Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Language of Fantasy

I read a lot of fantasy - the preindustrial, medieval-like sort - so perhaps it isn't surprising that three books I read in the past month all contained the word "mayhap." This word has always bothered me. What on earth is wrong with maybe or perhaps? Surely those words could be used in a fantasy without doing any damage to that archaic fantasy feel. Other words that often appear are "aught" and "naught," sometimes spelled "owt" and "nowt" if the speakers are peasants, standing in for the apparent too-modern terms anything and nothing.

The first book in which I encountered "mayhap" was Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Mercy. Anyone who has read Carey's Kushiel series knows how carefully language is used to give us a sense of the extremely mannered society of the D'Angelines, and so "mayhap" is the least of it. If you read the first chapter of Kushiel's Mercy, you will find "betimes" used for the word occasionally as well as plenty of names with so many apostrophes and accents that they are well-nigh impossible to pronounce. I love this series and have read every single book; the characters are enthralling and the plot is both intricate and action-packed. Oh, and there is plenty of spicy sex - something one doesn't often find in fantasy, or at least not this type of fantasy. (This is one fantasy series I have NOT recommended to my fantasy-addled 14-year-old daughter). But the language does sound stilted to me, even as it succeeds to a certain extent in portraying a very different sort of culture.

The second book in which mayhap appeared was Tamora Pierce's Terrier, from the newish Beka Cooper series. Now, maybe Pierce uses mayhap all the time and I just never noticed, but it jolted me when I heard it over and over while listening to the audiobook version (narrated by the talented Susan Denaker, who can talk in various Tortall accents like nobody's business), especially since Beka Cooper's world seems so... liberated, I guess. Sure, it's pre-industrial and all, but unlike, say, in a medieval English village, it's considered acceptable, if not exactly respectable, to women to join the guards (the police) or to become fighting knights - and to wear trousers while doing so. So why the heck use "mayhap?" I don't get it - it seems like a cop-out.

The third book was one I brought back to the library only half-read, not because it wasn't good but because I just wasn't in the mood right then. But I do forgive Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear, because it's an Elizabethan fantasy - and Shakespeare, who is a character, may well have used the term "mayhap" all the time.

So when Holly Black brought up, during a talk she gave at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators last weekend, some interesting points about the language of fantasy, my ears pricked up. The talk was called "Examining the Strange: the Basics of Fantasy Writing," and in it she mentioned Ursula LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," in which LeGuin talks about some pitfalls facing fantasy writers - many tend to write in a rather florid, archaic style in order to create that feeling of being somewhere besides our ordinary modern world, while others, trying to avoid this, employ a language that is dull and ordinary as cornflakes. Of course, I trotted off to the Literature and Fiction department to find this essay as soon as I got back to work, and was overjoyed to find that LeGuin actually addresses (after ripping to shreds writers who use thee, thou, the subjunctive form, and words like ichor and smite) my pet peeve! She writes "Mayhap. It can't be maybe, it can't be perhaps; it has to be mayhap, unless it's perchance." Yes!

LeGuin then argues for the use of straightforward language - not "journalistic" flat everyday prose, but "plain, clear English" as used by Tolkien. "Tolkien's vocabulary is not striking; he has no ichor; everything is direct, concrete, and simple." Now, I don't think the use of "mayhap" automatically ruins a book - I think Tamora Pierce writes just the kind of wonderfully direct and "real" prose that LeGuin praises. But fantasies that manage to build an entire complex world without such archaic terms are much preferable to me.

And by the way, use of certain terms can be very jarring in a fantasy, sometimes without any reason other than it seems to break The Rules of Fantasy-Speak. That fantasy-reading 14-year-old mentioned to me recently how weird it was to come across the expletive "F**k!" in the excellent fantasy The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, or maybe it was in the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies. At any rate, I had to agree that it felt too... modern, I suppose. Surely the character could have used some other expletive. "Shit," especially when used as an expletive, also feels wrong and anachronistic, although really there isn't any reason why. Perhaps it's just that I've been accustomed all my life to fantasies that use "dung" or other equally colorful terms instead.

Holly Black gave a shout-out during her talk to Patricia Wrede's awe-inspiring (and daunting) "Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions." This is essentially a long and detailed list of questions a fantasy writer should ask him or herself when creating a fantasy world, divided into various categories. This is why I have never even considered writing fantasy of this sort! Here are some of her questions under "Food" - a topic one would figure to be simple enough. But no!

