Book a chat

Samantha Shannon on Language in Fantasy Fiction

fantasy guest authors Sep 11, 2022
language in fantasy

In a fantasy world, the author has enviable freedom in creating the language their characters speak. From ancient languages to fully fictional languages, the possibilities are exhilarating.

Even if you decide your fantasy novel won’t be full of invented words, you can still follow in the footsteps of Samantha Shannon and pull from foreign languages and obsolete tongues.

The New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author of fantasy novels including The Bone Season series and The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon knows how languages work in speculative fiction. She’s found ways of arranging words and constructing phrases that add extra depth to her characters and world-building.

Ahead of her session with members of The Novelry, Samantha shared her thoughts and advice on choosing language for your fantasy worlds.


The balance between accuracy and clarity

A few years ago, I was sitting in a friend’s garden, poring over the copyedits for my fourth book, The Priory of the Orange Tree. The page was hatched with red marks, and out of curiosity, my friend – a fellow author – asked me about the last change I’d made.

‘It’s campfire,’ I explained. ‘I can’t use it. It wasn’t created until 1835.’ 

I had started to cull words that first appeared after the seventeenth century, fearing they were too modern, too much a part of our own language. I feared they might stop a reader from getting immersed in a fantasy world inspired by that period. It was only when my friend pointed out how severely this was going to restrict my vocabulary that I realised I might need to let it go.


Tracking the history of words

As a fantasy author with a keen interest in etymology, wrestling with language in my books is both an invigorating challenge and an eternal source of frustration.

It took me over a year to decide on a naming system for The Priory of the Orange Tree, and I now have a sprawling Word document to keep track of where each character and place name originates, and what it means.

As a fantasy author with a keen interest in etymology, wrestling with language in my books is both an invigorating challenge and an eternal source of frustration.

I love this stage of writing a book – a stage that often continues very late into the process – and I’m never happier than when a name I’ve been working on for a long time finally clicks together. 

However, if you’re the sort of writer who pays as close attention to etymology as I do, the very means by which you tell a story can start to feel like a potential weakness in your world-building.

Consider indigo – it comes from the Greek indikón, referring to India. Can a world without India have a colour called indigo? Take care before you turn to turquoise – that one comes from the French for Turkish. There are many words like this: champagne, burgundy.

Each writer makes their own choice when it comes to where and how to draw a line in the sand. If we thought about this too much, we might conclude that high fantasy should only be told through constructed languages (or conlangs). Since a separate world would logically have none of ours, we might assert, we should spend much of our time creating fictional languages.

Even Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in English, though he addressed this in the appendices – the book is presented as a translation from Westron, the common tongue of Middle-earth. In Westron, Meriadoc Brandybuck’s name is Kalimac. Its short form, Kali, means ‘jolly’ – hence Tolkien choosing to translate it as Meriadoc, or Merry, in English.

whether you're writing science fiction or fantasy, you can have fun creating languages or combining other languages


Language, gender and sexuality in fantasy fiction

Being a sapphic woman and a feminist to boot, I’m especially fascinated by the linguistic constraints – and possibilities – of expressing gender and sexuality in secondary worlds.

When we move into a fantasy realm, we face the question of how to address and signal a character’s identity in a way readers will understand, since words that apply in the real world can become difficult in a secondary one.

Sapphic, for example, relies etymologically on the existence of the poet Sappho; lesbian comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, where she lived.

When we move into a fantasy realm, we face the question of how to address and signal a character’s identity in a way readers will understand.

Historical fiction presents a similar conundrum – many of the words we use now didn’t exist in the past.


My fascination with words

My interest in the relationship between gender, sexuality and language began in one of my first classes at university, where I studied English Language and Literature.

In my Old English class, I learned that cunt didn’t begin life as a profanity – it was simply the common term for the vagina and vulva before the Norman Conquest.

Later, I learned that the male side of the family was the sperehealf (spear-half) and the female line of descent, the spinelhealf (spindle-half).

