BibLITothèque 6: Conlang for Dummies Part 1
Welcome to the sixth issue of BibLITothèque: the Writer's Library! This issue is about a topic both exciting and terrifying: creating new languages for your story, in the vein of Tolkien's Quenya and Sindarin or Star Trek's Klingon. If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or any other story in an invented setting, sooner or later you’ll run into the issue of whether or not to use made-up words and names.
Conlang (constructed language) is complicated as hell, so this guide is geared toward making life as simple as possible
. Good writing has few words doing a lot of work, and for the sake of your story, conlang is the same. Ideally, use as few made-up words as possible. Because there’s so much ground to cover, I'm splitting this guide into two parts. Part 1 addresses conlang in general terms and how it functions within your story. Part 2 will be a focused guide on how to create languages.
Why create a new language?
Language is reflective of culture
, so creating a new language can make your story world more realistic and distinct. Language is tied to religion, history, morals, technology, pretty much everything we do, and can help flesh out all these areas. You might have heard that the Inuit have fifty different words for snow. That's not really true, but the myth persists because of the perception that the cold, harsh climate is the driving force behind Inuit life. French-Canadian profanity includes several religious words because of Catholic influences, whereas the most offensive English-Canadian swear words relate to sex or bodily functions.
A base language helps keep everything consistent
in a world, so that the characters in a given culture have believably similar names, or the cities in a region sound like part of the same country. On the other hand, language can be a useful marker of contrast
. Maybe the elven city Elonitaria is across a river from the goblin cities Og, Med and Zur. Insta-conflict. If José Antonio Martínez Iglesias wakes up in Shinbashi Station without his wallet, something has probably gone terribly wrong.
Distinct languages are important if you're dealing with characters from different cultures who don't speak the same language. Readers will get suspicious if you never address the language barrier at all. Half-assed explanations are better than no explanations.
What should you never do?
Don't create an entire vocabulary that could fill a dictionary, UNLESS you're a trained linguist and you have a lot of time to kill. It will melt your brain otherwise, and it's valuable time and effort you could spend writing.
Tolkien was a linguistics professor who wrote books to feature the languages he already developed. Marc Okrand (creator of Klingon and Atlantean for Disney's Atlantis) is a linguistics professor with a PhD. David J. Peterson (creator of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones) has an MA in linguistics. This is the level you should be at before trying to create a whole language.
Don't put entire conversations in a conlang in your book. Readers will just get fed up. It works in movies with subtitles, but translating a conversation in a footnote would be ridiculous and drive your editor insane. (I’ve even heard of a published work where the appendix contained spoilers right next to the translations readers would be looking up!) Clarity should always be the focus
, not showing off all the work you put into a language. A good rule of thumb is to limit invented phrases to three words.
OK… so what can you do?
There are several strategies you can use. Think of them as different difficulty levels for world creation. Generally, the goal is creating the illusion
of a fully developed language without putting in all the work. These five modes cover how much development you do on the backend, and below, there’ll be examples of how to implement language in-story.
Don't invent any new words or names. Just name places something like Alpha Station B. Come up with some reason why characters from different cultures can speak to each other, like alien technology brain chips that do automatic translation. You miss out on the benefits of invented language, but it’s easiest for you and your readers.
Pidgin/creole/trade languages are a believable way to circumvent language barriers between characters. If you have multiple cultures that have been previously exposed to each other, they’ll have at least a rudimentary shared language before your story starts. Whole languages have emerged this way in real life, like Haitian Creole which developed from contact between French settlers and African slaves (and is now the native language of millions of Haitians.)
Tweak a real-world language. Change a few words where the meaning can be figured out without context, or create words that sound like they belong to part of an existing language family, and name people, places, etc, so they sound consistent.
This is Philip Pullman's method. The Golden Compass/Northern Lights starts in a parallel-world England, so he tweaked words and phrases from English: chocolatl
is chocolate, anbaric power
is electric power, etc. The meaning is immediately clear. Uneducated characters say “en’t” instead of “ain’t,” so it sounds like unfamiliar slang but doesn’t distract from their speech.
Pullman also created a few words meant to be 'foreign' by tweaking other languages, like panserbjørne
(armoured polar bears), which as far as I can tell is from German panzer
(tank, armour) and Norwegian bjørn
(bear). In the book panserbjørne live on Svalbard, a real set of islands in the Arctic, so the location name sounds consistent with polar bear culture.
Invent a language, but develop it as minimally as possible. Create a few words or phrases that can be sprinkled throughout your story, where the meaning or purpose becomes clear through reading. You don't need to worry about grammar; it just all needs to sound similar enough that readers can tell it's part of the same language.
This is George RR Martin's method*. He created a few phrases like High Valyrian’s Valar morghulis
(All men must die) that are spoken by characters and instantly recognizable by fans, and created a naming system for the Dothraki with titles like Khal
, etc. No part of A Song of Ice and Fire features direct, extensive dialogue in Valyrian or Dothraki. The languages weren't fully developed until the series was adapted to television as Game of Thrones and a pro linguist was brought onboard. If Martin had done a lot of language development and done it wrong, in a way that wasn’t coherent, the linguist would’ve been screwed because it’s too late to change it.
*Overlaps a bit with easy mode and tweaking real languages – Valyrian seems Latin-derived, and Dothraki might have a bit of Mongolian influence with khal/khan – but they’re more detailed and less clearly influenced than the Pullman example.
Invent a language with functioning grammar and a distinct phonology (all the base sounds of a language), and build up the vocabulary as you go. This gives you enough structure to string together full sentences. It requires some knowledge of linguistics and grammar, but you don't need enough words to write a dictionary.
If you plan on going this route, I highly advise doing a lot of planning first. Part 2 of this guide will go into detail about how to do this. I’ve done this with four languages for my novel series, but the characters usually speak in a trade language which is represented by English, so I don’t need to include a lot of foreign phrases. Mostly I use it for character or place names and culture-specific terms like certain food dishes or holidays.
Create a fully-developed language with its own dictionary and orthography (writing system, like Cyrillic script or Japanese hiragana). It's so developed that devoted fans could hold a conversation or write an essay in your language. This is where Quenya, Sindarin and Klingon fall.
Like I said earlier, don’t try this at home unless you’re a trained linguist.
It’s above my skill level, so I’m not going to cover it.
Ways to include foreign language in-story
Have a character explicitly translate foreign words to another character (and therefore to the reader.)“Hand me that fubar.”
“Er, sorry, that hammer.”
Have the narrator explicitly translate as part of the narration.We spent the evening making fubar, a complicated vegetarian dish from my home region.
The meaning doesn’t need to be clear to the reader if the narrator isn’t meant to understand either.“Fubar!” the enemy captain commanded.
[omg something’s about to happen, but what?!
Make the general meaning clear through character actions/reactions.“Fubar,” he spat.
She slapped him. “How dare you call me that!”
Ways to imply foreign language in-story
Describe the sound of speech instead of the words. Useful if the narrator can’t identify the language.The man’s words sounded like flowing water.
Acknowledge a character is speaking a foreign language without including the exact dialogue.
“Where’s the money?” she asked in heavily-accented Fubar.
Acknowledge a character is translating another character's speech without including the exact dialogue.“We leave in an hour,” he said, pausing to hear the rest of the woman’s speech. “She says ‘ready the horses.’”
Acknowledge a language barrier between two parties without going into detail.
They pointed at the map, working out directions in a stilted jumble of Fu and Bar.
That’s it for now!
Part 2, the guide to Hard Mode Conlang, will come at some unspecified point in the future.