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Language and History as Inspiration in Fantasy Worldbuilding

One of the most appealing things about young-adult and adult fantasy books is their ability to transport their audience into an entirely new and fascinating world. It takes great skill as an author to immerse the reader into a book. A key element of transporting any reader is to ensure the fantasy world is engaging and exciting which encourages them to continue with the story. It is becoming increasingly more popular for authors to take inspiration from different cultures and languages to enhance their worldbuilding.

In October 2023, Rebecca Yarros faced criticism over her use of Scots Gaelic in Fourth Wing after a series of mispronunciations of names during an interview at New York Comic Con. With the sudden, monumental popularity of Yarros’ Fourth Wing and its recent sequel Iron Flame, the author has been subject to scrutiny surrounding her use of Scot’s Gaelic language for the names of characters and places in the worldbuilding of Navarre. Yarros uses Scots Gaelic to name various locations such as Basgiath War College – where most of the first book takes place – as well as numerous dragons. Even though Yarros has directly taken words from the Gaelic language, Fourth Wing is not inspired by Gaelic folklore.

In the interview, Yarros credits Gaelic as being her source material for the names in Fourth Wing. However, when asked to clarify the pronunciation of different names such as ‘Tairneanach’ and ‘Andarnaurram,” Yarros uses her own pronunciation as an English speaker rather than the Gaelic. Yarros also uses the pronunciation for Irish Gaelic (Anglicized as “gay-lick”) as opposed to Scots Gaelic (Anglicized as “gah-lick”). Whilst the languages are similar, they are not the same and this confusion sparked a lot of controversy online as Yarros was an American author misrepresenting a Celtic language. Scots Gaelic is a protected language under UNESCO and @scottish.bookworm on TikTok provides a helpful insight on the history of Scots Gaelic, touching on the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, the highland clearances, and why it is now a dying language.

After the interview went live, native Gaelic speaker Muireann (@ceartguleabhar on social media) discussed how inaccurate Yarros’ pronunciations and representations were. Muireann offered translations and deconstructions of the names in Fourth Wing. Muireann also highlights the importance of correct use of language, as the lack of an accent in Basgiath (bàs sgiath) changes the translation from “death-wing” to “palm-wing.” It is delightfully refreshing to see the Gaelic language being used in such an increasingly popular and beloved franchise, however there have been calls for credit to the language in the acknowledgements for Fourth Wing or Iron Flame, or the addition of an author’s note explaining her use of Gaelic, or pronunciation guide.

At the November Midnight Release for Iron Flame in New York City, Yarros addressed her previous mistakes. During the panel, Yarros acknowledged and corrected her confusion between the two Celtic languages and revealed that she has since hired a Gaelic tutor for herself. Yarros is clearly taking steps to further her understanding and appreciation of Scots Gaelic. Hopefully the subsequent books in the Empyrean Series will have a better representation the language, which can develop the worldbuilding of Navarre and enhance the reading experience as a whole.

Two recent releases from 2023 that also use other cultures and languages within their narrative and worldbuilding are the historical fantasy What the River Knows by Isabel Ibañes, and Sword Catcher by Cassandra Clare. Both contain author’s notes at the end which explain their inspiration and credit the cultures used within the novel. 

What the River Knows is set in Egypt during the 1800s, in her author’s note Ibañes explains the historical alterations she made to fit the narrative. Ibañes also comments on her use of Egyptian Arabic in the novel and why there may be some differences; “there is no standard or uniform Romanized version [of colloquial Egyptian Arabic], and as a result, spelling differs from region to region and in different time periods… I ended up using the Egyptian Arabic spelling as it was taught to me by Egyptian friends and Egyptologists.” In her acknowledgements, Ibañes credits numerous Egyptologists and experts who helped her ensure the accuracy of Egyptian history.

Sword Catcher is a high fantasy novel and first in Clare’s new series The Chronicles of Castellane. In her author’s note, Clare mentions the fictional setting – Dannemore – and how it is based on real-life locations. The majority of her note explains each of the different languages seen in the novel and their construction, such as medieval Occitan from southern France, and Venetian which is similar to other Romance languages. The language of the Ashkar is a Hebrew-inspired language designed for Sword Catcher, and in an interview with Unpacked Clare stated the importance of representing Jewish culture within the novel and the fantasy genre. In her acknowledgements for the book Clare also credits a sensitivity reader.


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