I'm working on a novel, that's set in pre-Islamic Persia, in the same general way that The Lord of the Rings is set in Britain. (Meaning, it's set in a world all its own, but there's this source of inspiration.)

Here's my conundrum: the land is ruled by the Shah - that's a given, that's expected if the setting is Persian rather than European. But what happens under the Shah? Knights, barons, counts and dukes are all titles associated with the European court. They appear to clash with a setting, as if I'm telling a basically European story, only recoloured Middle-eastern.

So the knights are asvarans (it's actually amazing how much the position of the asvarans in 5th century Persia is reminiscent of 10th century European knights). And after much research, I've got vaspahrs, sardars and ostandars. At which point, I'm looking at the trope Calling a Rabbit a "Smeerp" - I'm just giving different names to something that has a perfectly good English word.

Moreover, I have only recently pointed others to this xkcd:

A plot of "Probability book is good" against "Number of words made up by author", showing a rapidly decreasing line. Caption: "The elders, or Fraás, guarded the farmlings (children) with their krytoses, which are like swords but awesomer..."


I do not believe it is relevant that I found the words I'm using in an encyclopedia rather than made them up; to the reader, they are equally unfamiliar.

How do I balance realism against readability in this particular case? I do not want to break the readers' suspension of disbelief by using words that are too European, but I don't want to weigh on the reader with heaps of foreign-language vocabulary either.

(Note: Bioware's Dragon Age franchise uses 'Teyrn', 'Arl', 'Bahn' instead of 'Duke', 'Earl', 'Baron'. However, in their example the replacement words are not too far from the English words, and thus much easier to remember, avoiding confusion. Also, the names they use are for the most part English enough. Consequently, looking at something like 'Arl Eamon', one doesn't have to wonder which part is title and which part is name. As opposed to 'Vaspahr Narseh', for instance.)

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    I am impressed that you are taking this on. Good luck! A shah is fine and I think real words (even if they are unknown to the reader) is great. I suggest not bombing the reader with all of them in chapter one, but instead using generic words like swordsman/swordswoman, swordsman's servant, and so on, and gently easing the reader into the unusual words. The swordsman carries a scimitar. At some point have someone address with him with his title: "Vaspahr Rahil, you are needed in the stables." Rahil shook his head at being called Vaspahr. The title was true, but too formal for his taste.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 1:49
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    @DPT Alternatively just using the Persian terms in a context that allows the reader to infer that the term specifies a thing rather than a person would be alright. Ex. "The Shah called the meeting to order", "Ah Vaspahr Rahir, the other Vaspahrs are gathering in the hall". Once the reader knows it is a thing it's just up to you to give enough context the reader can guess what the thing is
    – BKlassen
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 17:15
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    I like to learn as well as be entertained by books. As long as somewhere you provide some kind of key as to what the words are, or what the relative positions and duties of various titles are I'd be happy. It'll also boost word/chapter count as you provide some explanation of terms.
    – Arluin
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 19:39
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    Are you familiar with the book "A Clockwork Orange" ? The author has street-kids using a lot of slang words, which you eventually learn (quite easily). By half-way through the novel, the reader becomes quite able to decipher Nadsat. - babbel.com/en/magazine/… So maybe look here for inspiration on how to bring terms in slowly to the audience.
    – Kingsley
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 1:37
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    @user28434 I disagree slightly. Dune's weird names are IMO one of the weaker parts of the series. They're just inconsistent and never seemed to mesh as well as say, LotR, Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 18:12

9 Answers 9


I've found that the main key to unfamiliar words -- and this applies to jargon in technical writing as much as it does to foreign or made-up words in fiction -- is density. The example in the XKCD comic is irritating because it can't get through a single sentence without three new words. The situation is very different if three unfamiliar words are introduced over the span of a chapter.

Another key is how naturally you supply the explanation. Instead of "translating" or explaining, provide context -- introduce the asvarans in a setting where their martial role is apparent, show your sardars in leadership roles, show your ostandars ruling, etc. This might be direct (you show those characters doing those things) or indirect (people refer to them in connection with illustrative events or attitudes).

Imagine if the XKCD example were instead handled like this:

The six fra'ars stood solemnly in front of the gate, their gray beards all reaching nearly to their waists. Despite their years they stood strong and alert. $Name, standing in front of the others, held a large sword aloft in one hand, seemingly effortlessly. $POV-character involuntarily took a step back; he knew that the krytosis was normally wielded two-handed because of its weight.

