You open a book and come across an unusual place or character name. Maybe it’s got some strange consonants packed in. Maybe it even has an apostrophe or two. You’ve got no idea how to pronounce it… but if you’re used to reading fantasy this probably hasn’t fazed you. Exotic invented names are commonplace in this realm.
Some fantasy names might stand out in your memory: perhaps famous ones like Isengard and Mordor, Azkaban and Quidditch, Targaryen and Dothraki. Others might not. Regardless, the majority of them are not as made-up as they seem. Many are inspired by or taken directly from real-world languages.
As a reader, you may be able recognise when a word has a certain sound or flavour to it – e.g. Latin or Slavic or Celtic. But could you pinpoint the exact language the author has been inspired by?
I have to admit, more often than not I can’t.
However, as someone who works part time at a foreign language library, I’m fascinated by other languages, and always find it interesting to discover which ones have inspired authors. So I thought I’d do some research and highlight a few languages that I see regularly used by English-speaking fantasy authors:
Well, no surprises here. Latin is the language I encounter most often used in fantasy fiction. For English speakers, Latin words hearken back to an older language that’s rich with historical and literary associations. They are also often easy for us to understand, due to Latin’s influence on the modern English language.
For example, take the incantation lumus, used as a light-creating spell in Harry Potter. Even if you don’t speak Latin, the use of this word is going to be reminiscent of the English word luminosity, and thus have associations with light. In fact, many of the spells in Harry Potter are Latin-based: e.g. Petrificus Totalus, Expecto Patronum, Wingardium Leviosa etc.
Rowling actually put a lot of thought into her language use for the spells she created. As this article on Tor.com points out, Latin is often used for higher order spells and Old English is often used for common household spells, which mirrors our use of Latin-based & Anglo-Saxon-based words in everyday English (see the article for a better explanation). Also, the only two spells of Greek origin in the books are those used for medical purposes, “which should not be surprising: in the ancient world, Greek was the language of physicians”.
Rowling is not alone in her use of Latin for fantasy names. ‘Narnia’ is actually the Latin name for a town in Italy called Narni – C.S. Lewis picked it off a classical map of Italy because he liked the sound of it. J.R.R Tolkien also used Latin in his fantasy language creation, along with a host of other languages.
2. Anglo-Saxon (Old English)
With the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf often lauded as the first ever fantasy tale, and Tolkien making use of the language in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s no surprise Anglo-Saxon is commonly used in fantasy novels. Additionally, modern English has its roots in Anglo-Saxon (there’s a reason it’s also called ‘Old English’), so, like Latin, many of the words are familiar and easier for us to grasp.
Tolkien used many Old English words in his novels, particularly for names that relate to the race of men. The character name Theoden, for example, means “king” or “leader of a people” in Old English (originally written þéoden).
George R. R. Martin also uses words of Anglo-Saxon origin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. As this post about Martin’s writing style argues, Martin regularly makes use of Anglo-Saxon prefixes and suffixes when writing and often invents new words using Anglo-Saxon source words to form compounds. The Song of Ice and Fire books are actually said to be inspired by historical events involving the Anglo Saxons. It’s likely no coincidence that the Anglo-Saxons divided up Britain into seven kingdoms, and there are seven kingdoms in Westeros.
A host of other epic fantasy novels make use of Anglo-Saxon, particularly ones with medieval settings.
3. Old Norse
Many fantasy authors have been inspired in their name choices by the Old Norse language, including Tolkien. And of course, any story with a Viking flavour or a strong influence from Norse mythology is likely to draw on the language. There are countless stories that have made reference to Odin, Thor and Loki, and the world tree Yggdrasil, among many other Norse myths.
I can’t help but feel that Norse names, along with Anglo-saxon ones, just have a quintessentially fantasy sound: Asgard, Ragnarok, Yggdrasil, Heimdall. Perhaps this is because we see these two languages so often used in fantasy, and rarely used in other contexts.
Poul Anderson’s books often draw from Norse mythology and language, as do Alan Garner’s (for example, he uses words like Svart alfar [from the Norse word svartálfar – dark/black elves], Lios alfar [from Ljósálfar – light elves], and names like Durathror and Grimnir).
“[…] some of the invented languages in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were inspired by strange inscriptions on Welsh trains which passed by his childhood residence. When Tolkien later learned Welsh as an undergraduate in Oxford, he ‘found in it an abiding linguistic-aesthetic satisfaction’ (Letters, 123)”
– Kath Filmer-Davies Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth
Welsh-derived words are also very common in fantasy. I believe one of the reasons for this is that many fantasy novels make extensive use of Welsh mythology, and Welsh folklore is tied up with the Arthurian legend. The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh folk tales that date back to the 11th Century or earlier, gave rise to the characters of Merlin and Arthur.
