Lingua universalis fantasiae

At one point when I was in high school, I sat down and drew a continent on a piece of paper. Then I sliced it up into different countries, gave each one a name, and declared, “Each of these speaks a different language.”

I can’t say for certain, but I think the proximate cause of me doing this was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Back in high school, I was a big fan of the series, but there were already several things that bugged me about it, and one of them was language. The action of the series takes place on quite a large continent — the sort of place that takes months to ride across. Everybody on that continent speaks the same language, with a few minor cosmetic differences (Illianers do have a tendency to stick the word “do” in where it isn’t needed). I could swallow that — sort of — but then the Seanchan showed up: the descendants of people who sailed across the ocean more than a thousand years ago, and have only just now come back.

The effect of this millennium apart?

They speak with a “slurred accent.”

Even modern Icelandic, which is remarkably close to the Icelandic written a thousand years ago, has changed more than that. And that’s without the influence of a conquered native population, which can have some very interesting effects — presuming, of course, those people on the other side the ocean, with whom you have not been in contact for more than two thousand years, aren’t conveniently speaking the same language as the conquerors. Which in this case they were.

Because like so many fantasy worlds, the population of the Wheel of Time basically has two languages: Common and the Old Tongue. (With a bonus language for Trollocs, i.e. monsters.) Interestingly, this is both like and unlike Tolkien, to whom the genre owes so much. The good professor, of course, invented a number of languages for Middle Earth, complete with plausible sound changes to account for linguistic drift through the ages. But most of his attention went to the elves; when it comes to human languages, although he had ideas for a number of different tongues (and did a small amount of work developing a few of them), he mostly just skated by with Westron, the “Common Speech.” There may theoretically have been a Rohirric tongue and a Dalish one and so on, but when Bilbo got to Lake-town at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, he didn’t have any trouble talking to the people there. As in the Wheel of Time, everybody who needs to be able to talk to each other can.

The Wheel of Time wiki does a commendable job of trying to explain this consistency away, with much handwaving about literacy and the cyclical nature of the cosmos, but it doesn’t wash. That world has one universal language for the same reason as Middle Earth and practically everywhere else: because language barriers get in the way of story.

If the Seanchan couldn’t speak the same language as the Randlanders, 90% of the plots involving them couldn’t happen. They couldn’t explain that they were the descendants of Luthair Paendrag Hawkwing’s army; the psychological conditioning they use when enslaving magic-users would largely be useless; one of the main characters couldn’t have much of a romance with a leader of the invasion. And that’s just incorporating the most major and obvious division. If the Borderlanders spoke a different language from the people of Tear, if Taraboners and Cairhienin were mutually unintelligible . . . the world-spanning plot of this series would face a lot more problems.

But are those problems a bad thing? Language barriers get in the way of story, yes, but they also create it. The challenges of communication are fascinating in their own right. Think of the countless people who have served as interpreters through the ages: Sacagawea, La Malinche — heck, even C-3PO. Interpreters, standing in between as they do, occupy a fascinatingly conflicted space. Without interpreters, characters with no mutual language must communicate through gesture and body language. They can misunderstand one another, or achieve a rapport that transcends words. Language acquisition provides endless chances for mistakes, some of which might drive the story in very entertaining directions. You don’t have to spend story time on these things, of course . . . but I think the merits of doing so are under-rated.

And I suspect I know why. A great deal of modern commercial fantasy has been written by modern Americans, who are notoriously monolingual. I’ve studied five languages — seven if you count the pair I only studied for two weeks apiece — more if you count the ones I’ve dabbled in randomly without instruction. But I’m not fluent in any of them. For my fellow countrymen, who maybe had a year or two of Spanish or French in high school, the notion of speaking multiple languages is more magical than throwing fireballs. Language acquisition is a tougher mountain to scale than Everest. Much easier, really, to just handwave the whole thing and say everybody speaks the same tongue. (Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t have more magical solutions to the issue, a la the “universal translators” of science fiction.)

I wish there were more linguistic diversity in fantasy, though. It’s fun, and maybe it would convince some fantasy-reading Americans to pick up a second language — one that isn’t Klingon or Quenya.

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  1. 1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Thanks, Marie.

    I see this in roleplaying games, too. Language difficulties get handwavium to avoid bogging down in things that don’t interest everyone.

    I hadn’t thought of American monolingualism as a reason for it in fantasy–but perhaps there is something to that.

  2. 2. Wolf Lahti

    In my latest WIP, I deal with a colony that has been separated from Earth for 150 or so years, and it seemed to me essential that I work out the ways the English they spoke has been transmuted not only by their isolation but by the influences of the local culture with which they have been interacting for that time frame.

