11 February 2011

Word v Word(ess)

When I build a world, it's rare for me not to thrust aside the common pattern of social development and make the equality of women both established and unquestioned. It's simply more interesting for me to start from that point, to shift the focus of my female characters away from struggling for acknowledgement due to gender, and firmly on whatever else I want to make them struggle for.

This, however, leads me to some tricky situations with word choice. In "Champion of the Rose", Darest is founded by a woman, and the land was the gift of a woman. Yet I chose to refer to it as a kingdom. It's ruled, depending on the gender of the ruler, by a King or a Queen, with 'queen' used here strictly as 'female ruler', not 'spouse of ruler'. Anyone who marries the ruler is a Royal Consort.

Every time I create a world, and think over the political structure, I come up against this question: are the titles gendered? And given that I have no intention of building a history of gender inequality in the social structure, why are they gendered?

The answer is almost always reader convenience. I can certainly make up a different word than kingdom (kiereddas), and a neutral word for ruler (kier), and for all titles down to a neutral version of lord (keris). And I've done that: those examples are from "Medair". And then the reader gets to learn them all.

I am relatively sparing with my neologisms. I use them for certain jobs, or animals, or concepts which don't have a near-enough equivalent in English. Occasionally I'll add them for colour, or when the story calls for them, as with Medair and the system of power which replaced her own. And every time I use 'kingdom' when I mean 'land politically aligned as a monarchy' I weigh up the benefits of calling it a 'morael' or an 'arenses' or whatever string of syllables occurs to me. And then, usually, I grit my teeth and use the easier, if slightly wrong word.

My current work is rife with neologisms, to the point where I'm adding a glossary. It's fun to make up words which don't carry with them the implicit structure that these things are male, and that a modifier needs to be added to indicate a female in that position. But I suspect that the next time I build a new world, convenience will trump correctness yet again.


  1. I think that most fantasy readers are completely open to new terms and roles, as long as the meaning is sufficiently clear. I, at least, usually welcome them as refreshing; they make each world feel unique.

    I only have a problem with them when it seems that the author went out of their way to find the most unpronounceable combination of syllables possible. Since they took the time to look for a genre neutral—or whatever other reason—alternative, why not choose one that doesn't require your tongue to do a 540 jump inside your mouth?

    But that's a rather minor complain, and easily avoidable. So, I'm voting for correctness.

  2. I guess it's not so much believing the reader is open to the terms, as how many terms I want to lay on the reader.

    Word choice in fantasy is tricky in so many ways, from the 'calling a rabbit a snerk' question to the 'Elfland to Poughkeepsie' issue.


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