Where’s My English-Elvish Dictionary? Languages in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This blog is from my son-in-law Matt Wright, a bona fide linguist.  He’s also a fantasy/science fiction fan.  But who isn’t?  Languages are rich treasures for us fantasy and science fiction geeks.  This is where alien cultures get good; this is where another world pulls you in!

Let’s get Matt’s professional view.


Lost in Translation photo credit: tochis via photopin cc

Language is a wonderful thing.  It’s often taken for granted in everyday life.  We rarely think about the language we speak, the words we use, or the meaning behind them.  The average American uses about 16,000 words a day!  Women use slightly more than men, but I won’t open that can of worms.

But how often do we really think about language?  Has anything else so necessary for everyday life ever been used so much yet thought about so little?

As the proud holder of a B.A. in Linguistics, language is something I think about a lot, even in the context of storytelling.  How a movie, book, or show deals with its language(s) is an indication to me of how seriously the creators are taking their story.  That, in turn, will tell me whether or not I want to swallow the pill and jump into their world.

Many times in science fiction and fantasy, language differences are necessary because of the myriad cultures that interact with each other in a given universe, but how these differences are dealt with vary greatly.

Some methods are better than others.

Before I go any further, I apologize beforehand if I poke holes in some of your favorite stories.  I personally don’t like having my favorite stories ruined by someone revealing a plot hole I hadn’t seen.  But I’m gonna do it anyway.

Here are three main ways sci-fi and fantasy works deal with language.

1.  Ignore It Entirely

Many times language issues are simply glossed over or shoved under the rug.  Maybe the creators’ idea was, “If we don’t mention it, maybe nobody will notice?”


Planet of the Apes photo credit: Ukenaut via photopin cc

This can be seen in Planet of the Apes.  Not only do all the apes speak (that’s an issue for scientific reasons that I won’t get into), but they speak 20th century English.

And it gets better.  They can speak but the humans can’t!  The humans are basically reduced to the intellect of an ape (before they magically developed a language part of the brain and learned 20th century English centuries later).

But the thing is, humans are language users.  That’s what we do.  Literally everywhere there are people, there is language.  It’s way too useful to just stop using.

The thing is, we as humans don’t even try to learn language; it’s just something that happens to us.  We don’t sit down in a language classroom to learn our native language.  In fact, by the age of six months, most human children can distinguish between the sounds that are important in their native language and those that aren’t.

So the idea of humans forgetting how to speak?  Ha!  Pull the other one

2.  Explain It Away (in a believable way)

This can be seen in the show Farscape, which is absolutely great.  If you haven’t watched it, go buy all four seasons right now, watch them, and come back.  I’ll wait…

Great!  So as you remember from having just watched Farscape, they use translator microbes.  Once these are injected, they gather at the base of the host’s brain and translate just about any language.  That’s a great way to get around the language barrier that must by necessity exist in a space opera like Farscape.  Such microbes wouldn’t work in real life for a number of reasons (starting with the fact that the language area of the brain is not at the base of the brain).  But at least they put some decent effort into solving the language problem.


Microbes photo credit: EMSL via photopin cc

Cool, I’ll roll with it.

They also come back to the language issue several times in the show and give you an idea of what other species’ languages sound like, which is pretty cool.  Although they don’t have fully functional languages, they still sound very unique and distinct from one another

 My favorite is Sebacean!  Alveolar ingressives!  Yes!  Okay, nerd moment over.

(This is Drew for a little editorial comment.  I don’t even know what alveolar ingressives are but I recognize ‘alveolar’ from dentistry.  Add the word ‘ingressive’ and how cool can you be?!)

3.  Go All Out

This would mean making one or more languages with a fully functional grammar, system for word-building, sound patterns, and sometimes even history, because all languages change over time.

The greatest example of this is (you already know what I’m going to say don’t you?) The Lord of the Rings.


Elvish photo credit: Morelen via photopin cc

J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist after all, so naturally he invented all the languages used in Middle-earth.  In total, he constructed over 20 languages with a fully developed grammar, vocabulary, and history.

He was not a normal man.

In a fantasy world like Middle-earth, it would be very easy to explain things away with “magic” or some such.  But did Tolkien see that as an option?  No.  Like a boss, he invented an unhealthy amount of languages in order to make his world as linguistically realistic as possible.

Many other universes have fully developed languages, such as Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Avatar, and they should be commended.  The idea of a fully functional language that you can learn has given countless nerds great joy and will continue to do so.

So what does this mean?  For a science fiction or fantasy work to be Matt-approved linguistically does it have to be Tolkienesque?  Not at all (although I dare say it would be nice).  I simply want to see that you have thought about it.  Show me you’ve put effort into the details of your universe and I’ll swallow any pill you give me.

Even if it means planting alien microbes at the base of my brain.


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