Using Your Encyclopedia to Think
By Valerie Comer
Looking through many of the favored fantasy
novels of the past few years, I offer this assessment: Celtic names and
culture have overtaken the fantasy market. They do sound pleasing to the
ear, I admit. However, it is time to break out of the mold and explore
other language styles and naming conventions for your next fantasy novel.
I looked up several conlang (constructed
language) sites on the internet, and backed slowly away, hands in the air.
I am not interested in taking the time or the energy to create a language
from scratch. I want to write one book and then another one, not create one
language and then another. If your hobby is building languages, I applaud
you, but I don't want to join you.
How then to come up with the feel of an
authentic language? The World Book Encyclopedia has a thorough article on
language families and there I found out which current languages are related
to each other.
Nearly half the world's population (47%)
uses languages found in the Indo-European family. This family includes
eight branches: 1) Germanic, which includes English, German, Dutch, and the
Scandinavian languages; 2) Romantic, which includes French, Italian,
Portuguese, and Spanish; 3) Balto-Slavic, which includes many of the
languages of central Russia and its satellite countries; 4) Indo-Iranian,
which includes languages from the northern Indian peninsula area such as
Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali; 5) Greek; 6) Celtic, which includes Gaelic and
Welsh; 7) Albanian; and 8) Armenian.
These languages have much in common
including inflection and a sentence structure that includes nouns, verbs,
pronouns, etc. Many words might be similar. The English word 'mother' for
example, is 'mata' in Sanskrit, 'meter' in Greek, 'mutter' in German, and
'mater' in Latin.
The second largest language family (22%) is
called Sino-Tibetan. This includes Chinese with its many dialects as well
as most, but not all, of the languages of south-eastern Asia. These
languages differ from the Indo-European languages in two main ways: the
words are single syllable, and otherwise identical words can be
differentiated by change in tone.
Black African languages (8%) are spoken
south of the Sahara and west of Sudan and Ethiopia.
The Malayo-Polynesian language family (5%)
covers most of the Pacific Islands.
Another family is the Afro-Asian (4%).
This includes Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, and the Berber tongues of North
The Japanese and Korean languages (4%) form
their own language group.
The Dravidian family (4%) covers languages
from southern India, such as Tamil and Telugu.
The Uralic-Altaic family (3%) consists of
languages such as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Turkish.
The Mon-Khmer language family (2%) covers
Thailand, parts of Laos, and parts of southern India.
American Indian languages (1%), which exist
in pockets throughout North, Central, and South America vary greatly from
one another, but are classed as one language family even so.
You may not wish to use any current
languages in your fantasy; I know I don't. I want to use them as a
foundation, to get a feel for naming conventions in my fantasy world.
What do individual languages sound like? I
speak only English, but sometimes I've sat in a restaurant and listened to
conversations around me in languages I could not understand. Somehow I knew
they weren't speaking French, or German. What was it about the flow of
words and the sounds in it that helped me come to that conclusion? I've
decided to find out, and then see how I can use this information to give a
feel of separate languages in my fantasy world. Perhaps the analysis that
I've been doing will be helpful for you as well.
A stack of World Book Encyclopedias anchors
my dining room table. I look up countries that have related languages,
using the language families article as a guide, and answer questions about
the languages. You may find these questions helpful. What do the names
sound like? What are some common endings for towns? Rivers? Lakes? Which
vowels are the most used? The least? Do the words sound soft (lots of Ls
and Rs and Ns) or harsh (an abundance of Ks, Ts, Zs and Vs)? Are any
letters, either vowels or consonants, often doubled? What letters are
frequently used together? Do you like the range of sounds that are part of
this language grouping?
If the sounds don't appeal to you after
all, start over with another language group. If they do, proceed to baby
name websites. In your search engine, type: baby names Hindi (or whatever
language you are playing with). Glance through the names offered. The
patterns shown in the map names are doubtless showing again. Are they still
At this stage, I suggest looking at some of
the common endings and giving them a twist. Many towns and cities in the
Indo-Iranian subgroup of the Indo-European family end in suffixes such as:
-pur, -ganj, -anga, -abad, -agh, -awar, -odha, and -alia. I decide to use
similar but not identical endings for towns in my primary fantasy country:
-jur, -bunj, -ojha. If I need more, I can adapt more. At the moment,
though, I only have about five towns that need names.
Then I do something similar with given
names. I note the common endings for female and male names, and which
letters are commonly used together. What letters are used to begin many
names, and which are rarely used? Based on this information I create a few
names that I like the sound of, that seem basic to pronounce, and that are
not too hard on the fingers to key in repeatedly.
My land has enemies, and yours might, too.
Have your two countries at some point in history been one united land, but
now are torn apart by civil strife? Or were they once conquered by the same
colonial political power? Answering questions of this sort may help you to
determine if they speak the same language, and if so, why.
Think a little about what kinds of enmities
exist between your cultures, as well as their physical proximity. If your
people are sailing across the sea to conquer new lands, odds are great that
the language will be totally different, so choose a different language group
out of your encyclopedia to work with in this second creation. If both
countries are well-established and next door to each other, they may have
related languages. Only you can decide how closely related you want them to
Can your main character speak the secondary
language? How did he or she come to know it? It's tedious to have an
entire book where the folks don't understand a word the other party speaks.
Make sure you build a believable background for your character as to how he
or she has this knowledge.
If there is regular trade between the
countries, it is likely that quite a few people, such as merchants, have
knowledge of both languages. If slaves have been captured, some words will
infiltrate into common usage. Accents may introduce differences in an
otherwise common language. I would suggest using dialects and accents
sparingly, as they can slow down the reading and thus jolt the reader out of
the story. Are gestures, or sign language, going to play an important part
in the story? How about misunderstood words?
If a country has been conquered in the
past, it is likely that naming conventions will include samples from both
cultures and language groups. Thus, in countries such as Guyana, a former
British colony, you will find place names such as Georgetown and Fort
Wellington not far from towns called Kwakwani and Dadanawa.
You have the option of choosing widely
varying cultural idiosyncrasies. If you are having trouble thinking outside
the box of your own culture or the Celtic fantasy norm, study the habits of
the countries whose languages you have just warped to your own ends.
Does the real country have any similarities
to the country you have drawn on your own map? Is the climate similar? Do
they both have ample coastlines, or perhaps none at all? If these
similarities exist, you may wish to adapt other ideas, such as common
foods. Have a look at their religion, at their clothing, at their
agricultural practices. Are these concepts that you can use as a
springboard for your own created country?
If there are few similarities, look through
your atlas until you find a different country that has topography and/or
climate in common with yours. Read through the articles in your
encyclopedia, and see what aspects of that land you can bring into your
own. You don't need to copy the culture verbatim any more than you did the
The history and ways of a nation do not
change much from year to year. Consider picking up an older set of
encyclopedias at a garage sale if you don't already have one in your home.
It will still offer you a rich mix of adaptable ideas, and help you break
your dependence on the current fantasy norms. An encyclopedia of any
vintage makes an excellent platform for your own leap into imagination.