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Using real languages in a fantasy world


Have you considered using real languages in your fantasy stories?

Would this add an aura of authenticity, or would it shatter the illusion?

Have any authors tried this?


I use a real language all the time in my fantasy worlds. Odd one, derives from some Northern tribe. The common name is 'English'.

No, but seriously, I would be a bit... thrown. I don't tend to think most stories need any language other than English (or what is being translated for the reader into English), save perhaps for names of people and places. You can certainly use an Earth language as a basis for those. Most fantasy worlds are basically parallel to an Earthen era anyway. If you set your story in a fantasy version if Medieval Italy, then sure, your names would be Italian derivatives. But to actually include straight Italian... I guess it's not wrong, no more wrong than using ANY non-English language, but it would be a bit weird. If I really thought I needed to have another language in it, I'd probably create a conlanguage based off Italian instead of just using straight Italian.

Still, I'm sure somebody's done it.


I think it could be done. I speak Spanish, for instance. If I wanted to say that, in my fantasy world, Spanish is now called Ancaran, then who is to say it isn't? It might be fun for people who can read Spanish to be able to 'read' the foreign language parts.

A big part of the gimmick's success, in my opinion, would be not making a big deal out of it. It's neat - it isn't brilliant. Fold it into the story and the world without much fuss.
I KNOW I've read a fantasy book once that had either roman or greek in it LOL I can't remember what it was called though but I absolutely remember it being a noted language used. I thought it was cool. But like Telcontar said, weave it into the story and it'll be just fine


I KNOW I've read a fantasy book once that had either roman or greek in it

This does bring up one point. If you are going to use Latin or some other language, please actually know the language. As someone who knows Latin rather well, I must say that every fantasy book I read finds a new and unique way to utterly mess it up.

Philip Overby

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One of my favorite game series, Final Fantasy, often uses Latin to name some of its characters or places. For instance in Final Fantasy Versus 13, the hero is named Noctis. They also use lots of mythology from various cultures, including Shiva, Ifrit, Odin, Bahamut, and others. I think it is ok to do this, but I think you should only write in the language of your audience.

Hence, if you are writing a book for English readers, I think it's annoying to just randomly throw in some Spanish if it's a fantasy world. Now if your world is the real world, then by all means, throw in some Spanish.

I personally am not too big on created languages. Like if a character starts talking in elvish and then the writer starts writing some gibberish they made up to resemble what they think elvish sounds like. I don't really like that either. Just my personal taste though.


Languages have always been difficult for me. I just can't get my head straight with anything but English. Well, given a passage in Latin I can guess at a translation and be about 40% right, though it it's important (like for my studies) I get my Latin dictionary and grammar and work through it properly, but then ask someone else to check it for me. Ditto with Ancient Greek. I've been trying to learn German from a CD, since it's always good to have a second language and because a fair proportion of academic writings in my field are in German, but I'm no good at being disciplined and doing it every day, or even every week. I learn better with other people around me doing the same thing.

Perhaps as a result of my language problems, I've never really considered putting other languages into my novels. At one point I was planning a novel where the upper classes and the lower classes spoke two different languages, like happened in England following the Norman invasion - the aristocracy spoke French and the peasants spoke Middle English, and that why there's different words for animals and the meat from them. But the novel didn't go ahead and anyway I don't know if I could have made it work. In any case, I was just going to write it all in English and just say that it's Ruraic or whatever the other one was called, and have the characters who don't speak one just not understand and need it translating, opening possibilities for the translator to lie, get things slightly wrong if one of their languages isn't very good, or just plain refuse to translate.


I agree with the earlier posts in that it can be done, but it'd have to consist of a smooth transition that looked effortless and felt natural to the setting. If I'm trucking along in a book, and all of a sudden I start to feel like I'm having a conversation with someone speaking in tongues, I may get a little irritated.

