The Fell Gard Codices

Language and Measurements

June 7th, 2011

I wanted to write a few notes about language, and the word choices I’m making with The Fell Gard Codices. To start with, I’d like to recommend this great post by Mark Rigney at It’s about the sort of things I have on my mind: how you have to choose carefully which words to use in your fantasy story (really, in any story), because the words you choose help to build the fictional world.

Ideally, the vocabulary I’ve been using for the story feels a bit different from contemporary language. I’d like to think it sets a tone that not only helps distinguish the story, but also helps establish character. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that he had his charcter Théoden speak in a particular archaic style because that character came from a specific culture, and thought in a certain way that had to be expressed in a certain language. In my own much humbler way, I’m trying to get at something like that.

The specific example I want to mention here would be the use of imperial units of measurement; feet and yards, not metres. This choice in no way expresses a personal preference. I’m a Canadian, and grew up using metres and centimetres as well as feet and inches; but pints and gallons mean nothing to me, while litres do. I like the rationality and ease of use of the metric system, where everything scales up decimally, and it all gets back to the metre.

But that’s the point, in a way. The metric system is a creation of the 18th century conception of Reason. The metre was designed to be a specific fraction of a north-south meridian line, and the system was planned out based off that. I wrote an article once about the difficulties involved in the measurement of the meridian, which took place against a background of revolution and war; I can strongly recommend Ken Alder’s book The Measure of All Things as a great story about the creation of the metre, as well as a meditation on reason and the mathematically imperfect nature of the world — because, you see, when those 18th-century scientist-philosophers went to measure the meridian, they found the earth’s surface was inherently irregular. Irrational.

But while the metre is at the heart of a rational system that happens to be based off a measurement limited by an irrational world, the imperial system’s something else again. It’s fundamentally irrational, but highly organic; you can hear that in the word “foot,” but originally an “inch” was the length of three barleycorns. It was a system, if you can call it a system, that grew out of its culture, with rods and chains and more; with units of land defined by how much land a team of eight oxen could plow in a year. It reflected how medievals thought in the same way as the metre reflected how scientists in the 18th century thought.

It’s not that medievals were irrational, and it’s not that the 18th century wasn’t still shaped by the agricultural year. But the concerns were in different places, and the words and terms reflected the cultures that used them. So I’m using the terms that seem most appropriate to the cultures in the story I’m telling. In fact, I’ve already simplified things considerably; the medieval foot and yard were not our own, and indeed different places (less so in England, I gather, but definitely in France) might have their own distinctive units of weight or length — thus giving local merchants a bit of an advantage. The use of different units of measurement, or different measures for the same term, was an early form of protectionism, if you like, helping an economy based around local villages and manors to function; and it was one of the things the introduction of a universal system of measurement, the metric system, was designed to abolish.

And yet, the terms remain. Even those of us who don’t use the system of measurement, or not all of it, still know the words. So I’ve turned to them for The Fell Gard Codices, because for this story, they seem to be what is most appropriate.

One Response to “Language and Measurements”

  1. Grace Seybold

    I may be misremembering (it’s been awhile) but I think Robert Jordan used the medieval measurement words but gave them values different from both the ones we use and the medieval ones. A league was four miles, and a foot was some uncommon number of inches (fourteen?) and so on. I understand what he was trying to do, but I just found it confusing; all it did was make me go “ah, crap, how much was that again?” whenever any character referred to a measurement of any kind.

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