Lingua universalis fantasiae

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


At one point when I was in high school, I sat down and drew a continent on a piece of paper. Then I sliced it up into different countries, gave each one a name, and declared, “Each of these speaks a different language.”

I can’t say for certain, but I think the proximate cause of me doing this was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Back in high school, I was a big fan of the series, but there were already several things that bugged me about it, and one of them was language. The action of the series takes place on quite a large continent — the sort of place that takes months to ride across. Everybody on that continent speaks the same language, with a few minor cosmetic differences (Illianers do have a tendency to stick the word “do” in where it isn’t needed). I could swallow that — sort of — but then the Seanchan showed up: the descendants of people who sailed across the ocean more than a thousand years ago, and have only just now come back.

The effect of this millennium apart?

They speak with a “slurred accent.”

Even modern Icelandic, which is remarkably close to the Icelandic written a thousand years ago, has changed more than that. And that’s without the influence of a conquered native population, which can have some very interesting effects — presuming, of course, those people on the other side the ocean, with whom you have not been in contact for more than two thousand years, aren’t conveniently speaking the same language as the conquerors. Which in this case they were.

Because like so many fantasy worlds, the population of the Wheel of Time basically has two languages: Common and the Old Tongue. (With a bonus language for Trollocs, i.e. monsters.) Interestingly, this is both like and unlike Tolkien, to whom the genre owes so much. The good professor, of course, invented a number of languages for Middle Earth, complete with plausible sound changes to account for linguistic drift through the ages. But most of his attention went to the elves; when it comes to human languages, although he had ideas for a number of different tongues (and did a small amount of work developing a few of them), he mostly just skated by with Westron, the “Common Speech.” There may theoretically have been a Rohirric tongue and a Dalish one and so on, but when Bilbo got to Lake-town at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, he didn’t have any trouble talking to the people there. As in the Wheel of Time, everybody who needs to be able to talk to each other can.

The Wheel of Time wiki does a commendable job of trying to explain this consistency away, with much handwaving about literacy and the cyclical nature of the cosmos, but it doesn’t wash. That world has one universal language for the same reason as Middle Earth and practically everywhere else: because language barriers get in the way of story.

If the Seanchan couldn’t speak the same language as the Randlanders, 90% of the plots involving them couldn’t happen. They couldn’t explain that they were the descendants of Luthair Paendrag Hawkwing’s army; the psychological conditioning they use when enslaving magic-users would largely be useless; one of the main characters couldn’t have much of a romance with a leader of the invasion. And that’s just incorporating the most major and obvious division. If the Borderlanders spoke a different language from the people of Tear, if Taraboners and Cairhienin were mutually unintelligible . . . the world-spanning plot of this series would face a lot more problems.

But are those problems a bad thing? Language barriers get in the way of story, yes, but they also create it. The challenges of communication are fascinating in their own right. Think of the countless people who have served as interpreters through the ages: Sacagawea, La Malinche — heck, even C-3PO. Interpreters, standing in between as they do, occupy a fascinatingly conflicted space. Without interpreters, characters with no mutual language must communicate through gesture and body language. They can misunderstand one another, or achieve a rapport that transcends words. Language acquisition provides endless chances for mistakes, some of which might drive the story in very entertaining directions. You don’t have to spend story time on these things, of course . . . but I think the merits of doing so are under-rated.

And I suspect I know why. A great deal of modern commercial fantasy has been written by modern Americans, who are notoriously monolingual. I’ve studied five languages — seven if you count the pair I only studied for two weeks apiece — more if you count the ones I’ve dabbled in randomly without instruction. But I’m not fluent in any of them. For my fellow countrymen, who maybe had a year or two of Spanish or French in high school, the notion of speaking multiple languages is more magical than throwing fireballs. Language acquisition is a tougher mountain to scale than Everest. Much easier, really, to just handwave the whole thing and say everybody speaks the same tongue. (Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t have more magical solutions to the issue, a la the “universal translators” of science fiction.)

I wish there were more linguistic diversity in fantasy, though. It’s fun, and maybe it would convince some fantasy-reading Americans to pick up a second language — one that isn’t Klingon or Quenya.