Last week I talked about the basic starting points for worldbuilding. To continue that train of thought, this week’s post will be about the finer points of worldbuilding — the things that bridge the world between the fantastic and the familiar.
In my opinion, fantasy isn’t so much about the magic or the politics or the funny dragons. It’s the small things. Certainly magic is the intrigue of the fantasy genre as a whole, but what about the things that actually make the world seem real?
My personal favorite: language.
Being a student of linguistics myself, it is no small wonder that I took a liking to Tolkien’s linguistic endeavors. Language shows the most about a culture. Asking why we use certain words or why particular linguistic forms arise in specific discourses and not in others can show the fundamental building blocks of a society. Language is the basis of one’s identity, even if you don’t realize it. Therefore, a nomadic culture might have a hundred different words for snow or horses, or snow and horse-related things, but lack a word for ‘house.’ As you can imagine, this can speak volumes about a society: what’s important to the people, what type of lifestyle they live, their ideologies, their thought processes.
Now, technicalities aside, I’m not saying that every fantasy writer should go out and create a language (or several), but words here and there that hold meaning to the characters can give new meanings to the reader.
Here are some things to consider when handling language (should it interest you), in your own worldbuilding process:
1.) Don’t draw the word out of thin air. If you do, you’ll forget what it means later. If you can’t remember it, your reader won’t either. Pointless words shouldn’t be in the story at all. This includes foreign words.
2.) Consider the history of the word. This is important. Every single word in every single language in every single society has a history. Words come from somewhere, they change through time, they survive and die off. If you are going to the trouble of creating the word, take into consideration that the word itself would realistically have just as much history as the people you’re writing about. Of course you don’t have to write this history down, but consider its history when considering its meaning. The two probably coincide.
3.) Sounds. Don’t throw a cluster of letters down on a page and call it a word or a sentence. Every language has a type of prosody. If you are creating an entire sentence, for example, consider that the phonological properties should be somewhat similar, otherwise it isn’t going to seem realistic.
4.) Look beyond your work. Look at the structural properties of modern day languages. Tolkien based a lot of his languages on actual languages. You certainly can too. Keep in mind that not every language works like English.
5.) Multilingualism. Not everyone in your story probably speaks the same language. This can cause a world of problems for your characters. How do they manage? What kinds of problems would a language barrier cause? What about cultural barriers?
6.) Meaning. The meaning of your word should give some meaning to the story. It should further the plot, character identity, or the things that make the story a bit clearer. Otherwise, though I loathe to say it, it probably isn’t actually needed.
There are possibly other things to consider in regards to language in fantasy, but in favor of not starting a lecture in linguistics, I’ll opt to leave those things up to you.
Regardless, language is possibly the most important factor of my personal worldbuilding process. I honestly spend more time creating words, than I do creating magic. Language is the magic for me. Nothing lasts longer than a truly powerful word.
So, that wraps up today’s post. If you’re interested in some further reading about Old English and other language/literature references in Lord of the Rings, take a look at these links:
See you next Friday!
Good luck to you in your worldbuilding journey. Do you have any thoughts about languages in fantasy novels? Feel free to leave me a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts!