Words That Pull You Out of a Fantasy Setting

Discussion in 'Writing' started by theWallflower, Aug 7, 2012.

  1. theWallflower

    theWallflower Start judging

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    There are a lot of basic, common words that don't fit in a non-Earth setting. For example, I had one character say "the heavens", just referring to up. Well, this is an alternate world. There's no bible, there's no Jesus, there's no angels, there's no Judeo-Christian God. So there's no such concept as heaven.

    Or if you've got a character who's paralyzed who's in kind of a steampunk wheelchair. Except, would they use the word 'wheelchair'? It seems like that's culturally dependent.

    And then I heard that Mary Robinette Kowal made a custom dictionary out of all of Jane Austen's writing for her regency novels, to make sure she didn't use a word that was out of place.

    So my question is, hasn't anyone ever done this for medieval fantasy? Seems like it's a no-brainer, with some constant mistakes writers do. Or at least, maybe we can crowd-source a list?
     
  2. Window Bar

    Window Bar We Read for Light

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    Hiya Wallflower--

    Your topic is a good one--still, I'm a bit skeptical that anyone could come up with an exhaustive dictionary that would include all the no-no's. Vigilance is probably our best defense. We must do our best to keep our language consistent with the time, the place and the reality (feigned or actual) in which our stories are placed.

    Your question elicits yet another endorsement (by me) of the whole concept of using an editor, professional if possible. As with all errors, errors of this nature will be simpler for an outsider to catch.

    Best to you -- WB
     
  3. Modern Day Myth

    Modern Day Myth Registered User

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    There are times when it is done as a shortcut to use what the general public is already familiar with, rather than spending the time to create all new words and ways of a society.
     
  4. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    You seem to be laboring under a misunderstanding here -- Christians did not invent the word "heaven." The exact word/spelling is medieval English from the word heven, which then comes from root words from early Germanic. The concept of heaven has been a major concept of most religions and major cultures for a very long time, although the concept does vary in exact nature. In many languages, the word that means heaven is also the same word for sky. This is not only because it was logical for cultures to imagine that a god or gods resided above the Earth in the sky, but because the "heavens" literally does mean the sky and what's in it -- sun, moon, stars, clouds, etc., and heavens is used that way in the Christian Bible as well. The ancient Chinese had a slightly different take: tianxia means "under heaven" and basically includes the sky and what's in it, but also the whole world and the metaphysical afterlife realm where the ancestors reside and join the gods. The Emperor was then called the Son of Heaven, a phrase you may have heard before. (Liz Williams has done a wonderful series, the Inspector Chen stories that take place on a slightly futuristic, alternate Earth and are worth checking out for those interested in Chinese myths and the myths of other cultures as well, such as Hindu myth.) So it doesn't particularly matter if your secondary world has a Jesus or not; if they call a dog a dog and a tree a tree, they could certainly use heavens to refer to the sky above and/or an afterlife with the gods.

    Likewise, wheelchairs were also used in ancient China (though they were more carts than straight chairs,) and in Renaissance Europe, they were used and called invalid chairs. In the 1700's, a type was invented called a Bath chair, named after the English town of Bath and the word wheelchair was used. Certainly by the 1800's and Victorian times (steampunk's favorite era,) wheelchairs were perfectly normal and called wheelchairs. But if you wanted, you can call them invalid chairs or whatever you want.

    Because that's the point about a secondary world -- it isn't Earth. If you have a culture that is medieval-like, i.e. pre-industrial, borrowing some concepts like knights or swords from our actual Earth, that does not require you to rigidly follow medieval culture, to say, pick a particular decade in the 11th century or the 14th century and stick to it like glue, so that you are simply repeating Earth's history. The entire notion of steampunk is that things that did not exist in pre-industrial or early post-industrial societies, such as the Victorians -- robots, motorcars, ray guns -- somehow in the story do exist. Obviously, there has to be a logic to it -- having bales of hay when baling machines or equivalent have not yet been invented in your world doesn't make a great deal of sense, though it has been done and probably was largely unnoticed by many. And Tolkien very famously in Lord of the Rings used train imagery once in a world that had no trains and nobody editing the book caught it. But beyond such issues you certainly don't have to worry about the etymology of every word. And if you are worried about a particular word, the Web takes about thirty seconds to find the info for you. Or you can go old school and use a print dictionary. I myself have a dictionary of slang that I just had to buy -- any phrase I'm wondering where and when it came from, likely to be in there except for the most recent.

