The Promised Post – Language in Fiction

Since I returned from my hiatus a few months ago, I have been meaning to do a post on language creation. This is it. Or more excitingly, the first in a series of language posts. Today I’m going to talk about my process and my opinion on language creation in fiction. If there are other things you’d like me to discuss, let me know in the comments. 🙂

When I first dabbled in language creation back in my school days, I took an amateurish approach, a combination of stealing words straight from real languages and making them up outside of any structure. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the purpose of your language and your intentions for its use. However, after studying linguistics at university, I couldn’t let that early attempt at language sit. I had to redo it, taking a much more logical approach.

This is how I did it:

1. Sounds

As silly as it might sound, choosing which sounds you want your language to have helps construct parameters to work within. This part was relatively straightforward for me because I’ve studied phonetics however below are some links to sites that can help. For inspiration, I looked at the wikipedia pages of languages I liked the sounds of to understand what was going on and translate those sounds into my own language.

IPA Chart

2. Basic Grammar

Honestly, if you are just using your language for a few words here and there you can ignore this section. Otherwise, though, grammar is important. This is the point where you establish your word order (for example, English word order is Subject Verb Object), work out whether you want to conjugate your verbs (like French) or have very similar verb forms regardless of the subject (like English for the most part), whether your language will have case markings to free up the word order. There are so many options! So many exciting things you can do! Again, this is the part where you go to the wikipedia pages for Syntax, Morphology and Grammar and read. In fact, don’t limit it to wikipedia, read all the resources you can find.

3. Words

Now you’ve got some parameters to work with, start making words. Start with greetings, everyday objects and concepts that are integral to your society. I started with verbs – to eat, to sleep, to drink, to live, to play, to go. This is also a good time to come up with some idiomatic expressions that reflect your society. For example, in one of my languages, Farilien which is spoken by a formerly nomadic society, if a person is going on a long journey they would not say ‘We go north’ but rather ‘North, the steppes are ahead of us.’

I probably spent about three months researching (in addition to my university studies on the topic) before I sat down and began to knit things together. Obviously though, not everyone has that kind of type or the same level of obsession about language that I do. With that in mind, here’s the easy version – just follow Step 3.

Okay, so now that I’ve given you a glimpse of how I create my languages, I’ll discuss my attitudes to language in fiction.

Basically, unless it is used to indicate foreignness or indicate a cultural concept not present in English (or whatever language you are writing in), don’t do it. This may seem like  strange thing for me to say, especially after telling you how much effort I put into my conlangs but really, I just see it as a worldbuilding exercise. Creating a language for my people has helped me better understand their culture, values and history. The language contributes to the elements I include in my writing but that is about it. Admittedly, I’ve included aspects of my language in my writing in the form of names, titles and expletives.

All that said, a language or two is a good thing to have in case you ever get the chance to turn your book into the latest hit movie or tv show. We can dream. 🙂

Again, let me know in the comments if there is anything else you’d like me to discuss. My next language post will be an in-depth look at Farilien with a little tutorial tacked on the end. 🙂

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