He heard the din of the many farmlings running and playing beyond the gate. He envied them; they had no cares, were not affected by the ill tidings in the land, and had no idea of their eventual fate. He wished he could be young and oblivious again. [...]

This is more jargon-dense than I would write for "real", but I hope it illustrates the point that you can introduce terms without falling into the "pass the dictionary" trap.

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    interestingly, the one that still jars is 'farmlings' - probably because it has an 'expected' meaning that jars with the usage
    – user17926
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 14:44
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    @Orangesandlemons agreed; if it were my story I wouldn't use that word for that purpose. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 15:38
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    Farmlings is not so bad to my ear, what is jarring above is the "great many". "He heard the din of the farmlings..." makes farmlings sound right. +1 for introducing the terms naturally into the story line.
    – rebusB
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 17:23
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    I'd still dislike the pointless vocabulary lesson. Muggles is fun, not because it's a different word for normal human. It's fun because it builds a world in your mind of a people that consider people like me different. That's interesting. it's a new idea. If I just wanted to learn new words for old ideas I'd study French. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 4:20
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    It's only a pointless vocabulary lesson if the words are direct replacements. In this example "Farmlings" suggests that although they're children, there is some horrific fate in store for at least some of them. I mean, who farms children?! The replacement word needs to say that it's like something you're familiar with but that there are differences. Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 10:23

asvarans, vaspahrs, sardars and ostandars.

I struggled with this for a different reason, I didn't want to invoke medieval Europe titles either, because little else in my story was like that, I didn't want to set up reader expectations of knightly chivalry that would not hold in the story.

My Solution: Go Modern.

I figure you are writing a Persian story in relatively modern English. Obviously the characters are speaking Persian, and as the narrator you are translating that for us into modern English. So why not do the same for all their words?

Asvaran is sorta like a 10th century knight, but what is the modern word that can stand for both? I chose to use words like "captain", "soldier", "general", "swordsman", "advisor", "governor", "Mayor", "Council", "archer", "marksman", etc. I did use "king" and "kingdom", I don't think that is limited to medieval times and everyone still instantly knows what it means.

Basically, I don't think people have a very good grasp of medieval titles anyway (perhaps they do in Britain, here in the USA they don't). I certainly don't know the difference in roles between barons, counts and dukes, that never really came up at the dinner table when I was growing up. So if you intend to sell in an American market, even those titles are familiar but without meaning, you'd have to explain to the reader whatever fine distinctions of duty and obligations they entail, and where they are in the social ranking.

I'd leave the specifics up to your imagination, but I was happy to skip over the medieval terminology, and 'translate' for the reader into English they already know.

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    "Basically, I don't think people have a very good grasp of medieval titles anyway" I think this is a huge point that OP should recognize. As a Canadian reader of Fantasy novels, things like "Duke" and "Earl" initially have little meaning to me beyond "Higher ranking than a regular person". The importance of the different titles only becomes clear from context; but in a well written story it's essentially a non-issue.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 20:54
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    It's quite easy to remember barons < counts < dukes; alphabetical order = ascending order of rank. It gets trickier as you introduce "viscount", "marquis", or other titles though.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 6:34
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    As Austrian I think the same goes for Central Europe. At least I have no idea what they are, other than some kind of higher rank.
    – Linaith
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 10:19
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    An interesting opposite take was used by Gene Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun, which created an "otherwordly" feel by use of older (but actual) words. There were zero invented words used in the text, but still a lot of vocabulary new to the reader -- but words they could still work out from context, or by just looking up the word in a dictionary. (There's a little more to it than that, but gets into spoiler territory.)
    – Ti Strga
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 21:46
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    @TiStrga I don't doubt there are other successful strategies; my approach worked for me. I'm not sure there is any functional difference for a reader between invented words, foreign words and new vocabulary. If it isn't a familiar word to the reader then it is a demand on their memory, and that is something I was trying to avoid. I didn't want Knights, Squires, etc because I wanted to avoid any preconceived baggage about those roles, especially about the roles of women being weak or subservient. Since that was true IRL for most of history I'd probably dislike using real ancient words.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 23:11

It's ultimately up to you, but you don't want your ancient Persia overridden by knights. You may as well make them wear full plate armor instead of describing whatever garment was in use in that age for the sake of simplicity, but at the same time you'de be losing something valuable.