    Mary Robinette Kowal is doing something different. She is writing historical fantasy set on an alternate Earth in Regency England. The series is a homage to Jane Austen. So it is logical for her to do a lot of research to try and get the Regency period -- though alternate and thus having some flexibility -- as on the money as possible. And if you really want to do a secondary world that is nearly identical to an Earth historical period, then obviously research to try and get terms in the right ballpark is a good idea. But the reality is that in medieval times, people talked a variety of English that used words different from our own modern English version. You could try it out, but it might be hard to read over the course of a novel. Here are some lines from Geoffrey Chaucer of that time period:

    It's lovely prose and we can follow most of it without an interpreter. It's even a possibly fun technique -- and I believe Kowal used some Regency spellings too -- to use some of the words as the way things are called in your secondary world -- licour instead of liquor, etc. If the UK and Canada can have colour and the U.S. can drop the "u" for color, is it really that big a deal?

    Whatever you do, whatever word you go with, someone with more knowledge than you will point out that in your secondary world, the characters draw the water from the left side of the well, but in the real Middle Ages, they always drew from the right side, so it's wrong, or something like that. So, get period details right and words right if you want them right and if you need them that way. I would suggest you look for what works for your story and then settle on the way that you are comfortable calling it.
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2012
  5. RedMage

    RedMage It's not over now

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    I don't use the word "earth" as a synonym for dirt or ground in a secondary world fantasy. If the planet is not named Earth, then the people of that planet do not have that word in their vocabulary. So I don't use it. This goes for other words I feel to be similar. (I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I wouldn't use them if the culture/world/characters wouldn't know the word.)

    Otherwise I use words that are period appropriate to the story I am writing. One of my current fantasy stories is set in 1928-1929. For that story I won't be using words like "Cool" or "Dude" and probably note "Sweet". I plan for my characters to be quite a bit more firm in the meaning of the words they choose to use as opposed to the loose vocabulary of modern American culture. I say this because I can definitely see myself making a dictionary for this story. Not so much for words I will use but, instead, for words I will not use.

    If you want to check the etymology (history) of a word I found an excellent website at Online Etymology Dictionary. You might look at it or other similar resources if you have concerns about a particular word.

    But I do think the idea of composing a list of words used and not used in any particular period to be interesting. It would have to be period based though and not a genre specific list. A genre list has the problem of too many time periods. Because, really, secondary world fantasies can be set in any time period.
     
  6. Igor

    Igor Ze vriter

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    None really. I perceive words/language as a way of communicating a foreign/alien/invented world and culture and whatever, not as a direct representation of what they stand for. Like the use of the word human. Can you use it describe people in a world with monsters and magic? No, because humans live here, on this planet, without monsters and magic. So even the most basic words like man, woman lose their meaning. But everyone does that, because you need the connection to our world.

    Or if you have adamantium, this means a whole different world of chemistry and physics, so maybe water is not really water? Since there are no rules to how you build fantasy worlds, there is no reason why there should be any rules what language/tools/things you use, because anything is allowed. If you can have dragons, why not the use of phrases like okay, cool or legit? Or anything that comes to mind?

    Igor
     
  7. InfinityKgt

    InfinityKgt Newbie

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    One thing i look for is the usage and style of cursing in dialogue and the characters thoughts. Perhaps that alludes to my rough tongue, but i think the cursing in a book can make or break it. To me, an entire novel with no cursing is just dry. Using common four letter expletives just does not fit with traditional fantasy settings. How the author overcomes this can be interesting. Some make up their own, and some just borrow from other cultures. (usage of British words by an American author) The British curse words seem to sound less harsh and more old world to most Americans but i would imagine that somebody from GB has a different view. (if your that person then do tell because i would be very interested in hearing it) Some of the novel specific curse words can be either comical or just distracting by comparison.
     
