If you’re writing fantasy, I’m guessing you’re creating your own world. Unless this is some kind of “Other Earth” scenario, historical fantasy, or science fantasy that involves our actual Earth. Otherwise, you’re going to be doing a lot of world building.
World building isn’t just terrain and continents. It’s culture building, and with culture, there’s language. Problem is, you have to tell it in a “real world” (living) language.
With that, let’s dive into language in fantasy. This is not going to be a language building post, but more of a how to use language in your writing. I’ll cover more on language building in another post.
Language is your friend.
You don’t have to be a linguist to create language for your story. Don’t be scared of it. There are plenty of resources available on ye olde world wide web for this kind of thing. You don’t have to be like Tolkien and construct the entire damn language.
But you should use language and consider linguistic principles. Think of it is a tool. It will help you.
“The common tongue”
A common tongue is almost a necessity for a few reasons. One, so characters can communicate with each other. Two, because because you’re probably writing in a “real world” (or “living” as it’s called) language. Unless you’re writing some crazy niche fiction where you make up a language, write the story in the made up language, have readers learn that language, and then they can read it, you will be writing in a real world language.
“Common tongue” is usually whatever language the author is writing in (from here on out, I’ll use English because that’s what I’m writing this post in, but please know that this can be substituted for any language you write in).
So you have your common tongue (English or whatever) that most, if not all, your characters speak in. But it’s not always that simple. Depending on the history and politics of your world (wars, conquering, trading, borders, etc.) not everyone in this world is going to speak it unless the story takes place at a point in history where all the nations learn it and speak it. Even so, things are going to be wonky depending on the world you constructed.
Now if your story doesn’t explore other languages (and it shouldn’t unless it’s plot relevant) than you don’t even need a common tongue. Pretend whatever language you write in is a perfect translation of whatever language it is the characters are speaking in.
But still remember your characters aren’t speaking English.
Even with our “perfect translation” mindset, there are going to be things that just don’t fit in your fantasy world. There are words and phrases very specific to history on Earth that will be really out of place in your new world.
There are the obvious ones: “Telephone” for one, place names, etc. but there are less obvious ones that you need to be wary of.
Idioms are a big one here. If a character speaks in an idiom, remember that unless it’s a vague near universal one, idioms are really specific to culture and context.
“The green eyed monster” is one. This comes from Shakespeare. It’s very specific to the English language and literary history. English speakers, in general, know what it means, but others may not. Chances are if this phrase isn’t established in your fantasy world, your characters wouldn’t know what it means either so they shouldn’t use it.
So look over your work. Are there words or phrases that are out of place in terms of language? Adjust if you need to.
Language is fluid.
With the development of dictionaries, formatted writing, academic writing, etc. There seems to be a myth going around that language is sort of set in stone. The development of standardizing languages is a really recent development in linguistic history, in truth. Standardization, grammar rules, dictionaries and all that are useful and I’m all for it in that it has it’s place, but those rules and tools apply more to written language and polite speech than they do to the way people actually talk.
Languages grow and change over time, at different speeds depending on what’s going on. The same should be true in your world. Don’t try to over standardize your made up language. Variety is good.
Who is talking and to whom is important.
How old is the character talking? Young characters (children) are more likely to make some mistakes when talking (incorrect plural forms are pretty common: “leafs” instead of “leaves”). A high status person will speak more formally, a poet will speak poetically, a peasant isn’t going to use many metaphors or smilies, a sailor will speak in maritime slang, etc.
You’re also more likely to talk differently depending on to whom you are speaking. With your boss, professor, client/customer, or a superior you’re going to speak differently than you would with your friends. You’ll speak more politely to someone you’ve just met to make a good impression. You might swear like a sailor when with friends, but you won’t with your parents if they’re offended by that kind of thing.
Remember that your characters are going to talk differently depending on the situation.
There’s a good example of this in the HBO show Game of Thrones. A character (Arya Stark) is an educated girl pretending to be a peasant (or low born) and she is serving Lord Tywin Lannister. Keep in mind that this is a world where peasants aren’t educated. Peasants can’t (usually) read or write.
So they talk and converse and Arya calls Tywin “My Lord”. He picks up on this and corrects her by telling her that common people say “M’lord” not “My Lord.” The latter is used by educated people.
We see this even in our world. Educated people talk differently than less educated people. It could be anything from how they articulate worlds differently, to the type of words they use, to how they construct sentences. (This is not a judgment. One is not “better” than the other.)
In your fictional world, people of different backgrounds will talk differently.
