Language has played a crucial role in the history of our world, but in most fantasy, it is often mentioned only in passing. It’s easy to see why: writing fictional languages is hard, and making them seem realistic is even harder. But it’s a topic worth thinking about, especially for those writers who like to delve really deep into their worldbuilding and want to write fantasy worlds that are especially rich and immersive.
To help you write realistic languages, I want to show you how they emerge, change and die out in real life. Let’s take a look at Medieval England.
Language in Medieval England
Language has a long history in the British Isles.
To begin with, modern-day England was populated by Celtic tribes. These tribes spoke a language now known as Common Brittonic, which was used from circa 600BC to after the Roman invasion.
The Roman invasion in 43AD ushered in a new ruling elite who spoke a wholly different language – Latin – and a new religion, Christianity. Common Brittonic endured, but Latin was most likely spoken in urban areas. Latin loanwords crept into Common Brittonic, especially in religious terms, since there were no Brittonic equivalents for these words.
The Romans ruled for over three centuries, leaving the culture of England all but unrecognisable, but somehow Common Brittonic endured. That changed in the 500s when the Anglo-Saxons arrived.
By 700AD, the Celtic language had fractured and was evolving into Cumbric, Welsh, and Cornish, banished to the corners of Britain. Across most of mainland England, an entirely new language was being used: Old English.
Exactly how this happened is a mystery (and a great opportunity for you worldbuilders!) It used to be thought that the Anglo-Saxons displaced the old Celts and took their lands, but the latest research – summed up beautifully by Dr Susan Oosthuizen in her book ‘The Emergence of the English’ – suggests that the Celtic population survived and mingled with the Anglo-Saxons. Why was the language displaced so utterly after surviving Roman rule? We don’t know, so feel free to speculate.
Of course, Christianity stuck around, and the old Roman language, Latin, became the language of the church. Latin was an influential language, especially amongst the ruling elite and clerical classes. Most documents from the Anglo-Saxon period are written in Latin, especially in the early period when there was no writing system for Old English.
This is something to bear in mind when worldbuilding: all written languages have to have a writing system, and if the language is used by the common people rather than the elite, it very well might not have a written form at all. Old English was originally written in runes, which were derived from the Latin alphabet, and was only being written in the Latin alphabet by the 700s, two centuries after the language first arrived in England.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were divided, and unification into a single state only began in 899 when Alfred the Great became king of Wessex. At the time, most upper class linguistic education was in Latin, but Alfred pioneered the teaching of Old English alongside it and had some Latin texts translated into the now-native language. He appears to have translated some personally.
From then on, Old English became a more universal language, used by people from all social classes outside the church… until the Norman invasion.
The Norman invasion of 1066 changed everything. The old Anglo-Saxon elite were all but replaced: those few who remained were expected to speak French in court. Or Anglo-Norman, as it came to be. Let me explain.
The Normans who invaded England in 1066 spoke a wide variety of French dialects, many speaking Picard or Old Norman. Cut off from mainland France and having to communicate with each other, they quickly formed a new dialect – if not a wholly new language – known as Anglo-Norman. This became the language of administration and law, as well as that spoken in court and in private by the ruling elite.
Old English went through some big changes: French loanwords were adopted, and the grammar rules changed dramatically. Old English became Middle English, which for a long time once again didn’t have a written form. This led to it splintering into regional dialects that became increasingly different from each other.
Meanwhile, French became the language of universities, schools, the elite, and the courtroom. French was the language of social mobility, and many people from all social classes aspired to learn it: French-teaching textbooks survive to this day, dating all the way back to the 1300s. French was also a route into learning Latin, which until the 1300s was still the official language of legal documents, and remained the language of the church into the early modern period.
Thus, for around three centuries England was not just a bilingual, but a trilingual society:
- English was spoken by the common people, though occasionally also by the nobility, especially after 1300,
- French was the language of education, prose, poetry, and eventually, the legal system,
- Latin was the language of the law and the church.
By the 1300s, French was spoken by an increasing number of common people. Those who had the means went to school to learn it, and then taught it to their friends and families. So what led to the surprise rebirth of English?
War with France.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. For a long time, the English crown had held large French possessions, and often the Anglo-Norman nobility married into French families to maintain alliances and English influence in France. But those French possessions dwindled, and then there was the Hundred Years’ War. The century-long intermittent conflict led to a rise in both English and French nationalism, while also meaning more and more noble families married locally instead. Henry IV was the first king to take the oath in English rather than French in 1399, and his son Henry V, who came to the throne in 1413, was the first to write in English.
Meanwhile, there was more migration into London from the 1300s onwards, many of them English-speaking people from the counties. They were increasingly mobile, educated and wealthy, and English emerged as a new prestige language, replacing French as the favoured language of poetry and written communication. A new language, Chancery Standard English, began to be used by administrators and bureaucrats for everyday tasks, starting in the 1430s. By the mid 1400s, English had become the language of Parliament and lawmaking. French was all but gone, though the courts continued to use it – specifically Law French.
Law French was used exclusively in legal settings. It persisted long after English had become dominant again: it was finally done away with in 1731, by which time people had been arguing for years that its use was stopping common people from being able to defend themselves properly in court. The only people who knew it were those who were trained in the legal profession.
How to use this information for storytelling
The history of language is long and complicated, tied up in social class, conquest and culture – all things we love to explore in our fantasy fiction. But we just covered half a dozen languages and dialects by my count, which is too much work for most of us to put into one book. (I mean, writing one language is more work than most of us want to do.)
There is a way to skirt around this: when two characters speak a different language, we can just say ‘they were speaking ___’ and carry on writing in English. When a character encounters another who’s speaking a language they don’t understand, we can just write ‘they didn’t understand what they were saying.’ It feels like a cop-out, but most readers won’t begrudge you for it. After all, George R R Martin handled Daenerys’s time amongst the Dothraki well without having to write a whole language for them, though he did invent a scattering of words to keep up the illusion.
So I don’t think you should write whole languages – in fact, I think that would be a waste of your precious writing time. But putting a little more thought into languages and their histories, even if you don’t actually portray them in the prose itself with actual fictional words, can go a long way towards making your worldbuilding feel deeper, richer, and more true to life.