    This seems so fundamental to me that I have difficulty understanding why so few works of SF or fantasy make even a token jab at it. Yes, it’s difficult, but writing itself is difficult, and this is an arena that could add so much dimension to a world.

    I wish I had a background in linguistics; it would, I think, make this a lot easier.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Justin — I don’t have any evidence for that theory, but it seems plausible to me. And yes, RPGs are also very prone to the “Common Tongue” thing.

    Wolf — I’d be careful what you wish for. That’s a rabbit hole you might never escape. :-)

  4. 4. green_knight

    And then there are bilingual characters, of which fantasy has far too few: people equally at home in two languages, countries where more than one language is commonly heard and mixed at will and people switch from one to the other and back sometimes within a sentence, a thought.

    I’m trying very hard to think of books with bilingual characters, and failing. And yet it’s _important_ which language they use, and who they use it with; it can be inclusive, exclusive, a marker of status, making use of particular features of one or the other language…

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Green Knight: Yep. Movies can play even more fun games with this, because they can actually use the languages, rather than having to work to signal the reader when the character switches.

  6. 6. Angela Highland (Angela Korra'ti)

    Great post topic. :) Hi, I’m delurking, because I’m an amateur language nerd!

    I’ve been playing with languages in the books I’ve got going, for several of the same reasons specified on this post. I don’t pretend to be Tolkien by a long shot–I’m NOT a linguist. I don’t do more than make up occasional words and phrases. But I DO try to account for when the characters switch languages in dialogue and why.

    And from a reader perspective I’m actively studying French and a little bit of German. Part of this was motivated by falling in love with Quebecois traditional music (which is of course in French), but part of it is also wanting to read SF/F in other languages. I’m having quite a bit of fun doing a very slow tri-lingual reread of The Hobbit, just to see what the translators did with it. And ultimately I’d love to be able to read original works of SF/F in French. I’m thinkin’ that’d be a very valuable experience for me, as both a reader and a writer.

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Yes, and I think your theory has a lot of merit. Americans, blessed as they are with a continent-sized country ALL OF WHICH NOW SPEAKS THE SAME GENERAL LANGUAGE (sure there are areas where Spanish, for instance, is becoming a prominent language of communication but everyone mostly communicates IN GENERAL in English) Americans appear to be somewhta unable to grasp the fact that every European knows – that if you travel a day in any direction you may find yourself in an area where the language you are fluent in is simply not an option any more. Languages may have similiarities but when you have to spend eveyr ounce of mental energy searching for commonalities (whihc you STILL can’t depend on, even when you find them) you can’t be a fluent speaker OR be sure that you are understanding everything properly. And then everything changes.

    As a bilinugual brain, I also find myself in a position more often than I want to admit to where I can think of the PERFECT word to describe something that I am talking about… except that it’s in the wrong language for the moment of communication. This… can be… frustrating.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Angela — I tried to teach myself Irish Gaelic so as to understand the Celtic music I was listening to, so I quite understand. :-) (I figured out the basics of lenition and eclipsis by empirical observation, which I’m still rather proud of. But I made better progress once I took a class.)

    Alma — the “wrong language” thing happened to me randomly with vocabulary when I was taking Spanish and Latin at the same time, and still occasionally happens when I try to speak Japanese. Not that I have the perfect word with no equivalent, but just that I can’t think of the word I want, period. :-) It took a concerted effort to convince my brain that there were words for “knee” other than that one and “genu” (which is Latin) — it’s “hiza” in Japanese, which I have finally managed to implant in my memory.

  9. 9. Liz Bourke

    I find myself convinced that it’s American cultural monolingualism (and British linguistic chauvinism) that accounts for Common-Tongue-itis.

    It’s especially weird to me. I come from a country that is bilingual in law but only slightly so in practice, due to certain cultural and economic pressures that became particularly prominent in the 19th century. (Irish retains a strong presence only regionally, although some people are doing a lot to bring it back into the sphere of fun and entertainment.)

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Greece, where my grasp of the language is barely enough to suffice for food and directions and complaining about politicians – and learnt the hard way that being able to read French to a moderate standard doesn’t mean crap when it comes to speaking it…

    And nearly nowhere in fantasy is there a reflection of the inexpressible sorrow* of knowing that you’ll only ever speak haltingly the language that defines so much of the history you inherited. Or of the combined frustration and, well, joy, of succeeding in having a conversation with a stranger in fragments of three or four languages. Or how bloody damn humbling it is to receive the kindness of strangers when you have all of five words in common, and no thanks are sufficient for them getting you un-stranded in the middle of nowhere.

    A Macedonian or Albanian couple in northern Greece gave us a lift once because the bus wouldn’t come until Very Late and we were attempting to walk the fifteen klicks back to civilisation in the meanwhile. We had the name of a town and hand gestures in common. It’s not the kind of experience that shows up very often in genre novels… but all things considered? I know a bunch of people traveling on shoestrings that’ve come up against similar.

