounts of references to Klingons. Fantasy is a genre that has become intrinsically linked with language, whether we’re talking about complex, working languages such as quenya and sindarin, or piecemeal, ‘flavour’ languages like Valyrian or Thalassian.
The tradition of inventing languages for use in fantasy fiction can be traced back to our old friend J.R.R. Tolkien (like so many things). The practice may even pre-date Tolkien, but he is regarded as the first to have constructed a fully-functioning language with its own writing system. Quenya and sindarin are elvish languages that feature in Tolkien’s works and they are taught today as fully-realised languages.
The creation of these languages arguably cemented Tolkien in the minds of many as a master worldbuilder. The scale of what he created meant that subsequent generations of fantasy writers would follow in his footsteps to design vast, detailed settings with hundreds of pages worth of background material that never even gets published.
Of course, such copious amounts of lore are not a prerequisite to writing an enjoyable fantasy story. George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson have an obscene amount of detail behind their stories’ settings, which some fans love getting immersed in. Authors such as Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence seem to have undertaken far less worldbuilding, but do their stories suffer as a result? Not one bit.
But language is one element that authors seem to stumble on. Nobody has thus far been able to create a language on the level that Tolkien had done. The simple reason for that is that most authors are not linguists. And even for a linguist, it would represent a considerable amount of time and dedication to undertake. Yet, readers love encountering little pieces of lore in fantasy fiction – it’s one of the reasons why the genre is so attractive – and language is often an important component of that lore.
To capture the reader’s imagination, the author doesn’t need to establish an entire, working language. A few words, sentences, or even phrases here and there can help a fictional race or culture to stand out and transform into something exciting.
But fictional languages are not just restricted to books. If you’ve ever played World of Warcraft or watched the TV show Game of Thrones, you’ll have experienced the use of constructed languages. While most of the ‘languages’ in Warcraft are not fleshed out in great detail, they have been developed enough to be able to lend a good amount of flavour and credibility to the world. And often, some die-hard fans will pick up where the original creators left off and further expand on a language to a point where it can be used at a conversational level.
I even had a go at creating a language of my own a while ago. It was originally going to be used in a fantasy story I was writing, but sadly it never saw the light of day. Here’s a phrase from my fictional ‘Séyan’ language:
De Cá a Ánu ∴ Je Céla e Cés a To-édaja
Translation: You are the sky and the sea. I am the singer of songs and the living rock.
And here are a few memorable constructed language quotes from actual works of SFF. If you’d like to see the translations, I’ll put those in the comments section below:
I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ‘wilith.
– Galadriel, in Sindarin (The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
– Inscription on the One Ring, As Spoken (Lord of the Rings)
Sene sovya caba’donde ain dovienya.
– Mat, in Old Tongue (Wheel of Time: Fires of Heaven)
Ishish chare acharoe hash me nem ejervae nharesoon.
– Rakharo, in Dothraki (Game of Thrones, S1 Ep.3)
tugh qoH nachDaj je chevlu’ta’
– Klingon Proverb (Star Trek)
So that’s going to wrap up this episode. We’ve looked at the origins of invented languages, how the practice developed alongside the fantasy genre and we’ve seen how linguists and fans alike are still expanding upon fictional languages today. There’s a great deal more that could be written about this subject, but I’m conscious about keeping these episodes to a manageable length.
If you’ve got a favourite fictional language quote, or if you have invented a language of your own, it would be great to hear about it. Just drop a comment below!