Elder Speech and How Fantasy Immerses Us Through Language

By: Holly Ross

An epic fantasy isn’t an epic fantasy without at least one world-specific language. Whether it be the language of the elves, the language of the gods, or the language of the enemy kingdom from the other side of the world, it isn’t uncommon for a fantasy series to come along with a new language. While many of these languages are not fully fleshed out or even usable, there are many fully functional languages born from the pages of both fantasy and sci-fi novels and shows. Some of the most iconic of these languages are Quenya [i.e. Elvish], created by J.R.R. Tolkien and featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Klingon, created by linguist Marc Okrand for Star Trek, and Dothraki, created by George R.R. Martin but completed by linguist David J. Peterson for the Game of Thrones show.

Although perhaps not as well developed as the many other iconic fantasy languages, The Witcher presents its own fantastical language: Elder Speech. Heavily based on many real-life Celtic languages, Elder Speech (also known as Hen Linge or Elvish) takes many factors from the Welsh language. Elements are also borrowed from German and English, and to a lesser extent, Italian and Latin. Even though Sapkowski himself didn’t create a full-blown language for The Witcher, in order to make the language fuller and more usable for the Netflix adaptation, showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich employed linguist David J. Peterson to complete the language. Peterson is an iconic linguist known for constructing languages for other fictional series such as Game of Thrones and The 100, among many others 

With Peterson’s help, Elder Speech is now complete with its own alphabet known as the Elder Runes and is a fully functional language with its own grammar and rules. Many scenes in the show are done entirely in Elder Speech, quite unlike the books, where there isn’t much beyond a few sparse sentences and a basketful of vocabulary. With a now fully functional language, the show had more liberty to explore not only the dialogue in the books but further expand that of the elves and dryads, and even use it when mages cast their spells1https://redanianintelligence.com/2019/12/17/game-of-thrones-david-j-peterson-explains-how-he-created-the-witchers-elder-speech/. In the Witcherverse, Elder Speech is the language of the Aen Seidhe elves, but is used in specific cultural contexts by most of the other species that inhabit the continent as well (e.g. dryads, sirens, and nereids). From Elder Speech stemmed many other dialects commonly used in the world of The Witcher, including Nilfgaardian, Skellige, and Zerrikanian.

Elder Speech also plays a large role in the work of mages and scholars. In Blood of Elves, as Ciri begins to learn magic under the tutelage of Yennefer, it’s noted that many of the spells and formulae were written in Elder Speech, making it vital that anyone studying magic know it well. We also see this in the show as the sorceresses use the language when casting their spells.

So why should we care about language? One of the main selling points of fantasy is the creation of a new world. New countries, new creatures, new physics, and new cultures are all a part of making these worlds believable. Languages make these worlds even more believable by filling in certain cultural gaps and understandings. The more you think about it, the more you begin to realize what a large range of impact language has on a society. Languages are rich in culture and tradition and by creating new words and entire languages specifically for a story, it adds depth to the longstanding cultures and traditions that are established through the plot and other worldbuilding devices. Language deals with personal identity, the culture of different ethnic groups, and affects how we communicate with each other and how we think. Because language is such a big part of society, incorporating it into a fictional world helps strengthen that fictional society. Fantasy is an immersive experience, and language is the icing on top of the metaphorical cake in completely transporting a reader, watcher, or player into a new world. 

Fictional languages are great— they encourage fans to dive deeper into the world’s culture, and inspire die-hard fans to flex their Broca’s area by learning an entirely new language full of complex sounds, grammars, and new scripts. Duolingo offers courses on languages like High Valyrian and Klingon, with their High Valyrian course boasting over 450,000 learners. There are even six Klingon translations of popular literature from around the world, including a translation of Hamlet and The Art of War. Learning these languages is also a great way to bring together fans and strengthen the fanbase community.

Language learning isn’t just about forming words into sentences. When one studies a language, they’re also studying a country’s culture and their history. When fans willingly take upon themselves the daunting task of learning these fictional languages, they become a part of that world themselves. They understand the culture in greater detail and the intricacies of the language that can’t quite come across in translation. As the number of fans that learn a fictional language increases, the language itself seems to become less “fictional”. It becomes a legitimate way for the speakers of this language to communicate and it once again blurs the line between fantasy and reality. If I can have a conversation with someone in Elder Speech, then it’s no longer a fictional language. As long as there are real people that can produce and comprehend full utterances in this language, then it’s just a language, no “fictional” needed. 

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