    Anyway. Sorry. Didn’t mean to write a personal essay.

    *On this one I only speak personally. There are plenty of Irish people who wish the language good riddance, and considering how I learnt it in school, I hardly blame them.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Liz — No need to apologize! I pretty much have to give a thumbs-up to all of that. We don’t see much in fantasy of people losing their culture because they’re losing their language, or having those kinds of broken exchanges that turn out to be really touching. I’ve been on the asking-for-help end of that a couple of times, and on the giving end a couple more. In the latter cases, I’ve been stupidly pleased with myself for mustering the tiny fragments of my junior high Spanish knowledge to help somebody else out — and unspeakably glad that I had at least those fragments, so that I could make somebody else’s day easier.

  11. 11. Liz Bourke

    Marie – There’re a couple of novels that seem to me to bear language/translation difficulties in mind at least partly: Kate Elliott’s “Spiritwalker” trilogy is one, and Elizabeth Bear’s “Range of Ghosts” is another. But I’m straining to think of very many more where language presents a barrier that the narrative takes time to notice… though if memory serves, you did it yourself in “A Natural History of Dragons”?

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    Liz — I did it a bit, yes, though Isabella mostly glosses over the actual difficulties, except where they’re directly relevant to the plot. Ditto a few instances in the Onyx Court series, and for much the same reason: the real world/something based on the real world would just seem unutterably fake if foreigners all spoke the same language as the protagonist.

    Mind you, the same should be true of a more divergent secondary world. But it took me a while to form that opinion, which is why everybody in the doppelganger books speaks a common tongue. (Though to be fair, that setting is also a good deal smaller, geographically speaking.)

    I’d certainly love to know of more books that pay attention to this. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books do; what else?

  13. 13. SL Knapp

    Green_knight’s point about not knowing books with bilingual characters is pretty interesting, because I can’t remember the last time I’ve written a book starring a monolingual character, even when I fall into the “common tongue” trap. To go off Marie’s point, I’m guessing it’s because:

    1) I’m American
    2) I’m bilingual in a county with three official languages

    So my real-world “world” can usually communicate in a common tongue but you still need fluency in another language at home. Everybody speaks the Lingua Franca, but then they speak their “real” language when they’re among friends/kin/community. It’s just such a “duh” conception of world-building for me, and I didn’t even realize how much that’s impacted by being in Miami.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    SL Knapp — makes me wonder if we’ll have more bilingual characters in fantasy, and more language-based story elements, as Spanish spreads through the U.S. :-)

  15. 15. C.E. Petit

    12 — They are formally science fiction, but one of the very best series at dealing with the linguistic/cultural/religious divide across species is Kristine Smith’s Jani Kilian novels, beginning with CODE OF CONDUCT. C.J. Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series started off paying much more attention to those issues, but as the series focus has evolved it pays less attention.

    It’s less well done, as a rule, in fantasy. Perhaps learning declensions simply isn’t a heroic activity. Romanae eunt domum?


    At the risk of betraying the obsessions of my former and present professions, I’d like to point out that there’s another language divide that doesn’t get enough attention: Written versus spoken, even in the same language.* As a specific example, contemporary spoken German among the non-University-educated classes in northern Germany is losing many gender/case distinctions in articles; instead of the clear “der/das/die” (nominative) and “den/das/die” (accusative) still found in written German, one actually hears “dah” in rapid conversation. This can be a real problem when figuring out the subject of a sentence obtaining directions… especially since so many placenames in port cities in Germany are also descriptors that one might find in directions! It also enforces some rather subtle class divisions, which can be a real problem in Hamburg and Berlin after midnight in certain parts of town.

    Then, too, there’s the converse: Just try understanding what you’ve been accused of from the charge sheet you’re handed after a night in the drunk tank near the Reeperbahn… or try explaining what happened to the military lawyers in Kaiserslautern when retrieving one’s 19-year-old children from a similar drunk tank.

    Neither of which is to claim that English is any better.

    * I’m not referring to the laughable assertion that natives of East Edinburgh speak recognizable “English” either. Dialect can be strange — just ask any speaker of Modern Standard Arabic a question in the Lebanese dialect and then a follow-up in the Q’tari dialect and watch the fun begin.

  16. 16. Young Werther

    One must sacrifice ‘reality’ as too much detail will detract from the story, if not that, then distract the poor reader.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Werther — but we always make choices about what detail to include in the story. I’m only suggesting that this particular one is often overlooked and under-exploited, and that adding such a note of reality (sans the quotation marks) might make the world feel much deeper and more interesting.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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