Say What?! Language, Other Worlds, and the Example of the Inklings

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.

8 thoughts on “Say What?! Language, Other Worlds, and the Example of the Inklings

  1. This nerd had enough encouragement on her own (although I prefer to consider myself a geek, thank you very much). 🙂 I found Tolkien’s linguistic work inspiring in high school and tried to imitate it myself, albeit on a smaller scale. In my case, the language was completely separate from any plot I was developing. Then they met each other and it was love at first sight. If that makes any sense.

    The tricky part is deciding how much of a language to put into the work. Too much can be distracting, especially when dealing with animals that might have an earthly correlation but are still alien. What I am doing in my apparently-never-to-be-completely-edited work is demonstrating how language not only has shifted over time (this is actually related to a plot point) but how it is used socially or politically as a weapon or an indicator of caste. Mostly this reveals itself in the way my characters speak in English – one group uses no contractions, for instance, while the other one lets it all hang out. Not that any of them will be saying “dude” any time soon, though.

    1. You are correct that it is difficult to know how much background to put into your world. As the author our general urge is to include as much of our detailed worlds as possible, however this often occludes the story and discourages readers. It is a delicate balance that I, for one, am still working on.

  2. I ran into the issue of language early on in my world, which is why I then immediately stopped the story until I had crafted a believable explanation for English existing there. In so doing, I wound up inadvertently creating a strong foundational story that aptly supports my world; thus, there are fewer “sticky points” to rise up and distract me. I believe this would work for other writers as well; take the time beforehand to answer the question of language and to craft a suitable origin, then the rest of the story will flow more coherently, even if the reader never learns of the origins.

    I think, too, that much of the issue of language depends on one’s audience. An audience of young children are unlikely to question the prevalence of English in a world (though I have found from experience that children are highly appreciative of different dialects within a story); teenagers and adults, however, often require a bit more background and continuity.

  3. I have found that it depends on the story. Tolkien’s work, for example, is linguistically based, without the languages Middle Earth would not exist, or at least not in remotely the same fashion. On the other hand Glen Cook’s The Black Company is ostensibly written by the main character who speaks something around a dozen different languages, when someone speaks in a foreign tongue he simply ‘translates’ it in his written work or, on the rare occasions when the character runs into a language he is unfamiliar with, say that he didn’t understand and leaves it at that.
    Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, generally ignores the issue of languages and has everyone speak the dominant dialect of the Malaz empire. His world exists on the basis of his anthropological studies and so is fully as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but in a very different fashion. Where Tolkien generally ignores the anthropological origins of his nations and peoples (I don’t remember any mentions of broken pottery from the empire that populated the plains of the Rohirim during the first age) Erikson has significant anthropological depth to his cultures and peoples which make them feel just as real as Tolkien’s elves or dwarves.
    I think the lesson we, as authors, can take away from this is that we must write, and build our worlds, from our own perspective. I am not an anthropologist and so my cultures will never have the anthropological depth of Erikson’s Malaz, nor am I a linguist so my worlds will never have the linguistic depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I am a religious scholar and so I can, and attempt to, create worlds that have a significant religious depth which explores the impact of a belief system on the culture which holds to it.
    All that being said I do want to give my cultures some linguistic and anthropological depth and so I do my best to research these as I am able and keep the fictions complete. For languages I use language groups which exist in this world as a basis, combining individual languages from the same language group or making slight alterations as needed. I hope this works well, I suppose I’ll find out.

  4. “the invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” ~ Tolkien, “Letters”

    Since I just so happened to be reading a book on Tolkien which is currently focusing on his career as a philologist, this post was very a propos.

    I admire a book that creates languages for its world, but only when it is done well. Far too often, you get Tolkienettes who think that they can string syllables together and add a few apostrophes and there you have it. I think i shall these people “mer’ Ekved’ all- ar’i” which means “fail” in my new fantasy language.

    If you are going to do it, either keep it simple and consistent and reasonably in the background or make sure your case endings darn well stay consistent. The in between is just annoying.

    For myself, i adore foreign languages in general, but because i like to focus on the story and character aspects and my worlds do not have the epic feel that begs for its own languages, i prefer to simply not bring it up.

    1. I think a lot of authors take this approach and it generally works very well. There are even a number of Epic Fantasy series I have read that generally ignore the question of language without any great detriment to the series, Erikson’s being one of them.

  5. Truly, Tolkien is the Master here, and all of us are elementary disciples.

    Narnia is a children’s story, so lots of linguistic detail would be a distraction. But even there Lewis differentiates different dialects and styles of speaking–noble Narnians, Commoners, Calormenes, Dufflepuds, etc. Even different species of Talking Beasts have different styles of speaking, all consistently worked out in terms of their lexical and grammatical choices. Some enterprising scholar could do a linguistic analysis of all that (as has been done with the different dialects in Flannery O’Connor). So Lewis is not really “the other extreme,” but something this side of it. And Hressa Hlab is interestingly worked out in the Space Trilogy, and contrasted with Pfiffltriggian to boot–with actually more explanation of grammar and roots in the story itself than Tolkien gives, unless you add the appendices.

    Tolkine gives us a helpful hint when he explains that modern English is used to *represent* Westron, the common man-speach of Middle-earth–none of which dialog was actually in Modern or any other English before Tolkien “translated” the Red Book of Westmarch. Any fantasy world can adopt that approach to get past the problem; details about other languages then become optional. The problem only arises when English speakers are sent to another world. Lewis handles that better in Out of the Silent Planet than anyone I’ve ever seen. When Star Trek Enterprise came out, I was excited because the crew actually included an Exo-Linguist. But they quickly realized how much hard work in writing the show she was going to mean, so they invented the Universal Translator in about the second or third episode, a technique that is technically known as “punting the football.”

    Great post, Brian. I agree that most of us do not think about this enough. Other works to include as examples of how authors dealt with this problem are Watership Down (the rabbit language and even rabbit math!) and Dune.

  6. Just to be clear (which I might have been previously), I have GREAT admiration for the men of languages!! How they are creative enough to not only invent another language but to be consistent with it in an entire book not to mention several books amazes to me. Great Minds!!!!! Oh to be able to do that.

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