Worldbuilding: language skills in fiction

In today’s post, I’ll look into another aspect of world-building: languages and language skills of character, focusing on fictional worlds.

Languages aren’t touched in third-world fiction that often. In many cases, the scope of the story won’t let it be a topic. The world(s) in question need to be quite sprawling for the topic of languages to become relevant. In general, the topic may come up in space travel Sci-Fi (though this also often features technology that deals with this issue). In fantasy, as my primary genre, this may be touched upon in various degrees, but it doesn’t happen often in shorter stories, let alone standalone books.

Similar to Sci-Fi, languages may become a topic in fantasy with several types of creatures, as those are likely to speak each their own language.

This opens the question: how does it affect the populace? How many speak more than one language, what kind of people they are; how, where, and why do they learn another language? Which is dominant and why? How different are individual languages? All those questions can deepen world-building…

The extra-terrestrials

In Sci-Fi, tech to overcome language differences is a common tool that eases up the communication struggle. Thus, it’s rarely a topic. However, in fantasy that features world travel, this may be quite problematic. Over time, as the different species interact, some of them will learn the other’s language.

What affects this? The primary factor will be proximity and interaction. If two villages are close to each other and trade with one another, it’ll lead to some people learning a foreign language. However, the further from direct contact, the rarer will this be. Leaders, diplomats, and traders will be the most-likely to need those skills.

Different species, same world

When it comes to different species in the same world, the situation may be easier than the above – if there’s a common ancestry, the languages may be similar and the barrier won’t be as significant. Learning the language may thus be easier. Even if the history is long and the vocabulary changed, grammar is likely to remain similar if two languages have a common ancestor.

As with the abovementioned case, the circle of people speaking two (or more) languages will be the largest among traders, diplomats, leaders, and scholars.

Who takes the lead?

A major question can then be: which language is dominant? The size of populace using it as their native language may seem a logical choice, but a look at our own world shows that’s not exactly the case – China and India both outnumber the amount of native English speakers yet English took the lead as the “world language”. The reasons are many – the colonial history of the British Empire helped to spread the language. Later, the USA becoming a technology and entertainment leader helped to solidify its position. The fact that English is easy to learn – at least for basic conversation – helps as well.

The takeaway for fiction is to consider other aspects than just population if you go this far into your worldbuilding.

How to learn?

I’ve touched the topic of education in fantasy before. Schooling in a modern form rarely exists in fantasy, so knowledge – especially some that doesn’t come in handy for common folk – may be hard to come by. It’s likely that knowledge of a second language will be limited to people who need it in their lives. As said before, traders, nobility, and diplomats will be the major group. This skill may be easier passed down the family than formally learned.

That said, cities with a significant minority speaking a different language may be the best place to learn – where’s the need, there’s the way.

Given the complexity of languages, this exchange may not always be equal. If one language is easy to learn but the other is not, it may happen that even among two groups of similar populace size, one language will prevail for communication.

Personal example

I admit I had paid little attention to languages when I started writing Project Eternity – the concept that eventually became the Eternal Defenders series currently in the works. The first book only grazes this topic. At one point in the story, Tyr’eshal interacts with a group of trolls (of which only the shaman can speak elvish, and the result isn’t optimal) and several human soldiers (they speak elvish without a deeper explanation of how they can understand each other). Later, he interacts with dwarves, likewise without touching the topic much, as his interaction is with the “trader” type characters. I’ve given this more attention in book two and I may need to return to this aspect during my revisions of book three.

In general, human and dwarven soldiers can usually speak at least basic elvish while officers can speak fluent elvish, as can diplomats and most leaders. This is caused by elves being the dominant population (for reasons I won’t mention now to stay on topic). Twin Watch, the town with a roughly 50:50 elven-human population, is mostly bilingual. Most elves, due to their dominance, can’t speak any other language, though some magi can craft devices allowing them to understand any language. Elementals and dragons can understand and speak any language by magical means. Humans and dwarves, due to minimal interaction (as the elf-controlled land is between them) rarely speak each other’s language.

So, that’s another world-building topic that crossed my mind. I’ll welcome your own experiences – have you read any book where the topic of languages was mentioned? How well (or unwell) did it go? Have you considered this in your own writing? Share your thoughts and experiences – maybe we have something to learn from each other.

4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: language skills in fiction

  1. Hey, Thomas! Working the Primëal language into Blade of Dragons has been a fun experience. Admittingly, it’s a form of butchered Latin—yes, I took a page from Brandson Sanderson’s style, haha.

    Language plays a huge role in politics, economy, and cultural values. It’s a shame some authors never bother with it. Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Who hasn’t butchered Latin for a fictional language, really? Or at least for spells and names?
      Working with language is a nice detail, but creating custom words is a tough exercise in creativity.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is really interesting. Thanks so much for your tips, Thomas! I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I remember in one book, there were some language barriers. These were overcome through a character who was a sort of interpreter during the MC’s travels. That, and the interpreter was started teaching the MC basic words in other languages.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m going to be honest. I’m a monolingual speaker and I decided I wanted to be unique and make different names and language barriers and it absolutely sucks!! Conlanging sucks and is extremely hard and after doing all of it, I’m not even sure if it’s even going to mean anything. ;o; I’m too far in.


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