There exists in fantasy a trope that doesn’t quite feel like a trope until it comes to your attention that it appears quite frequently. It is the adventurer’s best friend and most subtle deus ex machina. It is, in essence, the “ancient language” trope, in which there exists two languages in a fantasy setting: the common tongue, which is spoken everywhere, and the ancient language, which holds some magical or historical significance but is otherwise usually considered a dead language.
In certain spheres, it might make sense for a story to contain only one main language. If the main character adventures throughout a single nation, or if several neighboring nations used to be one single country and thus share some commonalities, a writer could get away with a singular language being prevalent throughout the entire book. Other times, when a nation is incredibly isolated, or at least was before advancements of technology made travel much easier, it should certainly be expected for multiple languages to abound.
I think Tolkien, as usual, set the expectations high in this regard. After all, he was a professor in linguistics. It was something of his speciality. Not only did he create languages for different peoples–everyone from elves to Ents–but even, from what I understand, created different dialects as well, based on location. Plenty of authors since then have followed in his footsteps to some degree or another. Christopher Paolini had a common and Ancient tongue, yes, but he also created phrases for the dwarves and urgals. George Martin was no linguist, but he gave the Dothraki their own language, as well as the other major cities across the narrow sea. Even Leigh Bardugo offers languages for her different countries, and common phrases that originated from there. My personal favorite? A Fjerdan proverb:
“Wanden olstrum end kendesorum. Isen ne bejstrum.”Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows
The water hears and understands. The ice does not forgive.
I mean, the phrasing of the Fjerdan feels a bit clunky, but what’s important is that the language exists, and within that language, a region-specific proverb that can encapsulate so well what it means to be a part of that country. That, really, is what I’m looking for when authors create languages for their various countries.
Now, for most fantasy stories, the lack of language doesn’t feel particularly hard to believe. The main character usually comes from a global superpower of a country (which is a topic for another day), which means the language of that country is widely spoken, granting the character access to understanding where they might otherwise have floundered. Even in instances where it doesn’t have that excuse, the lack of language is easy to miss unless explicitly called out by the author, which… they don’t normally do.
For the most part, it’s less a suspension of disbelief and more about the lack of cultural characterization that comes with it. In Graceling (book 1), there are seven separate countries, and the only thing we really know about any of them is that the five central ones have kings who have a tendency to bully their people, when they’re not busy bullying other kingdoms. It would have been nice to give all seven kingdoms their own language, but even so, the island kingdom of Lienid and the isolated kingdom Monsea certainly had cause to have their own. One of my favorite things about Bitterblue (book 3), however, is author Kristin Cashore’s taking criticism on her canon and making adjustments where she can. I think one of those happens to be language, because it becomes apparent that the Dells, from Fire (book 2), does not speak the same language.
Another example, one handled with perhaps a little less grace, is that of Three Dark Crowns. It’s set on an island kept secret by this magic fog that turns everyone away except for the very few allowed in. Yet, for all intents and purposes, it appears that those on the island speak in the same tongue that those on the mainland speak. Linguistically, that simply doesn’t make any sense, as any sort of isolation quickly breeds distinctions in linguistics. But, again, it doesn’t really call attention to itself.
In fact, the most obvious example I can think of, and the reason I’m writing a blog post on this now, is that of Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan excels at giving nations their own cultural character. It’s one of the main reasons a lot of people have trouble reading it, I think: Jordan is rather long-winded on the fashions and lifestyles of the various countries. But for me, that just calls attention to the fact that it’s lacking in one of the factors that can really set apart one culture from another.
Even taking into consideration the theory that the common tongue is a byproduct of the history of the continent as a whole, the time that has passed since then would suggest some sort of divulging of language. Instead, everywhere from Shienar to Altara, the Aiel Waste to Seanchean, speak the common tongue. Blocked by mountains or seas or the vast expanse of desert known as the Waste, yet the common tongue has prevailed, allowing characters to speak to one another with ease, no matter where they hail from. I think the only major dialect we see is that of Illian.
That said, I do want to give Robert Jordan some props for the Maiden hand-talk, as sign language is something very rarely seen, especially in the fantasy genre. Even more so than diversifying spoken languages, I think that the inclusion of sign language within the fantasy genre is something that should become more prevalent. Normalizing sign language even outside of the Deaf community, showing its uses even to hearing people, could encourage people to learn, thereby increasing conversation and inclusion with the Deaf community, would I think be several steps in the right direction.
But diversifying spoken languages is in and of itself another issue that fantasy novels should concern themselves with more. Especially with the turbulence of the current political climate, language itself is considered a right of passage when it comes to belonging or being an outcast. Just look at how angry so many people get about immigrants in the United States speaking their own language rather than learning English. Celebrating cultural differences, including language, within the fantasy genre would again go great lengths towards encouraging people to celebrate cultural differences in the real world. Even if it’s nowhere near as extensive as Tolkien’s–and really, setting expectations that high is a bit unfair since most of us writers don’t study languages as he did–just having some pieces like Bardugo’s sprinkled into the narrative could really go a long way.