25 April 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table: Part 2: The Baggage of Language

Welcome to Part 2 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, a roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature! 

Today, Theresa Crater, Carole McDonnell, Warren Rochelle, Deborah J. Ross and Sylvia Kelso join me in discussing the baggage of language.

Andrea K Höst

One of the seminal essays dealing with language in fantasy is Ursula K Le Guin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie".  Le Guin examines a passage from a secondary world fantasy novel which, she notes, could very well depict politicians in Washington DC.  She suggests the problem is with the style, which does not transport the reader away from our world to a world of heroes and magic, but instead creates cardboard scenery, leaving the reader feeling cheated, as if they were promised another world, an Elfland, but travelled no further than Poughkeepsie.

Although few fantasy novels today resemble the master stylists Le Guin recommends, her point stands that a secondary world which sounds exactly the same as our world will ring untrue, and any writer venturing to create a whole new world needs to pay attention to language.

Stepping back from style to focus on word choice, we can look to the example set by Mary Robinette Kowal's regency fantasy Glamour in Glass, where Kowal pared her word use down to words which existed prior to 1815, creating an exceptional level of verisimilitude. 

For writers who create secondary worlds (instead of alt histories), the challenge is not dissimilar, for even though a truly secondary world novel would not employ a language of this world at all, terms which are particularly modern or wedded to a time and place on Earth will jar the reader – and thus most fantasy writers don't reference "freeways", or name cities New York or Mumbai.

But all words bring their own baggage, and you don't have to mention a warp drive to slingshot a reader to Poughkeepsie and beyond.  A word such as "okay", though debatably around since the 1800s, has a very modern feel which will not ring true when spoken by a Knight of the Round Table.  And certain words and phrases are so absolutely embedded in a real-world event that use of them is fraught with extra meaning.

One of my favourite phrase origin stories is that of "Sweet F.A.", which means "nothing at all".  It has a semi-modern feel and the common incorrect expansion of the phrase (sweet fuck all) would not feel too out of place in a hard-speaking warrior's mouth.  But "Sweet F.A." has its origin in 1867, when an eight year-old girl named Fanny Adams was murdered and dismembered.  With a turn for dark humour the Royal Navy began to refer to newly distributed tins of mutton as "Sweet Fanny Adams".  It is a phrase which means "worthless", "nothing", but it means that for very specific reasons.

A writer creating a secondary world, aware that our modern languages are not the language of that world, must pick and choose from broad vocabulary to eliminate terms which will throw the average reader out of the story, while accepting that the story is still being written in a modern language, because the reader is a modern reader.  Is it unreasonable, for instance, to say "Beowulf stood silhouetted in the mead-hall's doorway", even though 'silhouette' is derived from one Etienne de Silhouette, a French minister of the 1700s?

The word choice I struggle with most frequently is that of ranks and titles.  To neologise or not to neologise?  If you create a new hierarchy of titles for aristocracy, priests, or civil positions, the reader must learn a series of new words and their relationship to each other.  Kier, Kierash, Keridahl...they mean nothing to the reader, and an entire hierarchy of neologisms may swiftly lead to reader overload.  So why not fall back on Emperor, Crown Prince, Duke...?

There are two layers of meaning which come with most Earth hierarchies – an assumed culture, and gender issues.

I recently noted that I started placing guns (flintlock pistols) in my fantasy novels to signal to the reader that the book was not set in the middle ages.  Too often I have seen one of my stories described as "pseudo-medieval", even though the people in those stories clearly had far more education, upward mobility, and freedom to move about than those generally enjoyed under a feudal or manorial system, and usually a highly different relationship to God(s).  But clearly I had conjured an entire culture by the use of the word 'King'.  If I had used Shah, or Daimyo or Pharaoh I would conjure entirely different cultures – but none of those cultures would match the world I had created.

Most problematic of all is the baggage, the immense complexity, which comes with the use of the word "Queen".

