Worldbuilding 101: Languages Part Two

 

Hello again! We did manage to move out of the old place, and today was the inspection of the house we have been hoping to buy. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to need more work than we anticipated, and we already knew it was a fixer-upper. So, wish us luck and wisdom as we continue.

But, I’m betting very few people are here to listen to my house woes. You are here to learn more about languages and worldbuilding. Specifically, making up words or even a whole language for your works.

There is nothing wrong with making up words or phrases from a fictional language, and it can even add a lot to a story. But when you make up a word or phrase, there are a few things to keep in mind. How is the word pronounced? Can the reader tell? In English, many letters can make two or more sounds. Easy ways to solve this are to have a pronunciation guide in front or to mention in the narration that so and so pronounced it like… But they have issues too.  Readers may skip a guide, I know I had read the Pendragon Cycle (Stephen Lawhead) three or five times before I bothered to read the pronunciation guide, and had been mis-pronouncing several main characters names the whole time. You also don’t want to be constantly commenting on how a character speaks, it gets annoying.

Okay, so the reader is mispronouncing names or words, who cares? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe it matters and maybe not. But at least consider, is there a way the word could be pronounced that you really don’t want? Possibly like a swear word, a potential sexual term, or something insulting to a certain segment of the population? Or maybe you do that want that. That’s your business, but at least make sure if it does, that’s because you meant it, not by accident.

It is also important to do your best to check that whatever word or phrase you make up doesn’t already have a meaning you aren’t aware of. That’s hard to check, but important. Probably most people will forgive you if your word for bread turns out to also be an obscure Polish swear word, but it can be embarrassing. And with the internet as large as it is, people will find out. You never know what somebody’s an expert in until you make a mistake in front of them.

One other consideration is when to make up a new word for something. No matter how clever it is, not everything in your world needs a clever new name. No calling rabbits, smeerps. * If a perfectly good word exists for what you wish to describe, especially a word your readers will understand, why not use it? Remember, communication and clarity.

Also, do consider that it is not uncommon for readers to start tuning out when things get hard to understand. I tend to let my eyes wander when I run into too many unfamiliar words in a small area.

About making up a language wholesale, my advice would generally be don’t bother. There is a lot of work that goes into developing a language, and it seldom comes out well. Not to mention, most of your readers will not be interested enough to learn a new language to read a story. There are exceptions, languages that took off, such as Elvish and Klingon, but Tolkien was a linguistics professor and Klingon was developed by a group of people, not one lone person.

So, you’ve decided to ignore me, and want to develop a language anyway. Fine, fine. You’ll learn. But I do have some advice about that too.

Start with grammar. I know, I know, the vocab is more interesting. Of course it is. I was an English Major and I still have trouble with parts of grammar. But it is vital. Grammar is your framework. It is the cord that makes up your string of pearls, with the vocabulary as the pearls themselves. Without that cord, you have a mess of loose beads. Your grammar can (and should be) simple. Ways of expressing what happened (or will happen) to who and when. Or didn’t happen and won’t. You don’t need twenty-four different ways to say ‘my’(Russian) or rules that have a million exceptions. For guidance, I would look into other conlangs (constructed languages) like Elvish, Klingon, and Esperanto.

Figure out the base of your language. What kinds of sounds predominate? English is a bad example here because we’ve stolen from pretty much every language we’ve ever encountered to form this great mishmash we speak. But if you listen to someone speak Spanish or French and then speak Russian or German, you will notice some dramatic differences. Is your language mostly full of hard consonants and percussive sounds (‘D’ ‘T’ hard ‘K’), or is your language more likely to have soft, flowing sounds with a preponderance of vowels, ‘L’s and ‘S’s? Are words commonly long or short? There is no wrong answer here, and if your country is close enough to be influenced by another country or countries, maybe their language is a great mishmash too.

Again, if you throw too much that is unfamiliar, odds are good that the reader will get bored and start tuning it out. I know I always did when the classics threw in French text without translation, because I didn’t (and still don’t) know even enough French to order a hamburger. Not to mention, the more you make up, the longer it takes to make sure that the words you just made up aren’t already real words.

In all fairness, it can be done, and done well. Watership Down. Lord of the Rings. Klingon. Maybe you’ll be next.

I am currently attempting to arrange an interview with a group that is constructing a language in the web game Flight Rising. Any questions you want me to ask? Leave a comment or email me at hjhardingbooks@gmail.com

* I have linked to TV Tropes in the past, and undoubtedly will again in the future, but I feel I should note that it is not always entirely work safe. Mostly because of language. Use your own discretion.

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