The Language Instinct, Part 1.

So this is the first of my worldbuilding posts which are specifically geared at writers of fantasy however I hope the information can be useful to others as well.

Words. Language. The precious nectar of civilisation; the ambrosia of sanity and insanity both. Without words, we are nothing. With words, we can be anything. As a writer, language is our most vital tool. As a writer of fantasy, language can evolve into something greater than the sum of its parts. For more than fifty years now, since J.R.R. Tolkien sat down in his comfy, leather chair, in his book lined office deep within the tangled streets of Oxford, began working on his various dialects of elvish, scores of science fiction and fantasy writers have tried their hand at language creation. I have and I bet you have to. What we often neglect to take into account when we compare our half-hearted, three word languages unfavourably with Tolkien’s own endeavours is the immense amount of study and research he put into his creations. Tolkien knew Latin, French, German, Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, Medieval Welsh; was familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian and Swedish. On top of all that, he wasn’t too bad at English either. Tolkien knew his stuff. Which brings me to my first point; research.

When attempting to create a language, it is important to do your research. If you wish to truly create a language and not merely a dialect, Google Translate is not going to cut the mustard. When I came up with the totally insane idea of creating a language for my own world, I should have hit myself on the head with a blunt object. Preferably a frying pan; they make such a nice ring. Anyway, I didn’t. Instead, I thought about the area where my language would be spoken; a semi-arid, mostly town centric nation with a nomadic past. Therefore, the vocabulary needed to reflect this. Markets hold the most trade, so words such as money, exchange, trade, become central to the ideologies and sayings of the people. Many old sayings, however, reflect a more nomadic lifestyle where a horse and a blade were the only things between life and death. I thought about what I was trying to achieve with my stories; to create the history of a country that could easily be found on this earth but whose tales and legends had been lost to time. Most languages from England to India, Denmark to Spain, can be traced back to an original language known by linguists as Proto-Indo-European. This is why words such as mother, father, and king are similar in all languages or at least have links that can be seen even by a relatively untrained eye. If you want your language to seem realistic in a real-world setting, some research on Proto-Indo-European is a good place to start. There are a few sites and some academic journals available online which provide examples of vocabulary from this most ancient of ancient languages. To summarise, research is paramount. When I prepared to create my language, I read up on the English language in all its forms, I studied texts on Proto-Indo-European languages, I studied French, Latin and German, I read Finnish dictionaries, I watched Danish and Swedish crime dramas and I read Wikipedia pages over and over again in these various languages until I could understand how the language worked.

This brings me to my second point; structure, which I will discuss in detail next week.

I hope this has been informative or at least interesting. If there are any particular aspects of worldbuilding you’d like me to write on, let me know in the comments. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “The Language Instinct, Part 1.

  1. Eléonore says:

    Without words, we are nothing. With words, we can be anything. True words.I was wondering , do you know as many languages as Tolkien. How many do you know and what are they?….

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