Thoughts on Language

I’m building the appendices today for Where Now the Rider and I thought I’d post my philosophies about language in a fantasy world.

I’ve given more philosophical thought to this sort of thing than I probably should. In fact, I have struggled in the past to write science fiction or fantasy because they would have a completely different language. English in 100 years won’t be the same, and in 2-300 years may be almost incomprehensible. Languages are like that.

Therefore I should, like Tolkien, create a series of languages. Of course, how do I find an audience when I’m expecting them to learn a series of languages. A tree, for example, wouldn’t be “tree” in another language. Not to mention a pine tree. And a Scotch pine, of course, can’t exist unless there’s a Scotland to refer to. How can anyone even write a fantasy world when all of this needs to be changed?

Of course, we all accept the fiction that people in that world know English. That they have essentially the same language. And, for that matter, that they’re human in the first place.

Still, I think it’s important for a fantasy world to use a some strange words. It is a fantasy world after all, and the language has to match. In my case, since I’m writing medieval fantasy, I’m also bound to using words that fit into the milieu and aren’t too modern.

Once I accept the obvious, there’s a corollary that becomes useful. If I have to accept English as the language for my audience, and I do, and if I have to accept that humans are the best base of a fantasy world, and I do, then I can also accept the use of real-world cultures and languages that aren’t English.

No, I’m not wayyyyy too philosophical, why do you ask?

The answer, by the way, is that if I don’t believe in Shijuren, then how can I ask readers to believe. If I can come up with a philosophical justification for the shortcuts I’ve taken, then it works for me. Which I have and it does.


All of what I just said is important because it shapes how I use language in Shijuren. I look to other languages and adapt words and phrases to suit what I need. For example, majea is pretty clearly a cognate of magic, and I derive it from Ancient Greek. It is handy because when I use it to refer to magic I’m not asking for the reader to stretch to much.

In the same way, when I built the prefixes that apply to majea, I used things that can make sense for those who think about it. Love magic uses “er” as the prefix, from Eros. Land magic, “ge,” as in geology. Yes, I know “geo” is the proper prefix, but that extra syllable doesn’t sound as good. Life magic, “zo,” as in zoology, again cutting a syllable. Line magic, “sym,” as in symbols. And Lore magic uses “cli,” which derives from Clio, the muse of history.

I doubt many readers have caught on to this particular trick, but let me tell you it helps me a ton when my brain is fuzzy and I’m trying to remember just the word to use.

Kurios, by the way, and kurioi, is also Greek-derived, basically for people who are curious. Hence, magicians. Hence erkurios and so on.

For me, just creating these names has also helped lock these different magics in my head. I know what I’m trying to do with them, both what they can allow and what they can’t allow. The limitations to magic, of course, being very important to me.

Anyway, back to language. I use a large number of foreign-derived words. I also use a large number of simple foreign words. For example, “krieger” is German for “warrior.” What better way to say, in one world, “a warrior from the Kreisens?”

Using traditional names of dishes for food is especially important to me. As some have said to me, it’s nice that they’re not always eating a stew. Shchi, cevapi in somun, or shopska is far more interesting to me. Goulash might be easier, but gulyas (the traditional name) is much more fun to me.

Again, I don’t expect or require every reader to examine the hidden depths in the words. Just like in Middlearth, I didn’t have to know Quenya or Sindarin to grasp the bulk of what a word in either language meant, but I guarantee that Tolkien hid etymology that helped him into each word.

This is also true for names and places. In some cases, I’ve used actual names, like Biljana’s Springs ( Achrida is, of course, the ancient name of Ohrid, the city in Macedonia. If you look at pictures of it, you’ll have a better idea of what Achrida looks like, by the way. Also, the Mrnjavcevic and Gropa families existed in the Balkans. They’ve provided all sorts of inspiration for me.

Most of the names, though, I pick from the list at Behind the Names, a fantastic website. Naming patterns vary from culture to culture of course, and this site helps me remain consistent within the various cultures. It also allows me to break the pattern when I wish. For example, Croatian and Bosnian form the bulk of the names in Achrida. Lezh is Albanian, which makes sense if you know that Ohrid is across the lake from Albania. For people from Basilopolis I’ve chosen to go with Greek and Byzantine names.  Since I’m lifting the history of Rome and Constantinople, it’ll come as no surprise that Roman naming conventions predominate in Sabinian Province, the base of the Old Empire from which the Empire of Makhaira is born. However, given that I’ve made Achrida a major trading city, I’ve also tossed in a variety of other names. Turkish, for example. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes Mataran names, which we see periodically in Achrida, as in the case of Chinwe, one of the victims in Where Now the Rider.

There are a few exceptions, and those are names I made up because of some particular reason or reference that makes me smile or those that Adam Hale made up while making the map.

And this is all to the good. Language should be a messy thing. Names should have a variety of things. Even when I’ve chosen to simply a language thing, like names of magic and the calendar, I’ve added a layer, like using Old English to make the calendar.

It’s a balance, and I’ll admit I possibly go too far, but I’m trying to create a world that is deep and rich, a sandbox to let me write a number of different stories. I don’t know how I can do that without playing with language.

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