  8. N. E. White

    N. E. White tmso Staff Member

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    Cursing is fine for my in fantasy or sci/fi.

    For fantasy settings, it is hard to predict what throws me out of a story. I once read something that mentioned 'sage' in terms of describing the scrubby brush on a plain. It totally threw me. The author mentioned horses before that, and that didn't bug me (though should have), but that specific plant did. Not sure why.
     
  9. assasin

    assasin Registered User

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    Well you could always use the logical excuse that secondary world fantasy characters wouldn't know english at all and the author is "translating" the words that would have been used into common english. Having characters randomly know english at all makes a lot less sense than having characters randomly know word in english [which logically they shouldn't know at all] which doesn't fit with some abitrary etymology.


    If I was an author and soemone asked why my secondary world had damascus steel [named after the city of damascus, I believe], I'd say there were a group of dwarves who worshipped the god damask.

    Still, I'll admit seeing MOLE cricket in shadows of the apt did throw me off a bit. There's still logic behind it.
     
  10. RedMage

    RedMage It's not over now

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    Actually, damask is a kind of cloth. Like Damascus steel, it too came from the city of Damascus in modern Syria. And both were terms that came into usage in Medieval Europe to describe that those things came from Damascus. And as the Arab culture and its artisans of that time were far and above those of their European counterparts, it was significant enough to call the items by those names.

    For me the use of either "damask" or "Damascus steel" in a secondary world that does not have a city of Damascus would completely throw me out of the story. However, I cannot for the life of me understand why the word "sage" would throw TMSO out of a story with horses on the plains.
     
  11. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    Anything that sounds like it come from too far in the future or too far in the past. That said I would love it if people still spoke in old English. I do not oppose people speaking in an older fashion in the modern era. Though if I'm reading a story set in the bronze age and someone says "Whoa dude that was gangsta!" that would ruin it for me.
     
  12. assasin

    assasin Registered User

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    And of course secondary worlds like middle earth and westeros don't include syria. So the use of the dwarf god would be the etymology of the term in the secondary world where Syria doesn't exist. I chose the word damask as a name becuase I like it. I wouldn't see a problem in using it. But if there is one another word similiar to damascus could be made up.
     
  13. RedMage

    RedMage It's not over now

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    Ok Assasin, I'll give you that. Just as long as you make it make sense in your story. I did theatre all through my high school years and that is where I first learned about damask cloth and, then, Damascus steel from our Shakespearean unit as well as the Louis L'Amour book The Walking Drum which I was reading at the time--one of my favorite books from my teenage years. So, for me, that exact reference would throw me out of your secondary world fantasy. But, for many people, it might not. So ok. But make it make sense in your world.
     
  14. Triceratops

    Triceratops Browser

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    Any mention of current copyrighted or patented objects in the storyline are very likely to pull me out of the world. Also, cliche sayings or present day slang.

    chris
     
  15. CMTheAuthor

    CMTheAuthor Life is fantastic, yes?

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    There is a point where trying too hard to avoid using modern language does become detrimental though. For example, take...a sandwich. Historically, sandwiches have only ever gone by one other name, that being "bread and meat".

    If you are trying to be linguistically accurate, you can't use sandwich, because Sandwich (or the Earl thereof) never existed in your fictional world. And you run into problems with "bread and meat", because the phrase is broad enough that your average reader could read that any number of ways, unless you made it very clear what you were depicting. Also, that's assuming you're talking about a sandwich with actual meat. If not, tough luck. :p

    Me, I'd rather just use the word sandwich. Readers will get it, and it allows me to avoid having to jump through writing hoops to clarify what it is my characters are eating. While I obviously wouldn't even mention things that don't exist, if it does in my fictional world, I see no problem calling it by the modern name.
     
  16. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    Oh I totally get it -- sage brings to mind sage brush which makes you think of desert Westerns which aren't medieval. Which is why writers can't worry about stuff like that. Readers can get pulled out for all sorts of reasons. Mostly, it's because they're not that interested in the particular story, so the brain picks on other things.

