Friday, September 10, 2010

Languages in Fantasy Worlds, Part 1

Languages add detail and richness to fantasy settings. They make the difference between a setting that feels artificial and one that seems organic and evolving. The grandaddy of all fantasy worlds, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, has at its heart the author's constructed languages. The carefully constructed place and personal names lend a subtext of depth and a verisimilitude that a selection of randomly derived names simply wouldn't. Whether the reader consciously realizes it or not, the setting is granted a sense of life and history by a systematic approach to language.

The trouble is that none of us are Tolkien, and very, very few of us are professional linguists or philologists. The only setting designed for gaming that boasts fully-developed artificial languages is M. A. R. Barker's T├ękumel. The world builder can and should think deeply about the languages used in his or her milieu, but both knowledge and a general aesthetic sense about languages are needed to create them in full, from scratch, and the only way to get that is to study them at or near the professional level.

What we really mean by "language" as it applies to world-building is names. We develop the languages so that the named things, places and people in the world seem like they fit together in a natural way, and so that the names themselves carry the associations that we want to convey, perhaps subliminally, to the reader or player. Developing a constructed language to the level of detail that real-world languages have is a monumental task requiring a large amount of education and very possibly a lifetime of work. Fortunately, there are shortcuts that can be used to create a credible facsimile of a fully-developed constructed language. Using them will give your setting an organic feel. You may not tell a player that Akhbar is from an Arabian-like culture, but hearing the name, they'll fill in that particular blank in their own imagination. Sterotyping, used in a constructive way.

This series of articles is about creating languages for fantasy worlds, not about educating even armchair linguists. It may be that the reader, having used the techniques presented here, will be intrigued by languages and want to know more, but aside from making some suggestions for further reading, that's beyond the scope of this article.

If you do want to explore linguistics further, be aware that the subject is one of the potential traps of the world-builder; it's possible to pay too much attention to it, and get trapped in linguistic minutiae. I have fallen into this trap myself - it's a fascinating subject that's worth study on its own merits, but if your goal is to construct a fantasy setting rather than to devise artificial languages, get the basics hammered out globally first. When your world is ready you can always go back and flesh the languages out to your heart's desire, in much the same way that Tolkien himself did. Meanwhile, you should be treating languages strictly as tools for developing pleasing and consistent names for your setting.

And the trap is actually two-fold; it's possible to take constructed languages too far, from the world-builder's perspective, renaming even common things. This hinders accessibility (just ask Barker,) and the world-builder should be leery of the tendency. As a general rule, if you have Kings in your world, just call them Kings - there's no need to make up an in-setting name for this kind of hereditary monarch when you have a perfectly serviceable and universally understood term ready to use in good old English.

Our approach here will mirror that in the world-building series; we'll start by answering some big questions, determine a good level of detail to work down to, and then do the actual dirty work of building the language and assembling names. Just as importantly, we'll keep things managable, by limiting ourselves in the amount of work we do on any particular language. A good limit that I apply myself is that everything about a language, from phonetics to grammar to the useful lexicon that we use to actually build names, has to fit on both sides of a 5x7 index card.

Be aware that I'll be using grammatical terms and concepts in this series of articles. I'll try to do this to the least extent possible, but there's no way to leave it out altogether. I will link to a helpful Wikipedia article where I feel it's warranted. Meanwhile, I'll hand out our first piece of recommended reading, English Grammar For Dummies. This will provide you with everything you need to know about grammar, and then some - and we'll be playing with those rules as we learned to apply them in English, to create natural-sounding fantasy languages.

Stay tuned for Part 2: What You Need To Know.

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