“Bring forth the thralls! Let all their bonds be sundered!” And so on. This sort of language is the bread of butter of a lot of fantasy fiction, and it doesn’t really work. The problem with this cod-Medieval language is that it never feels authentic. It also brings the reader out of the story: it’s so obviously artificial that it makes you very aware of the author lurking behind the lines.
The best way to write fantasy dialogue is to use a pared down version of modern speech. Many authors shy away from this because it runs the risk of making their characters sound too modern. However, it’s exactly the approach used in translated fiction. When a translator sits down to make a new version of Homer or Xephonon, they would never think of writing it in mock Shakespearean English. They would try to make their text as modern and accessible as possible, whilst leaving out anything that was too slangy and contemporary.
It’s the approach that Shakespeare himself used. King Lear is set in ancient Britain, a world that is almost legendary, yet his characters speak in the common vernacular of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare’s own day.
This proves that fantasy characters can sound like they come from an older world without using absurdly antiquated language. However, in an invented world, there are certain words that have to be avoided. Hobbits don’t tuck into Stilton cheese and The Gray Mouser wouldn’t be cracking Brazil nuts, for obvious reasons.
There are many other words which come from real places on Earth. The verb to canter comes from Canterbury. It reflects the slow progress of pilgrims on horseback when they were travelling to Becket’s tomb.
The adjective laconic comes from Lakonia, part of ancient Sparta. The Spartans were as known for their wit as for their love of comfy home furnishings.
In writing The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, I came up against this problem several times. The stories are set in a fully imaginary world, but sometimes I wanted the characters to use or encounter things familiar from earth. They are rather a boozy pair, and I wanted them to drink sherry (an English corruption of the Spanish city of Jerez) or port (named after the Portuguese city of Oporto). I got round this thanks to a little bit of research. Apparently, there was an older fortified wine known as sack. It’s rather obscure for modern readers, but with quick access to the Internet by iPhone or tablets, anyone can look it up on Wikipedia, so I felt it was a valid word choice. It’s also part of the fun of writing, that you learn things yourself whilst scribbling away.
There was only one area where I did knowingly use a word that has a geographic root from earth. The word slave comes from Slav. The unfortunate residents of the Balkans faced heavy oppression in the dark ages, and the nationality took on the yoke of servitude in the English language. The older word for a slave was the Norse thrall, a kind of serf, from which we have the modern ‘enthralled’. However, that word has become such a cliché of fantasy writing that I couldn’t bear to use it. I also felt it was a more intrusive word than ‘slave’ in the sense that the reader jumps back whenever they read it.
Fundamentally, that is the biggest danger when writing fantasy fiction: that the reader starts analysing the words you choose. Anything that stops that reader losing themselves in the story has to be seen as a failure. It’s all in the voices you use.