It's true that it will be difficult for the reader to familiarize with a new concept, especially in the first part of the novel. But there are ways to make it work; the extract of Monica Cellio's answer is one of them (assuming it's used consistently all over the novel). It's fine if the reader gets confused about the caste system and the power relationship between Asvanars and Vaspahrs in the first chapter, as long as that confusion fuels his curiosity.

I remember some author (maybe Sanderson or King) giving the following advice: don't assume your audience is stupid (or at least, below average). I'm not saying that you are doing that, at least on a conscious level. As humans, we are very good at finding meaning to unfamiliar words given the context, without needing to be spoon-fed with definitions.

Another point to consider is that you're adding value to your setting through research. You mentioned Asvanars being almost equivalent to knights. Yet, if you put it like that, it becomes less interesting. "Allright, it's knights again". It may be familiar to me, but it may be so to the point of boredom. Instead, being able to discover bit by bit what Asvanars do as I follow your story, learning the differences and similarities with what I already know about what a warrior caste does, will provide me - as reader - with a more fullfilling experience.

To sum up:

  • Choose what are the concepts and the word that you don't want to translate in english. While it's worth to call Vaspahrs with their name, maybe calling swords shamshir it's not as important, and surely you don't want to give each scrap of cloth a persian name. It's up to your common sense to decide when to stop.
  • Once chosen, use your terms in the right context.
  • You may make it easier for the reader to understand them correctly, describing self evident scenes especially in the first chapters, "Rahil drawed his shamshir, its sharp and curved edge glinting coldly in the morning light, angry and menacing like a bared fang."
  • While you can give context, try to avoid spoonfeeding, e.g. clearly stating out that "Asvanars are this and they do that". The more you manage to show the concepts in action, rather than pausing the scenes and the characters, the better.

And all this is coming from a guy that struggled to understand the difference between Teyirn and Arls in Dragon Age. (On a side note, I'm using shamshir as sword, but I haven't researched if it makes sense for the period you're writing about).

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    The shamshir is strictly Persian and has a narrower curve. The scimitar is more widespread throughout the Middle East and has a wider curve. Shamshirs began to appear in Persia in the 9th century Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 19:29

When it comes to using fictional terminology for concepts with real-life equivalents, the best usage is for flavour; to establish what kind of culture the setting is. A good way to do it is to make your 'smeerp' word something that is relatively self-explanatory, so you're not doing the xkcd example of stopping to explain each new word.

If a new word is instead set alongside an explanatory context or is simply obvious from its construction. For example, in my universe, medicine is a thing, but it's just barely got to germ theory. As such, doctors perform autopsies on corpses and make observations, but they're hardly described in the precise terms modern doctors would use.

Liver Cirrhosis is Drinker's Liver, Cancer is Tumours, Gangrene is Corruption, an Epidemic is a Plague. These terms are still familiar and self-explanatory, but just that extra edge of foreign/fantastical that establishes that yes, this is a different culture, but you don't need to stop and explain everything.


So if you're writing is set in a historical Persia (or a modern or future one where Iran did not happen) you're going to find a lot of parallel titles in nobility to European and Asian Culture. The Mongol Khanate was a major power behind this as at their height, they had the largest land empire in the history of the world and had major influences in most Eurasian cultures including nobility systems. These include cultures that exist in modern day Turkey, Iran, Afganistan, Russia, India (Through the Mughal Empire), Mongolia, China, and were a known power to Korea and Japan (both of whom weren't conquered but not for a lack of trying) possible eastern European Countries, and similar. They also had one of the most advanced communication systems for the time and as a whole were quite mobile. Roman era coinage was found in archeological sites as far away as Japan.

Suffice to say, Honor systems usually had similar ranks in multiple cultures through out Europe and ranks normally conformed to each other (For example, a Maharaja from the Mughal Empire was similar to a High King in English and Celtic spheres, and largely for the same reason (they were a King of multiple Kingdoms but often had a lower ranked King under them managing the day to day of that Kingdom) and a step below an Emperor (who often were Kings of multiple Kingdoms and ruled them all with a more central authority). In the Mongal Khanganate (empire) A Khagan or Khaan was the equivalent title for an Emperor while Khan was a mere King, though Khan of Khans, Grand Khan, or Great Khan are also acceptable equivalents.