Granted, this example sets out distinct, binary gender roles. But I also learned that the Anglo-Saxons also had a gender-neutral word for a human being – mann. That’s why mankind has been historically used to describe humankind – because mann really did used to be the default word for a human being, regardless of sex. A male human was a wæpmann (‘weapon-human’) or wer (‘male human’), and a female human was a wif (‘wife, female human’) or wifmann (‘female human’).

Fictional languages including elvish languages can be based on actual languages when you're writing fantasy

If this had endured, mann could have been used today by those who identify as non-binary, or to describe a person whose sex or gender identity is unknown.

However, at some point, wer and wæp- were dropped – we see them now only in werewolf (‘man-wolf’) – and mann became the word for both a human and a male-identifying human, with one inextricably tied to the other. 

The consequence is that nowadays, women are othered by our own descriptor. Our name means woman-human, wife-human. We are an add-on to essential humanity, requiring a prefix to distinguish us, while men are the default.  


Speculative fiction is a wonderful laboratory for language

Speculative fiction has historically tried to tackle some big questions around language. We can write stories in such a way that the language calls attention to, questions or outright rejects its own meaning. We can even use constructed language to spurn the power structures that uphold our own language as it’s currently spoken.

Speculative fiction has historically tried to tackle some big questions around language. 

In 1984, the American author and linguist Suzette Haden Elgin published the novel Native Tongue, using the fantasy genre to depict a world in which the 19th Amendment was repealed in the early nineties. Stripped of their civil rights, the women of the novel secretly create their own means of communication.

Elgin constructed this language, Láadan, to counter what she perceived as the androcentric nature of the words we use, and to give women a way to express themselves, free of the limits imposed by patriarchy. Her characters used new sounds and new words to stake their claim to power and self-determination.

Láadan was an experiment, with Elgin posing the hypothesis that women would either embrace and start using it, or respond to the idea, but not the language itself. Neither happened – Láadan received almost no attention.

Still, Elgin’s attempt to address the sexism of language demonstrates the possibilities of using science fiction as an engine for change. Words and phrases like hatheril (the English equivalent being something akin to ‘woman-time’), loláad oyanan (‘to perceive with the skin’) and nárilim (‘quest internally’) express complex thoughts and feelings with effective concision.

invented languages and other languages, even if it's just a few words, can add complexity to a fictional race and create a different language for your fantasy worlds  

You don’t have to create a fictional language to say something new

Even if writers don’t create a fantasy language for our fictional worlds, we can grapple with the ones we have.

The newest addition to my Bone Season series, The Mask Falling, is set in Paris in an alternate 2060. In this instalment, I found myself having to rework a real world language for the first time.

While the sprawling empire of The Bone Season is often brutal, it certainly isn’t patriarchal – it was shaped by a being who identifies as she and comes from a society without gender roles.

It therefore made no sense to me that her France would use the rule le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin (‘the masculine prevails over the feminine’). Proclaimed by Nicolas Beauzée in the seventeenth century, this rule means that a mixed-gender group is always described as masculine in French.

You could have fifty women in a room, but if one man joins them, the group turns masculine. However, if a single woman joins a group of fifty men, the group does not become feminine.

I found myself having to rework a real world language for the first time.

To deal with this, I considered several approaches, including l’écriture inclusive, which employs the point médian to combine masculine and feminine words, rendering them neuter. Writers would be les écrivain·e·s, combining les écrivains (masculine) and les écrivaines (feminine).

Eventually, I decided that feminine and masculine group nouns would simply be interchangeable, sometimes influenced by the speaker’s own gender identity. I retained the words of this foreign language, but signalled to my reader that they could be used flexibly, in a way that makes sense for each character.


Titles, honorifics and gender

There was also the issue of honorifics when I was writing.

In French, women without a professional title are traditionally either Madame or Mademoiselle. Legally, Madame is now the honorific of choice – after a dedicated campaign by French-speaking feminists, Mademoiselle was excluded from official documents in 2012.

Despite the concern that Mademoiselle is sexist, France still uses it in some contexts, especially in reference to younger women. French-speaking friends admitted they’d find it odd for my twenty-year-old protagonist to be addressed as Madame.

