The language of your book (Part 1)

Ornamental cherry trees speak of the joys of spring and the fleeting beauty of flowers to everyone who chooses to come and appreciate them

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!

Portion of a poem in Elvish in The Lord of The Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

We communicate with each other in so many different ways. The things we say have intonations that speak volumes, accompanied by expressions that, if we’re being sarcastic for example, may completely belie the words coming out of our mouth. And then there’s context, subtext, jargon, slang, accents, and many other kinds of pitfalls that an unwary writer may fall victim to.

Everything has a language. Animals have languages, and are often remarkably adept at cross-species understanding, as anyone with a pet could tell you. Our friends used to scoff at us for spelling out words like “w-a-l-k” and “c-o-o-k-i-e” around our dogs – until they got their own dogs and saw how quickly they began to recognize human words.

Flowers have a kind of language; their colours, shapes and scents all mean something to the insects or birds they hope will spread their pollen. Carnivorous plants have a deadly vocabulary: a seductive outward appearance that lures unsuspecting insects into their trap.

Everything that we write speaks in and of itself. Is our writing style brisk, no-nonsense but evocative like film noir –

“The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade’s desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged grey flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.” From The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

— to the highly poetic and layered prose of William Shakespeare. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare passages; it so deliciously describes how Death waits patiently while kings go about their pompous, regal lives, believing themselves ‘impregnable’ within their crowns and castles. But in the end Death still comes with his little pin to bore through the castle wall, and ‘farewell king!’

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2, by William Shakespeare

Both samples of writing are iconic of the writer’s time period and culture. Film noir has great style and substance, but is seen through the lens of a hard-boiled detective, a seductive femme fatale, nasty criminals and shades of darkness. It makes no apology for its characters’ motivations.

Shakespeare wrote in the form of language that was spoken by the masses. As laborious as this manner of speech might seem to us now, at the time his audiences would have understood and followed it perfectly. We’re not used to such elaborate prose now, but if you were to watch a series of his plays, you’d start finding it easier to follow them as time went on.

Historical romance writers typically use the formalized, somewhat flowery language of Regency England, incorporating standard expressions that instantly transport readers into the era. You can read up on those tropes and how the popular Netflix series Bridgerton has been using them to great effect in this article, Everything You Wanted to Know About Regency London, the High-Society Setting of ‘Bridgerton’

Sometimes authors will go to great lengths to generate a special atmosphere for their books, like J.R.R. Tolkien, who created an entire Elvish language called Quenya, even going so far as to create the flowing script the elves used. It has enraptured fans for decades – I found numerous websites dedicated to Tolkien’s Elvish culture, including pronunciation guides, fonts that you can download to print your own Elvish-themed materials, even a course in the language of Quenya.

From a video standpoint, look at the popularity of the completely sci-fi language of Klingon. According to the Guinness World Records site, Klingon has become the most widely-spoken fictitious language in the world!

Such are the magic and power of beautifully-realized novel and movie worlds.

Of course, it’s quite possible to add flavour to your book without creating an entire language to back you up; a few words and consistent spelling/phrasing will do the trick.

When you’re writing, each character should have their own ‘voice’, or style of speaking, depending on their background, upbringing, education and other factors that makes each of us unique. For example, a friend once thoroughly astonished me by commenting that she could tell I’d been to university just by the way I spoke. On the other hand, I’ve read articles by people who haven’t had a university education, but their writing was still eloquent and authentic because it was their true voice.

In our modern world, we’re not tied to a time period as Shakespeare was, or even Jane Austen – we can play with every time period that came before us, or any culture, vintage or contemporary. We’d better do our research, though, to get things right.

One of the common wisdoms offered to new writers is to avoid jargon. I disagree with that to a certain extent; jargon defines a profession. I worked in various departments of a local college, from business to counselling to IT, and I can tell you that each one had its own very characteristic jargon. The trick for writers is to provide enough jargon to make a character’s dialogue authentic, without overwhelming the reader. One way to do that might be to mention a jargon term and then offer an explanation, perhaps via one of the characters in the scene.

Generational dialogue has its own nuances. Seniors will speak very differently than teenagers, and often reference very different terms or slang that belong to the time period they grew up in. Things like popular movies, hit music, what was in the news, street slang – they’re all highly representative.

For fantasy/sci-fi novels, it’s necessary to create an ambience that’s very different from what we readers live with each day. One thing I often find lacking is a complete alternate reality. Writers in these genres often describe an alien world as if it exists as a single city, not a complex world with varying geography, numerous cultures, hundreds or thousands of separate communities, all kinds of weather patterns, different belief systems. If we’re to create something believable, it will take time and thought, and often a pretty detailed collection of background material that won’t necessarily make it into the book, but will give our alternate world enough richness to make it live in our reader’s minds, hopefully for years and decades afterward – like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter…

While I enjoy light reads as much as the next person, for me the greatest success as a writer is when your work isn’t forgotten once a reader finishes the book. The characters and worlds you’ve created resonate so strongly with readers that they don’t want to let them go – they reread your work, buy memorabilia, join fan clubs, create websites. We don’t know what effect our words will have until they’re published, but we work hard and live in hope 😊

Stay tuned for Part 2, covering how languages are built, whether spoken or unspoken, aural or visual or even musical/tonal, for whatever pieces of one you might want to create.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

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