For most of us, Tolkien’s level of precision with languages is simply impossible to attain, but your worlds must be complex enough to mask that fact. If your lack of linguistic acumen ever rises to the level that your audience is aware of it, your efforts at simplicity are self defeating.
One of the stickiest points I’ve found when it comes to creating other worlds for my stories is figuring out exactly how far to take their languages. There are all sorts of different ideas on this, and I haven’t seen an argument that is completely convincing one way or the other. My own intellectual heroes, the Inklings, had examples of both extremes. In some stories, the language factor seems key, in others I don’t notice it. At the end of this piece, I’d honestly like to know what you think.
Linguistics is one of those very basic dynamics that every sub-creator (J. R. R. Tolkien’s term for the author’s role in creating worlds) must somehow take into account. Trying to build a world without language is like trying to build a world without physics–it just doesn’t work. People and creatures existing in our worlds, the fodder we use to tell our stories, must be able to communicate with each other, and to do that they must have one or more unique languages.*
Tolkien obviously resides on one extreme of the possible spectrum. In fact, he did not so much create languages for his world so much as he created a world for his languages. The languages came first, and then, based upon them, he crafted a setting where such cultures were possible. The result is art in itself. Middle Earth has so much depth that those of us who have wandered into it have never quite found our way back out. Everything feels real because it is real, from the snatch of dwarfish we hear from Gimli (“Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mânu!“–Axes of the dwarves! The dwarves are upon you!) to the dripping evil of the Black Speech (“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul…”–One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them….) to the musical language of the elves (“Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!“–Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!). The languages are a massive part of what made Tolkien the genius he was.
Of course Tolkien himself was a professional linguist and few of us could ever hope to match his skill and creativity in that area. Even for Tolkien, the process of crafting the languages of Middle Earth was a very long, slow labor of love. In the end, a lifetime of effort resulted in just a few books, masterpieces to be sure, but still only five. For the rest of us with our more limited abilities, we might get a start on “Concerning Hobbits” before we died of old age.
The other extreme is exemplified in Tolkien’s associate and fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis in his most famous works. In Narnia, though accomplished in ancient languages himself, Lewis really doesn’t take the time to explain or construct much of anything. He just charges ahead, paying no particular attention to the significant fact that Narnians, from their very creation, speak the king’s English, just like everyone else in known universe, apparently. There are a few hints of other languages, such as the transforming sign on Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, the unique character names, and other tricks of speech including odes to the Tisroc (May he live for ever), but he makes no attempt to build up separate linguistic identities, as Tolkien did. This was one fact that made Tolkien think the books were rushed, and he critiqued the Narnia stories from that perspective. Of course, Lewis is such a strong writer that it is generally pretty easy to suspend our disbelief. In fact, I would wager that most of us probably didn’t really notice a problem at all until someone pointed it out.
Lewis’s approach allowed him to accomplish quite a bit more than Tolkien did in terms of literary output, but as much as I love the Narnia stories, they undeniably lack the depth of Middle Earth. I would love to visit Cair Paravel in theory, but at times I feel I actually could go to Hobbiton, were I to just walk far enough on a starry summer night. If the time is right, I think that around the next bend, I’ll just be able to drop in for a pint at the Green Dragon.
In my own stories, I feel the need for something in between the extremes. In the case of my first (completed) novel, The Gallery of Worlds, I have a practical historical reason why Meg finds a world full of English speaking people, but I don’t take the time to fully work out a completely new indigenous language to match. I tried to reference enough to give the feel of it, without having to work out detailed declensions or what not. I plan to come up with a mechanical reason to explain why Meg can talk to people for book 2. (I can’t go into greater detail without giving away plot points, though.) For me, Tolkien’s level of precision is simply impossible to attain, but my worlds must be complex enough to mask that fact. If my lack of linguistic acumen ever rises to the level that my audience is aware of it, my efforts at simplicity are self defeating.
So what do you think? I’m honestly curious, and would be grateful if you could take the poll below to let me know. And no, I didn’t do this just to copy Melissa; I was already planning on it!
* You can’t slip by that by simply using telepathic communication. After all, we all “think” in a language as well.