On Fantasy in Modern Language

I began writing this post as a response to “Modern Slang and Language and Fantasy” on matthewdellar.com, but it became so long that I figured it’d be best if I just made it into a post for my own blog – then I could edit it later if I made a typo or something.

Let me summarize the contents of that post for you:
The author points out that modern slang and language pulls you out of fantasy. To quote him verbatum:

modern language pulls you out of a non-modern fantasy.

However, he believes that modern language can be used for fantasy, and he’d like to see more fantasy take place in post-Medieval settings.

Before I begin my response, let me say first: this is not an argumentative response. I’m not saying he’s wrong (or not entirely *bites lip*), but I’m trying to expand on the idea.

Several things come to mind. 1) The Princess Bride. A great non-Romeo-Juliet romance that takes place in Medieval times but captures modern humor with modern vocabulary. 2) Steam Punk. The genre itself is fantasy in the setting of late 1800s early 1900s with fantastic (in other words, fantasy) inventions. It’s often beautifully done in Japanese films such as Laputa, Castle in the Sky, and games like Dark Cloud 2.

Oddly enough, I started thinking of digital monsters… oh wait, that’s Digimon. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The reason people use Medieval times is because it already has that fantasy element to it – it has the magic of being unexplainable. When you put stuff in modern times, the fantasy element begins to fight with the modern notion of scientific reasoning, and writers feel like they have to give a reason for the monsters being there – a reason that sometimes ends up being the monsters are aliens (as in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and the recent film The Pacific Rim). The story looks silly, even if the graphics are great (which they are for both films).

The point of fantasy is to get away from modern reasoning, to escape into a world of exploration where you ignore the real rules for a time in order to capture other things: like the idea of a stone or a sword or a scene in time being very special or precious. If you’re going to put fantasy in modern times, you need to either keep the element of mystery, giving it a place in the real world (as in The Santa Claus), or encapsulate it in its own world (as in .hack// anything).

This all ties in with the issue of language. Fantasy language, as the original post’s author says, is being translated in some way from the original language – a conclusion you can come to by simply realizing the entire known universe does not speak English. Of course, people usually don’t think about this fact unless they either a) watch anime and/or b) watch Star Trek, Star Gate, or sci-fi shows like that. (Side question: Did you ever learn to speak Clingon?)

The problem with language is that, the more people use it, the more it changes in meaning. This is true even with so-called “dead languages” like Latin and Egyptian. Why? Because each person to read a word interprets it alittle differently each time they read it. It doesn’t matter what language it is. Furthermore, every new person to read the word interprets it differently than their teacher. Granted, the meaning is generally the same, and for dead languages, the original idea can be stumbled upon and found alot more easily than for living/active languages, which is why the former may barely change over the course of thousands of years and the later may change by the minute.

Since language is changing, it often means we need to update old texts, both nonfiction and fiction, to make them more readable in modern times. Not many English speaking people I know want to read a book full of “thee”s, “art”s, and “craft”s (XD See what I did there?).

However, I would wager (who I am kidding – I don’t gamble) that modern language doesn’t need to take us out of fantasy at all. But not only that, it doesn’t need to destroy the fantasy world of a Medieval setting. Slang in particular might, which is what the author of the original post definitely had in mind, but this is because it conjures up ideas of the modern world. We expect phrases like “yo dawg” to come from a more modern world, or more advanced society. I can imagine a Medieval setting where this would work, though it would be quite humorous. Modern language, however, depending on how it is employed, doesn’t have to destroy the fantasy element. Notable, however, modern language is dependent on progressions (good and bad) in society and technology. For example, a writer probably wouldn’t use the word “taxi” to speak of a carriage for a royalty, nor “cellphone” to speak of a ram’s horn used for calling out to the countryside. These words have specific modern day connections, and thus using them can be detrimental to a story if not properly employed (I didn’t say it wasn’t possible, but I can’t give you an example).

The language in fantasy worlds usually includes new vocabulary. This is because that new vocabulary adds both mystery and specificity. It adds mystery in the sense that the audience has never heard this word before, and as a consequence, it adds intrigue. What is this “X”? What is this creature “Y”? Etcetera. (As a side track, I note that “etcetera” wasn’t even in my browser’s spell checker because it’s used so infrequently.) Too much mystery language makes a story hard to follow, but used in the right places, it can make a story more fascinating. For example, the “Force” in Star Wars, “avatar” from Snow Crash, or, yes, “Borg” from Star Trek. Notice, too, that sometimes the words are unoriginal. The key here is in giving those words new definition – something that isn’t necessarily easy to do, especially with words like “salon” and “aerosol” – and making that new definition clear.

I conclude with a very ad-hoc story example using modern language and slang. Your reaction to this may give you some ideas as to how an actual story may appear with fantasy elements (or you could just watch Young Merlin) and it may give you a hint at why my writing off-the-cuff skills never got me a job writing for the Simpsons.

The story begins at a high-school in modern Japan (sound like a familiar setting?). There’s my explanation for why the main character – a girl (who else?) – speaks in a modern tongue, but not why everyone else does. The main character is captured and teleported to Medieval Europe by a witch who wants to brain wash her, morph her, and substitute her in the place of the nearby kingdom’s princess. Then, the witch will get invited into the castle and can thence proceed to take over the kingdom and destroy a so-called sacred stone, (lemme make up a name…) “The Crystalle De Jikan” (in other words [French-sounding] “crystal” [Spanish] “of” [Japanese] “time”). This stone, which protects humanity from the witch and has been preserved and protected up until modern times, is a gift to the kingdom from a warrior who stole it from the witch as she was being born. The witch herself has time travel capabilities, but cannot go back in time to a point before she was born – and she ages according to the time period she is in.

In the following scene, the beautiful heroine meets the witch.

Witch: (classy) ” ‘sup child?”
Heroine: “Who are you?”Witch: “I’m yo momma.”
Heroine: “嘘! You look like a ugly ol’ floaty lady.”
Witch: Rolls eyes. “What did you expect? God?”
Heroine: “Not at all, girl.” *flicks wrist* “Just somethin’ like Mary or an angel.”
Witch: “Where do you think this is? Ancient Palestine?”
Heroine: “Yeah! Isn’t that fifty kilometers from Liverpool?”
Witch: “That’s enough.”

Yes it is. I’m terrible at off-the-cuff dialogue, as you can see.

That’s it for this post.

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About chronologicaldot

Just a Christ-centered, train-loving, computer geek.
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