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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Personally, if it is done well, I don't need to see a fantasy book written in Shakespearean or contemporary language.  But, if it is done poorly, I would rather the speech and narration reflect the comparable time period's choice of dialect and language. 

I understand that Tolkien set a precedent for fantasy that is hard to break out of, but I wonder why a fantasy world's language could not be written as though it were from Early America or from some other country instead of pseudo-medieval England. 

So, the question is: Should the narration and dialog (particularly the dialog) of a fantasy novel ALWAYS read like someone from the period between the 1600-1800's England wrote it?  Or does the use of more or less contemporary language throw people?  Can anyone give examples either way?  I'm interested.   

I am not talking about using inappropriate slang, etc. like "'sup dude," or anything like that.  I will put aside a book for inappropriate slang coming into a Fantasy.  But I'll discuss that too, I guess: what's appropriate and what's not.   
 

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Actually, I think seeing a fantasy written with expressions like "sup, dude", or entirely in contemporary language, would be interesting.  Fantasy is a world we create... who's to say that world didn't evolve those expressions?  And for fantasy with something other than old English, try Stephen King's Dark Tower books.  The language of the fantasy world is... robust, depending on who's speaking, and what "mode" they're speaking in.  Formal sound like old European English.  Casual sounds contemporary, but somewhat formal for modern speech.  And there are any number of dialects.  He keeps it mostly consistent within characters, though.

That's the only complaint I have, when the language is inconsistent.  If you create the setting and people use a more archaic tone, or even give your characters accents or dialects that are based in, or reminiscent of, a specific place, then be consistent in that dialect.  "Dad" didn't exist as a term for father in medieval Europe.  "Father", or depending on the area, "Da" or even "Pap", but not "Dad".  "Kid" doesn't feel right as a reference to a child or young person in that setting.  "Buddy" feels totally off when referring to a friend.  The same goes for expressions like "take a look at this", or "check this out", or "stick with it".  Or even some of our contemporary swear words.  If someone uses language or dialect to create a feeling or a setting, I just want them to "stick with it".  :D

And to answer your original question, I think the reason that medieval-sounding English is often chosen for the fantasy worlds is because that's the time period and region in which you were likely to find knights on horseback, peasants, swordsmen, kings, and folks claiming to be wizards.  That's what people think of when they think swords and sorcery.

All that being said... I would love to see someone break out of that mold, and I'm actually working on a project now that sort of does.  Swords and sorcery and six guns, basically.  If it turns out well, I might publish it... if it doesn't, it goes in the trunk.  ;)
 
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I buy speculative fiction for the world building.  I find lapsing into a dialect borrowed from another time or place rather than putting time in to create something unique to the story lazy and trite.

*shrug*

Write me dialogue that makes me want to buy a ticket to wherever your characters are.
 

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I think the reason why so many choose that sort of language is go hand in hand with the weapons so often favored in fantasy: swords.  There's a very thin grey line the author has to tread.  What would happen if you made a contemporary fantasy or even a futuristic fantasy with dialog to match?  Then you would head into science fiction territory.

Ok, so you don't want to write science fiction, you want fantasy! Your options are to make a new dialect entirely or mimic the speech patterns of the past.  New dialects are tough.

With this in mind, any one of the languages of the past are up for grabs.  But considering that a lot of the plot elements in fantasy are drawn from western European culture, it's no surprise as to the choice most authors make. 
 

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Are there modern fantasy writers using such language?

I'm not doubting, just saying I've not noticed a trend here, but maybe I'm out of the loop or have missed something. Most of the fantasy I've read over the last several years has been written in a straight-forward, modern approach that has not fallen back on modern slang. Steven Erikson comes to mind.

Now over the years I've noted plenty of older, passed writers who had done such. Bob Howard did quite frequently, for example.
 

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I think Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's series (two series now) counts as a contemporary example of what I, at any rate, would qualify (to a good degree) as that type of "fantasy language."

Kushiel's Dart Excerpt

She is my favorite contemporary author, I think. With that as my favorite contemporary book. And I didn't read a lot of specifically "fantasy" novels before reading this. Now, she's one of the author's whose books I can't pass up. Even when it's not my favorite, her books don't disappoint me.

