Worldbuilding 101: Language, Part One

I apologize for being so late for this blog. April was crazy and May has been worse. April I was busy with work and felt under the weather, and then May came along to remind me what ‘busy’ really means. We have to move by the end of the month, something we didn’t know at the beginning of the month. The good news is that we have almost finished buying a house that if all goes well, we can hopefully start to move into as early as June fifteenth. The bad news is we have to be out of here by the end of the month. Yeah, lots of fun. There’s five people in my family, and we’re all packrats to some extent or others. I personally own more books than I suspect my high school library owned when I attended. Yeah, we’re busy. I haven’t had time to write anything since April. If anyone is curious, I did manage to complete my word count for Camp NaNoWriMo, even if the story is far from over, and I kind of cheated. Yes, I know. But it was a crazy time. Since it might be a while until things calm again, I am currently putting my blog on a ‘every two weeks’ schedule for a bit. Hopefully it will be easier to keep up that way.

I had about three quarters of this blog post written, and managed to lose that when my computer shut down without warning. Sorry.

So, about languages. I’m going to split up my original plan. Next time we’ll talk about inventing languages and words. This week, we’ll talk about a different part of using language to worldbuild.

Language is a form of communication. The goal is to express an idea from one person to another. If the reader cannot understand what you are trying to tell them, you have failed. Clarity is vital.

But language also evolves. Slang, in jokes, and idioms arise in groups, whether that group is as small as a family or group of friends, or as large as an industry. Then you have jargon, technical terms, regionalisms, etc. The way you talk is not the way I talk. The way you talk at home may be different from the way you talk to friends or the way you talk at work.

Okay, so what does that have to do with writing, especially worldbuilding? Everything! New concepts may require new words to describe them. Or at least new ways to use those words. Not to mention that language adds a layer of realism.

If your characters are from Medieval England or Thirtieth century Alpha Centauri, they shouldn’t sound the same as Twenty-first century Americans. Or each other. Neither do the characters from Medieval England need to sound like Shakespeare or the Thirtieth century characters need to sound like Flash Gordon. Slang is not a modern invention, and I do not doubt it will last as long as languages do.

Do your Mars astronauts refer to their ‘Standard Issued Terrain Footwear’, or do they refer to their boots? Or even their Sitfs? Actually, that’s a character study in and of itself. Or for your fantasy world, do your wizards have slang terms for the spells they can cast? Explosive spells could be referred to as ‘boomers’, plant spells could be ‘greenies’, summoning the Sly Ferret spirit could be ‘furmegeddon.’

What about oaths? Mild or even major swearing may not have any connection to swear words we use today. One of my stories, I had all crude language revolve around uncleanliness; dirt, mud, filth, etc.  One of the characters in that world is so prim that she refuses to use those words even in their proper context, referring instead to uncleanliness or becoming moist (sweat). Another doesn’t hesitate to use those terms frequently. Other characters are in between.

In other stories, I’ve made up mild expletives for different races. I’ve had vampires swear using, ‘Rotten Fangs’, while my Shadow fairy generally uses terms referring to light, heat, or day, such as, ‘Blazing day.’ My river dragons talked about being ‘dry of brain’ when someone seemed stupid.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’ve made these up is because I personally don’t swear, but there were times I needed my characters to do so. But also, I believe it adds to your story.

Attending Ravencon, one of the speakers talked about how a character and the story was enriched by his studying a book of Chinese insults. Another interesting way to explore a culture. What is considered a compliment? What is an insult? What is a compliment coming from one person, but an insult coming from another?

What have you done to add flavor? Next time, Languages part Two.