So your fictional world needs its own language, huh?
I guess your first question should be: How much of a language do you need?
There are several levels of fictional language that you can utilize for your world. It really just depends on a.) how/how much you’ll use it b.) how important it is to the setting and story and c.) how much work you as a writer want to put into your world that most likely won’t make it into your novels.
1. Usage and Frequency
If you aren’t going to be using your language for much aside from a way to keep your character and place names consistent (that’s important!), then you might consider a naming language.
If you’re starting on a smaller level, then there are a handful of things you need to figure out first.
- Sound – What do you want your speech to sound like? All languages have a sound or a few sounds that really define them.
Do you want your words to be hard consonant-heavy? Do you want a lot of lip movement with B and P sounds (labial)? Do you want a lot of tongue rolling or throaty sounds?
Whatever you pick, stick with it. It will help your underdeveloped language sound similar and therefore a little more believable.
- Complexity – Do you want words and names to commonly be very long or very short? If there are commonly both, then there should be a reason. If your MC is called Alo, but her best friend in Fraranath and they are from the village of Indarana in the country of Aromonta, then perhaps you should consider that Alo is a nickname, short for Alonara, even if that’s only what her mother calls her when she’s in trouble. (And notice the similarity between those four words. A and O sound, soft consonants.) Do your names translate to something almost story-like, or do they simply mean a single word or idea.
For example, in one of my conlangs, the sound ae used after certain letters represents certain things, certain tribes, though the sound itself is almost always indicative of “life.” So my character named Noathalae basically translates to “The living male of the dancing water.” By this name, we not only get a poetic meaning, but it also serves to tell others that he is male (tha, a female with the same name would be thi) and that he is from the water tribe and most likely, because of that, a telepath.
He mostly goes by Noa because of this lovely advertisement in his name. Thanks, mom and dad.
- Cultural influence – Language and culture are always tied together. Your language cannot exist in a vacuum. The lives of the people in your world and their way of life will have shaped the language over the years. Language is constantly evolving, and that should be true in fiction as well.
I have one character who is, in many ways, from the same culture as the rest of the ensemble, but there are a few differences because of how he was raised in his early years. He speaks the same language, but because of separation from the main cultural hub of their world, he has some different sentence structure and different slang than my other characters. And not entirely different words of slang, either, just alternate versions of the same words or expressions that evolved differently while his family was separated from others. While I also have a nation that speaks almost the same language that has been separated for MUCH longer (a few hundred years?) and their style and slang is just completely different, based on a unique religion and cultural structure. In these cases, language helps tell the story of these peoples. It’s amazing like that.
- Consistency – Just reiterate, make sure that the sounds and structures and obviously meaning, are consistent throughout. Once you’ve established that a word has a certain meaning, make sure it always does. Keep a glossary. If it helps, make one that goes both ways to make it easier to search your glossary as it grows more elaborate, that way you can look up your conlang words and also look up an English (or whatever) word to see if you already have a translation for it.
- Structure – Say you named your main character Dar Ro. There are several things you need to figure out in terms of worldbuilding in association with Dar Ro’s name. Are all names two-word, two-syllabul, or at least something similar? Is Ro a surname (or is Dar a surname) of some kind? Does your world have surnames and why? What happens to names when people get married? Do a little research to find out all the various world naming systems to get some inspiration. Here’s a semi-decent place to start.
Say you need somewhere to start in terms of sound, or you just need a phrase or two that you’ll use for one purpose and then move on. Great! There’s a generator for that! Awkwords and Zompist let you do a lot of customization if you want. They’re really useful, especially if you just need a brainstorming boost.
Vulgar is great, as well.
There’s also Nexi, which can help come up with fun, random words for you. It works better in blocks of text as it reads the language rules and develops fake words that follow the basic structure of a given language. It’s an easy way to just have a sprinkling of otherness in your story without much work.
Language is hard, man.
3. Structure and Syntax
Developing a language from the ground up can be done in a very similar way to how you start studying grammar in school, or learning to read. It helps if you have studied a foreign language and understand how the mechanics of language work in a way that is difficult to really grasp when you’ve only learned one language. I minored in French in college and through that study I found myself understanding English–and language in general–much more thoroughly.
So how do you start? Sentence. There are six types of basic sentence structure based on placement of subject, object, and verb. In English, Bill sees Jane. SVO. In Japanese, John Jane sees. SOV. It can also be VOS, VSO, OSV, and OVS. You get it. And in Russian it gets crazy because you just put the words in order of importance.
Figure out how your standard sentence structure will work. Account for adjectives and adverbs, reflexive pronouns, and all those thrilling things. In English: Jill sees herself in the mirror. In French, Jill se voit dans le miroir. (Jill herself sees in the mirror.)
You’ve got to start with the basics, though. And build up from there.
In my big series, I only have my conlang fully spoken occasionally. Maybe a few sentences per book, and they’re mostly songs or quotes from literature. But even for those few excepts, I had to have a consistent structure. This also means you don’t just make up the fun words that mean cool things. You’ve got to make up words for articles (or purposely leave them out), pronouns, prepositions…everything. You need the tiny words that help fill out sentences.
4. Filling it all out
Once you’ve got your sound, your naming system, your structure, your tie to culture, then it’s pretty much time for you to start filling out the holes in your language. Anything you might use, anything that adds nuance. Anything that you think is fun.
One of my favorite parts of creating a new language is being able to form words that express ideas that my language, English, doesn’t have. Like Greek, I created several words for “love,” that all carry different weight. I created words for ancient texts that unclear meanings because it used to be the only word for that idea and now it isn’t, or perhaps the mean has shifted over the centuries and it adds potential for conflict, for misinterpretation, for intrigue. Historical linguistics is one of my favorite things in the real world, so being able to develop my own linguistic history in my fictional world is basically the greatest of all things.
This is certainly not comprehensive, at least not yet. As I find amazing resources, I will continue to add them. For now, here are a few that I’ve found helpful in addition to the ones I’ve already linked to.
IPA sound index (Dropbox files)
Zompist’s Language Construction Kit (lots of links for starting out)
Here’s reddit’s conlang forum. There’s a lot of stuff, but you might find something really helpful!
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