But that's just my opinion. Sorry for gushing, and thus, straying from topic.

To be on topic, using that excerpt as an example, would you agree that the language falls under the paradigm of what you were describing?
 

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GRRM seems to have gotten the balance right with Game of Thrones.  Tamora Pierce with the Beka Cooper books also, the dialogue is a joy to read--lots of slang and unusual grammar but the meaning is always clear.  Although I'm not sure if I'd call it 'fantasy', the language in Watership Down is also excellent, it's amazing how quickly you pick up all the special little rabbit words, which of course leads to the fantastic bit near the end where the author throws an untranslated sentence at you and it's totally understandable and completely awesome.

On the other hand, not many writers are GRRM or Tamora Pierce or Richard Adams.  In general, I prefer it when authors don't try to sound all olde timey because to be honest not many are capable of pulling it off, and there are only so many "what ho!"s a body can stand before it all gets to be a little much.  With fantasy I want what I want from any genre; interesting characters talking about interesting things in an interesting way.  If it's not set on Earth then the characters aren't speaking English anyway, so from my point of view what I'm reading is the world's most perfect translation of whatever language they're actually speaking.  I'd even accept modern slang if the author handled it well.
 

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oliewankanobe said:
I find lapsing into a dialect borrowed from another time or place rather than putting time in to create something unique to the story lazy and trite.

*shrug*

Write me dialogue that makes me want to buy a ticket to wherever your characters are.
I agree. Archaic language can be done well, but so often isn't.

And, honestly, why bother?

Please, fantasy authors, just focus on your story! Mimicking such dialogue from another age (or imagined age) doesn't add a great deal to your story. In truth, I think it's a little twee!
 

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Pretty much this, although I think I have a lower tolerance for "ye olde phrases" (as someone referred to them in another thread) than most; I actually get irritated at GRRM for this. It's just so easy to be deeply silly when writing this way, and it's an unusually effective way of yanking me right out of the story. Are you about to kill someone in some sort of grisly, dramatic manner? Than you probably don't want me giggling at the description? Aw.

Watership Down, though I read it as a child, so this comes through the filter of many, many years: freakin' fantastic.

I think the reason I react so poorly to ye olde phrases is that frequently the language takes over the characters - all of a sudden, people speaking in these stiff, noble cadences start to have equally stiff, noble thoughts, actions, etc. They become one note, and lose the richness that I love about fantasy. And one-note anything is boring.

That's not to say it can't be done well, and probably the greats are examples of this, but for my tastes / attention span...the odds are not good, and the goods are usually odd, know what I mean?

Ben White said:
GRRM seems to have gotten the balance right with Game of Thrones. Tamora Pierce with the Beka Cooper books also, the dialogue is a joy to read--lots of slang and unusual grammar but the meaning is always clear. Although I'm not sure if I'd call it 'fantasy', the language in Watership Down is also excellent, it's amazing how quickly you pick up all the special little rabbit words, which of course leads to the fantastic bit near the end where the author throws an untranslated sentence at you and it's totally understandable and completely awesome.

On the other hand, not many writers are GRRM or Tamora Pierce or Richard Adams. In general, I prefer it when authors don't try to sound all olde timey because to be honest not many are capable of pulling it off, and there are only so many "what ho!"s a body can stand before it all gets to be a little much. With fantasy I want what I want from any genre; interesting characters talking about interesting things in an interesting way. If it's not set on Earth then the characters aren't speaking English anyway, so from my point of view what I'm reading is the world's most perfect translation of whatever language they're actually speaking. I'd even accept modern slang if the author handled it well.
 

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It doesn't really bother me much. A "shakespearean" twist to the dialogue, when not taken to the extreme like in "Deadwood" adds enough strangeness to the world without distancing the reader that it can work well. I thought the "Spartacus" series used dialogue in a totally inaccurate, yet fantastic way. It is kind of like names. A fantasy world with characters named from the gospel "feels" wrong, even though that was how the real medieval people were named. But if you go to far with crushed consonants and frequent apostrophes then the audience gets lost. I feel the same way when reading a book with lots of Indian or arabic characters. The long unfamiliar names strain my brain.

