Language Ex Machina.

As far as fantasy goes, I’ve always been inspired by Tolkein’s scholarly breadth of detail in his worldbuilding, most notably his dizzying work with creating full, functional, quite honestly breathtaking structures of language. Naturally, this is something I’ve always wanted to weave into my worldbuilding for Aryneth, but, as one would imagine, languages are not a simple or easy matter. One thing that always felt a little troublesome to me in this respect was the fact that, in a world filled with so many different languages, how would people truly be able to understand each other? I’ve seen this handled in many books, both fantasy and science fiction, with the creation of a “Common Tongue” spoken by all “civilized” cultures throughout the world-slash-galaxy, but I’ve always had issues with it. To me, there was always a certain suspension of reality that went along with it. Look at our own world. While English is fairly close to a Common Tongue as any (or perhaps it just seems that way because that I what I speak and know), there are hundreds of languages out there. When I visit my boyfriend’s parents, conversation is stilted because, while he and I speak fluent English, their English is very, very limited, as they speak an entirely different language. The idea of the Common Tongue, then, is pretty much a Language Ex Machina, something put into place to make the plot and the difficulty in delving into the reality of different languages much easier to deal with.

Is this a bad thing? Should we be striving to make the way languages are handled in fantasy closer to how languages exist in the real world? It’s something I’ve always struggled with a little bit, and, as I get to the point in Serpent in a Cage where the different storylines (and, as it were, different cultures) meet, I really gave it some serious thought. Should Auferrix immediately address Locke and Gilferen in Kassirian, her native language? Surely, they would establish that they can’t understand each other outside of the Common Tongue, but if everyone went around sticking to the language of their native lands, then what’s the promise that they would even know the Common Tongue? How realistic would it be to have three people from different lands communicating easily among themselves?

It may seem like a minor thing to obsess over, but SiaC is a story that depends very heavily on the idea of a mystical language so unknown that not even a very intelligent character can pick up on a certain hint that might otherwise be obvious right away. That language has to have been buried and mostly forgotten for ages. How does a world go from having one mystical language long forgotten to hundreds of varied languages spread throughout, yet still everyone can speak another language all the same?

Herein lies my own Language Ex Machina: the gods did it. This is kind of an easy out for most fantasy novels, but, thankfully, it ties in with a lot of the lore for Aryneth. Way back when they created all the different races, I’m sure it would have made sense for different languages to develop, but there’s a point in the history where things become more cohesive and joined together; at that time, the gods united Aryneth in a way that allowed for a single language to develop. The devout would promote this language, because this was what the gods wanted, and so everyone would learn it, cultivate it, use it, until it became common for everyone, and it was the older languages that fell back into the realm of scholars and the unbelievers. This is where the ancient language would have gotten lost and, during the time of Aryneth where the gods were banished from the world and a great divide occurred, there would be a resurgence in the languages of one’s old land. The Common Tongue was still the common tongue, followed for ease and the fact that it was everywhere, but a new spark begins where people start preferring to speak among themselves in the old language of their native lands, though it is not necessarily a common social practice.

Random thoughts on the matter, but I think it’s a pretty solid solution. Any thoughts to share? For the other worldbuilders out there, how much have you invested into languages? Which fictional development of a language do you find particularly interesting or inspiring? Here would be the moment I’d want to say something in Klingon or Redvyn, but, well, I haven’t gotten THAT far into it, myself.

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4 responses

  1. This is something I’ve never even considered. All my books are in modern day America, except when they go somewhere else briefly. So language has never even been a consideration. Interesting post.

  2. I think George RR Martin does a great job with languages in Game of Thrones. He even uses it in having character Daenarys pretend she doesn’t understand one of the foreign languages, High Valyrian, to eavesdrop.

  3. I agree that a “Common Tongue” or “Trade Tongue” is a bit of a cop out. However, creating new languages for the races in your story might be problematic in that the reader is expected to learn the languages while trying to understand the story. Some readers would appreciate the effort while other would be bored with it and may put the book down before the end. It’s a tough call. Obviously, it worked for Tolkien. As long as the reader is aware when the character is speaking a particular language, or cannot understand a language, the need for the additional work is limited to a phrase here or there.

  4. Yes Common Tongue can be considered a cop out, but it’s far easier for the reader to comprehend than having to learn a new language or languages if the case may be. Keeping new languages to famelial phrases or syntax both introduce the idea of a new language and keep it easier for the reader to stay connected to the novel. As for your mystic forgotten language, it sounds a lot like Sumerian language. Do some research on that and I’m sure a whole slew of new ideas will come to you on how to reintroduce this language and how it came to be forgotten. And if it helps, trading with other cultures, ships, and horses are how our language began to merge with other languages forming Pigeon languages that then became their very on language over time. Yes, I’ve done a lot of research on languages. Good luck.

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