Many and many years ago, I attended a Passion play told from the point of view of Pontius Pilate as he tried to come to terms with having to crucify this uppity Hebrew guy named Jesus. At one point, as he’s soliloquising about this, he gets interrupted by some dude, and he shouts, “Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, what do you want?”
To this day, that is the only part of the play I remember.
Language is an important part of worldbuilding. Not just how your characters speak, but what they say helps build the world they live in. Language informs and is informed by the history and culture in which it exists. Sure, you need to have a landscape, a climate, a culture, and that’s the “meat and potatoes” of worldbuilding. Language is the spices.
So, here’s some useful ways to add a bit of garlic, cumin, or cinnamon to your world.
There are plenty of reasons not to use profanity, just as many as there are to use it!
Profanity is linguistically and culturally based, and I think that the difference in cussing between the United States and the United Kingdom is illustrative. The obvious place to go here is to look at the different curse words themselves. “Bloody” is a common enough one used in the UK that is only used by anglophiles in the US. I was in my twenties before I learned that it might be referencing “the blood of Christ,” which would make sense in a Christian society.
Moreover, certain words are offensive in one location and not so much in another. “C*nt” is a common term used throughout the United Kingdom, but is considered one of the worst cuss words you could use in the United States (which is I was censored it – I don’t want to have to upgrade this post to “over 18”). Jackass, on the other hand, is used frequently in the US, but is not often heard in the UK. In other words, you can get a sense of where you are by the cuss words being used.
Additionally, Americans have an interesting relationship with profanity that is reflective of the US’s puritanical history. While profanity can be rife in certain movies and music genres, using profanity in public and by public figures is still intensely taboo. So much so that even I, who regularly cusses like a drunken sailor, felt uncomfortable when reading Stephen King’s It because of how much the children protagonists cussed. Brits, on the other hand (having historically kicked out the Puritans that moved to America), are far more fluent in profanity, to the point that travel guides warn Brits to censor their language in the US less they offend the natives. But that’s part of it – the relationship with profanity is reflective of the history. A puritanical culture will be more uptight about profanity.
In writing, you can create profanity that makes sense in the context of the world your building. While it isn’t necessary to create profanity, having character-appropriate profanity adds an additional layer of “realism.”
In Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series (written in the Warhammer 40k universe), we have a military unit from a destroyed world, serving the Emperor of Mankind, fighting an endless war across the universe against the forces of Chaos.
“By the throne!” or “Golden throne!” are common refrains in the massive universe of Warhammer 40k – minor profanity nearly on the level of “for Pete’s sake.” The Emperor of Mankind is, essentially, a corpse, kept alive by a massive life-support system called The Golden Throne. Though considered mildly blasphemous (did I mention the Emperor of Mankind was worshipped as a god?), it’s a common phrase throughout the Imperium.
Dan Abnett goes a bit deeper with his Ghosts. The Ghosts have a particular curse they use regularly – “feth” – and only men from Tanith (their destroyed world) use the term. At some point a couple books in, we learn that Feth is actually the name of a fertility god that was once worshipped on Tanith. So, you can imagine what “feth” is supposed to mean. When survivors of Vervunhive join the Ghosts, they bring their own local curse word: gak (no, it’s not as good, but how can you really surpass the simple elegance of feth?). Abnett goes so far as the have Gaunt even muse that he knew the new and old recruits were really bonding when they started using each others’ profanity.
Now, each character doesn’t have to use profanity the same. A young mother (in the US anyway) might never curse in front of her child and would scold anyone who does (this has literally happened to me in real life), but the teenager trying to sound tough is going to drop some f-bombs pretty frequently, and might throw a c*nt in there if they’re feeling extra spicy.
Once, in Spanish class, we had an assignment about writing a short paper in Spanish about our vacation. My vacation that summer included going to hole-in-the-wall restaurants to eat clam chowder and drink beer, so I found myself trying to find a way to say “hole-in-the-wall” in Spanish. I got points off, because, in Spanish, that literally translating that phrase made no sense. Similarly, when translating a German paper into English as a final exam, I had to try to explain a German idiom, something like “if you invite the Devil to eat at your table, use a long spoon.” Despite hours of googling, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to mean.
Idioms are metaphors – they mean more than the words themselves mean. “Meat and potatoes,” which I used at the beginning of this article, is barely an actual dish. As an idiom, it means that it’s the basic, fundamental part of whatever it is you’re referring to.
Idioms have a cultural and historical basis. “Meat and potatoes” doesn’t make sense in a culture where many dishes are not meat (pork or beef) based and potatoes aren’t used. Another common one “pot calling the kettle black” doesn’t make sense if kettles aren’t ever used, and, frankly, probably doesn’t make sense to most people now since pots and kettles are usually stainless steel and therefore silver!
Like profanity, because idioms draw from cultural and historical environments, adding idioms to your world creates an extra dimension to it. Some idioms can be understood even without much context. For example, the Polish idiom “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” Literally, it means “not my circus, not my monkey,” a phrase I’ve heard occasionally in English. Even if you’ve never encountered the phrase before, you know what it means: it’s not my problem.
