Image: Matthew Loffhagen
So you want to invent a new language. First of all, congratulations – the ambition of your world building is up there with the greats. It’s not going to be easy, but there’s definitely a solid market out there for stories that pay this much attention to detail, and while you may not be sure where to start, enough authors have blazed this trail before you that a lot of the essentials are known.
In this two-part article, I’ll be looking at these essentials, giving you the tips you need to create a fictional language. In this, part 1, I’ll cover how to give the impression of a language and how to actually construct one, while in part 2 I’ll talk about making your language feel lived in and writing it in a way your readers find approachable.
Vocabulary vs. grammar
Perhaps the most important thing to understand when inventing a language is that words aren’t enough. Language is about underlying rules, about grammar – that’s where you need to start if you’re going to truly invent a new, fictional language.Fictional words are intriguing, but grammar’s what makes it a fictional language.Click To Tweet
Of course, you may not have to go that far. For many, many stories, the sense of language is enough, and there’s a range of ways to make your reader feel as if they’re encountering the language of a different civilization. I’ll begin with the simplest examples and work up, but many of the easiest tips to apply are worth knowing even if a fully constructed language is your end goal.
Slang, accent, and idioms
Perhaps the easiest way to render a familiar language foreign is to inject oddities into everyday speech. Accent can be an effective way to do this, but as we’ve covered before, it comes with a lot of drawbacks. Often, accent and dialect involve making dialogue slighter harder to read in a way may readers find more annoying than engaging. It can be done, but the risk is generally higher than the reward.
Slang and idioms are an easier way to communicate that while someone is understandable, they’re not speaking the language of the reader. These can be peppered in to give a sense of a different culture – many writers employ fictional curse words or deities to flesh out their fictional worlds – or used more liberally to create a more genuinely alien experience.
In Cockney rhyming slang, simple terms like ‘stairs’ are replaced with phrases like ‘apples and pears’ which are themselves replaced with shortened versions: ‘I heard a noise, so I ran up the apples, and he was climbing in through the window!’ Many writers use these terms in contexts where they can be easily deciphered, telling the reader that this is a unique form of speech from a place they don’t know, but one that’s accessible to them. As readers learn what terms mean what, it becomes inclusive – they understood all along, but now they’re in on the joke.
This isn’t always the intent, though, and slang and idioms can also be used to create distance – in A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess has his characters use ‘Nadsat’ slang. Since the book is narrated in the first person, the reader is confronted by a language that’s immediately hostile; something they have to put effort into understanding.
Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything.
– A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
It’s not the easiest way to pitch your story, but it does give the unmistakable impression that this world existed before the reader’s arrival. Again, though, it’s just a case of substitution, and after the initial alienation, the reader can acclimatize easily through context.
If you’re going to use new slang and sayings in your fictional language, this reliance on context should be at the forefront of your mind – wherever possible, try to present slang to your reader in a context that makes its meaning either incidental or easy to guess. Even languages intended to alienate shouldn’t keep the reader out for long.
Start with culture
The next step is to start inventing culturally important words. Slang and idioms are the frills – they imply a different world and culture – but specific terminology is more important. The concepts combined in new words suggest what your fictional culture values; what’s true for them that isn’t covered by existing languages.
What concepts and ceremonies define them? What roles are prized in their world, and what exists that we don’t have? These are the core new terms that, combined with a fictional language, can make a genuine impact on the reader.When inventing words, use the culture of origin as a constant reference.Click To Tweet
When inventing these terms, try to stick to a consistent set of rules, or even sounds. In William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer, the protagonists encounter the Ombaraka and Omchaka clans. While basic, the use of the same ‘Om’ prefix and the preference for certain letters does suggest a core language from which these names have emerged. If the clans were ‘Ombaraka’ and ‘Buro’, for example, this suggestion isn’t present.
Prefixes and suffixes
Prefixes and suffixes are a good way to start building a language that looks real at first glance. The idea is to encode a specific meaning in a prefix or suffix (just like in real life) so that it can be used as a way to classify words.
A suffix, for example, could be used to encode the idea of something being inside or outside the fictional society. This would allow the same core words to be used (and thus learnt by the reader), while giving them a rule that’s familiar and can be applied elsewhere. If things outside a fictional culture have the prefix ‘an’, for example, then the reader might not know what an ‘anspora’ is, but they know it relates to outsiders. This kind of half-comprehension can create a sense of hidden meaning – a fake pattern that helps them believe there’s more going on than you actually have to depict.
Prefixes and suffixes have been used by many authors to suggest a fictional language, but be careful that there’s adequate variety. Real language is dense, complex, and often counter-intuitive. Order things too neatly and they begin to sound unreal.
In fact, this is a technique deliberately used by George Orwell. In 1984, ‘Newspeak’ is an invented language which is intended to restrict the populace’s ability to both express and form inconvenient thoughts, primarily through narrowing their language and removing words (and grammatical conventions) that already exist.
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?
– 1984, George Orwell
Even in the society that has invented this system, there’s the suggestion that it’s a half-measure that isn’t really succeeding – I’ll return to the messiness of language soon, but for now, remember that nothing’s more unrealistic than a perfect system.
Ciphers and new symbols
Another approach to giving the impression of a fictional language is to depict it using invented symbols, often in the place of the usual letters of a word. The words are still technically spelled the same – and grammar and idioms are intact – but new symbols appear in a way that the reader subconsciously recognizes as a language. Think readers can’t tell that something’s nonsense just by the average numbers of letters in a word? Don’t count on it.
Jonathan Hickman frequently uses ciphers and symbols in his writing, as in The Black Monday Murders, and often allows his stories to reach a certain point before the reader is given the tools to convert the invented symbols into familiar letters. It’s an engaging way to hide twists and give the reader a sense of immersive translation, but used absolutely, it locks them out completely.
It’s possible to meld new symbols and ciphers with general conversation – as you can new words and terms – but it draws a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s invented, which can harm immersion.
Creating a real conlang
A real conlang (constructed language) is incredibly difficult to create – in all honesty, to truly create a language, you’ll likely have to be a linguist, and a good one at that.
That said, you may not be alone – Dothraki, Klingon, and Tolkien’s Elvish languages are all conlangs that achieved enough structure for fan communities to fall in love with them and reason out a more extensive structure of rules and vocabulary. Put in enough effort and your language can gain the momentum it needs to take off.
Grammar is where you need to start, and the basic tenants of your language. What tenses, forms, and common pronunciations make sense for the civilization you’re depicting? Again, begin with culture – what do the speakers of this language prioritize? Is there a single key difference to the reader’s assumed norms that you can build on?Borrow aspects of existing languages to shape a conlang that’s realistic but unfamiliar.Click To Tweet
Marry this idea to other existing languages – find some unusual rules that you can borrow, and do so on multiple levels, applying pre-existing but unfamiliar ideas to grammar, vocabulary, and perspective. For example, there are languages in which shades of color aren’t defined in the same way as English, with what we might consider as dark and light shades treated as different colors. Grab a handful of facts like this from different cultures and you’ve got either the groundwork or the inspiration for combinations that will feel real but be unfamiliar to any given reader.
Inventing a language
Those are the basics of inventing a language, but we’re only halfway through. After all, languages aren’t perfect structures – they’re molded by outside forces, and replicating this process in a believable way is an essential part of constructing a realistic fictional language.
That’s what I’ll be covering in part 2 (click here to read part 2), but until then, you can check out You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It and Shakespeare Invented Words, Should You Do It Too? for great advice that’s applicable to your language.
What’s your favorite conlang, and what details about it make it feel real to you? Let me know in the comments.