Talking the Talk: Creating Language

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

If you’re writing a fantasy book, you have probably already begun creating a unique language for your world. Your characters are probably not named “Tom” or “Linda.” Your landmarks and towns are nearly impossible to pronounce, and your favorite animal so far is called the “fargachn.”

It’s almost unconscious in fantasy writers, our need to create new, unusual and strange words. It’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to this genre. We want to go outside the boundaries of the known into the unknown. We love to color outside the lines and it shows from the very beginning of our novels.

For about a year now, I’ve been creating a language for an online role-playing group of Amazons. (You can read more about this in my Fan Fiction article, “Working With A Net”, April 2002 here at Toasted Cheese.) It’s been both a chore and a labor of love. I’ve learned a lot in my struggle and decided to share a few of those hard lessons with you.

Look at what you have before you start.

The major character names and the names you’ve given places are a good place to start looking at how your people speak. Did you add vowels to the end of all their place names? If so, consider doing that with the more common words, as well. What’s the ratio of hyphenated words to regular words? What’s the average length of a word? How much meaning does the word incorporate? These are all good indicators of how your regular words should shape up.

From Children of Dune by Frank Herbert:

He thought: Sietch Tabr is mine. I rule here. I am a Naib of the Fremen. Without me there would have been no Muad’Dib.

You can tell from the context what these words mean. All are place names or titles and each one helps you get into the story and remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Keep it simple.

The temptation to create a hundred-word dictionary for your language is great. Unless you’re going to publish it as an independent novel, or as a companion to your novels, try to restrain yourself. Keep a list and keep track, but don’t bog yourself down by feeling as if you need all the words ever. Create what you need, and leave the rest.

Make it important.

As with all things in a novel or story, create important words instead of common ones. Titles, endearments, places and words of power will take your story farther than objects, colors, or normal activities. Give your words meaning and weight and make sure they’re furthering your story, not just cluttering it up.

From The Magic Of Krynn: The Legacy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman:

Quithain…” Plain repeated to himself. “Means… congratulations. Congratulations, Magus…”

He gasped, staring at Dalamar in disbelief.

“What does it mean?” demanded Caramon, glaring at the dark elf. “I don’t understand–”

“He is one of us now, Caramon,” said Dalamar quietly, taking hold of Palin’s arm and escorting him past his father. “His trials are over. He has completed the Test.”

Here, Palin realizes the importance of what Dalamar has told him in elvish. He also lets the readers in on the secret as he figures it out. Both words are important and are the only elvish used in the story, increasing its impact.

Don’t make it hard to say.

You should be able to speak your own language. If you write, “glrbsxnakl,” be sure your readers will be able to say it in their head. Words that are too long or full of vowels and consonants shoved together are going to be hard to get a mental handle on. Keep things easy to understand.

Use it sparingly.

Just because you created a word, doesn’t mean you should use it. As with all language, a certain amount of repetition is good and will help the reader learn your language in context. However, most readers want things plainly spelled out and easy to read. Pepper your language through your text instead of using it and only it.

From The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien:

“Elen sìla lúmenn omentilmo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting,” he added in the high elven-speech.

“Be careful, friends!” cried Gildor laughing. Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue.”

Here Bilbo speaks enough elvish to Gildor and his friends, proving he is worthy of their friendship and interest. For the rest of the conversation, including a song, no elvish is spoken, just referred to. We know it’s different and we know it’s there, we just aren’t hammered with it.

Use it yourself.

A great way to see if your invented word or phrase works is to use it. Say it out loud, for starters. Find where the inflection is or could be.

Consider using language markers, e.g. umlauts, to show where the emphasis should go. There is a vast difference between “Noel” and “Noël” when spoken aloud. To someone named “Noel”, it can make all the difference in the world around Christmas time. These little accents can bring your language color and flavor and texture.

Try using the same word in a different context. For example, if you create a word for “cup,” try using it both as an object and as an action. Will it work?

Remember it isn’t English.

This is actually a hard one to avoid. Your language should not mirror English, if possible. All language has structure and rules. Take some time to look at foreign languages and learn their unique style. German and Chinese have vastly different grammar rules from English or American. Studying these can help you lay a foundation for something truly your own.

Perhaps your language has a complex simplicity, where many words are summed up by one word. Perhaps there are no prepositions in your language. Perhaps there are no pronouns. Perhaps your language is a combination of dialects from throughout the region and it has a little bit of everything mixed together. Be creative and be unique.

From the Amazon (Tae’Nah) language:

“It is coming, Valkyra,” Deoris said. “I have seen it.”

Ahu,” the Queen whispered with reverence. The beginning and end of all things. She looked up at the Ti’Sa. “What can we do?”

Here, one word carries a lot of weight in the conversation. It encompasses an idea, instead of a single item.

Too many cooks can spoil the stew.

Your language might improve if you share your created words with others. Having a buddy to bounce ideas off of is a great way to be sure your language is easy to understand and readable. I suggest only one or two people, however. Everyone has an idea of what works and what doesn’t and you can go around and around over the simplest of words. Remember in the end that the final decision is yours. If they hated “fargachn” and you loved it, go with your instinct and override them.

There is no Amazon word for “help.” I have submitted no less than twenty possibilities, from the normal to the insane, trying to please a panel of four judges. There always seems to be a reason to reject it. It’s too long, it’s too short, it looks too much like this word over there, whatever. In order for a word to be created, I will have to ignore the panel and simply make a call and choose something.

Resources are out there.

There are many Web sources available for language creation. Toasted Cheese has listed several on our Resources page, Mustard and Cress. Look under the “Dictionary” heading. Check out online dictionaries for old or dead languages and for foreign languages. Some of my best words come straight from Latin and some are Turkish with a twist. It’s a great source of inspiration and information.

From Amazon: high = archila

This is an overview of how I got the Amazon word for “leader” or “first rank”, which all ended up as the word for “high.”

Since our Amazon tribe is historically placed in Turkey during the years of Julius Caesar’s reign, I started with Latin. The Latin-American Dictionary was suggested at Mustard and Cress. I typed in “leader” and was given several possibilities. I scanned the list and decided none of them sounded right to me, but “rector: guider, leader, director, ruler, master” was the closest in meaning. I followed some of those words and came upon “archos: ruler” which I thought was great, but a little too obviously Latin.

Looking through the words I’d already created, I noticed a tendency to end the words with vowel combinations such as “la” “za” “ra” or “li” “zi” “ri.” Drawing on that, I came up with “ila” as an ending for “arch” instead of the Latin “os.” Archila became the word for “high” and was added to the Amazon Dictionary.

As you can see, creating a unique language can be a difficult and time-consuming process. The rewards are wonderful however, giving your world a depth it might be missing. Don’t be afraid to explore this interesting avenue of creation.

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