Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on "The Baggage of Language in Fantasy"

The topic of "Travelling Fantasy Round Table" this month centers on the use and misuse of language in fantasy. Here's my essay. Do check out the others!

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).

Photo by Paul (dex). Licensed under Creative Commons.

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