"What distinguishes a formal, high-court dinner from an ordinary meal, besides quantity and variety of food? How do high-court manners differ from everyday ones? When a guest arrives, is food or drink offered immediately, after an interval, or only on request? Is there a particular food or drink that is customary to offer a newly arrived guest? A guest who is just departing? Is sanitation good enough for untreated water to be safe to drink? If not, what do people drink instead? What things, while edible, are never eaten (what's not kosher)? Why? Are some common human foods pjoisonous to dwarves or elves (or vice versa)?" And so on for pages and pages, on every topic under the sun, from trade to customs to dress to politics.

A great example of someone who has done her worldbuilding homework is Sherwood Smith. Her Inda series is set in a world in which every detail has been carefully thought out for each country, from the Big Ideas like politics and government to smaller but equally important matters like cuisine, dress, architecture, magic, and even gestures (which differ from country to country but are also quite different from our own). The language she uses is simple and direct, and yet we know we're somewhere exotic, somewhere magical. In the land of the Marlovans, no one practices magic and yet it is used daily and almost without thought for things like washing clothes and dishes or getting rid of waste and dead bodies. In other lands, there are sorcerers who train many years and wield powerful magic indeed. It's all incredibly fascinating and carefully thought-out - I'm in awe of Sherwood Smith.

I couldn't do it myself. I don't think I could write the kind of fantasy I so love to read - it boggles my mind to imagine creating a world from scratch. But oh, thank goodness for all the crazy genius writers out there who do it - and do it so well.


  1. I'm with Le Guin on the thees and thous--I loathe them!

    I once was lucky enough to chat with Megan Whalen Turner at a lovely used bookstore in Connecticut. In the course of complimenting her prose, I found myself asking (in jest) if she was ever tempted by "curiously wrought" or "lambent" --my own two least favorite words of the ilk you discuss. She replied in the negative...

    (ilk is an acceptable word because it's actually used in unforced conversation. At least a little).

  2. I agree with what you said about the expletives used in The Lies of Locke Lamora it did feel kind of modern, didn't it? I think people in the 'olden days' would be more descriptive in expressing their comments than with one single word. =P


  3. I've used "ilk," in of an arch and nerdly manner, in conversation. And as for modern expletives - when in public, I limit myself to "dang" and "rats" and "argh!!!!" I'm a librarian after all...

  4. Language is a funny thing, mainly because it evolves, almost by the decade.

    I had exactly the problem you talk about in writing my fantasy trilogy, Randolph's Challenge, of which Book One - The Pendulum Swings has just been published. I went to great pains to use common, everyday language (using Tolkein as my model) but without destroying the 'medieval' setting of the story. I thought I'd done a pretty good job in achieving that balance - then my draft readers told me to take out all the 'O.K's' I'd put in without thinking.

    I believe the right pitch is everyday language to meet modern day understanding, but not to use modern, colloquial words or phrases as they do jar in the wrong setting. This can be difficult in view of the fast pace of language evolution.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings

  5. What an interesting post! I felt the use of expletives in The Lies of Locke Lamora felt very anachronistic, and I definitely agree with you about mayhap. My own gripe is with the use of "somewhat" - this may seem an unexceptional word, but I think its use differs very subtly depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on, and when N. American writers use it to signal "archaic-speak" it makes me do a very uptight British cringe. "Ilk", on the other hand, is definitely still in use here - but I think I would be looked at askance if I said "dang"! :)

  6. Great post - I'm sorry I'm 2 years too late for the discussion! But for what it's worth...
    I agree that the expletives tend to sound jarring in fantasy, even though f--- dates to 1500 and sh-- to 1300, so actually they aren't at all anachronistic!
    As for thee and thou, I don't mind them if they're used correctly, but I just can't read a book that doesn't get the grammar or the social implications right. For example, in my "Otherworld" series I have dragons use "thou" for anyone younger, i.e. lower status, and "you" for anyone older, since age is status in that culture. My point being, I like language to tell the reader something about a culture - something more than mere "ye olde-ness!"

  7. Good point about the origin of those four-letter words! Still, there are surely other, more colorful ways to cuss a blue streak...
    I like your use of you and thou - makes sense to me.