This is the skill/art part of creating a fantasy world. You have to know your audience, know their limits, and know how to indicate things are -different- but not overwhelm them with stuff that isn't really relevant. Adding some "thee's",  "thou's", and "my lady's" with a touch of yoda-speak gives a faux medieval flair that is recognizable by modern western readers but isn't incomprehensible. Tossing in some invented words for the truely unique things (or repurposing gaelic, german, or inventing words from scratch)  and adapting a known Earth culture is literary shorthand for the writer and reader. Repurposing a known culture is also helpful because that culture evolved over time and survived a particular environment for a reason, they will have some depth to them and save the writer some time. Having tropical jungle tribes be pale of skin, wearing steel plate armor, worshipping gods of ice, and yet speaking in a Jamaica-inspired patois is just non-sensical, confusing, and would require extensive exposition to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

Don't even get me started on the language of film, fantasy or otherwise. Being aware of these conventions or troupes and knowning when to use or abuse them is the mark of a superior writer, IMHO.
 

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I agree with a lot of what's already been said: if it's done right, if it fits, then more power to them. But if they're using bizarre language, and it feels like a crutch (especially if there's a bazillion apostrophes and unpronounceable words), then what does that say about the rest of the story? Probably that it's one I'll be putting down soon. Also, unless it's urban/contemporary fantasy, please leave the slang out. Few things make me drop a story faster than reading an "okay" in a medieval dialogue.

Quite frankly, I don't find "special" language necessary within a fantasy realm. Thinking it over, some of my favorite authors (Jennifer Fallon, Lawrence Watt-Evans, off the top of my head) don't use any. "Thee's" and "Thou's" are OK if they work but the world should be able to speak for itself without needing it literally "speaking for itself."

(Also, the "dwarves with Scottish accents" cliche drives me nuts but I think that's a personal preference :p)
 

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Hmm. I was thinking about this some more (as I am wont to do), and I think I might just be super sensitive to dialogue, good and bad. I recently picked up Octavia Butler's Kindred, and I put it down again after, like, 10 pages, because I found the dialogue so, so bad. I know this is an important book, I know there are other reasons to read it, but...they're not real people if they don't speak anything like real people. Just completely ruins it for me.
 

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jason10mm said:
Don't even get me started on the language of film, fantasy or otherwise. Being aware of these conventions or troupes and knowning when to use or abuse them is the mark of a superior writer, IMHO.
When I read this part, I immediately thought of Kevin Costner for some reason... LOL, Robin Hood anyone?

In all seriousness, the things I write, fantasy or otherwise, are always in a particular setting, and I like the setting to decide the mode of speech more than anything. A western gets old west lingo, etc. Don't get me wrong, I was serious above when I said I'd be interested in reading a high fantasy story written in all contemporary language, slang included. But for me, it would likely be an experiment.

But it can be carried to extremes. I don't go with flowery, archaic speech. Mostly, it's just a sense in my mind of British-accented English, with a slightly more formal tone than we use in modern times. I enjoy putting a bit of variety in there as well... due to the nature of my first novel, there are characters speaking colloquial American English, and characters speaking, for want of a better word, "Fantasyish" (making up words can be fun, see? ;) ), or that slightly British-sounding, slightly uptight and formal mode.

But I actually take pride in my dialog, I feel it's one of my strengths as a writer. I believe that each of my characters has a personal "voice", and is an individual. I think dialog, totally aside from accent, goes a long way toward creating that character's personality. Not everyone might agree with my assessment of my skills, but I'm a writer, I'm allowed a conceit now and again! :D

And as far as names... except for a few notable exceptions, I decided when I started writing to do my best NOT to make up names. I've got dozens of languages from Earth to choose from, all with their own unique names and pronunciations... why not make use of them? I've used names like Joachim, Cassidy, Dunham, Gideon, Lysander... if you want to play with spellings, sure, but there are so many interesting names and words in existence already, I don't feel the need to make too many up from whole cloth.
 

