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A question of fantasy and foreign words in the English language

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Garren Jacobsen, Feb 7, 2018.

  1. So, I am writing fantasy. Specifically, a portion of this fantasy is set in red rock country akin to the American West, specifically, southern and central Utah. For reference please see these links:





    Note, this is not set on earth. Just this is the landscape I have in my head for a setting. In the US, an animal common to the area would be coyotes.Coyote is a Spanish word that borrows from classic Aztec coyotl. In my musings, I have come to realize that words that have an obvious country of origin are used in fantasy settings (with obviously English words being the exception). However, I am also of the opinion that if my creature looks and acts like a rabbit, then I should call it a rabbit, not some wild name.

    So, would the coyote be distracting to anyone? Am I overthinking this?
  2. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    Hello Brian!

    I totally love coyotes, they are one of my favorite animals. They were a small part of one of my stories actually, the only one with a Utah setting. Coyotes are also very important in Native American folklore, that species definitely has something special in them.

    Now, I would not worry at all if coyotes are called coyotes in a Fantasy story that takes place in some other planet or realm.

    I mean, we are Fantasy writers. Maybe a Fantasy world speaks a variety of strange languages that are not known in Earth, but actually writing all dialogue in their real language would be very unusual and troublesome. Who cares if creatures from a different galaxy speak English in Star Wars? Fans enjoy those movies and books anyway.

    I did not care to learn and write in 14th Century languages for my first Joan of England novel, it's just regular English.

    If you want to call the coyotes in your Fantasy world just coyotes, perfect! If you want to call them Cayatees or perhaps Waldhallongs or something else, excellent too.

    Do not worry much about small details like that.
  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    In a place like the SW USA, people will expect there to be something like coyotes, so if they are there, they will accept them.
    Terry Pratchett does a great job of using everyday British English on the Discworld and I've never heard of someone complaining about Death liking a good Klatchian Curry....
    Anyway what is English? It is a mishmash of half a dozen others of over the last thousand years [and more].
    American English has had Spanish, Native American, African and lots of other influences. British English has various parts of Indian, Asian, Caribbean and French being a part of it. The French do a lot of work on trying to keep other languages out of the French language [with the Académie française and to lesser or greater success]. English [unofficially] seems to take the opposite approach and welcome them in.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  4. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

    I mentioned coyotes early on in, in passing, in my Donzalo books set in a world that resembles 16th Century Europe (but isn't). I did wonder if it were the proper choice at the time but what else was I going to call a small wolf-like creature? I considered jackal but that had its own connotations that might have jarred. Were it an animal I revisited or explored in the books, maybe I would have made up a name but that would only have distracted from the narrative had I needed to stop and explain it.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    If it's just the coyote, I wouldn't sweat it. If your story has many other Southwest references (mesa, arroyo, cactus, etc), then that's more problematic. ... was that a polar bear?
  6. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    I would argue that if the creatures or plant life you are creating for your fantasy world does not deviate in any major way from ones found on Earth then stick with their existing names. If the creature or plant has a characteristic that makes it distinct from their equivalent here on Earth or which would not be familiar to the majority of your readership then try to find a simple name that reflects that characteristic. That was often how animals were named by indigenous peoples and by European explorers.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  7. Alexius

    Alexius Acolyte

    I don't see any reason to invent new vocabulary for everything. You are inviting readers to read a novel rather than learn a foreign language. Weird words can sometimes get in the way of a good plot. Trying to remember if the Xaxllquhn the hero confronts was a bear-like creature or his Quasi-Wqushrp mother-in-law - and flicking back ten pages to find it - just kills the moment.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  8. Malik

    Malik Archmage


    This ties back into Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp, which is a generally frowned-upon practice in fantasy and SF, but that doesn't stop authors from doing it and getting away with it.

    Courtesy XKCD.

    I use some linguistic tricks to compare and contrast my fantasy world from Earth. I have an advantage here because it's a portal fantasy, so the characters learn the language and realize in doing so how different the culture truly is, because the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a thing. They're in a "Planet England" type world, but the world they find themselves in has given names to things that we don't have words for. To that end, I'll occasionally throw in a word in a conlang that has no English equivalent.

    As far as animals, I pretty much use the same sorts of mundane creatures that we have here, with minor variations. When I get into things like the trees, for instance, I have willows and pines, but I also talk about groves of glimmerleaf and sunbriar, and a valley overrun by tanglemoss; names that conjure up immediate images without requiring additional description, and that leave the reader knowing that the world isn't entirely the same, but not terribly different, either.

    Anyway. YMMV. This is just how I handled it. There are no rules, here.
    Alexius, Sheilawisz and Rebekkah V. like this.
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    "Hey, Rose, remember that time you had too much slumbervine juice?"
    "We do not talk about that time. It did not happen."
    Alexius likes this.
  10. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I eventually decided to not have any earth species of animals or plants appear in my world. That means lots of new words, but at least it's consistent and I am not using a made up word for anything that already has a perfectly useable word.
  11. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Using fantasy words and languages is okay but, as others have stated, it's a good idea not to overdo it. However, one of the comments made me think of something that is important when creating fantasy words: the words should sound natural in the world a writer has created. What can be jarring is when the writer has used fantasy words to name people, places and things that don't seem to fit in with the world they've created. For example the practice of switching to Arabic sounding names for places in a desert.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >stick with their existing names
    Ah, but that's not so simple as it sounds. Take a look at plant names, even animal names, and you'll find they vary significantly across cultures. It's not as if they all have just one name, even if you restrict yourself to English.
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    I agree with you up to a point.

    In the English language it's common for non-English words to be used to describe things. Here in New Zealand it's common to use Maori words to describe everyday things. For example I may say to a friend "My whanau is going up to Whakatane to attend a tangi at the marae to farewell a kaumatua of great mana." If I was to say this to anyone outside of New Zealand they'd be wondering what I was talking about so I would not use this phrase in any work of fiction intended for an international readership unless I was creating a world heavily influenced by Polynesian or Maori/New Zealand culture or society.

    The phrase I used means: "My family is going up to Whakatane to attend a funeral at the meeting house to farewell an elder of great honour." The word "mana" doesn't have an English equivalent but honour comes closest.

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