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  1. #1
    Start judging theWallflower's Avatar
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    Words That Pull You Out of a Fantasy Setting

    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. #2
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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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. #3
    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. #4
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theWallflower View Post
    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?
    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:

    Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
    The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
    And smale foweles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the nyght with open ye
    (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
    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 by KatG; August 7th, 2012 at 08:31 PM.

  5. #5
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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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. #6
    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. #7
    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. #8
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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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. #9
    aurea plectro goldhawk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theWallflower View Post
    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.
    And no English. What did the text say in the original language?

    Oh, that's right, it's all made up. Why can't you just assume it was translated into contemporary language and enjoy the story?

  10. #10
    Speaks fluent Bawehrf zachariah's Avatar
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    My personal taste-detectors agree that fantasy language is anything in your native tongue that could have been spoken and understood up to sometime in the mid 1800's. Once you start using slang and sentence formations from the modern industrial era, it's instantly jarring.

    Language is shaped by the culture of the day, so words and constructions born from the age of machinery, science and mass-production are anathema to the standard fantasy settings of agrarian economies and feudal politics.

  11. #11
    Speaks fluent Bawehrf zachariah's Avatar
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    Adding an important caveat: One of (or both) the author and the reader must be aware of the anachronisms and anatopisms for them to matter. It's a nice discussion for us would-be conscientious authors to fret over use of language, but if your readership doesn't bat an eyelid at a magic fairy princess in standard fantasyland setting saying something like:
    "Eww, gross! Do those horses, like, have to poop like that?"
    ...Then, really, it doesn't matter.

    Edited to add: New word for the day! Anatopism! Knowledge is power!
    Last edited by zachariah; August 12th, 2012 at 08:58 AM. Reason: Levels of correctness too low

  12. #12
    Another thing that really drives me up a wall is when I see a real deity's name mentioned in a story not set on Earth.

  13. #13
    Seeing Apollo in Star Trek worked for me the way the story was crafted.

    Also, seeing the Greek gods in Battlestar Galactica worked for me because, here again of the story. We learn at the end of the series the final resting place of Battlestar Galactica is Earth. They are our ancestors. Their culture became our culture.

  14. #14
    Is Winter Coming? R.J.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by theWallflower View Post
    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.
    But "heaven" is just another word/translation of "sky"
    (http://www.infidelguy.com/heaven_sky.htm)

  15. #15
    Ink-stained Wretch Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
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    I always take the stance that the book is being translated from the original language anyway, so there is a little latitude. For instance, words that have no direct translation but which refer to a person or a place. I'm not going to stop and describe the thing when I can bring the picture immediately into a reader's mind with one word.

    I used to obsess over words like earth but gave up. Dirt and soil don't have the same feel or the same nuances. Synonyms never mean exactly the same thing, so sometimes it's not appropriate for me to use one for the word I am struggling not to use.

    On the other hand, I avoid modern slang. The big problem with language that is too modern is that language shapes our thoughts and the cultures we live in shape our language. Modern language makes it very easy to make the mistake of giving characters thoughts and attitudes that they simply wouldn't have in the type of culture I have borrowed or created for them. So I try to think what attitudes each word I use betrays.

    I also find that there are some older words that simply don't have any equivalent. To substitute a more familiar word would be to lose a whole system of thought that surrounds the other. So I use the less familiar word, which many readers are going to know anyway, and figure the ones who don't can look it up in the dictionary. I have to use the word that fits, or I'm not telling the story as it should be told.

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