and Using Fictional Languages
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature.
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.
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
goblins 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, TSpal 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. Dont 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.
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.
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:
Kennaways Constructed Languages List http://www.sys.uea.ac.uk/~jrk/conlang.html
Open Directory Project http://www.dmoz.org/Science/Social_Sciences/Language_
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,
following us, said Kelia in Wessisc.
not flow so well as
lowered her voice and whispered in Wessisc, Someones following
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.
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
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 Lisles
Bones of the Past, such as the tagnu (not-people),
keyunu (tree/god-people), and peknu
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 Rosenfelders attempt to recreate the Syldavian
language from Hergés Adventures of Tintin. http://www.zompist.com/syldavian.html
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.