I was recently interviewed by Lela Michael for Self-Publishing Review on the use of languages in fantasy.
Interview: Fantasy Author Melissa McPhail on the Use of Languages
SELF-PUBLISHING REVIEW: In my SPR review of Cephrael’s Hand, Book One in your series, I labeled it Epic High Fantasy, with Epic referring to a mythology the characters will play out and High referring to a fictional world you create for these characters to live in. I’m generalizing these definitions, of course, but I’m curious, did your characters come to you first, or did their world?
MELISSA McPHAIL: My characters are definitely the driving force of the story, and they’ve anchored it, as much as my interest in it, since the beginning. The world changed around them many times as I reworked the plot and expanded the nature of the conflict, but the core viewpoint characters barely altered from their original personalities. First came the characters, and the world had to evolve until it gained enough detail (and cast enough shadows) to become an adequate field for their stories.
This is simply my instinctive approach. It’s more natural for me to start with a character, a solitary point, and spin out the story linearly from his viewpoint, than to craft the broad world and then go back to fill in the details. The world is only interesting because of the characters’ interaction with it.
SPR: Ah, so let’s talk about this passage:
In the desert tongue, a simple phrase had a plethora of meanings—meanings often derived from the parable in which the phrase was first used, thereby necessitating an understanding of the kingdom’s history as well as the language itself. With the common tongue, in contrast, a plethora of words were used in place of a simple phrase. Thus, though it wasn’t his first language, Trell had come to find the implicit desert tongue far more appealing than its explicit counterpart—as any thoughtful, scholarly mind would, he felt.
In terms of your creative process, then, Trell of the Tides is a philosopher by nature, thus needing a philosophical language to be drawn to?
MM: Yes, you could certainly say that. Trell is a thoughtful, introspective character, and it would follow that he would notice this type of difference between two languages he spoke well.
Trell’s view of the desert tongue comes from his experience in learning it. In order to teach someone to speak the language fluently, it is necessary to tell them the history of the land.
I’m intrigued by the way languages are created. The desert tongue derives from the combined language of nomadic tribes—warriors, not scholars. There are parallels to the Native American languages in terms of customs and ceremonies (as well as superstitions and religious beliefs) incorporated into the language. It is a spoken language more than a written one, and therefore draws upon the stories of its history in defining terms and use.
SPR: Yes, that’s what I got from this passage:
He knew just from speaking the common tongue that the culture of its peoples was very different. In the desert, as in the language itself, there were nuances—huge disparities, actually—in what was said and what was understood.
SPR: My impression is that Trell’s thoughts about the two languages mirror his questions of origination and identity that are part of his quest to solve, that he is part of two cultures.
MM: You’re very perceptive to Trell’s state of mind. His conflict with the languages is certainly a harmonic of the struggle he feels over choosing a side. Though he has not yet been forced to do so, he fears—and rightly—that his family’s allegiances lie elsewhere than the Akkad. While inclining toward a philosophical language as a natural extension of his general outlook, were he to examine this viewpoint, even as you have, he would wonder if he leaned toward the Akkadian language—not because it is inherently implicit and therefore kin to his own nature, but rather in an attempt to avoid the fear that his native tongue held painful associations, that it was too closely associated with whatever tragedy (of birth or act) brought him to the palace of the Emir. The very fact of his nobility, though hidden from his knowledge, causes him to constantly question it.
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