By Gabrielle Schwabauer, Staff Writer
Last week Gabrielle shared reflections on what learning Mandarin Chinese has taught her about language—and by extension, inventing a new language. She continues the mini-series today.
Creating a fictional language doesn’t have to be a Shire-sized task, but it does take an enormous amount of thought and commitment proportional to the significance of the language in your story. As almost any reader will tell you, readers prefer otherworldly characters speaking English to a few paper-thin words that might have been copied out of the Eragon glossary.
Make Value Judgments
What does my fictional culture value most, and why?
If they prize art and beauty above all else, they might have a thousand different words for color. If art is a very low rung on their collective ladder, they might only have ten.
If their civilization is right up against an ocean, much of their commerce, entertainment, literature, and day-to-day routine is going to be sea-based, so naturally they’ll view much of what they encounter in life through that lens. They might call a spoon a “little oar” or call exceptional children “boatmasters.” I use the umbrella term “fisherman” for anyone with a rod and line, but they might have a dozen different ranks based on prowess, experience, efficiency, or all of the above.
Think, too, about their circumstances and how those would shape their values. Perhaps rain is rare, so instead of assigning it a poetic association with sadness and loneliness like we do in American culture, they associate it with hope and celebration.
Many of these expressions are used unconsciously—in America, we refer to “the storms of life” and accuse one another of “raining on my parade.” Those who share our background will know what we mean, but in another culture, rain could have a different connotation altogether.
As you consider your subconscious biases, assumptions, and connotations, turn the exercise on its head by thinking about your fictional culture. Ask yourself:
What do my fictional people group assume about the world?
Which privileges and predicaments do they take for granted?
How would my own real-life culture confuse them?
How do the values of this culture influence the language? What positive words do they connect linguistically to the things they value most? What negative words are connected to the things that oppose or prohibit those values?
In my early tentative foray into linguistics, I made my culture’s language reflect their unusual preoccupation with gates, boundaries, and divisions. Because they were fearful, self-protective people, I gave them different suffixes for the same nature words to indicate whether the object or element in question was contained or outside their control. To me, fire or water or trees might not be so threatening, but I’ve grown up in a rather confident culture regarding human influence over nature. The central fears of my fictional people about lack of control and lack of safety came into play in the construction of their language.
So ask yourself:
What does my fictional society fear? How can their language reflect that?
Imagine this: your Dwarven community sprang up around an enormous magical oak. Your Saturnian suburb is built directly over an underground superweapon. Your protagonist walks past a giant, windowless government center every morning on the way to school, knowing only that it is the hub of their community’s legal structure.
If you’re creating a whole new world for your novel, chances are you’ll be needing some place names. Remember that location names, like any other words in a language, are often related to the culture and values of the surrounding people, or the geography, or the name of a famous figure, rather than just being pretty syllables.
Think of the seafaring society I invented in the last section. Not only will all of these fish-centric people laud one another with rich, expansive, fish-themed compliments, but they will also point “shoreward” or enroll sons and daughters in the Conch Academy.
Many areas in my home state of Kansas—from cities to schools to biking trails to the state itself—are named after the Native American tribes who once lived here. Other place names pay homage to a romanticized frontier past, using words like “pioneer” and “heritage.”
Were your people once enslaved? Do they worship their founder? Does he or she have a statue in the center of town, and does anyone spit on it as they walk by?
As you exercise your imagination, ask yourself:
What important landmarks does this society recognize?
Have any important historical events occurred on or around the sites in question?
Is the place the location of a yearly ritual or tradition?
What kinds of phrases or slang terms have resulted from history and geology? (“Your room looks like a tornado hit it!” “Quit being such a grammar nazi.”)
Who receives honor in this culture? How is that honor demonstrated, verbally and otherwise?
Don’t forget to consider geographical location within the greater “map” of your story. The community in my novel is cut off from the outside world, so I didn’t have to worry about this element, but most communities aren’t. If they fear their northern neighbors the Fallow, the northernmost cities in their small kingdom might be titled using “stronghold” or “defense” words. More literally, they might just be called after their proximity to the enemy, like “below Fallow.”
So ask yourself:
What cultures surround my “chosen” culture?
What relationship do these cultures have with each other?
How might wars, trading, resource conflicts, or shared traditions influence the way my “chosen people” speak about the other people(s) and about themselves?
A Time to Speak and a Time to Refrain
Not every language needs its own 300-page dictionary. A space trader with 5 pages of screen time can stand to speak a less-developed language, while your main character had better be fluent in The Ancient Tongues if you’re going to copy them out at all.
And what about all those other languages in your novel, spoken by characters from strange, foreign countries your protagonist has never frequented? If your main character isn’t fluent in a language they encounter, they’ll hardly be able to record a word-for-word transcript. Maybe going to the trouble of inventing a whole new language just isn’t justified for the purposes of your story.
One approach is to imagine the way you yourself might describe an unfamiliar language— guttural, high-pitched, smooth and flowing, or fast—and then have your characters use similar terms to describe the unfamiliar languages they encounter. Alternately, try writing out the dialogue in English and finishing with “ . . . said Melissa, in harsh, Kranthian tones.” As awkward as it might feel to walk right past the elephant in the room, it’s far less awkward than submitting a half-baked language to readers who will roll their eyes and toss your book back on the shelf.
Ultimately, I scrapped my own language because I realized that inserting it on every other page would tear the focus away from the main plotline and my very human main character; and sprinkling the occasional foreign word in the text was more confusing and bizarre than helpful and gave off a cliché-fantasy vibe. As a rule of thumb, if your reader is bound to wonder “Wait, if he/she really speaks this language, why aren’t they doing it more often?” then it’s time to either buckle down and fill out your lexicon or figure out how to convey linguistic otherness without actually typing out the words.
What kinds of questions have YOU found helpful in considering the language-needs of your stories? 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.