Despite this, I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea that a woman’s honorific in Scion France would be affected by either her age or her marital status (when men are simply Monsieur), so I began constructing alternatives. 

I knew I was taking a risk – but fantasy, of all genres, requires readers to take a leap of faith. 

I thought I was on to something when I found the term donzelle, but when I checked with my French translator, he told me it had a pejorative undertone in real life. I considered citoyenne (citizen), used during the French Revolution, but that felt too distinctly tied to one period of history.

Finally, we settled on Madelle, a portmanteau of the two existing honorifics. First proposed for official use in Québec, it also appears in the seventeenth-century writings of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and while it lacks clear etymological logic, it serves to erase age and marital status.

I knew I was taking a risk – but fantasy, of all genres, requires readers to take a leap of faith. I could only hope readers would be able to grasp its meaning through context.


Titles and honorifics in epic fantasy

Honorifics and titles can also present a challenge in epic fantasy worlds, which are often thronged by emperors and empresses, lords and ladies, kings and queens.

Queen – a word that feels as if it should be purely empowering for women – is from Old English cwēn (‘wife, woman’), from Proto-Germanic kwoeniz (‘wife’), itself from Proto-Indo-European gwen- (‘woman’). It was first used to describe the female consort of a king, not a woman who held power in her own right. This makes it inextricably linked to marriage and gender, while king has no obvious link to either. King is a word for a ruler, not a consort. 

Honorifics and titles can also present a challenge in epic fantasy worlds, which are often thronged by emperors and empresses, lords and ladies, kings and queens.

Of course, there are alternatives to queen. Having such a distinctly separate word for a female ruler is a linguistic oddity. It’s more common for the word to be a feminised version of a masculine title, such as Sultana (from Sultan) or Augusta (from Augustus).

Sometimes there is no distinction at all – Hatshepsut and Cleopatra called themselves pharaohs, not ḥmt nswt wrt (‘Great Royal Wife’). In seventeenth-century Angola, Njinga Mbande was ngola – ruler, or king.


The choices I made for my novel 

The Priory of the Orange Tree is partly set on an island inspired by Britain, ruled for centuries by women, with the first as a consort and every other as a ruler in her own right.

When I planned it, I briefly considered calling them kings. One could argue that the word queen is unnecessary, since gender has nothing to do with effective rule. At the same time, I was unsettled by the idea of taking a title disproportionately associated with men, making it the default, and removing queen altogether – just as I wouldn’t erase woman simply because of its troublesome etymology.

After some wavering, I decided to embrace the word queen, in all its femininity, and despite its origins. I decided to use the word queendom – often, with confidence. I wanted to help break down the original etymology of queen, creating an explicit association of the word with a woman holding her own power. It looked strange until it didn’t.

After some wavering, I decided to embrace the word queen, in all its femininity, and despite its origins.

To preserve its meaning, my Italian translator created a neologism, reginato, and my French translator used reinaume. In Spanish, however, it was simply rendered as reino (‘kingdom’).


Fantasy writers can create the language they need

While fantasy writers drawing from history have a wealth of options, some titles lack truly gender-neutral alternatives, leaving us to create our own alternatives.

In Priory, I created the titles High Ruler and Warlord, and for my current project, I’ve settled on:

  •   Mastress as an alternative to Mistress and Master
  •   Duchet as an alternative to Duchess and Duke
  •   Lade as an alternative to Lady and Lord 

As with Madelle, this might initially cause confusion, but I’m willing to take the risk.

Fantasy is the genre where imagination is the limit – and that applies to language just as much as every other aspect of worldbuilding that the fantasy writer has to play with.    


samantha shannon on language in fantasy fiction

Samantha Shannon

Bestselling Fantasy Author

Samantha Shannon is the bestselling author of fantasy novels including The Bone Season series spanning seven novels, and the New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, which was a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards 2020.


Find your course

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards literary agency representation with our online creative writing courses.

Start today!

Subscribe to the blog

Sign up to get the Sunday paper for writers to your inbox.


Recent blogs

The Blair Partnership: Agents’ Submission Wishlist

May 21, 2023

A. A. Dhand on Writing a Page-Turner

May 07, 2023