There was one setting which I used to collaboratively write in where one of the cities used French (though it was called by a made up fantasy name) as its native language, and everything in the city was even named in French. Normally I would say this would be too overbearing for me, but the setting managed to take that and make it their own. It served to enrich the setting, and probably made the city one of the most colorful, vivid, and unique cities in the entire setting.

On the other hand, you're dealing with one of those issues where some readers will appreciate the usage of the language in the setting, and others will find it distracting and irritating. In the end, it'd be a tricky thing to mess with - especially when you run the risk of alienating a percentage of your readers over something relatively simple that could just as easily be left out.


Well, my first observation is my usual one for such questions–one Ophiucha already made: be sure you're doing it right, or else you'll just look foolish. (To put it politely.)

That having been said: I've seen plenty of instances where an author used a real-world language. Some are obvious: the use of Latin in the Harry Potter books, for instance (and a great many others where "magical" incantations were wanted… not all of them set in the "real" world). Some are less so: much of Steven Brust's Dragaera setting uses Hungarian–a language he is familiar with, but which few others are.

If all you're wanting are a few names for people and places, those are easy enough to find; you can look them up and use them without needing to worry about getting the grammar correct. If you actually want to use phrases or sentences, better know what you're doing. And I mean you better know: under no circumstances should you ever use a translation program. (Don't believe me? Find one online and type one of your sentences into it. Then take the result and have it translate it back into English.)

If you're willing to put enough work into it to know you aren't getting gibberish, there are plenty of languages that are sufficiently unfamiliar to the average reader, but which are easy to find copious materials on. Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish and Turkish all come to mind–only the first of those is a Romance language (or even an Indo-European language) to begin with, and it has been heavily influenced by other, less familiar languages (most notably Hungarian, but also Slavic languages). All those can be handled without even needing to learn another alphabet, as they are written in Roman script, with only a couple special characters added… even those may be familiar from encounters elsewhere, and the total differences are less than one encounters in the Greek alphabet does (or Old English, for that matter). For Slavic languages, Polish, Czech and Croatian also use Roman script. (In fact, the only difference between Croatian and Serbian is that the latter uses Cyrillic… though you might have difficulty getting any Serbian or Croatian friends to admit it. :p )

If you're willing to put a little more work into it–though it will probably be less work, if you're already familiar with some other modern language–find some historical material on it: Medieval French will be unusual-looking even to most people who speak Modern French, whereas if you already know the latter, you're far less likely to commit grammatical errors using it.

Option three is to take a familiar language and change it in a systematic fashion to create your own fantasy language. The key here is the "systematic fashion" part: as you may guess, you'll want to know a little about linguistics in order to do it. (You don't actually need much: you can get all you need from my posts in the "creating your own language" thread, though it may take a bit of practice to get your changes working together smoothly.)

The bottom line, from a writing perspective, is what you wish to accomplish by using anything other than standard English (names aside) in your story. Since you're probably going to have to "translate" it anyway for your readers, in most cases it's likely to be gratuitous… a distraction rather than an enhancement. Keep in mind, too, that if you do use a more or less familiar language, you'll also be importing assumptions by your readers, based on the historical culture that actually used it. Don't use Swahili if your setting is supposed to resemble Scotland, in other words–or, worse, don't use Gaelic if your setting is supposed to resemble East Africa, since more people are likely to recognize Gaelic than Swahili. If you're going to build a deeply detailed world over the course of a lengthy body of work (think Tolkien… as usual), then using another language (real or invented) may be worth doing. Putting funny-looking words in solely for the sake of them looking funny is fairly pointless.
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I tend to agree with Ravana and Opiucha. Use the language correctly or don't use it at all. If you aren't sure how to make your own language then using a lanuguage that most people don't "see" that often is effective enough - again, if you know what you're doing.

I think, in general,*we* may feel that we need to have a unknown/new language in our fantasy stories because that's what makes it fantastical, but there's nothing wrong with using languages that are aprt of our "real" world.