Tag Archives: Tolkien

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 (http://wikimapia.org/20513379/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.

Review: Moana

One of the challenges I face with my blog is finding topics. Obviously, I can write about sports, and update my writing, but that’s not enough.

So, I’m going to start doing reviews of things I read, see, or hear. Yesterday, I went to see Moana because one of the panels I’m on at ChattaCon will be a discussion of Moana as Disney’s version of Lord of the Rings.

The full panel description: Disney’s latest animated film is unique in its choice of a Polynesian setting and mythology, but some of its aspects seem Tolkien-esque. This panel compares Moana with LoR, and other kid’s flicks similar to Tolkien and other fantasy epics.

I thought it might be nice to, I don’t know, actually see the movie before talking about it. I know, I know. Weird, but that’s me.

Oh, and I’ll be giving spoilers. If you’re wanting to go see it and haven’t, don’t read any further if spoilers bother you.

Anyway, here are my thoughts. First, the story is loosely based on the mythology of Pacific islanders. Dwayne Johnson’s character, Maui, is a central figure in mythologies in many different cultures.

Moana, which is a word that means “the ocean” in Maori and Hawaiian. It is also the name of the main character who is chosen by the personified ocean to get the people of what is probably meant to be Samoa out of their self-imposed prison inside their reef.

Part of the reason she needs to do this is because the islands are threatened with death from a personification of lava. Moana needs to return a pounamu stone whence Maui had stolen it centuries before.

As plots go, it’s fairly standard. However, we’re talking about a Disney film aimed at children, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Also, since I’m watching this movie in order to compare it to Lord of the Rings, I can immediately see the similarity of the Ring and pounamu stone, especially since Moana needs to put the stone into lava, although it’s solidified at that point.

However, I found the plot much more comparable to Star Wars. Moana is Luke, though she is much more likable and resilient than Luke in many ways. Maui is Han, a trickster with a good heart with a sidekick that nags him, though in this case it’s his magical tattoo. Moana’s grandmother is Ben, who teaches her, then dies and becomes a ghostlike manta that helps her along the way. The Force is the ocean itself. The lava creature is the Death Star and putting the pounamu stone is like Luke’s shot.

I fell in love with Star Wars at the age of 9 and it’s no surprise that the same threads are in a cartoon movie aimed at that age group.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, even though I sort of knew what was going to happen because the plot seemed so obvious. I really like Dwayne Johnson as an actor, actually, as he’s getting better and better. Interestingly, he’s not the former bigtime football player to contribute his voice to this film, as former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu also participated.

I love that most of the actors have South Pacific backgrounds. Of the 12 actors listed in IMDB, only Alan Tudyk (who mostly plays the crazy-eyed chicken), and Louise Bush (who plays the baby Moana) are not Maori, Samoan, or Hawaiian.

However, I wish they’d been even more focused on those traditions. I’m not going to get into some of the criticisms which are based in cultural insensitivity, but the odd mix of South Pacific traditions and Broadway did not work for me.

What do I mean by Broadway? Well, the movie is a musical with the music in part written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s no doubting Miranda’s talent and he collaborated with Opetaia Foa’i, a Samoan musician. Unfortunately, while the songs were good, the music is exactly the sort of thing one would hear on Broadway, and Foa’i’s contribution may have been major but did not change the feel.

Every time they started a song, I got kicked out of the story. I would have loved more of the Maori, Samoan, and Hawaiian traditions, especially traditional folk music. For example, I loved when Maui started a haka before a major fight.

Overall, it was a nice movie, especially for kids. I like the concept quite a bit, but I think it could have been executed better.