Hook's picture
Hook May 12, 2014 - 7:41am

Curious about other's opinions on this.

Assuming that the story is written in English obviously =), what are your opinions about non-English words used in fantasy fiction?  I've recently found it somewhat awkward and jarring.  For example, I'm reading The Iron Jackal, which is light steampunk genre fiction, and the author has used "Touché" in dialogue, and sotto voce in a description.  Obviously English is derived from many other languages, but in these cases it seemed a bit more stark.

 

 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 12, 2014 - 8:27am

Is it alternate history or "pure" fantasy? Use of such words in the first might be less jarring. But yeah, if I were reading Tolkein-style fantasy and they were using real Latin phrases, it'd feel weird.

Hook's picture
Hook May 12, 2014 - 9:13am

no, this is pretty straight up pure fantasy/steampunk.  I've also encountered this in David Gemmell's stuff, e.g. there is one situation where (fantasy characters) they stumble upon some "Azteca" or something similar and they literally say "Hola"

 

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money May 12, 2014 - 12:06pm

Well, Gemmell is a somewhat special case because he uses a setting (at least in the Drenai saga) that is actually a future of modern earth. Everything that exists shows itself as a remnant of our familiar cultures. Somewhat the opposite of what Howard did with Conan. So when they've stumbled upon some "Azteca" and say "hola" it's because it is actually a remnant of those cultures. That is literally what is going on.

In general though, it can be very off-putting for cultural forces that influence our language to also influence fantasy settings where those cultures don't even exist. The problem is that often we have borrowed words from foreign languages to illustrate concepts that we don't have words for in english. Like touche'. Sure we can express that sentiment in a phrase or a full sentence, but we don't have an english word for touche'. So we adopted it. And it's been apart of English for over a hundred years, so on the whole readers accept it.

But there is a work around that you can use in fantasy settings (this works for sci-fi as well where this problem crops up) which is to study where that words comes from, what it means, and how it is used, and create a new idiom that fulfills that role. Touche' literally means touch. It comes from fencing, where a touch is a point and declaring 'touch' is a means of conceding a point to your opponent. We have adopted it to perform the same function in a new context (verbal sparring instead of swordplay) so you can just create a new word to perform that role.

One book that does this brilliantly is Neal Stephenson's Anathem, and if this subject interests you at all I cannot recommend this book enough. One of its primary plot points is built around how isolation and confluence each change culture in different ways, and the primary action takes place within a society of ascetics/scholars that isolate themselves from the world around them for years/decades/centuries/etc... at a time and one of the primary ways Stephenson shows these differences is through language and idiom. (Keep an eye out for philosophical ideas in sheep's clothing - such as how this society refers to its own version of Plato's Allegory of the Cave... since in Stephenson's story, Plato wasn't around to come up with it.)

But it is a delicate balance/choice. On the one hand, do you use language that is familiar and meaningful to your readers, even if it is not genuine to your setting (and therefore risk alienating those kinds of readers,) or do you create a new language that is appropriate to your setting, but is literally meaningless to your readers and requires extra thought to parse out what you are trying to say but can't because of your setting (and therefore risk alienating those kinds of readers.) And different readers and writers will fall on either side of that fence at various times. There's no right or wrong; it's a choice, with risks on either side.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 12, 2014 - 1:26pm

I'm of the mindset you should only do this if the character is running into someone who doesn't speak his language in the story. I read Anathem, and the only reason I was able to get through it was the fact I really love Stephenson's work.

Hook's picture
Hook May 12, 2014 - 1:28pm

"so you can just create a new word to perform that role."

Actually you can use what people use today, which is the phrase "point taken" =)

Not to derail, but I didn't realize the Drenai saga were a super far future earth (was it ever explicitly stated?)  I assume anything with omnipresent magic isn't a future earth unless explicitly stated.

 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 12, 2014 - 1:53pm

XyZy's always got the juice.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money May 13, 2014 - 1:36pm

Actually you can use what people use today, which is the phrase "point taken" =)

Absolutely, but the question then becomes where to draw that line. Because of English's hobbled-together nature, simply dividing out words by geography doesn't work: you can't even say "don't use french words in fantasy fiction" without using the french words fantasy and fiction... or even use. We'd have to cut out almost 75% of the language.