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I think language in fantasy goes hand in hand with world building - it can be done well, but it can also be overdone and make it almost painful to read.

Sometimes I do enjoy a more archaic language. Tolkien for example put an amazing amount of depth and detail, even going as far to create his own language. And I think in that instance it worked to his advantage. In general I do prefer a contemporary and easier to follow fantasy story.
 

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This is interesting. I haven't read enough fantasy to know, but what I've read does tend to lend to this language. I never thought about it before.
 

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Tolkien set a precedent for dialect that has been hard, if not impossible, for many authors to break out of. The use of midevil language mixed with a Roman hierarchy system has seemed to dominate most fantasy, especially epic fantasy. While I can still enjoy a book that uses such dialect in the dialogue, it would be nice for someone to break the mold and set a new tone for future fantasy novels.
 
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gatehouseauthor said:
That's the only complaint I have, when the language is inconsistent. If you create the setting and people use a more archaic tone, or even give your characters accents or dialects that are based in, or reminiscent of, a specific place, then be consistent in that dialect.
But some inconsistency is critical. Unless your characters are all the same age, social class, ethnicity, religion, and gender, they're going to talk differently. They even have to be the same species, which in fantasy is far from certain.

My orcs speak very, very differently than my humans . . . even the humans they speak with every day. Why wouldn't they? So too, my human slaves and peasants talk differently from the aristocrats.
 
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Ben White said:
In general, I prefer it when authors don't try to sound all olde timey because to be honest not many are capable of pulling it off, and there are only so many "what ho!"s a body can stand before it all gets to be a little much. With fantasy I want what I want from any genre; interesting characters talking about interesting things in an interesting way. If it's not set on Earth then the characters aren't speaking English anyway, so from my point of view what I'm reading is the world's most perfect translation of whatever language they're actually speaking. I'd even accept modern slang if the author handled it well.
I feel the same way . . . in principle. In practice, I dislike certain words like "okay" slipping into fantasy, because that strikes me as author laziness rather than adapting the setting's speech to the story.
 

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Sumatra said:
But some inconsistency is critical. Unless your characters are all the same age, social class, ethnicity, religion, and gender, they're going to talk differently. They even have to be the same species, which in fantasy is far from certain.

My orcs speak very, very differently than my humans . . . even the humans they speak with every day. Why wouldn't they? So too, my human slaves and peasants talk differently from the aristocrats.
I don't mean consistent across all characters. When I say consistent, I mean individually. Every character should have his or her own voice. But that voice should remain consistent throughout for that character. As I said in my earlier post, I worked very hard to give each of my characters a consistent but unique voice, whether it was through choice of language for dialog, body language, reactions to certain events, etc. My contemporary characters speak in modern American English, my other-world characters speak in varying dialects of English reminiscent of medieval England, Scotland, Ireland... basically, western Europe. Some of my other works approach the language differently, but each character has a unique voice and mode of speech. It's vital to the realism of the dialog.

Now, I don't use archaic forms of speech... the "what ho's" and the "thees" and "thous"... just as a general rule. I don't shoot for flowery. I shoot for realistic.

I agree also with Ben White... words like "okay" instead of "all right", or "dad" and "mom", or "cool", or even modern profanity, can pull me out of the story if the don't fit with what came before.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Sumatra said:
But some inconsistency is critical. Unless your characters are all the same age, social class, ethnicity, religion, and gender, they're going to talk differently. They even have to be the same species, which in fantasy is far from certain.

My orcs speak very, very differently than my humans . . . even the humans they speak with every day. Why wouldn't they? So too, my human slaves and peasants talk differently from the aristocrats.
Totally agree. And I like to account for the shape of different races' mouths in how they're language is constructed. For instance, I have a race called kinto-shah, who are anthro-mouse people. They're faces are not capable of producing certain linguistic sounds of speech, so they naturally have an accent and mutate words around.

I also agree with what someone said above about how really we are reading a translation of alien language anyway, so there's no point in King Jamesing it back to the renaissance.
 
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