Back to listing

Seminar: Constrained Creativity, Jane Simpson, 14 Mar

Australian National University, Jane Simpson, Shape

Date: 28 February 2017

Seminar: Constrained Creativity: Towards a Natural History of Language in Fantasy Novels

When: Tuesday 14 March 2017, 4.30 – 5.45pm

Where: Seminar Room 2/3, Sir Roland Wilson Building, ANU


Any fiction writer creates an alternate world, but in some genres, the alternate world is intended to be different from the novelist’s own society. This is most noticeable in science fiction, historical novels, fantasy novels, steampunk, and novels set in non-English speaking countries. Creating a believable alternate world involves paying attention to the languages spoken by the characters, and the place of languages in the world.  The characters may speak different languages from each other and from the readers (‘alternate world languages’, AWLs, a type of ‘conlang’), but this must be represented through the language of the readers (the conceit of translation).  Within this limitation, writers have some freedom to use words, phrases and sentences that readers won’t know, whether invented, archaic or from another language.  These have communicative, symbolic and aesthetic functions. 

Can we use the fragments of invented languages in novels as evidence of anything of interest to linguists?  I suggest that the answer is a qualified 'yes', based on a survey of 50 novels, with more detailed study of three novels, along with consideration of parodies of fantasy novels, and discussion of reception, and comparisons with Peter Carey's "Ned Kelly" and Dylan Coleman's "Amazing Grace."

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University