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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Before They Even Get to the Invented Languages

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | Posted by Sarah Avery

dictionary-of-etymologyYou know that classic vocabulary assignment, the one everybody’s done because it really works?

As you read a book, keep a running list of words you can’t define, and when you take a break from reading, look them all up and write your own sentences using them. That assignment. It’s still the wheel, so I still don’t reinvent it, but sometimes I get tempted.

Since I took up freelancing eight years ago, nearly all my students have been children of immigrants. The kids are so bright, so hardworking, nobody notices how narrow their vocabularies are until about 7th grade, when the amount and level of writing students have to do shoots up.

The kids’ grades plummet, their English teachers at school shrug, the parents panic, and suddenly I’ve got a new paying gig. The students prefer to read fantasy — I do, too, of course — so I give them the classic vocabulary assignment to apply to the fantasy novel of their choice.

Then this weird thing happens, a thing I haven’t yet figured out how to turn to good use.

The kids can’t tell which words are the author’s own invention and which are real English words that they just don’t happen to have learned yet.

When I read, for instance, Garth Nix’s Sabriel with these students, their word lists invariably include mordicant, a monster fresh out of Nix’s quirky wordlbuilding, along with all the names he came up with for the bells his necromancers use. I’m never surprised to see necromancer on the list, but to me scuttle and hasten do look a little odd next to bell names like Kibeth.

The patterns of sound and etymology that tell a native speaker of English from a long line of native speakers that a word is probably real are simply invisible to my immigrant kids.

We work to make those patterns visible, of course. I have my favorite etymology and vocabulary-building resources, but they’re part of the mundane side of teaching.

On the Sense of Wonder side of teaching, I’m still trying to figure out how the inability to tell the difference between worldbuilding and basic writing skill affects a reader’s ability to feel immersed in a fantasy world.

Perhaps my students experience Ursula Le Guin’s YA classic A Wizard of Earthsea the way I experience Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels — as a wash of specialized terms I’m sure to pronounce wrong, naming objects I’ll never see, in a world I’ll never enter, despite which I can glimpse a story so magnificent that I cling to the thread of sound paragraph by paragraph, always looking for something to understand. At the end of an Aubrey/Maturin novel, I’m always sure I’ve missed so much of the cool stuff that the author would consider his book wasted on me, but I’ve never felt my time was wasted on it.

This November, I’ll be revising the novel I roughed out in two rounds of Nanowrimo — I call it the November book as often as I call it by its title. It’s epic fantasy, and I’ve been writing mostly contemporary fantasy lately for the past few years.

I wonder how my students will have changed my thinking about worldbuilding. My old attempts at creating a sense of otherness through word choice and word coinage was based on the assumption that I knew which words my readers would regard as familiar. It turns out that, for a sizable subset of highly intelligent, devoted fantasy readers whose backgrounds are different from mine, a word like diminish is so alien it might as well be Elvish.

Neither as a writer nor as a teacher am I sure what to make of my students’ devotion to a genre that takes their biggest area of weakness in reading comprehension and expands it with every coined word. It must be a powerful love that keeps them going, page after page.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

2 Comments »

  1. Fascinating insight, Sarah. I never looked at it that way, though I always knew there were things I was pronouncing wrong, because I’d only encountered the words in books. Jean Marie

    Comment by jward307 - October 25, 2012 12:25 am

  2. […] Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Before They Even Get to the Invented Languages […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 45 Black Gate Posts in October - December 1, 2012 10:34 pm


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