Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writing 101: Language Construction

After a number of false starts on a "How to Construct a Language" 101 post, I have come to the conclusion that there is just one piece of advice I really want to share. How do you construct a language?


End of lesson! ;) Okay, seriously though, I tried my best to make phonetics sound interesting, and the fact is it's just kind of a grueling topic if you're not a linguistics nerd like myself. And man, even then, I feel my eyes glazing over when I reread some of what I wrote. Eek!

For most fantasy writers, constructing a fully fledged language is not necessary. So today I'm going to be teaching you the alternatives. But never fear if you were looking forward to diving head first into linguistic nerdery. There is already a fantastic resource available to you, the Language Construction Kit. Believe it or not, the Kit was my first introduction to linguistics, and I loved it so much I ended up majoring in it in college. So maybe Mark Rosenfelder has a gift I don't for making this stuff cool. ;)

For the rest of you who just want a system for coming up with character and place names, and maybe adding a little local flavor to how your people talk, I'm here for you. Now my number one piece of advice is...


Yes, today's post is a sordid affair! Just as I'm a proponent of stealing ideas from history, I also steal real languages. Note that this method only works for human languages, and if you're inventing a language for aliens or some paranormal creatures, I want to direct you back to that section of the Kit.

The first thing I want you to do is pick two languages you like the look of. If you don't have any ideas, head to Omniglot and look at some transliterations until you find a couple you want to work with. Now go to Google and start looking for vocabulary and name lists in those languages. Remember to go for the transliterations in the Roman alphabet, since presumably that's what you're going to be writing in. Get really used to what the language's words look like. The idea here is to familiarize yourself with its phonological constraints, or what sounds and orders of sounds can occur in a language.

Now, you're going to start transliterating from one language to the other. Let me show you what this looks like with the two languages I've chosen, Korean and Japanese.

I'm going to take the following Korean names: Ae Sook, Hwa Young, and Myung Ki. And I'm going to write them in a roughly Japanese style: Eisuku, Wayon, and Myunki. Now, probably none of those three words are actually Japanese words. But they are words in my shiny new conlang!

If this task seems confusing or daunting to you, I want you to instead take just one language and make up your own changes to it. I'm going to use Arabic and set the following parameters:
All words must end in a vowel.
There is no z or b.
If a word starts with a vowel, I have to put an H at the beginning.

So these Arabic names: Aaban, Hafiz, Razzaq become Hapana, Hafisi,and Rasaqa.

Easy, yeah? I want to stress that you should do this casually and have fun with it. Sticking to your rules in general will give your language a cohesive look, but don't worry about consulting a list exhaustively every time you need a new name. You should get a good feel for your new language quickly, and then it will get easier and easier to modify words and make up new ones.

There's one big aspect I haven't mentioned here, and that's pronunciation. For reasons I will get to in a moment, I want you to pronounce your new conlang the way you think it should be pronounced. Go with your gut. You can also approach this process in a different way, and that's to take a language you like the sound of rather than the look. Take Welsh for example, which to English-speakers' eyes doesn't look anything like how it's pronounced. Listen to some Welsh words and write down what you think they sound like, then modify them.

And there you have it! I hope I haven't made this process sound scarier than it needs to be, blinded by language nerdery as I am. I've been conlanging on and off for ten years, and like I said, I studied linguistics in college, so... if you ever have questions, tweet me! @lauren_m_hunter. No really!

Some Suggestions for Using Your Language

  • Keep names short.
    One to two syllables max for most names. Your readers don't want to take time out from the story to figure out how to pronounce Krimkruploa.

  • Make pronunciation as intuitive as possible.
    Figure out what audience you're writing for; for most of you it's probably English speakers. Consider how they will want to pronounce a given name. If you want Racha to be pronounced with the ch as in Bach, consider spelling it Rakha instead, since that better approximates how an English speaker will read it.

