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We, the World Weavers

In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:

In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.

When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.

Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.

Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:

For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.

We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”

This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.

What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.

To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.

Sounding Out the Words

If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.

So, what to do?

Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.

Yeah, but what do their swear-words sound like?

Yeah, but what do their swear-words sound like?

The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.

As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.

But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?

This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ‘true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.

Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.