I kind of touched on these subjects before but as I’ve been doing lately I’ve had more thoughts and I want to do a deeper dive.
Honestly while I’ve been thinking about this for a while and briefly mentioned it in a previous post, it really hit me when I was playing Crusader King’s 3 and my character became the Norwegian-Irish Emperor of Britannia and France, and a lot of my subjects had some qualms with my cultural identity and as I watched areas of England get Norwegian-nized and names changed I started thinking about cultural markers.
To put it simply, a “cultural marker” is basically just something to quickly pinpoint where someone is from or what their heritage is. Of course these are not always super specific and there is overlap. Like, me saying I speak English does not immediately make it obvious that I’m American. But if I talked about what I grew up eating, regional slang, some things people wore commonly, you would probably be able to narrow it down. There’s also what I tend to refer to as the stereotypical cultural markers so if someone was to say “I’m from X” what’s the first thing that comes to people’s mind that they relate to that place and that culture?
I also started thinking deeply about language and language as an extension of someone’s identity. This also stood out to me in the case of empires or in places were dozens of cultures have blended. At some point, language either is or isn’t an extension of someone’s background but the language someone does speak can say a lot about them or the area they grew up as I mentioned in my last post with regional dialects or when a certain language might be considered the “default” among some characters.
Now, as always, I have to say I do not think it’s extremely pressing to give fantasy cultures so many layers. I don’t think it’s always necessary to have a throwaway line about people speaking multiple languages in your metropolitan city or the fact that the culture is either not a monolith on its own or new people have moved in. Do I think it spices things up a little bit? Of course. That’s why I’m talking about it.
The lack of especially falls short to me in settings, as mentioned, that are empires or densely populated or considered “centers” of the world. How many times have I read a fantasy university or guild settings or these expansive cities and all the characters were more or less from the exact same place, all spoke the same language, pretty much ate the same things, and had the same opinions on anything not a huge plot point.
So Let’s Talk About Language (Again)
I’m not gonna lie. My nerd brain loved it when my Norwegian-Irish emperor took over England and instead of the names of familiar places changing completely they were just changed to sound slightly more Norwegian while still looking enough like what it used to be. I am upset with myself for never considering this before in my own work or thinking about it when I craft fantasy worlds, especially in settings where one group or place takes over another. The language would change or there would be shifts due to either
- The sounds for the original thing they’re trying to say do not exist in their language
- That’s simply how they pronounce it
- Maybe they were feeling frisky that day and decided to change it just because.
I think we see this most often especially with borrowed words. When a word more or less exists in several languages maybe because they’re taking on a title or a position, it’s not so much that the word changes but each one has to put their spin on it. Not always intentionally it might just be how they say it given either the limitations of their own tongue or how they heard it.
In my last post I began to touch on this with the introduction of people speaking the same language differently in my Grazan Escan vs “regular” Escan dialect (the basis of this discussion just that people who live in Graza in my setting speak the language slightly different than non-Grazans which sometimes makes the language hard to understand for even native speakers). Last night I had another breakdown about how much I hate the common tongue and the concept of the common tongue and I’d like to also mention that if there is going to be a “common” language in a setting, I myself tend to use Escan as the common language because Escan is an imperial nation and have intentionally spread their language all over the place so a lot of my characters speak it, I think it is important to have some context as to why a language would be so widespread/ common. Someone would have had to go to these far places and teach people how to speak this language (and somehow walk away with it having no regional differences). Why would people in this setting think it a good idea to even learn this language if they have their own and rarely communicate with people outside of their community? What is the impact of a character having to take up another language in order to?
In my recently finished draft of The Night Court, due to my own temporarily fleeting memory I forgot one of the main characters was going to a place where he could not speak the language and spent that entire half of the book asking for translations and not being able to speak to certain characters directly. Which, now that I’m done with the draft I appreciate more because I’ve definitely been in situations where I’m in a new place and my poor planning and education made me the only one who couldn’t speak the language and I had to have friends help me.
