Right Word at the Write Time

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I am very grateful that English is my first language. I had enough trouble trying to learn languages that are mostly internally consistent, and feel very sorry for anyone learning the chaos that is English.

At the same time, I love this language. It’s so packed with history – words leftover from the Norman invasion, tons of Latin from the Romans and medieval church, hangovers from the Vikings, and a whole rag bag of stuff from even further afield. Etmyology is a lot of fun in English.

Idioms and phrases hold fantastic little pieces of history. ‘Room to swing a cat’, for example, refers to the space required to use a cat o’ nine tails or whip on some poor offending deckhand in the navy. ‘Testimony’ comes from the custom in Ancient Rome of men placing their right hand on their testicles when taking an oath.

I promise I’m not making that up.

There’s a dangerous tendency in sci-fi and fantasy for writers to invent exotic-sounding words and names to add to the ‘otherness’ of their setting. This can work well but it requires careful handling. You have to balance interesting and cool with clarity. If your word, despite being new, is understandable then no worries. If not, or if you use a lot of them, your reader is going to be left scratching his head or, worse, lose interest altogether. As a rule of thumb I generally reckon that if it isn’t necessary, don’t use it. There are plenty of perfectly servicable words and names available in the English language, especially if you make use of a more old-fashioned vocabulary as well. If they wanted to read a book on astro-physics, there’s plenty available. What they’re after from you is a story.

Of course, using existing words doesn’t always fix the problem. It can be very easy, especially in fantasy, to slip into a highly stylised and/or archaic voice. Again, it’s a question of balance. This can work beautifully, especially if you’re using it in contrast with more modern language to establish different time periods or character ages. If you start hammering readers over the head with a thesaurus, though, it’s time to sit back and consider what’s actually necessary. With all due and humble respect to the genius of Tolkien, Return of the King is a prime offender. In places, it’s like reading a particularly challenging bit of the Old Testament. I acknowledge that some people may choose to do that for pleasure, but I’m not one of them.

I’m having a lot of fun at the moment with different styles of language in narrative voice. Just changing the vocabulary or style of speech can instantly give the reader a flavour of different cultures and periods, without you having to go into descriptive details that disrupt the pacing. Language can be a character, and it can do more to tell a story than just use words.

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One response »

  1. Loving the blog… I spend my days trying to get inside writers’ heads in order to take their work apart and put it back together in another language (that’s how I see the translation process at any rate) – so this is all ve-e-ery interesting to me!

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