There are very specific terms for different types of queens (helpfully provided by Wikipedia):
  • Queen regnant: a female monarch of equivalent power to a male king.
  • Queen consort: the wife of a reigning king.
  • Queen dowager: a former queen consort whose husband has died.
  • Queen mother: either a queen dowager, or a queen regnant who has abdicated, whose son or daughter has become the monarch.
If you look up "King" in Wikipedia, it redirects to "Monarch".  There is no "King widower" or "King regnant" or "King father".  King is a word which means "monarch".  Queen is a word which means "wife or mother", and only in the most exceptional of occasions "monarch".

Of all the words which have baggage in fantasy, rank carries one of the heaviest toll.  Baggage-free neologisms may be the better option after all.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.

Theresa Crater

“The Baggage of Language in Fantasy” is the topic this month, and my short answer to this dilemma is “that’s why I write urban fantasy.” But even then, problems arise. I like to explore alternative theories in my work, and people naturally bring their preconceptions and own certainties to the text.

My partner – now there’s a language problem for you. If I say “partner,” most people will think I mean I’m a lesbian and I’m referring to a woman. If I say “husband,” most people will think I’m 100% straight and we did a traditional marriage ceremony. If I say “domestic partner,” I sound like a social worker. I sometimes say “my guy,” which is quite ambiguous and sometimes causes confusion, but I sort of enjoy that.

Anyway, my partner is an Egyptologist, but not exactly. He came up with a new term. He says he’s created a new field, “Khemitology.” This is the study of pre-dynastic Egypt sort of. Or the study of Egypt as seen from an indigenous perspective, because his teacher was an indigenous elder of Egypt. His teacher claimed that Egyptology was created by the Greeks, who were imperialists, and as such didn’t get told the whole truth about the civilization they were dominating.

One of their ideas that I put into my first fantasy, Under the Stone Paw, was that the word “pharaoh” was a misunderstanding of the term “Per-Aa.” The Greeks, being patriarchal, assumed there were male rulers in Egypt, but Egypt was a matriarchy. (We could pause here and say this doesn’t mean that matriarchy is the reverse image of patriarchy, with women in charge and perpetrating whatever acts they wish upon men with no repercussions. But let’s not.) Descent was from mother to daughter. “Per-Aa” meant “the High House,” which was the woman’s house. The woman chose her consort to help her rule. He was perceived to be the king by the Greeks and the term “Per-Aa” became “pharaoh.”

How would you put this idea into action in fiction? You can’t have someone standing there explaining it. Who are they explaining it to? All the characters belong to that world and understand this as the basis of their reality. So in comes the stranger who needs things explained. Or the text just lives in this world and tells a story, but will the reader relate to and enjoy the story? It might take a while for the reader to acclimate. The Big Six publishers might not like that. They’re in Business. And not in the business of changing minds and hearts primarily. The book must make money first.

Avatar did something many other texts do, and here I’m thinking of some South African anti-apartheid films a few decades back that told the story of apartheid beginning with a naive white guy who had good intentions, but learned the nasty truth through a series of shocking (to the white guy) encounters. Avatar begins in a world familiar to the viewer, then slowly takes us into a foreign world. We learn that world through the character until we suddenly look back at that once familiar world and see . . . . Well, perhaps T.S. Eliot said it best: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  

Theresa Crater has published two contemporary fantasies, Beneath the Hallowed Hill & Under the Stone Paw and several short stories, most recently “White Moon” in Riding the Moon and “Bringing the Waters” in The Aether Age: Helios. She’s also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Colorado with her Egyptologist partner and their two cats. Visit her website at http://theresacrater.com.

Carole McDonnell

Recently, there was a bit of an uproar about the Hunger games. Apparently, many folks who had read the book were not aware that certain "dark-brown" characters were what we in the United States would call "a black person."

Words are a powerful thing.  I've had moments when I simply wanted to describe a character as a Native American or a Chinese person -- but such countries and groups did not exist in my story. I therefore had to use words such as "crescent-shaped eyes" (which only made a few people wonder if my characters were aliens.

