A while ago, Merriam Webster (y’know, the dictionary) published an article that I found fascinating. It was about language as it’s used in Star Wars and it’s a short and interesting read. The gist of it is this: In Star Wars, George Lucas used a lot of plain, English words to create his world. There’s not a lot of made up words in A New Hope, and most of them are ultimately tangential to the plot (Wookiee, Alderaan, Moff).
All this serves to help the world feel more grounded. It’s the Empire fighting the Rebels, not Mordor against Gondor. Ben Kenobi is a Jedi Knight, Luke and Han fight stormtroopers, Leia has the plans to the Death Star.
Now, the overabundance of made up words in The Lord of The Rings makes sense in its own way: Tolkien was all about languages and, in some ways, Middle-earth is a playground for his vocabulary. Minas Tirith isn’t a random collection of letters, but Quenya for Tower of Guard. The internal logic to it, helped by each culture’s naming practices being very consistent, creates the feeling of visiting somewhere that speaks a different language than the one you know. Again: it makes sense.
Comparing the use of language and made-up words in Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings shows a curious difference in approach. Much of the made up words in Star Wars are qualified by something in English. Jedi doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we’re told about the brave efforts of the Jedi Knights. ‘Knight’ does a lot of work there, conjuring up images of medieval Europe and noble quests. Conversely, a Balrog of Morgoth tells us basically nothing unless you know who Morgoth is. Not to say we’re given no clues about what a Balrog is before it shows up; Gandalf’s fear and the ominous tone of Balin’s book lets us know that it is a Bad Thing. It may l seem obtuse at first blush, but it doesn’t take long for you to grok it and be able to roll with words like Rohirrim and Nazgûl.
Here’s the interesting thing: the use of language in these to made-up worlds evokes two very different tones. Star Wars, with its very plain English words, is a grounded reality. Sure, you’ve got this world of wonder and fantasy, but it’s all very ‘normal.’ There’s nothing too foreign used to describe things, except for place names and species, of which there are only a few. The big Plot Things are described plainly, so despite it taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it doesn’t feel entirely unlike our own world.
But The Lord of The Rings deliberately harkens to a more mythical world. The saga of Middle-earth is the stuff of legends, and so we have all these terms outside our own lexicon that conjure up a feeling of unknown, of not quite understanding the extent of the world.
Quite brilliantly, this mirrors the hobbits’ journey. The Shire is a very plain name for a place that’s Basically England, with town names like Hobbiton and Bywater and the Brandywine River. All very normal sounding place names that wouldn’t be too out of place on a map of the UK. As the four hobbits travel, they reach Rivendell (sounds like River-dell; still familiar) to the Mines of Moria (I know what a mine is) to Lothlorien (what now?). Their journey away from home and what is familiar is mirrored in the language. By the time we visit Edoras or Ithilien, we’re well aware that we are far from the familiarity of the Shire. The use of made-up words serves the narrative, such that when we finally return to the Shire it’s capped with a visit to the Grey Havens: a place that despite being quite elvish has a very familiar name.
The language in The Lord of The Rings gets odd, but it gets odd as the story does. Star Wars says relatively normal throughout, keeping it feel right. Turns out language can tell stories too!
I feel I’d be remiss not to mention Destiny here. The game uses very little in the way of made up words, aside from names which are either rare or from non-western cultures (Ikora, Zavala), or made up for some aliens (Crota, Sepiks). But everything else? Plain English. You are a Guardian, a member of the Vanguard blessed by the Light of The Traveller, to fight the agents of Darkness: The Fallen, Hive, Vex, Cabal, and Taken. You hang out at the Tower, fight in the Crucible, talk with the Drifter and the Speaker, and so on. It’s all very normal English, which, is fine, but the overabundance in Destiny does make for a very fun meme about how borderline nonsensical it all is.
1 thought on “Story Language”
Most interesting read. Thank you for this diversion.