By Gabrielle Schwabauer, staff writer
Two years ago I flipped to the blank pages at the back of the One Year Adventure Novel workbook and started sketching out a language. Most of the words were typical first-try fare ending in –ess or –ira or some other stock fantasy suffix. I managed to add only one or two creative elements before realizing that the project was probably doomed.
The polite (and true) reason for my dissolution of the project was that my story really didn’t benefit from the high fantasy feel that such a language provided. The less pleasant (but equally true) reason was that my first novel, already stretching beyond 100,000 words, was a daunting enough task without attempting to Tolkienize the flowers.
A year later, I saw a post on the One Year Adventure Novel student forum asking for help in creating a language. I started typing what I intended to be a short reply and was surprised to discover that I actually had quite a bit to say on the subject. Even more surprising was this: most of what I had gathered about language-building sprang not from late nights trying to envision new words for “moon” but from the six semesters I had spent studying Mandarin Chinese.
Though I certainly can’t claim to have designed my own character-based writing system or invented new tonal differentiations, studying a language so different from my own forced me to reevaluate my subconscious assumptions about the way people communicate with one another.
Here’s what learning Mandarin Chinese showed me.
Face What You Don’t Know
So, you want to create a language? First things first: try to remember that you probably make a lot of assumptions about language. The fewer languages you’ve studied, the more assumptions you’re likely to make, and a new language unconsciously built entirely on default settings from an old one probably won’t have the ring of truth to it. Like the character creation screen of a low-budget video game, your language will be nothing more than a freshly-patterned skin layered over the “skeleton” of your native tongue.
So ask yourself:
What is this language for?
A language used only for church liturgy will differ from a language used for magical enchantments, will differ from a language spoken day-in and day-out by the entire population of Mars.
Construction Zone (No Speeding Allowed)
Some people build languages the way they would switch a character’s name in a Word document, inserting “xyzal” for “tree” or “fluviess” for “queen” in “Find and Replace” and calling it a day. Real languages, however, are far more complex.
English speakers say, “My brother and I play video games together.” In Chinese, it would be instead, “My brother and I together play video games.” In English, we say, “I like sandwiches because they are delicious.” A Mandarin speaker would phrase it “Because sandwiches are delicious, therefore I like them.” Grammar can vary just as greatly from language to language as the words themselves.
You might come to the conclusion that your language is fairly simple, but that should be a conscious decision on your part, in view of the fictional culture to which it belongs, not just lazy world-building.
So ask yourself questions like:
How will I use prefixes and suffixes, if I use them at all?
Does my language conjugate verbs? How does it handle pronouns and possessives? Might it use extra words to communicate those concepts rather than changing existing ones?
What order do parts of speech take within a sentence, and why?
How rigid is the culture’s linguistic structure? How big is the gap between what is permissible in formal speech vs. informal speech?
Have I given enough thought to class and occupational distinctions? Do peasants speak differently than royalty? Scientists differently than farmers?
Consider the word “bed.” In our culture, we connect beds with sleep, so when we intend to go to sleep at night we say that it’s “bedtime.” No one would retire to his or her room for “sleeptime,” though that would be a more all-encompassing word. Getting into bed is, in American culture, the most prominent idea related to sleeping, but another society might make a different correlation.
Because my own fictional people imagined sleep as a sort of fog or blanket, I connected the words “awake” and “asleep” to the words “above” and “below,” since, to these people, sleep was something that came over you and covered you.
So ask yourself:
Which concepts in this culture I’ve created would naturally connect to one another?
Do they fear death because they fear uncertainty? Maybe their words involving death would then be related to their words or phrases about darkness—a naturally uncertain state. Do they believe in an incredible, utopia-like afterlife? Perhaps their word for death is a stronger form of the word “beginning” or the word “door.”
If you decide to call fire “bazk” you might find it obvious to call a fireplace a “bazknog,” but what if they view it as a stove instead? In English, fireplace literally translates to “fire place.” The Chinese call it a “wall oven.” In another language, it might translate to “food place” (if that’s where they do all the cooking) or “family place” (if that’s where they spend time together) or “safe place” (if freezing to death is a legitimate threat).
The vast majority of our words aren’t just random sounds. Almost all of them are related to other words in some way. When creating a language, resist the temptation to string sets of vaguely elvish syllables together as though you were authoring some kind of Silmarillion fanfiction. Take the time to figure out how the words relate to one another in the culture, both conceptually and linguistically.
The Word Association Game
Before you start converting a word or idea into another language, ask yourself:
Do they even have that word/idea in this culture? Why or why not?
Does it mean anything different to them than it does to me? What else do they think of when they hear this word?
Consider the roles, conventions, or social norms you take for granted. Are you wondering how to denote siblings, for example? In your story world, they might not even have a word for “brother” or “sister” because they prize individuality above all else, and relationships are defined by how a person treats you. Perhaps they only differentiate between friends and enemies. Or perhaps “brother” or “sister” is a title they are free to assign to those who earn it, and has a “heart-family” connotation rather than a “legal-family” connotation. Perhaps they don’t have a word for “friend” at all because they view the entire community as a family, referring to one another as “brother” or “sister” whether on good terms or not. The package of assumptions you have about the role of sibling isn’t necessarily one you share with your character or their society.
So point to any abstract word or broad term you’ve translated for your language, and ask yourself:
What does this word mean to them? Why does it have that association? Does it make sense?
And, (most importantly) did I consciously choose that association, or is it a cultural default simply because it’s familiar to me?
To read more in this mini-series on language-building, check back next week—and make sure you’ve subscribed in the top right sidebar to receive email notification of new posts.
If you’ve studied another language, how has it impacted your way of thinking about language? Please share in the comments.
Gabrielle Schwabauer has loved stories for as long as she can remember. (The Lord of the Rings holds the top spot, as it has for twelve years running.) This summer she will be married, embarking with her best friend on grand adventures like saving the galaxy and painting the apartment. She likes reading books, playing video games, eating stromboli, looking at pictures of sloths, and having already written today.