This is where language as an extension of identity comes in. Could this character have assumed that his first language was dominant enough where he could travel to new places and not have to learn anything else? Or was it just bad luck and now he feels isolated in a setting where he cannot speak to anyone? What are the implications behind someone’s first language based on where they live? I just wrote two posts now talking about Prince Toli of the Escana Empire’s first language not being Escan and how that impacted his early life and how he appears by the time we meet him in the books. What does it say about the world characters live in where what language they speak and what language they learned to speak first has such an impact?
And in the reverse, what is the perception of someone being multilingual? It is expected in a setting? It is a bonus? A requirement of certain jobs or positions? A necessity to live in certain areas? Given how much court intrigue and political scheming I write I tend to have characters switch languages to avoid spies or eavesdroppers but on the other hand it’s also easier to make new allies if you extend the branch by speaking their language.
Are there official languages? Court languages? Trade tongues? Coded languages you’d only learn for very specific purposes?
Clothes And Culture: Sumptuary Laws & The Fashion Police.
This is a point I missed completely in my fashion post and I’m sorry about that. As with all my “advice” I feel it important to note I don’t ever expect anyone to go the extra mile nor do I usually think people need to. These are just things I like to sprinkle into a setting to give in breathing room or background information so it doesn’t feel like it was created just to serve a story purpose, but that it’s a world people live in.
On that note. I’m very passionate about clothing. I’m encountered a lot of fantasy fashion in my day and I understand why people don’t ever find it relevant to mention certain things but as my setting is a late 18th century world in which the common people are starting to realize that royalty kinda sucks, it’s something I can talk about.
Like, the extensive labor that goes into making sure my royal characters have 100s of different outfits. Fashion is cheaper than its ever been but that was not always the case. There’s a reason why often see people in ye old days with only like 2 outfits for any given occasion. Characters and people who had constant changes weren’t just fashion forward, they were showing off wealth whether or not that was front of mind. To give some context as a lover of historical fashion and beautifully detailed garments, I did some quick math to see how long it would take me to recreate one of my favorite gowns by and. Given the intricate details, all the delicate beading and lace and all the fabric I’d have to buy (I didn’t even get into costs) it would have taken me at minimum 50 years.
Now does anyone need characters going around talking about how Princess Zurina is wearing a gown that would have taken one man 50 years if not for the staff of seamstresses who likely work on her wardrobe? No. If a character in a setting is a seamstress or if the story has anything to do with wealth distribution and the extravagance and waste of the super rich, sure maybe throw it in there. One half of the book I’m working on is about political cartoons criticizing the royalty and wouldn’t you know if I go back to the time period I’m basing my work off of, you can find a lot of jokes and slights towards outrageous dress because people back then understand the labor that went into these garments.
This is where I’m going to mention sumptuary laws. Basically, whenever I do my dives into fashion history I’ll find a lot of policing towards the way people dress. I mean we still have them now but maybe they’re not as apparent to us? And a lot of them used to be more class-oriented. One should not dress above their “means” or status which is where we get certain fabrics or colors meant only for certain types of people. But it also happened in the reverse where certain groups are designated things to wear so other members of the community know who and what they are. People not being allowed to wear certain things either because they would be related to deviance or offensive. Like characters in my setting cannot wear any shade of green around the king because dark green is the Escana mourning color and it would be considered as cursing the king to die.
Are there punishments for wearing the “wrong” thing? Is exaggerated wealth or having too many outfit changes something calls criticism if the character is at the top of the food chain (or maybe criticism them no mater social standing)? Are there any unwritten dress codes in a setting that people unknowingly follow? In settings where multiple cultures might exist or people from different backgrounds exist in the same place, do their choices in dress reflect cultural markers? And is there a stark difference between traditional (to a culture) clothing and modern dress?
I think really I’m spewing this out because I want to see more culturally rich settings that reflect some of the stuff that I think is the most interesting things about a person which is what they wear and how they speak. But again, this is a personal preference and it’s just stuff I think about.