Elements of Fantasy #3 – Language

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.

dwarven runes

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.

Daenerys and Viserys

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)

The Ong Ring

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!

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5 thoughts on “Elements of Fantasy #3 – Language

  1. James 29-Jan-2015 / 13:12

    Here are those translations:

    “I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ‘wilith.”
    Translation: The world is changed; I can feel it in the water, I can feel it in the earth, I can smell it in the air.

    “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.”
    Translation: One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.

    “Sene sovya caba’donde ain dovienya.”
    Translation: Luck is a horse to ride like any other.

    “Ishish chare acharoe hash me nem ejervae nharesoon.”
    Translation: Maybe the ear will listen if it is removed from the head.

    “tugh qoH nachDaj je chevlu’ta’”
    Translation: Soon a fool and his head will be separated.

    What is it with Klingons and Dothraki? They like separating things from the head, don’t they?

  2. N. E. White 29-Jan-2015 / 15:31

    I am writing a fantasy at the moment, and am struggling with how much of the world’s languages to include. Since I know next to nothing about linguistics, I’m going with the minimal. But it is very impressive to see fully thought out ‘fake’ languages. Great post – thanks!

    • James 29-Jan-2015 / 16:21

      I always figure that readers are not going to see much of the setting’s fictional languages in the actual published story, so it’s perfectly acceptable not to develop a full-blown language. A few phrases or words for flavour still work really well.

      I once heard someone say that worldbuilding is like window dressing. As long as you present an appealing, seemingly complete front to passers-by, with enough little details to catch the eye, you’re golden. Little do they know, behind the scenes it’s just bits of cardboard and sticky tape.

      • N. E. White 29-Jan-2015 / 19:38

        That reminds me of when I visited Hobbiton. The Hobbit-house fronts were amazing and you could even go in and out of the Hobbit holes, but it ended at the fire hearth about a meter in. But the chimneys were real. They wanted smoke coming out of them so those actually work.

  3. Sophie E Tallis 31-Jan-2015 / 16:13

    A great post as always, James. I too am fascinated by languages and the derivation of words as a means of enriching a fantasy world and giving it a real sense of authenticity for the reader. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a linguist, but I have taught phonetics for 16yrs and so have a good understanding of the mechanics of languages and their construction. I must confess, for my own epic fantasy, the first of my Darkling trilogy, I did invent a working language for it! It’s a mixture of Maori, African Ibo and Bantu dialects, Old Norse, Old English and Old Hindi!

    Here’s a little bit:
    Undokko à ullvi ò aras
    E sullo agar aggallm
    Undokko ť utta tunga harr
    Takollo ōku manava d wharri.

    Translation:
    Beneath a canopy of stars
    Its whispering waters flow
    Beneath the towers standing tall
    Lies my heart and home.

    Lol, yes I am a nerd and proud of it! I’ve recently been doing a series of blog posts on etymology, looking first at the places then beasts and creatures of my novel, and again, a lot of the worldbuilding aspects do directly relate to language and its application. Check it out if you’d like! 😀

    https://sophieetallis.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/etymology-whats-in-a-word-part-ii-creatures-and-races/

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