But there are other issues besides physical descriptions of characters. I always seem to trip over what to call eating implements: Forks...meat spear? Pronged utensil?

Of course, Language can be revitalized in fantasy as well. We all know what a zombie does without calling them "zombies." Same for "vampires" and "witches." It's great using words in a new way. 'Friend age-long' for a best friend. 'Unfleshed ones for spirits.' By changing language, a Christian can do a lot with the idea of zombies versus Resurrection  -- true spiritual growth versus a spiritual legalism herd-mind. Or vampires and cannibals and the Christian idea of taking on the lifeforce of another. Or witchcraft and the spiritual power of words to curse or heal.

My biggest issue in fantasy is all the high english or high fantasy language. Noble folk should speak nobly, and poor uneducated folk should speak badly. But even if one creates a world without class distinctions, there will be different cultures who all  use different greetings, vocabulary, customs. Of course if the fantasy takes place in a world that is very like Europe, one can fall into the old patterns created by other fantasy authors. But how does one create a Native American fantasy language with a folkloric language when high fantasy Arthurian words are whispering in one's ear? And how does one get one's reader to understand the grammar, vocabulary, lingo, of the various non-European clans and castes one has created?

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Towerhttp://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/

Warren Rochelle

The problem or the question posed for this round is this: we write our fantasies in English—usually—and those words have their own history that does not—usually—match up with the history of our fantasy world. 

What does this mean? Does this refer to the language of magic? Or Elfspeak in some form or another? No, I don’t think so. Rather, that by using English to write stories set in worlds which cannot possibly be using English—words particular to the Anglophone world, with their etymologies, words that are charged and layered with meaning and history—we cannot possibly match the world we have imagined. This means that on some level the created fantasies cannot be truly described or expressed. Our language must invariably fall short of the fantasy we have imagined.

Give up in despair, go home? Contemplate the wasted years spent on this stuff?

No, because this is always the case when one is trying to tell a story in words, to write down the dream. The idea—the dream—the vision—must be translated into a narrative through language. We can only retrieve an approximation of that dream, a suggestion of the vision, the idea, no matter what genre. The task becomes one of process and an approximation of a product. The added element of the fantastic would, it seems, push this approximation even farther away from vision and dream. The other world of fantasy is at even farther remove than that of the mainstream writer of fiction.
Back to going home, deleting that file?

A solution that I have tried (although solution doesn’t seem to be the right word—we are not going to stop writing just because writing is more process than product) is to set my fantasies here, in the world in which I and my readers live, albeit a skewed, peripheral distortion of said world. My goal is to weave the fantastic into the reader’s world—whether that world is North Carolina, particularly the central Triangle region in which I grew up—or another real-world locale.  This is the vision I am trying to capture and express and tell my story—currently in Richmond, Virginia, and various places in England. So far.

But, the created worlds of any writer is a personal vision, whether it is North Carolina or Virginia, North Queensland, or Prydain/Wales, or the world behind the walls where Mary Norton’s Borrowers live, or something far more divorced from primary reality, such as George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms.

I think a more hopeful way to approach this question of the gap between the language employed by the writer to describe a world which has no connection to this language is metaphor and symbol and myth. Language is inherently metaphoric and symbolic and the created world of the fantastic is, more often than not, a metaphor, a symbol, of the world of the writer and the reader. And it is the reader we want to connect to with our fantastic vision and so we use their metaphors, their symbols. We want them to glimpse our dream and the language of metaphor is the common ground for this glimpsing.

This may be easier when the writer, as I do, employs the stuff of his or her world. Perhaps.  The writer is still speaking in metaphor and is still describing a vision, regardless of the distance between the writer and the imagined world. The stuff of the dream is still inherent in the language weaving the tale. And that dream, its people, its places, is still made out of the writer’s stuff, as it were.

But the gap remains.

Perhaps the gap should be there, as long as one is mindful of it, and if one remembers it is the process, the telling, that matters. It is the process that casts the spell, that allows the reader to make his or her way into to the product of the fantastic world, world, if created successfully, is there before the reader arrives, and will be there when the reader leaves—an ongoing world revealed in metaphor and symbol, glimpsed in words.

