Tag Archives: language

Metaphor especially has clarity, sweetness and strangeness, and its use cannot be learned from anyone else.


As worldbuilders we’re often unaware of how modern metaphors permeate our ancient worlds.

While we’re free to use modern language conventions when writing fiction, the language our characters use should be markedly different. The most simple mistake is to use linguistic anachronisms, words that wouldn’t be used given the current state of knowledge. A common example of this is ancient archers being given the order to “fire,” which would not have been used prior to the arrival of firearms. More subtle anachronisms are easily overlooked – much of the knowledge we think of as basic fact didn’t exist until after the 16th century. For example, a character wouldn’t say they “drew breath into their lungs” unless they’re aware of the function of their lungs; for much of history, the heart was thought to distribute the breath.

Consider the metaphors of the body in relation to the state of technology. The ancient city was born in water; seas, rivers, lakes, and springs were the nodes at which humanity gathered, and civilizations grew according to their mastery of flows.The challenges of delivering water incited the first examples of large-scale engineering – irrigation demanded the construction of canals, dams, and pumps, while the need for potable water within the city brought about reservoirs, pipes, sewers, and aqueducts. Water, not fire, was the main source of ancients’ power – water wheels milled grain, sawed lumber and cut stone, while water clocks counted the hours. The primacy of water in ancient life directly coincided with hydraulic metaphors of the body; the Greek theory of humours viewed the body as a balance of fluids which pumped and circulated through channels within the body, paralleled by the Ayurvedic concept of doshas. Treatments were similarly hydraulic, centered around drawing fluids from the body via bloodletting or purging, while the heart, the body’s primary pump, was identified as the seat of consciousness. Where the body was hydraulic, the spirit was pneumatic. Wind was force without form; power that could drive a ship but could not be seen or contained. Concurrently the breath was synonymous with life force or vital energy – in many cases the words for “breath,” “air,” “wind,” and “spirit” were one and the same. In turn the ancient concepts of pneuma, qi and prana view the subtle body as a network of fine pneumatic channels through which spirit circulates.

Following the enlightenment, metaphors of body, mind and cosmos underwent drastic change. The advent of classical mechanics led to the idea of a clockwork universe and man as a biological machine; with the coming of the 19th century, the body came to be ruled by electrochemical currents; nerves as wires, emotions as biochemistry. Germ theory gave us the viral metaphor, later adapted into the language of computers. As computers became commonplace, the digital metaphor was applied to both body and universe; brains as computational devices, ecologies as networks, existence as information. Just as it was with the ancients, our current technology can explain the totality of existence.

As moderns, we draw upon a vast legacy of knowledge with which we shape our worldview; consequently our language is full of modern metaphors for existence. This is my biggest complaint with movies set in historic or fantastic settings – modern writers write modern lines for modern actors, and the world feels entirely modern. We forget that while the ancients share our humanity, the world they inhabited was fundamentally different than ours. By changing the language of our characters to reflect this, our world becomes more different, more distinctive, more real. It’s this attention to detail that takes people out of the present and into the rich, living world you’re created. This works for me. Find something that works for you and stay creative.