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Can you use real-world languages in a fantasy world?

For example, in the fantasy world Nuvo there are witches who speak “Russian”. Since this fantasy world has no relation to the real world, or to Russian people in the real world, could someone still have their witches speak “Russian”?

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I have seen books where the author prefaces the book by saying it's a translation of some other-worldly book, and then goes on to use real-world languages as a stand-in for the in-world languages.

Tolkien did this to a minor degree when he used some more archaic English words for the Rohirrim, whose language was meant to be like an older form of the language everyone else spoke. Thus they use thee and thou and such while everyone else uses you.

However, as a reader I feel that it's always a little odd that the people in the book speak English and in a fantasy setting I'd be inclined to strip out every possible linguistic connection to English. So nothing in-story would depend on features of English, such as its facility for acronyms, or the etymology of its words, or its relation to other languages. English and Russian have some cognate words due to their historical development. Would there be any reason for the witches to have the same cognates as the other people in your story?

Ideally, if the readers are meant to understand the witches' speech, you'd write it in English and just tell the reader if they're speaking some other language, or typeset it differently (put it in square brackets, or italics, or something). Since you're contemplating Russian, I assume you want most readers to be unable to read it? In which case a made-up language would be more realistic, albeit potentially much harder.

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I would agree with Mr. Shiny that the simplest way might be to say that they are speaking in their 'strange language,' and then just tell the reader what they said in English. For example:

"I should think not," said the witch, still speaking in her strange tongue.

If you do NOT want the reader to understand the witch, a made-up language would be best. If the phrases that are not meant to be understood are few enough, you likely won't even need a 'language.' Just a few words will do.

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They can.

They can use the language itself within a book without specifying which is the matching language of the real world.

So if you have a fantasy world with witches who speak a "strange language", you can put the words in russian and never tell within the story that this is a real language spoken by real people.

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    I would find it very confusing. Are the witches actually speaking Russian? Are they speaking a fantasy language equivalent to Russian? Was the writer too lazy to develop his or her own fantasy language? Does the Russian translate properly with idioms and phrasing, or is it just transliterated without regard to native speech? I think this would be a bad idea. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 7 '14 at 16:37
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    I think this would be a bad idea, especially if the book was at some point translated into Russian. Then what? – Thomas Myron Oct 7 '14 at 16:59
  • I'll go for the second, "speaking a fantasy language equivalent to Russian", regardless the writer's reasons; though the best option would be to develop a completely new language for fantasy novels. – Thezil Oct 7 '14 at 17:01
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I think it would depend on whether or not Russia exists in 'Nuvo'. If it doesn't it might be confusing to the reader and may take away from the over all fantastical feel of the story.

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