Mind the gap. Enter the dream. Write.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010). He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.  http://warrenrochelle.com

Deborah J Ross

This topic brings two things to mind. One is the level of diction in fantasy prose, the other the role of language and languages in fantasy stories.

Once upon a time – and you see right away that this phrase conveys a host of expectations about what follows – “fantasy” conveyed images of far-off lands, usually exotic, times-gone-by, and heroes of courage, dignity, and high rank. Whether fairy tales for children or the Arthurian cycle, these stories often (although not always) centered around royal or at least aristocratic characters. Even those who weren’t (the poor woodcutter, the third son off to make his fortune) partook of the same elevated language. The works of E. R. Eddison and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did much to cement this association in the mind of the reader.

The subsequent explosion of Tolkienesque fantasy stories varied tremendously in the skillfulness with which prose language was handled. We can undoubtedly all come up with examples of laughably inept examples that stem from lack of research or incomplete understanding of diction.

Almost in reaction to the “high-falutin’” language of kings and elves, the “cozy hedge-witch fantasy” introduced contemporary slang (and social attitudes) into medieval and other “fantastical” settings. Again, the results ranged from fresh and innovative to awkward to inadvertently hilarious. Many of these represented attempts to reconcile fantasy elements (including what was regarded as the necessary pre-industrialized setting) with “the way people really talk.” The style of narration had shifted from omniscient to tight-third person (or first person), and this required that the diction level in exposition be roughly equivalent to that of dialog and internal monolog.

Finally, as fantasy expanded into properly contemporary urban settings, prose language and setting regained a measure of congruence. The language itself became as modern as the surroundings.

For most of us, the way people spoke three or five hundred or two thousand years ago might as well be a foreign language. We have to take classes in order to properly understand any writer before Shakespeare (and most of us need a “Reader’s Guide” to Will). With the exception of literature classes on Middle English, Chaucer gets read in translation. So those of us who are not linguists approach creating the “elevated” language of high fantasy with several handicap. If we’ve grown up in a single-language community (or worse yet, a single-class community), we’ve never had the direct experience of the interactions of culture, language, attitude, and personality, or of public versus private languages, or of separate men’s and women’s languages (although one could argue the latter does exist in English). We have to stop and think about how people who speak different languages learn to communicate – sign language? Translators? Trade dialects? Telepathy? How does a long-established, stable mutual-language/translation convention differ from those that have come before? What are the cultural assumptions that come with each language and each social class within that language-culture? What are the occasions for misunderstanding and what are the consequences? I find these questions fascinating in themselves, but also fertile ground for exploring character, culture, and conflict (not to mention alliteration). Fascinating in themselves, but also fertile ground for exploring character, culture, and conflict (not to mention alliteration).

Deborah J Ross began writing professionally in 1982 as Deborah Wheeler with JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, and short stories in ASIMOV'S, F & SF, REALMS OF FANTASY and STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA'S PALACE. Now under her birth name, Ross, she is continuing the" Darkover" series of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as well as original work, including the fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD. She is a member of Book View Cafe. She has lived in France, worked for a cardiologist, studied Hebrew, yoga and kung fu, and is active in the local Jewish and Quaker communities.

Sylvia Kelso

Time was, everything appearing on the SF and Fantasy bookshop shelf (ah, those pre-Kindle days!) could have been assessed against Ursula Le Guin’s ukases in her now famous 1973 essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”


"Many readers, many critics and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake ... The style, of course is the book...”

"Why is style of such fundamental significance in a fantasy?... In fantasy there is … no borrowed reality of history, or current events... There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response... There is only a construct built in a void, where every joint and seam and nail is exposed...”

As exemplar,  Le Guin did a masterly hatchet job on one unfortunate fantasy writer of the early ‘70s whose language could not move from the Poughkeepsie of a contemporary political or spy story to the rarefied air of Elfland.