Dialects vary in our world. People only a few miles apart will talk differently. This can happen for a lot of reasons.
Here are some real world examples. In the United States dialects are very different. In some regions, the carbonated drink you get from the machine at restaurants is called “soda”. In other regions, it’s “pop”. (By the way, correct one is “soda”!) There is a specific region in the state of Wisconsin where the public drinking fountains are called “bubblers” not “water fountains” or any kind of fountain. In that region a “fountain” is the giant thing in the park that sprouts water that people throw coins in.
As another example, AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is a recognized English dialect. It has its own linguistic properties and grammar structure. The sentence “She be sick.” means something entirely different than “She is sick.”
A person who did not grow up speaking that dialect of English is going to speak much differently.
The thing to keep in mind is that isolation creates dialect. People can technically speak the same language but have completely different dialects. A group or region that doesn’t communicate much with other regions is going to speak differently than another region.
Bilingual characters and accents.
Maybe you’re writing a character that isn’t from this region, but knows the language. They probably have an accent.
First you need to tell me where this character is from and why they’re there.
After that, writing accents is hard.
You don’t want to write them so full of broken sentences and apostrophes that it becomes annoying. You’ll need to determine some things for yourself:
- How long has this character been in this place? (Immersion)
- How did they learn the language? (Did they learn it in school–“standardized” language? Or did they pick it up as a result of living there–Immersion?)
A good way to do this is to think of bilingual people you have met. Specifically where your native language was/is their second language. How did they speak it? In my experience (hearing my language spoken by non-native speakers and speaking languages that are not native myself) is that they tend to talk slower, try to articulate sounds more, may take a little longer in responding to other speakers, speak more formally, they may talk less, maybe not understand jokes and colloquialisms, and there will be a few key sounds they might screw up.
For example, I study German (not my native language). The “ch” sound in German is harder for me to do without sounding like a hissing cat. A German friend of mine had trouble with the English “W” sound.
Don’t pound it into the readers minds that “THIS CHARACTER IS FOREIGN AND THEY HAVE AN ACCENT!!!” Otherwise, you make that character seem dumb or the readers just get annoyed trying to figure out what this character is saying.
Slangs and swears.
I’ll be upfront here, I like using swears in writing and reading them in fantasy. Some people hate it. “The word ‘fuck’ doesn’t belong there!”, but I don’t mind it.
But keeping in with our “perfect translation” model, it’s entirely plausible that this language has rude words that mean things as they do in our native languages. Lots of languages and dialects have rude words for “poop” (shit, shite, Sheiße, etc.) I can suspend my disbelief and accept that a character saying “Fuck you, asshole!” is saying something that means exactly that, but in their native (made up) language.
It makes sense to me. If a character says “Fuck me.” out of frustration, that’s something I’ll understand, being an English speaker. If you substituted a random combination of letters for “fuck” I might not and it will stick out more.
You can find other substitutions if you want. In The Witcher games, characters often use “ploughing” instead of “fucking” as in “That ploughing jerk.” In the same vein, “whoreson” (as in “son of a whore” or “whore’s son”) is often used in place of what modern English speakers might use as “son of a bitch”.
The key, in my opinion, is not to overdo it, unless your character has an especially foul mouth and it’s supposed to be that way. It does run the risk of breaking immersion.
Also avoid swears that are specific to modern times. I (all in good fun) call one of my friends “douche canoe”. This works because we know what an actual douche is. If douches (the actual noun/object, not the insult) don’t exist in your fantasy world, your characters aren’t going to use any words that represent that.
You can develop your own slang, but make sure the reader can still understand what you’re talking about. Modern slang is pretty much off the table. If I read a character in a made up fantasy world saying “on fleek” or calling someone “bae”, I’ll throw the book across the room. Not that slang is bad (most of us use slang all the time, even if we don’t realize it), but there are things that just will not make sense to use in your fantasy world.
Not everyone uses heightened speech.
Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean every character talks in heightened or poetic speech. Not everyone is going to use purple prose or poetic words to describe things or to talk in general.
A character who studied poetry or is super well educated might speak more this way, but most people won’t. Find a balance here.
In our world people will speak more professionally or use “heightened”/formal speech depending on their education, background, personality, and personal preference, and they aren’t likely to speak that way all the time.
Your peasant character who has no education and never left their homestead shouldn’t be using poetic words they’ve never heard to describe things. Your super educated professor character will speak more formally and with different vocabulary than your peasant character.
In conclusion, be careful with how you use words and language in fantasy. As I said, I will do a whole post on language building. But for now, here are some parting resources and things to look at.