Since these regions interacted with each other often, titles were created denote the same level of prestige to impress foreign courts.


In conclusion, certainly this would not be an issue in a historical work and could even speak to the accuracy of the work by using the right term to describe the correct rank. Nor would this be out of the question in a speculative work if the ranking system is used either due to a what if where it never disappeared or a revitalized use of the system. For example, in The Man In the High Castle, Nazi characters use the Nazi military rank system despite most characters speaking American English and the primary setting for these characters being New York City and suburbs and military ranks having a fairly consistent one to one system, especially in the officer levels.

  • Thank you for your answer, @hszmv, but I know what the titles were, in different periods, and different neighbouring lands. I don't need help with that part. :) What I'm trying to figure out is whether/how to use relevant titles without confusing the reader with too many unfamiliar terms. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 23:28
  • Edited to add missing conclusion.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 16:29

There's a difference between making up words and teaching your audience about another culture, and in that respect I think your work is further from The Lord of the Rings than from Coco. The film quickly requires viewers to learn such terms as Dia de (los) Muertos (and the fact different people say it either way), alebrijes, cempasuchil and ofrenda, and also drops countless Spanish words into the film throughout, including many you might not learn in school. I don't think, however, that this makes people feel overwhelmed with heavy-handed world-building efforts, even though the film goes beyond real México to the Land of the Dead. I think people feel engrossed in a world that shows great care in its construction, all the more so in this case because it reflects a well-researched understanding of a real culture. People, I think, like learning a little about another culture, if it's in a work of entertainment that gives them something new.


If you want to tone down the number of foreign sounding words consider using more generic titles for some of the levels. The words Govenor and High Govenor could be used instead of Count and Duke for example, depending on how it fits and they are appointed. Barons could become Magistrates and Knights Champions.


Here's my unprofessional opinion, based on what I would like to read.

Short answer: Use the specific word when the specific matter. Use the common (English) word then the specific doesn't matter.

Long answer:
Refer to the king as "the king", but if anyone calls him by name then use the proper title. Example:

The king rose from his throne and glared on his subject imposingly.
"You may now address the king", declared one of his guards.
"Shah Alborz, it is an honour to have You receive me on this day", begged the merchant on his knees.

The title may as well be part of the name. It doesn't matter to the reader. If you have many people with the same titles it will be quite clear what are titles and what are names.

The same would go for any object. You don't have asvarans drawing their shamshirs. You have knights drawing their swords. But if at some point you describe the sword in more detail you would provide the name of the sword as part of the description. Example:

Asvaran Ardashir drew his weapon and stood in unison with the other knights. His sword, a shamshir with a narrow and radically curved blade, glimmered in the bright sunlight.

Again, I'm not a writer. My answer is based on my personal and unprofessional opinion.

  • If the second sentence of your second example was simply "His shamshir glimmered in the bright sunlight", you've established that the shamshir is a sort of weapon. Depending on the story, that may or may not be adequate. Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 18:19
  • With that alone, how do I know it's not a belt buckle, helmet, wrist guard, shield or just about anything else made of metal? There's nothing to connect it with the first sentence.
    – Kapten-N
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 7:37
  • Besides, just straight up calling it "shamshir" out of nowhere does not explain what kind of weapon it is. That will only confuse the reader. My suggestion was to only use the specific names in specific contexts, in this case when you are describing what type of weapon it is (a sword with a narrow and radically curved blade). After that, the name doesn't really matter and it doesn't need to be used ever again, but knowledgable readers they will know exactly what you're talking about and it will show them that you've done some research.
    – Kapten-N
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 9:01

Heres a Solution that you might keep in mind (even though you might not like it on principle).

If the historic accurate words you found, are not important to you (or the expected readers), then you might want to replace them with a word you made up.

This can have lots of advantages:
You can make the word sound more like what people imagine a persish title would sound like. You can build associations to other words, that convey the meaning you want. And you can choose words that are easy to visualize, pronounce and remember. You can make sure the new titles don't look to similar and by doing that avoid confusion.

Then, you are also not bound by the historical concepts (if someone happens to know them). Your "Kalavi" don't have to be exactly like the (persian) knights you are referencing.

"Kalavi" is maybe a bit on the nose, and I just came up with it, but it's easy to associate with knights or cavalry. And it sounds exotic enough to bring the desired flavor, but not to foreign too be unpronouncable.

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