Constructed Language Creation: Five Tips to Help You
January 19, 2018
Today I’m going to talk about something a little different. As you might know, I consider my writing to be within the realm of historical fiction. My current manuscript, which has a lot to do with cowboys and pirates is also speculative fiction which means I get all the fun of adding in historically convincing setting detail while creating my own unique and totally intricate world. The fun.
At one point or another, speculative fiction writers will find themselves thinking about constructed language. Constructed Language, or conlang, is a term that’s used to describe any fictional and created language. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, then you’ll know Elvish, perhaps the most famous conlang.
Tolkien was a linguist, but you don’t need to be one to create your own language. If you’re dabbling with speculative fiction or want to add more depth to a world that you’re creating, language is an awesome thing to add.
Here’s what I learned from writing out my own conlang and some useful tips that can make you an expert.
For many people, when learning a new language, pronunciation is the hardest part. Our mouths and tongues want to make certain sounds, and aren’t trained to make others. For some people it may seem impossible to roll their r’s in Spanish, but it’s all about practice. For native speakers, that’s just second nature.
Similarly, our ears are unfamiliar with a lot of sounds, too. We know the sounds of the English alphabet like the back of our hands. When writers fall back on their own knowledge of English sounds to create a fictional language, they often come up with languages that sound pretty unrealistic and fantastical, and kind of ugly. Open yourself up to inspiration by looking at different writing systems to form your alphabet. There are several different kinds of systems, Alphabetical (like English), Logographic (Kanji), Abjad (Arabic), and Abugida (Ethiopic). All of these use symbols and glyphs to represent a sound. While you’ll probably focus on using Latin characters so that readers can sound out your language, you can use languages from these systems to inspire sounds, combinations, or ways of thinking about language that you might not have thought of.
Okay, so maybe you’ve decided that you want to take inspiration from Mandarin and Japanese and create your own language. Awesome. But where do you start? There are a couple different approaches, and we’ll go over them quickly.
When you start a foreign language class, one of the first things you learn about is the alphabet. The alphabet contains a bunch of sounds, and if you can memorize and make these sounds, then you have a roadmap to speak a language.
When you’re creating a language, the alphabet is a little different. Think of yourself as a builder, and these are all of your pieces and supplies. You have to use these to make words. It’s nearly that easy.
Perhaps a more linear approach to starting your conlang is to quite simply create the alphabet your language will utilize. Not only should you name the characters that you’ll use, any accent marks, but also if these letters have rules and how you would pronounce them.
Take good notes! We like to assume we’ll remember things, but trust me, I’ve put aside my conlang for a months and when I can back, I had to teach myself it all over again.
Every Language has a set of rules. Without rules, language would be chaotic and thusly defeat its purpose as a tool for communication. When we talk about getting started, there are a lot of rules to consider. Word order is highly important, but we’ll get into that that a little later.
We can also consider how verbs affect a language. It sounds easy to just throw a few verbs together, but it can be challenging. As you know, verbs have forms which means that you’ve got to add a specific letter (runs) or grouping of letters (running) to the end of a word. This makes it hard, not only picking out these tense tags, but also figuring out how verbs can all use the same tense tags without rendering them unpronounceable.
You might also think about how your language affects society. In English, If we’re in a conversation with our best friend, we’ll probably end up referring to them as “you”. The same goes for their parents even as we’re meeting for the first time. In spanish, you might be familiar with the informal and formal “you”. If this same scenario played out in Spain, the speaker may refer to the friend as “tú” and the parent as “usted”. Does your language have rules for addressing people? Do you use a different word for younger and older siblings? What does adhering or ignoring these rules say about your characters?
Create Some Words
While not always my preferred method, creating words first might give you a feel for the language and the alphabet you’ll make. Start with the simple words, perhaps ones that your characters currently are in need of, or maybe simple family or environment vocabulary. If you have a foreign language textbook lying around, you can open the first chapter and look at the vocab list they give you, then try to create words for that list.
Let’s dive deeper into word creation. So the Spanish “delicioso” and the French “délicieux” are extremely similar words both meaning ‘delicious’. That’s because French and Spanish are both Romance languages and they evolved from Latin. English took its inspiration from German and all of the Romance languages which is why “delicious” sounds a lot like the Spanish and French words.
As a creator of conlang, word development can be a trying exercise. It’s not always easy to come up with new words, especially ones that don’t sound ridiculous.
When creating words for my conlang, Jhati, I made a list of words and sounds I liked from my base languages of Arabic, Hindi, and Kurdish. When I needed a new word, I’d play with sounds I liked or I’d find a word in one of the languages that I liked with sound and meaning, I’d use it as inspiration for often a word of the same or similar meaning.
I made a lot of lists in doing so. Let’s say that I wanted a word with the sound “wah”. I would build a list of words using my alphabet. Some would be really ugly, some would sound stupid, and some would be variant spellings of the same word. And let me note really quickly that while, due to the nature of my project and the characters my conlang was meant to highlight, I wanted my language to be smooth and beautiful. Languages aren’t always “pretty” though. A great example of a successful conlang that wasn’t afraid to be a little rough on the ears is the famous Klingon. Of course, we all have a different ear for pretty, so who’s to say?
When starting a conlang, it’s easy to get stuck in a bubble. Words go in Subject|Verb|Object order, right? If you only speak English, that might make sense, but if you also speak any other language, then you know that that the order of speech is always arranged differently.
Consider that your conlang might be a Verb|Subject|Object or A Subject|Object|Verb. Make sure that you can make sense of it and, most importantly of all, you write this rule down. It’s tough enough learning a new language, even if you created it yourself.
Take your Time
Latin is, as we discussed, the base of many languages. You know the saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’? Well, neither was latin. It takes time to build a language. In fact, it takes multiple lifetimes. In September of 2017, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added over 250 words from ‘froyo’ to ‘alt-right’. We’re always talking and we’re always finding a need for words that don’t currently exist, so we just make them up as we go. It’s okay to create your own conlang like that.
I started off penning the words that I knew my characters needed to say. These tended to be honorifics, family names (Mother, father, brother), proper place names, emotion words (love/hate), and a lot of curses.
I focused on these words first because they’re a believable way to add language to my story that allows the reader to make sense of it with context clues. You can always build on your conlang, but first, start off with an alphabet, rules, and the words you know you’ll need.
Creating your own conlang isn’t as hard as it sounds. Even though franchises like Lord of the Rings and Star Trek might have you believe that your conlang has to be working properly, full of millions of words and phrases, awaiting cult followers to speak it, that just isn’t the case.
Conlang is only as big as you need and want it to be.
If you’re looking for some help fitting a foreign language (or a conlang!) into your story, then check out Anna’s post here, which actually inspired me to share my own thoughts.
Have you ever created a constructed language for a story? Are you thinking about creating one? Tell me about it!