Le Guin charted a number of the traps, now listed all over the Web, that await young players attempting such Elsewhereness. Archaisms the writer can’t handle, esp. the old second and 3rd person singular verbs (I just found a current blog purporting to speak for Chaucer and using 3rd singular for an imperative.) Exotic but evanescent oaths and ditto gods. The Dreaded X-Y-Z-apostrophe invented-word: Xard’ril the Warrior (Princess?). Yarrin the Village. Zal’ope the God of  Small Things.  (Many others are pilloried in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to (High) Fantasyland.)

(At this point, please note, I am now using Elfland as a metonym for Elsewhere – elves are optional, but a successful fantasy must still transcend Here.)

Le Guin did cite two master stylists whose passports to Elfland were secure: Tolkien and E. R. Edison. The latter, I have seen dismissed recently for “too elaborate language,” and the other is probably going the same way,  but everything Le Guin found in them is still true. The fantasy she wrote about does demand language from Elsewhere, it goes best with a real stylist, and, as Le Guin also wrote,

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."
Except, nowadays, most of what’s sold as fantasy isn’t high fantasy.

So, does it need a master stylist to reach Elfland if you aren’t producing a secondary world, a “construct in a void” totally reliant on your language skills? Can you even see Elfland from the streets of a contemporary urban fantasy, even one as sharp as Katharine Kerr’s License to Ensorcell series? Or have Stephanie Meyer and Peter Jackson’s hairdressers overloaded the genre with tall pale handsome men who either glitter or carry FAR too much hair?

And if you can’t see Elfland, is the language to blame?

It’s certainly easier for the less-skilled writer to handle characters with “realist” names and venues he or she may walk through daily. But it’s also harder. Because how do you invest these places and people with “the air of Numenor?” How do you get Elfland to happen, right here?

It can be done. Peter Beagle’s The Folk of the Air transformed parts of San Francisco with no more than some SCA players, a goddess, a witch, and some time travel, but Peter Beagle, like Tolkien, is a stylist par excellence. I have to admit that it doesn’t happen for me in most current urban fantasies, where the Otherworld element either has really dorky names, or appears so mundane I feel I’m in The Gated Hell Community or Vampire Suburbia. These are Elvenlords. These are vampires. They are not the Guyz Next Door. They are danger, REAL danger, they carry the scent of Elsewhere. They should raise your neck hair, not your fashion sense.

So, yes, language in fantasy does still matter. For this reader there is no substitute for a word-smith, whether in modern San Francisco or beyond a helpful wardrobe. The old traps still pertain, and so do the old demands. By the end, as Le Guin stipulated, a “real” fantasy novel, high or contemporary, will have to deal successfully with archetypes. And hence it will need to be, “a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is.” And ‘’[l]ike psychoanalysis, … it will change you."

I don’t know that huge numbers of the contemporary fantasy and paranormal romance market will reach that last criterion. It will be the language that does it, if they do.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.

That's it for this month's Travelling Round Table!  Feel free to join in the discussion in the comments.


  1. oh my gosh..sylvia's comments cracked me up. woman, i didn't know you had such a great sense of humor. oh, okay..i suspected you had a great sense of humor.

  2. Why _is_ it that apostrophes are so numinous, so capable of conjuring other worlds...?

  3. Snicker, C. Glad I cracked someone up. Didn't intend it to be funny till I finished the draft, then thought, Whatthehell. It's all joky, let's run with it.
    Poyssonally, I think apostrophes (used to) be numinous, or maybe, just signalled Elsewhere, because we dunt use them in proper names in English. So they look(ed) exotic. "Native" or something. (Of course, nowadays they get used all over the place, and especially where they shdn't be, dammit.)

  4. A gated community of apostrophied beings. Let's see now . . . :)

  5. Nowadays that wd. be "a gated community of apostrophed being's..."

    Otherwise known as A'shtaroth C'entral?

  6. Why go somewhere else when you’ve got such a beautiful blog right in front of you.

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