The polysemy of ancient and/or faerie languages

This is not what I promised in an earlier post, but the topic is basically the same.

Now, I’m not widely read in (epic) fantasy novels, though it is often my preferred genre. Nonetheless, I think I can make a tentative generalization, which is that in any fantasy world where some either exotic or ancient race speaks a language unintelligible to contemporary folk, then there is somehow an inordinate amount of polysemy, connotation, or complexity to the words and sentences involved. Or, alternatively, it is approximately the same amount as in the modern language (usually “English”), but it is highlighted in such a way as to make it seem rather different from anything that might be familiar.

Just to pick a couple examples from Tad William’s book Shadowmarch (which I’m currently in the middle of reading; no spoilers):

The lady’s high house was called Shehen, which meant “Weeping.” Because it was a s’a-Qar word, it meant other things, too–it carried the intimation of an unexpected ending, and a suggestion of the scent of the plant that in the sunlight lands was called myrtle–but more than anything else, it meant “Weeping.”

…all the way down to the thrice-blessed fence that the mortals called Shadowline, and that the Qar themselves called A’shish-Yarrit Sa, which meant “Storm of Silence,” or, with a slightly different intonation of voice or gesture of the hand, “White Thoughts.”

I suppose that the second example is supposed to be significantly different from, say, tonal languages like those found in China and Africa. In this case, we are supposed to understand that the two meanings for A’shish-Yarrit Sa are somehow semantically related (in some deep way incomprehensible to mere humans). Either that, or somehow we’re dealing with a pun, or maybe just some philosophically interesting near-homophony which, perhaps, native speakers of Qar don’t even care about.

Now, this sort of thing is not in and of itself completely horrible. But for me, without an actual system apparent behind the words and their meanings, which could, with time, be discerned by the reader (and yes, this requires many more tokens in the books), it just seems…well, laughable.

Languages in fantasy

Something about language in fantasy novels is bothering me again, though I can’t quite formulate it yet. This is coming from a recent purchase, Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams. It’s sort of an interesting book, publishing-wise. Much (some?) of it was originally published as an online serial (on shadowmarch.com) back in 2002, along with a user forum and other interactive tools. It was a nice experiment, while it lasted.