Some idioms are really indicative of the culture, like the German “Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.” Or, “everything has an end, only the sausage has two.” Germans are known for being big sausage eaters, so having an idiom referring to sausage makes a lot of sense. And, you can probably decipher the meaning as “everything comes to an end.”
Finally, some idioms make no sense at all outside of their cultural context, like describing something as “hole-in-the-wall.” If you’re not already familiar with the term, it’s actually difficult to explain even in English. It’s referring to a restaurant or shop that’s small, probably family-run, it’s not fancy. According to Etymonline.com, it may have been the name of a public house at one time?
George R. R. Martin is great about sprinkling idioms into his writing. “Words are wind” for example. Look at that. That world has language. That world has nuance. That world has a culture that has created a high level of language! We can guess what those idioms mean at first glance. “Words are wind” means “talk is cheap.” And it’s not just the words of one wise person, but a phrase used by multiple people. We see a small example of a shared culture.
Similarly, J.K. Rowling models wizarding idioms after common ones we may already know. For example, “don’t count your owls before they are delivered” is a version of “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” The value of manipulating commonly used phrases to make sense in your world is that it creates a world-specific idiom that still makes immediate sense to the reader already familiar with it.
There are a few rules for creating idioms.
- It has to make sense in the world. An idiom like “cat’s got your tongue” would feel awfully forced in a world where there are no cats.
- It has to say more than just the words themselves. Idioms mean more than what they are saying because they’re metaphors. “To let the cat out of the bag” means more than letting a literal cat out of a literal bag.
- Most importantly, it has to make sense pretty quickly to the reader. Sure, in the real world, you have idioms that take a lot of explaining to parse out, but if you have to create an entire half-page footnote to explain an idiom you’ve decided to make up for your world, you’re risking breaking immersion for your reader. The only instance I’ve seen where a footnote doesn’t break immersion is with Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but then, Discworld is built in such a way that that sort of meta-narration makes perfect sense.
Ah, memes, the language of the internet.
Actually, memes are creating an interesting linguistic change in the modern world. We can communicate using simply pictures or phrases, and, if you know the meme, you can understand exactly what is being said. It’s more than just an idiom – memes require so much more referential knowledge to grasp.
I can say to just about any of my friends “Look at them, Anakin,” and they know what I’m saying. Hell, I could just show them this picture, and they know.
“It’s “I don’t give a f*ck.” Because look at all the f*cks I don’t give. Look at them, Anakin.”
Individually, that’s even more meaningless than an idiom! Those words can’t be deciphered in anyway that actually makes sense beyond the literal. You can’t guess what that means just by the context. Sure, “words are wind” is a great idiom, but you and I can guess that it means the same thing as “talk is cheap.” “Look at them, Anakin,” requires knowledge of the franchise and a previous iteration of the image.
Truly, the greatest example of memetic language as a worldbuilding device is in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Darmok.”
It’s really one of my favorite episodes, so indulge me while I ramble.
There is this race of aliens called the Tamarians and no one is able to communicate with them. Oh, the truly miraculous technology of the translators are able to give the crew members of the Enterprise a translation of the words. But, even with that, the things the Tamarians say make no sense!
But, the Tamarians are desperate to communicate with the Federation, so they kidnap Captain Picard and throw him on a planet with their own Captain Dathon, in a last ditch effort to force someone in the Federation to speak plain Tamarian ffs.
The Tamarians speak in phrases, like, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.” Dathon says this to Picard who just stares at him in confusion. It takes Dathon being nearly killed by an invisible predator (hey, come on, even then they had a limited special effects budget) for Picard to really understand what’s going on: the Tamarian language is entirely referential. They communicate in phrases that refer to their myths and stories.
Deanna Troi makes an analogy, it’s like describing love by saying “Juliet, on her balcony.” Or, I suggest, like describing you don’t care about something by saying “Look at them, Anakin.”
The Tamarians speak in memes. And that’s a hill I’m ready to die on.
Obviously, you need to be even more careful with memes than you do with idioms, but it’s a language form that can and does work in a world.
Can you go too far?
Obviously, you can mess up anything suggested above. Profanity is going to be more than culture-specific, it’s going to be character-specific, too, because not all characters cuss and not all characters cuss the same way. Idioms have to be understood rather rapidly by the reader in order to be useful in writing while still holding a cultural legacy, and memetic language is actually going to require you as the writer to explain what the meme means without breaking up the flow of the story, which is why it’s the most difficult and least used tool in this toolbox.
But, can you go too far?
All I’m saying is that while you could be a linguist and literally create separate, whole, unique languages to help build your world, it’s not entirely necessary. Looking at you, Tolkien. (No, this section isn’t just an excuse to take a potshot at one of the most beloved authors of all time, shut up.)
Language is a great way to add a bit of depth to your world. Profanity, idioms, and even memes help to create a world and culture that exist beyond the surface of the plot of your story. There is a world bigger there than just what your characters are experiencing, and it has a deep and lasting impact on the characters themselves. Sure, it’s not a substitute for a well-built world, but it’s hard to build a well-built world without it. Like garlic.
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