    If you have a story set in a sec world that is like ancient Rome and the character goes "Dude, you are so gangsta" that's not necessarily a problem. In comic fantasy, the contrast of a period that resembles Earth contrasted with modern language is often a deliberate part of the humor. Another use is to give a story a certain tone -- the characters in a medieval world talk like they're Vietnam War soldiers (Black Company,) etc. on purpose to give the characters, the world and the narrative a certain sound. Because it's not Earth. Writers doing secondary worlds blend cultures and things from different time periods. You can literally not have an anachronism in a secondary world. Anything is kosher. Whether it will be engaging to you is another issue.

    That being said, a database of medieval words and terms can only be useful. Even if you're writing a contemporary fantasy, it could be useful as medieval issues may come up. So I think a database is a great idea -- it always amazes me what people here know, like say the origins of the word damask -- but there is a lot of research material already out there on the Web and through libraries. Everything is fodder in fiction, especially SFFH.
     
  17. N. E. White

    N. E. White tmso Staff Member

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    That could be it. For whatever reason, my mind said it didn't fit and I think that's it. And it kind of dovetails into your next point - I was bored. The author was describing the landscape one of the protags was traveling through and I just wanted him to get to where he was going (where the important stuff was going to happen), and the fact that there was sage brush had nothing to do with the story. Cut!
     
  18. RedMage

    RedMage It's not over now

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    Creating a database does sound like a fun project. Though, from what we've discussed already here, I am not sure what would be incorporated. Would such a database be like those lists of Shakespearean Insults, ie just a database of common words used at this time, or in by this popular and influential author author but which are no longer used much? Because making a database of words that simply "pull you out" of the story is not going to be helpful. Getting pulled out of the story is entirely too subjective. I think such a database would have be focused on keeping the world as true as possible so as to heighten the reader's experience of created world and to minimize his/her chance of getting pulled out. And, of course, databases already exist. Though when I search for them online I often find them to be disappointingly brief.
     
  19. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    Except of course that sage and sage brush aren't the same plant. Sage is part of the salvia family, an ancient evergreen herb native to the Mediterranean and perfectly appropriate to a medieval European milieu. Sage brush is part of the artemisia family, an aromatic shrub native to North American desert climes and used as an ancient medicine by Amerindians.

    But that's the deal with words. It was perfectly understandable that Wallflower thought Christians had invented the word heaven and that it related only to Jesus. It was perfectly logical that the association with the word sage in a landscape was on your mind and distracted you, because two different plants were given the same word as their name. One of the reasons English drives non-English speakers crazy is that it isn't at all rigid and words have multiple meanings, multiple spellings, etc. We don't know the etymology of many words or have unclear notions of where they came from.

    It really does depend on what you want to do. If you want to present something very in line with a medieval country, then researching what you can is a good idea. If you're borrowing, then the hope is that how you use it will interest a majority of readers. Even if you're not doing secondary world fantasy, this can be the case because you aren't necessarily doing the actual historical mythology in an historical or contemporary fantasy, but your version which changes things. The response to "you can't do this" for authors is always "yes, I can." Whether it will work for a reader depends on the reader.
     
  20. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

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    I concur. Decide what your level is going to be, and stick to it. Will you not use sardonic (from Sardinia, in a roundabout way)? Or lunacy (named after our moon rather than someone else's)? What about Greek or Latin based words (heliotrope, after helios, the Greek personification of the sun) if there has been no Rome or ancient Greece? Or are you just translating, in which case, all bets are off?

    The level that rips me out of the story depends on how the world has been constructed - I can live with some of this if the world in constructed in such a way it makes sense - in other books, where it does not make sense, I get ripped out. That level will be different for other people (I've seen people complain about all the above for instance, and what about other anachronisms? Tolkien's steam train for instance? Man, I've seen people *debate* that one for hours)

    Decide what you are comfortable with, and how it fits in your world. Consider things. Realising that it can be problematic on occasion means you're half way there. And ofc, the more people are enjoying your story the less they usually worry about this kind of stuff. If the story bores them, they'll nit pick everything.

    So, just be consistent.