Some fantasy authors that have been inspired by Welsh myth or the Welsh language include: Madeleine L’Engle, J.R.R Tolkien, Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander.
In his book, Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy, C.W Sullivan gives a few examples of fantasy authors using Welsh:
- Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree uses celtic mythical creatures: afanc (a Welsh water creature) and a Mari Llwyd (horse’s skull traditionally carried as part of a carolling play – which becomes a skeletal horse creature in Cooper’s book).
- Lloyd Alexander uses Welsh words to form character names, such as Taran (“full big” or “thunder” in Welsh) and the bard, Fflewddur Fflam (likely from the Welsh words ffladr, meaning talkative, ffluwch, meaning shock of hair, and fflam, meaning flame), and Ellidyr, the self-centred troublesome prince in The Black Cauldron, who may take his name from the Welsh word, Iledyr, meaning crooked or oblique.
Other Celtic languages, like Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, are also sometimes used in fantasy (for example, in Artemis Fowl the “Gnommish” word D’Arvit is actually an Irish Gaelic curse word).
Arabic is another language commonly used in fantasy. I think it’s prevalence has to do with Arabic legends/folktales (e.g. the Arabian Nights collection) and fantasy creatures (e.g. Djinn) being prime fodder for fantasy, as well as the tendency to preference Arabic-sounding language for more desert-based fantasy landscapes.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune (science fiction, I know, but I had to mention it) the Fremen language spoken by the locals on the desert planet of Arrakis is derived from Arabic, with the struggle over the rare spice being a reference to the struggle over oil in the Middle East. This Article on Arabic and Islamic themes in Dune has loads of examples from the novel, which include muad’dib (the nickname Paul chooses, which is almost the same as the Arabic Mu’adib, which means “private tutor” or “teacher”) and usul (the name given to Paul by the Fremen Chieftain Stilgar, intended to mean “base of the pillar” in Fremen. In Arabic it means “basis”).
More recent examples I’ve seen of Arabic use in fantasy were in the books The Golem and the Djinni (because of the Djinni’s Arab background), The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which has a very desert-like setting (the language in this was apparently “pseudo-Spanish with Arabic and Italian influences”) and Bartimaeus, where the main character is also a Djinn (characters in the book also refer to themselves as afrit and marid – supernatural creatures from Arab culture).
Russian is another favourite in fantasy, though perhaps not as popular as Germanic and Latin languages.
The book I’ve read recently which made extensive use of the Russian language in creating character names, place names and words, was Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. In this post about her use of the language, the author discusses how she chose and adapted words to build the Russian-inspired world of Ravka. For example, she made the Darkling’s title moi soverennyi, a more Russian sounding version of “my sovereign”, rather than something overtly English like “m’lord” or “sir”. She does say she thinks most readers skim over italics like this… but if you listened to the audiobook, like I did, the Russian names and words were actually very prominent (and beautifully pronounced by the narrator) and gave it a distinct, appealing sound.
Kim Wilkins’ Rosa and Veil of Gold also made extensive use of Russian mythology and history, particularly creatures from Russian folk tales. For example, there is a leshii that bargains with the protagonists for gold (a wood demon from Russian folklore) and a terrifying witch-like character known as Baba Yaga.
When fantasy novels use Hebrew words (which they often do), I find it is usually due to the use of biblical stories and names, or when the stories relate to fantastical creatures like Golems or angels.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, makes use of a wide range of languages and cultures, but Hebrew is one of the dominant ones. The names of all the Seraphim characters are Hebrew or Hebrew inspired names (e.g. Akiva), and Eretz, the land they come from, means “land” or “earth” in Hebrew. The monsters from the creation myth are called Gibborim, a Hebrew word used to describe beings of great stature, valiance, or might.
The above list is by no means comprehensive. There are other languages I’ve encountered in small doses in fantasy, such as Japanese, Chinese, German, Greek, Yiddish, Hindi and Indonesian, and many more that I simply haven’t encountered or recognised yet. Every language on earth has probably cropped up in a fantasy novel at some point. Though, given there are over 6500 spoken languages in the world, some may have escaped this treatment. I guess that is good news for fantasy authors and readers. The languages on this earth are as plentiful as the mythologies and stories, so fantasy worlds are unlikely to ever run out of fodder for their creative names, words and cultures.