    I don't follow this rule to the letter, since sometimes the aesthetics just bug me -- Zirek is pronounced Zeereck, but I definitely didn't want to spell it that way. As a general rule of thumb, if you need a pronunciation guide included in the front of your book, it is not intuitive. Most readers skip them. If you're okay with that, of course, go right ahead -- it's your novel! But be aware that not everyone will pronounce things the way you intended.

  • Avoid diacritics, also known as accent marks.
    Why? Because there are no universal rules for what accent marks do. In one language an acute accent (slanting upward) puts stress on a syllable; in another it changes the pronunciation of a vowel entirely. And you know what that means... not intuitive!

    There are sensible exceptions; for example, if you're writing for English speakers, putting an acute accent over a final e is a good way to show that it's pronounced ay and not silent. Just remember, you should have a good reason for using accents -- and never, ever use accents that do NOTHING! That's a sure way to annoy readers and language lovers alike.

  • Resist the urge to "show your work." That is, avoid gratuitous foreign vocabulary.
    Your language should speak for itself in the form of people and place names. If you include random words and sentences from your constructed language, it pulls readers out of the story. Besides that, it just doesn't make sense -- presumably the characters are all speaking in this language and you're "translating" it into English, so why did you neglect to translate that one line? If you're writing from the point of view of a character who doesn't speak the language in question, remember that it will sound like gibberish to them. If you hear people speaking Spanish and you don't understand a word of Spanish, you aren't able to break it down into individual words and their spellings -- it just all runs together.

    There are, of course, valid reasons to include foreign vocabulary. The one that comes to mind first for me is when a character is learning another language. And, alright, I understand -- sometimes, for artistic reasons, you just want to show off a line of poetry in this language you invented. Just do it sparingly.

  • Be aware of cliches.
    Consider this sentence:

    Mat minich'ebuli akvt goneba da sindisi da ertmanetis mimart unda iktseodnen dzmobis sulisk'vetebit.

    Something out of Mordor or whatever, right? Nope. This is a real language, Georgian, and it can have up to six consonants in a row. Consonants, in particular those "hard" ones like k and z and x and v, don't make a language evil.

    Now consider this:

    Tá bua an réasúin agus an choinsiasa acu agus dlíd iad féin d'iompar de mheon bráithreachais i leith a chéile.

    Oh, right, that's some fairy or elvish language, yeah? Actually, it's Irish. Celtic languages are used really often in fantasy fiction, especially when a mystical or magical quality is desired. I'm not saying they should be off limits; one of my own naming languages is based on Gaelic. But use your imagination! Consider why you're drawn to a particular language, and if you might prefer something more unique.

  • But don't forget: real people speak these languages.
    What I mean is, if you base your conlang off a living language -- no matter how "obscure" you think it is -- someone out there speaks it, and there's always a chance they could pick up your book. Put yourself in their shoes. If you had a book in a language other than English, and the main character was named Buttchiecks, wouldn't that kind of throw you off when you tried to read? If you know a native speaker who's willing to help you, it can't hurt to run the names you'll be using by them and see if anything raises eyebrows.

  • Make up proverbs and idioms.
    This can be really fun! Look at this website to get an idea for the variety that's out there. (As an aside, I wouldn't necessarily trust that website to be accurate, but it does open your mind.) Make up daily sayings as well as words of wisdom your characters might use. If you have a character who is not a native speaker of your language, have them make odd turns of the phrase which presumably come from their language.

And that's it for today. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!


Chelsey said...

I don't write much fantasy, but think these tips are really, really interesting nonetheless! Nice that not everyone has to be Tolkien...

Sophia Richardson said...

This is an awesomely fun way to come up with a language without going the insanely in-depth Tolkien route. Thanks for sharing!
- Sophia.

Marquita Hockaday said...

I don't need to create my own language for anything I'm writing, but after reading this, I kinda want to just for the fun of it :) Awesome post!

JessieLeigh said...

Awesome post, thanks! I've used a similar method for creating a language in past novels, albeit somewhat haphazardly. I'm definitely bookmarking your ideas (and the idiom website!) for future reference.


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