Vision 66

The Quick and Dirty Guide to

Conlanging for Writers, Part 4


Alexis Carter

Copyright © 2012, Alexis Carter, All Rights Reserved



The first three installments of The Quick and Dirty Guide to Conlanging for Writers covered some of the basics of linguistic structure. In this final section, we're going to take a look at some of the cultural aspects of language.




Languages don't come into existence in isolation. People create and use the words they need to describe things they see in their everyday life. Therefore, you can expect that a culture living near a lake or ocean will typically have more words related to underwater flora and fauna than a culture living in the desert.


There is a persistent rumor that Inuit languages have hundreds of words for snow. This is false. However, the languages of the Sami people in northern Europe do have more than one hundred words to describe different kinds of snow. Hindi, by contrast, has very few words discussing winter weather; the language evolved in a much warmer climate, where the minute distinctions between different types of snow are both less important and less likely to be recognized under the conditions of South Asian weather.


The setting of a culture can also affect the proverbs that are developed. Let's take a look at the adage "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." It makes sense to a modern reader and it would have made equal sense to someone who lived back when this phrase was first coined. However, would it to a fantasy character from an inland desert culture, who may never have seen a fish before? What about someone from a culture where eating fish was taboo?


If you haven't already done so, take some time to think about the setting of your story. Imagine what your main characters will see when they look out of their windows or step outside their doors. If your characters are going to pass through unfamiliar settings throughout the course of the story, then you can also think about the animals, plants, climactic conditions, technology, and music, among other things, that they may encounter. Decide what your characters will call them. For this particular situation, you may find that you would be better off coming up with literal English "translations" of the language your character speaks instead of using an invented word; these "translations" can often convey more to the reader than an invented word. "Dagger-toothed cow," for example, gives an English-speaking reader more information than "klimarikan" would in the same situation.




Setting isn't the only thing that will affect the vocabulary. Culture also plays a significant role in determining which vocabulary words exist, which remain common, and which fall into obscurity. These cultural factors can be difficult for non-native speakers to internalize, which can lead to many good opportunities for conflict within your story.


Some cultures have a heavier emphasis on respect (of elders, of authority figures, etc.) than others do. This often manifests itself in the language, especially in the pronouns. English has only one main word for "you" which can apply to everyone from that surly neighbor down the street to the Queen of England. However, other languages have different levels of respect encoded within their pronouns. In French, tu and vous both mean "you," with tu being used strictly for the singular and for more intimate or familiar relationships, while vous is used both for the plural "you" (as in "y'all") and when the speaker wishes to show respect to an individual person (e.g., a teacher, a boss, etc.).


Hindi has three different "you" pronouns: aap, which is formal and can be used for both the plural and singular; tum, which is more familiar but can also be used for both the plural and singular; and tu, which is very intimate and only used with the singular. You can create any number of pronouns to show different levels of respect when one character is speaking to another.


Family relationship words are also a good area in which to create subtleties. English makes very few distinctions between different relationships. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has separate words for older and younger siblings (gēge and dìdi for older and younger brothers, and jiĕjie and mèimei for older and younger sisters). In Hindi, distinctions are made between maternal and paternal relatives; a paternal grandfather and grandmother are daadaa and daadi, respectively, while maternal grandparents are naanaa (grandfather) and naani (grandmother).


Using special words to reflect the cultural realities of your characters rather than of your audience can enhance the credibility of both your writing and the world you have created.




One thing to avoid is direct translations. Instead, focus on making the grammar and expressions your own.


There is a lot of room for creativity when creating idioms for your fantasy world. For example, American English contains the phrase "armchair quarterback," used to describe someone who gives unwanted (and sometimes inaccurate) advice to someone else who is performing a task. This expression only makes sense in a society where people play football and sit in armchairs.


This doesn't mean that your idioms can't contain sentiments similar to those we have in English and other Earth languages. For example, let's pretend that you're writing a story about wizards who depend on talismans called krads to cast their spells. Perhaps a person who offers unwanted advice in this society could be a "krad-less wizard" rather than an armchair quarterback. Keep in mind, though, that you should focus on situations that are fairly well-known in your characters' society; an idiom based on an obscure event would probably never gain enough traction to enter the common usage.


In English we primarily think of the future as being in front of us, while the past is behind us. This is an idiomatic feature found in many languages, but not all; Mandarin Chinese speakers have the option to discuss the past and future not only in terms of front and back but also in terms of up and down. The past, shàng, is seen as being up, while the future, xià, is considered to be down. In contrast to the way it is done in English, the Aymara people of South America also discuss time in a different way; for them, the past is in front of them, while the future is behind them. This relationship between space and time is something you could play with in your own fantasy world.


Some languages on Earth also contain types of words that don't exist in English. These other categories of words can provide inspiration for things to include in your conlang.


Mandarin Chinese has a very interesting special class of words: measure words, or classifiers, which we don't have in English. When indicating how many of something there are, the speaker must use the correct measure word depending on the item being counted. For example, when counting photographs, the word zhāng is used, as in sān zhāng zhàopiàn ("three zhāng [measure word for flat objects] photographs"). Some of these classifiers are specific to one or two types of items. Others are used for many items that share a certain characteristic; zhāng is used for flat objects. Mandarin Chinese is not the only language to use them; they are also found in Bengali, Korean, and American Sign Language, among others.


Measure words can reveal the distinctions made by your invented cultures. Perhaps an insular or xenophobic society assigns a classifier to each noun based on whether it is native to their land or imported from another country. Perhaps it is determined by how holy an object is or isn't perceived to be. There are many things that could be shown by inventing your own classifiers.




Successfully creating your own language can evoke a lot of detail in your fantasy stories, and it can also be enjoyable in its own right. This series of articles has provided you with an introduction to what is needed to create your own fantasy language. However, there is much more to the conlanging world than I've been able to provide in this series of articles. The Language Construction Kit ( is one of my favorite resources. It goes into more detail about each aspect of conlanging.


The World's Major Languages, edited by Bernard Comrie, has a lot of information about many existing languages here on Earth. It discusses the phonology, sentence structure, writing system, and many other components of more than thirty different languages. Comrie has also written and edited other books about language that you may find useful, such as The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa and The Atlas of Languages: The Origin and Development of Languages Throughout the World.


If you would like to learn more about the history of conlangs, I suggest Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.


I hope you've enjoyed this series of articles, and that it's inspired you to take a closer look both at the languages here on Earth and at the possibilities within your own stories. I look forward to reading words in your new constructed language from your published books in the future. Happy conlanging!


The World's' Major Languages

Bernard Comrie (Editor)

Oxford University Press, USA (June 28, 1990)
ISBN: 978-0195065114


The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa

Bernard Comrie (Editor)

Routledge; 1 edition (October 18, 1990)
ISBN: 978-0415057721


The Origin and Development of Languages Throughout the World

Bernard Comrie (Author), Maria Polinsky (Author), Stephen Matthews (Author)

Facts on File (October 1996)
ISBN: 978-0816033881


In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

Arika OkrentSpiegel & Grau (May 11, 2010)

ISBN: 978-0812980899