Creating and Using Fictional Languages in Your Writing

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(Vision #2)

Creating and Using Fictional

Languages in Your Writing
Damon M. Lord
©2001, Damon M. Lord


When we consider the process of language creation and evolution, we are, in the West, inevitably drawn to the Babel story of the Bible. Due to this cultural conditioning, it seems almost heretical to propose that there could be anything other than the natural state of a multilingual world. However, when we read fiction, for example a fantasy novel, we often find that all the characters, after traversing great distances over elegant maps in the front of the books, still are able to speak without any difficulty to the locals. We are going to assume for the sake of argument that using a natural language is no good for your characters, as of course aliens from Wtlond and Golden Knights from Dalinia are unlikely to speak French. Most likely your piece of fiction will be taking place in a world where languages are not as we know them.


Some authors are drawn to language creation, the most famous example being J.R.R. Tolkien. At some point books may require a made-up word or two. Often authors just resort to a creating a naming language, which is fine if you want to only use a few words of your language. For example, a goblin’s alcoholic drink that smells like a dead rat or a magical blue fruit, would be better named kuruh or novpomo than calling it ‘stinky beer’ or ‘sapphire coloured spell apple’ throughout a book. If you are going to use a naming language, it is best to get the rudimentary sounds right to get the feel of the language. If I were to make up names for Star Trek, ‘T’Spal’ is more likely to be a Vulcan name and Gaghplak is more likely to be a Klingon. From the sound, we are already getting a little glimpse of the culture, by using softer sounds for the nobler cultures, and harsher for the warrior races. Don’t be afraid to experiment with sounds, perhaps taking a few more interesting sounds such as the German ‘ch’, as in ‘Bach’, or the frustratingly difficult ‘ll’ sound in Welsh.

If you are going to use a naming language, there is a brilliant tool for creating names for characters and so forth at http://www.langmaker.com/langmake/index.htm. This tool is great for generating hundreds or thousands of different words that have a particular sound to them, and it is possible, playing with additional lexical downloads, to create other wordlists that appear to have descended from existing languages.


If you are planning to use languages frequently in your work of fiction, in addition to the vocabulary created with the LangMaker tool, you may also need to look at what you know of other languages. The best way to start if you have never tried to create a language before is to take a look at some of the many sites that are scattered around the net, to look at examples of languages that people have already created to get a better feel for languages. Various indices can be found at:

LangMaker Website http://www.langmaker.com/

Richard Kennaway’s Constructed Languages List http://www.sys.uea.ac.uk/~jrk/conlang.html

Dmoz Open Directory Project http://www.dmoz.org/Science/Social_Sciences/Language_


and_Linguistics/Constructed_Languages/


“The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” by David Crystal is also a good bet to introduce you in a fun way to the vast complexities of language. However, it does not dedicate much to the art of creating languages - which Tolkien called “the secret vice” - instead focusing a few chapters on languages that were created for auxiliary use, such as Esperanto and Volapük.

However, if you plan to create a fully usable language for your characters to speak in your story, it is best to consider grammar. Grammar is basically the nuts and bolts of the inside of language, which, like the car engine, is the bit that makes it work. There is no easy way of creating grammar, apart from a lot of perseverance. One of the greatest difficulties of language creation is grammar.

There are, though, several aids for anyone wishing to attempt to create a full language. You can join the conlang (Constructed Language, http://www.egroups.com/group/conlang ) mailing list, which, with nearly two hundred members, would be glad to help. Also worth reading are various articles and guides to be found around the web, such as the Zompist Language Construction Kit http://www.zompist.com/kit.html and How to Create a Language http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Shire/1021/how/how.html by Pablo Flores. One method I once used for creating languages is to take the basic grammatical structure of an existing language and modify it. There is a danger, however, that the new creation will just be a clone of the existing language.

Evidently, not all may have the time or wish to create a language in full, but still may wish to capture the flavour of having characters encounter linguistic difficulties. However, there are a few ways around this – one character could be bilingual (not an uncommon possibility), or possibly alter the syntax of the character to express difficulties in speaking, or to represent a different way of thinking. An example is Yoda from Star Wars: “Strong with the Force you are.”

Actually avoiding using a language is also an issue, which must be addressed. It would not make good, readable prose if every conversation were to be conducted in Wessisc or whichever language you have chosen to create. It is therefore a matter of style to how it is represented. It would not flow so well if following every utterance it was explained which language they were speaking, for example,


“Someone’s following us”, said Kelia in Wessisc.


may not flow so well as


Kelia lowered her voice and whispered in Wessisc, “Someone’s following us.”


However, when using or implying another language, we must also remember to add cultural nuances that will make the language unique. For example, if a typical insult in your created Goblin language is “You look well dressed”, because the Chief Goblin hundreds of years ago had bad fashion sense, this adds some insight through language to the underlying culture. If you expand on this, it ultimately will give an insight into the minds of the characters involved.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be of interest in evaluating how to use language to understand characters better – it proposes that language determines how people think, and also that languages have characteristics that are not found in other languages. This will undoubtedly have an effect on the cultures and characters of the people speaking the languages. For example, Aztec has a single word for many concepts: ice, snow, and cold. In contrast, Eskimo has many words for snow, each word having a different meaning for different ideas of snow, such as falling snow, snow on the ground, etc. This will be of particular interest to those creating a language for extra-terrestrials, as undoubtedly the mind-set of any alien would be quite different from that of the average human.

Extending this to fiction, there could be names for different type of people and concepts contained in a culture. An illustration is the various names of the groups of people in and around the Wennish Jungles of Holly Lisle’s “Bones of the Past”, such as the ‘tagnu’ (not-people), ‘keyunu’ (tree/god-people), and ‘peknu’ (things-that-look-like-people).

However, it will be inevitable that people interested in linguistics will ask questions about your language. The first time I encountered the words above, I paused a moment to analyse them. By the end of reading the first chapter of “Bones of the Past”, I felt it was safe to assume that the singular of the nouns in the Wennish tongue would end in ‘–i’ as in keyi (tree/god) with the plural ‘keyu’. Some people go as far as to actually attempt to create the language based on what is available in the text, as in Mark Rosenfelder’s attempt to recreate the Syldavian language from Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. http://www.zompist.com/syldavian.html

There is evidently a lot of work to be considered before attempting to construct a language, or even just a few words of an alien tongue. For some, it is a life-long obsession. Tolkien created his universe so that he could have a sandpit in which he could play with the languages he had been working on throughout most of his life. Language is the apparatus of the writer, and exploring it in depth for his characters’ speech may help the writer to understand his own tools better.