Dear Language Nerd,
What do you think are the best and worst examples of language in fantasy novels?
– Robert S.
Best is easy – for my money, there’s no one like Tolkien. Tolkien was a linguist first, author second, though damn good at both. He began by inventing his own language (Elven), then came up with people to speak it (Elves), then came up with a background to put them in (all those books you may have heard about). Because of this, his languages are beautifully detailed. They have complex grammars, words that they borrowed from other cultures, different scripts, different patterns of sound and intonation. Many have tried, but few have even come close to matching the realistic, fascinating history of Quenya. The Lord of the Rings is secretly a linguistics treatise in fantasy novel form.
There’s much more competition for last place. One series that pained me personally was Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the Eragon books. It cut me to the quick when I turned to the glossary in the back and found that “Raise stone!” was translated, in the mystical, magical, ancient language, as “Stenr reisa!” This shows, at its most charitable, an excessive pseudo-Germanic influence. And when I say it’s the ancient language, I mean it – the name of the language in the book is apparently Ancient Language.
The Inheritance books’ language is basically a cipher of English. That is, it’s not its own language with a unique structure, but closer to a code. Most sentences are the same as English sentences. Consider Paolini’s Elven greeting “Mor’ranr lífa unin hjarta onr. Un du evarínya ono varda.” This is translated literally as “Peace live in heart yours. And the stars you guard.” Look at the one-to-one correspondence between the words, the use of the same kinds of articles as English, the conjunctions and prepositions. All he’s done is put Norse-ish words in for English ones. Now compare Tolkien’s famous “Elen sila lumenna omentielvo,” loosely translated as “A star shines upon the hour of our meeting.” Strictly translating it is more difficult. “Elen” is “star,” and is written as “a star” because it’s not plural, but Quenya doesn’t have a singular indefinite article like English. “Sila” is “shines,” that’s the same. “Lume” is “time,” and the “-na” is a case ending that means “on” or “at,” so “at the time.” And “omentie” is meeting, “omentielva” is the dual form, so “the meeting of you and me,” and the “-o” puts it in genitive case, so “our meeting.” See how much more difficult that was to parse? It’s because when Tolkien sat down to make a language, he meant business.
However, Paolini does at least get credit for considering language at all. He has an Ancient Language, and a kinda meh history for it, and the concept of different groups of people speaking different tongues. This basic understanding of how languages work puts him decidedly above the truly terrible Robert Jordan. Jordan’s Waste of Time series – sorry, I meant Wheel – is unreadable for an enormous number of reasons, only one of which is the atrocious willy-nilly dismantling of language as we know it. According to these books, the entire continent, some 3,500 miles across, spoke one language all together, perfectly, with only the most minor of regional differences. This is already difficult to hear, I know, but just wait. At some point the entire trade and transportation infrastructure broke down, leaving all the cities and towns isolated and separate from each other. Some three thousand years pass, and the main characters of the books are born and start gallavanting about. They wander from land to land, and everywhere they go, everyone still speaks the same language. And not even the same old language – everyone, across 3,500 miles, evolved a new language from the old in exactly the same way. YES, REALLY. Everyone! Three thousand years! Three thousand years ago the people who now speak Portuguese, Romansh, Italian, and Walloons all spoke Latin. Norwegian, English, Flemish, Yiddish, and Luxembourgish speakers all spoke Germanic. How many of them can communicate now? And there were dozens of other languages, which died out, but not before influencing each other. You know what didn’t happen? EVERYONE IN EUROPE DOESN’T JUST SPEAK FRENCH, THAT’S WHAT. Oh, it hurts me. It hurts me so much.
Whew. I need a breather. Time to go reread A Clockwork Orange. That Nadsat is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
The Language Nerd
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Update: If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the Language Nerd’s post about the Dothraki language from Game of Thrones.
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