Over-thinking Etymology

Online Etymology DictionaryEtymology has always fascinated me, but I’m beginning to learn it has no place in a fantasy novel.

The novel I’m working on deals with a fictional race called the Elari. As I was creating the race, I thought it would be a good idea to develop an alphabet for them. I ended with an English alphabet sans a few letters (B, D, and U to name a few). Any Elari character name would have only these letters. I even created a character whose name used the letter D to mark her as half human/half Elari. I was quite pleased with myself, until I realized the big flaw in this: I can’t speak convincingly with only part of the English alphabet.

Natiae wouldn’t be able to say “but” or “because” or “beautiful.” Even the name for the Elari’s home, the Sanctuary, would be off-limits according to their alphabet. Well bugger me, that doesn’t work out at all!

I can’t use “spaghetti” because that’s Italian and there is no Italy in this world. I can’t use “tortilla,” either, because it’s Spanish. In terms of weapons, I can’t use “kunai,” “shuriken,” or “katana,” because those are all Japanese. If I made up new words for these objects, I would waste time on explaining what these new items are and confuse the reader.

In a different world, would we have called them guns? Pistols? Trains? Would we have shaped our houses the same? Would our fashion sense be different? We wouldn’t even speak English!

Does that mean to write a truly convincing fantasy novel, I have to not only create new races and new inventions, but also new languages? I’m still trying to perfect improve my first language and learn a second language, now I have to make up a third? Do not want!

Etymology of an ElephantI ran into a similar issue with God-Chosen. Why would a demon speak English? A demon wouldn’t. Therefore, English is Amara’s second language and she’s not terribly good at it. I didn’t make up another language, I just made up a name for it. I still wrote in English, but used a conversation tag mentioning the language, similar to what Terry Pratchett does in The Colour of Magic.

That leaves me with one issue: Lucian and Amara are married, but what sense of matrimony do demons have? Certainly nothing like ours. Describing that mid-novel would be terribly dull and would add nothing to the story. Making up new a new word for marriage (and related terms) would erase the connotation, confuse the reader, and I would still have to stop mid-story to explain it.

The best solution I’ve thought of so far is to have a footnote (or something similar) to mention it. Something like:

Demons have a very different sense of matrimony than we do. There is no direct translation (our language to theirs) of “marriage,” “wedding,” “husband,” “wife,” and other such words. However, these English words have similar meaning to the Amilain sense of “marriage” and “life partnership,” and are substituted in place of a more literal translation for the sake of coherency.

Such a note wouldn’t take the reader far out of the story and would explain the unlikelihood of millennia-old demons having the same notion of marriage as us measly humans. I do not want to spend any more than a couple sentences on the notion since the story is not about matrimony. Having it as a footnote instead of mid-paragraph would also accentuate the fact that it’s a minor detail that doesn’t affect the reader’s understanding of the novel.

Perhaps there’s a better way to get that idea across, but I haven’t found it yet.

Etymology is a pain.


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on October 6, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Yeah, definitely agree. It would be cool to be able to come up with your own language, but that would be too difficult and would only confuse the reader.

    Funny that you are writing this now. I’ve had something similar in mind to write about, only about numbers instead of language. 🙂

    • Yeah number systems would be different, too, wouldn’t they? I created my own way to write numbers to help me with my math homework. It’s so much easier to focus on the math problem if you’re not confusing the problem with the problem number. A new number system, however, would be incredibly difficult.

  2. Yeah, considering different cultures can be interesting. You could always cop out with something like the Babel fish or other universal translator, but that could seem cheap. These cultures are probably best described when a character in the story is as clueless as the readers.

    As a sidenote, typing on a DSi sure is tedious.

    • I always felt the whole “the TARDIS translates everything for you” bit in Doctor Who was a cop out.

      The character in my story is clueless, but in the opposite sense as the reader. She knows her own culture, which is completely alien to the reader, and knows nothing about the human culture, which is somewhat familiar to the reader. I’m a little nervous about it because of that, but we’ll see how it goes!

      I didn’t know you could type on a DSi… You get internet on those?

      • Ah, Doctor Who. A show that I think I’d enjoy, but years of television, radio, etc. are quite the entry hurdle to get into it. I know that they reboot every once in a while to let new viewers hop on board, but I’m the kind of guy who’s trying to read through Dinosaur Comics (a futile effort, if I don’t read at least one every day), so…

        Cultural misunderstandings? Hijinks will ensue, I’m sure. In any case, I’m sure you’ll pull it off!

        You can, but whether or not you should is another question entirely. It’s touchscreen keyboarding, which seems nicer than the PSP’s T9-style, but the buttons are small and sensitive, resulting in many typos. Or you can write the letters, but the DSi does not appreciate my horrible penmanship. And yeah, the DSi has an Opera browser. Pretty decent, actually, since I can get on WordPress and stuff.

        • I used to watch Doctor Who on YouTube, but meany Google took all of the episodes down for “copyright infringement.”

          Now you know why I stick to computers haha

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Numbers in Fantasy « The Musings of a Dreamer

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