And while it's tempting to use chronology to draw that line, there comes a few problems with that as well. It's fine to say touche' has only been used in english for just over a hundred years, so that's why it still feels starkly foreign; perhaps the same for cafe' and aperitif... but what about picnic or restaurant? All of these have only been borrowed into english usage for just over a century, and some feel much more foreign than the others. Then some like sotto voce have been in english use for 300 years and still feel foreign while mutiny is also 300 years old and feels fine. Of course, all this also completely ignores actual english words that have become archaic and so feel foreign: wight (a person), eyne (plural of eye), lief (someone beloved). And also anachronistic words and phrases that are just as foreign to english by virtue of being so young: awolglitch, gentrify

So we're back to having to make choices between being true to the setting/characters (alienating some readers) or using approachable language that makes no sense in the setting (alienating others.) And maybe it feels as if I'm playing only to the extremes (and I certainly believe that good writing/reading finds a comfortable balance between the two) but when we're talking about fantasy settings where it's a conceit to even have english exist in the first place, we're already squabbling over technicalities to start excluding the other languages/cultures that english is derived from.

 

Not to derail, but I didn't realize the Drenai saga were a super far future earth (was it ever explicitly stated?) 

Explicitly Earth, yes. All of Gemmell's novels are set on Earth. Future, not explicitly, it could also be the super far past, but there's a lot to imply the future. The machines that make joinings, the silver egg and the temple, this passage from near the end of the series:

This is an old world we find ourselves in. It has been through many births and rebirths. Once there were cities, where buildings were so tall that clouds gathered around their summits. In that time, magic was commonplace--though it was not called magic. . . . . They built weapons so horrifying that they could devour whole cities and turn entire continents to ash. They poisoned the air, and poisoned the seas, and tore down the trees that keep the earth alive.

Plus all of the cultural correlatives; like the Nadir and Mongol.

I assume anything with omnipresent magic isn't a future earth unless explicitly stated.

And you're not alone in that. I'm sure that the majority of fantasy readers do the same thing, and I think Gemmell played on those expectations.

There is even a theory that all of the magic present in the series is actually reappropriated and misunderstood technology from a collapsed civilization (there's at least one running satellite still shooting energy down onto the surface of the planet)... but this is completely not explicit.

 

XyZy's always got the juice.

Well, I've certainly got something... I should probably go to a doctor to get it checked out.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 13, 2014 - 1:48pm

So we're back to having to make choices between being true to the setting/characters (alienating some readers) or using approachable language that makes no sense in the setting (alienating others.)

I disagree, wholeheartedly.  It is a choice between representing what the characters say well, and representing what they say poorly.  Unless we are specifically talking about a setting where the locals speak a version of English, everything you write is already a 'translation'.  Fantasy worlds, extreme far future, and so on.  If you throw in a word that just doesn't flow all you are doing is providing a poor translation.  

Hook's picture
Hook May 13, 2014 - 3:04pm

I am in awe of your recollection of the Drenai stuff, I only vaguely remember bits and pieces of it and it's only been a couple years since I read it.  I actually thought the Nadir/Mongol was lazy writing -- it's a pet peeve of mine when borderline racist stereotypes are just carried directly over into fantasy settings.

Anyway, I agree that it's hard to draw that line.  With verbiage "I know it when I see it", but even then there are things like the presence of, say, tobacco, which is clearly a New World plant.  And kangaroos are clearly Australian and I think readers would cry foul if there kangaroos and wallabies in a fantasy setting, but we have no problem accepting horses and wolves, mostly because of a strong European bias in fantasy settings that has been ingrained in most readers for decades.

I also agree with Dwayne that there is an implied translation occurring, so dropping in a straight French or Italian word is disjoint (which is why I created this thread!).  

It's also why I roll my eyes when there's a sudden need for Magi'cal Apo'stro-phens

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 13, 2014 - 4:20pm

I am okay with a word that has a whole new meaning, like muggle.

Hook's picture
Hook May 14, 2014 - 1:49pm

Just ran into another pet peeve -- puns and rhyming jokes in fantasy settings.  Again, for those to work, it's implied that they're speaking English.  I just read this exchange.

"Is that an eye?"

"Aye"

"Right, is it an eye?"

"AYE.  As in 'yes'"

(not a direct quote, but close enough)

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal May 14, 2014 - 2:28pm

I'd say making up your own language is better than using existing ones outside of English.

Also be careful of English words that might evoke thoughts of something in the real world, and it's tricky.  Someone pointed out once (don't remember who) that an ottoman you might get away with since we think of the furniture, not the empire... but foot stool is still likely better.  But I daresay a fleur de lis is a bad idea no matter what.  

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick May 15, 2014 - 5:57pm

For example, I'm reading The Iron Jackal, which is light steampunk genre fiction, and the author has used "Touché" in dialogue

@Hook, when you mean light, do you mean as in raitu noberu in the Japanese sense? 

Hook's picture
Hook May 16, 2014 - 5:15am

Natso,

Not quite, I just meant that it not particularly complex or deep.  It's pulpy genre fiction.