Way With Worlds: Language

language speech baloon

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

Over at Trilobyte Studios, my friend Blaze read my columns on races, and had some interesting insights – and some disagreements with me.

Though explores concepts of sentient versus sapient species and proper definition, one thing that stood out for me is that he argues about my thesis that “we might as well use race and species interchangeably since many people do.” He felt that was improper.

It’s not hard to see why. Not only is it improper, Blaze actually has had to explain English to non-English speakers (never an easy job with English) and is aware of the need of clarity. Though we both deal in language, we clearly approach it differently and I wanted to explore that issue as it relates to world building

I argued it was best to surrender to the overwhelming language issue and lump it. Blaze argues that we should not, and makes a case for proper language usage. I myself, after reading his entries, think he has a point – indeed, those of us doing and teaching worldbuilding should consider proper language. How else do we communicate?

My take, however, is that for the purpose of my work, that I surrender to the improper terminology and do my best to qualify it. It broadens and makes my work more relevant and perhaps avoid nit-picking. I’m not there to try and rectify language, I’m about technique.

However, maybe I should be. After all if I’m going to write on worldbuilding perhaps I should make a stand for proper language. Besides, improper language normally drives me up a wall.

Oh, I don’t have an answer to this. Sorry. In fact I don’t expect to have an answer until I bundle up and re-edit these essays into a book. By then maybe I’ll have an idea of if I want to work on changing language. Or maybe not.

But I’m glad that someone talked about it.

The Challenge Of Worldbuilding And Language

Language is extremely important when discussing worldbuilding. Yes, that’s partially a big duh – but Blaze made me think about how important it is to have standards in language. Casual terminology and such might not be the right words to discuss this.

Consider all the challenges facing worldbuilders when it comes to even talking about the craft:

  • First there is the language of our creation itself. What is magic or technology, species or race, sentient and not?
  • We have to use scientific terms when discussing, well, scientific issues.
  • We can throw out cultural references that require understanding – rather challenging when one is separated by culture or by he years.
  • We may have to use religious, theological, and mystical terms that others may not understand and that have a lot of baggage, misunderstanding, personal meaning, and ambiguity.
  • We may outright invent language or terms for our worlds – which, if we’re not careful may not be easy to communicate with our fellow creatives..
  • Then we have to put all this into a world and a tale or game for people to discover it.

It almost makes you amazed anyone can craft a coherent setting – yet we do. Many of us build unforgettable vistas that are just behind our eyes or pixels on a screen. And yet at its core is language.

Thus I think we worldbuilders should take the time to weigh our language carefully. What words do we use? What is appropriate? What is not appropriate/ What communicates best?

We might not even agree on everything, but we can at least hone our knowledge, our vocabulary, and our use of words to make sure we’re using them right.

In fact, this leads me to a most interesting question – one that has no answer yet – but one we should consider .. .

More Unified Language Of Worldbuilding?

Blaze made me wonder if perhaps we worldbuilders should take some effort, be it debate or book or web page, to come up with a kind of “language guide” to worldbuilding. SOmething that worldbuilders could pick up and get the best idea of how to use words, communicate, and employ language in creation, documentation,and communication of our world.

Just consider this:

  • Imagine best words to refer to particular things (like, say, race and species) that are both correct and relevant.
  • Proper terminology for important scientific, religious, and political terms. Perhaps a top 100.
  • Proper terms for documentation, storage, and methods that we’ll use to build our worlds.
  • Language traps. Words people might get wrong.
  • Terms around the world that may be useful to know (or steal).

Maybe we worldbuilders should take a stab at finding a way to codify our passion with useful terminology.

We might even invent some new, needed words.

Most Certainly Not In Closing

So I leave this open to you, dear reader. What do you think? Should we worldbuilders work to hone our language and terminology a bit more? Could we?

I don’t have an answer. But maybe some of us can together . . .


– Steven Savage