One of the topics I’ve been thinking about recently is creating fantasy languages. Reason being, I’m creating a language for use in my YA fantasy manuscript, The Wishing Blade. Now, in the original draft (and even across several drafts for different books in that world), I only had a handful of made-up words sprinkled into the story to give it flavor. This time, however, the use of the language system suddenly had a reason to shine– I actually intended to show ‘word magic,’ one of the magic systems in my Cirena stories coming from the Cantingen Islands. Suffice it to say, creating a language has been fun, if not a bit difficult.
When I attended ConQuest, one of the panels I attended was about creating alien languages. Some of the topics in the panel included: deciding how in-depth you wanted the language to be– do you want to have a word here and there, or will there be full sentences in this language? How does it look? How does it sound to the ear? Might it have odd sounds (like clicks) that you might not normally read? Do you base your new language off of a current language, and if so, how do you change the language to fit the needs of your story? For example, does a word or phrase mean something now that it doesn’t mean in the future where your story takes place?
All of this is food for thought and can be applied to a fantasy language of your creation. For example, I like the idea that language changes over time. We can portray this in our stories. An example of this in The Wishing Blade is the name of a town, Shuhritan Fritarando. Which no one says because it’s ridiculously long. Most characters, unless they happen to be upper class or a particular linguist (I’m debating on my word mage correcting my main characters about the city’s name), are simply going to call the town Shu Frit. It gets even more fun, because the full name isn’t entirely exact. Shuhritan is an ancient Cantingen word for ‘male royalty’ or ‘king.’ Fritarando translates to ‘small male kin.’ Which could mean nephew, cousin, son, etc., but in this instance refers to ‘son.’ Shu Frit becomes ‘Little King’ in the terms of cultural history, even though neither word actually means that. It’s a colloquialism, informal and a pain to translate, but a natural part of how languages evolve.
Of course, this whole explanation may never show up in the story itself (and probably shouldn’t), but it shows how you can play with language to create cultural history in your novel. It’s a way to add flavor.
However, not everyone in my story is going to use such colloquialisms. In the example I gave, the characters are referring to a language that’s outdated. Outside of naming conventions, the language is only used by word mages. Due to the nature of word magic, these mages need to make sure that what they say is exact– or risk the consequences of having a fireball light them on fire instead of their opponent. Pronounciation is key. Which is why, when I went to place all the words and phrases I had thus far into an Excel spreadsheet, I realized that I needed to change one of my words. I had qui meaning ‘as,’ quis meaning ‘good health,’ and ki being an emphasized word that connects an unusual modifying word to what it is modifying. And they were all pronounced like the English ‘key.’
That could get dangerous for a word mage who is trying to say something about ‘good health’ and instead has his word translated to ‘as.’ (As what? Something deadly?)
So I changed qui to li and did a word search in my manuscript to make the changes. Small details, but hopefully fun for anyone who pays attention to the language in the novel. Eventually I want to make symbols that represent each phonetic pronunciation. (Oh, IPA (international phonetic alphabet)… so fun in high school theater).
If you decide to create a language for your story, I highly recommend writing down the words in a spreadsheet and keeping track of your rules. I recently updated my word document of notes into an Excel Spreadsheet. When I did, I saw several potential problems that I went ahead and fixed. Primarily verb conjugations. (Spanish… French… these classes are starting to be rather helpful, even if I never did become a proficient reader of either language). The Cantingen language is supposed to be precise. Repetitive, even. And I really didn’t want to mess with irregular verbs. So I adjusted each verb that I ran across. As long as you know the ending for “I did something” versus “you did something” or “he did something,” you’ll be able to tell who or what the verb refers to. None of this irregular verb mess we commonly deal with in English. In addition, a single add-on to the word will signify if something is past or future.
Is this a simplification?
Oh yeah. Definitely. But I’m not trying to be Tolkien (though I did try to learn Sindarin Elvish several years ago. Didn’t get far, but I got a few words of Enya’s “May It Be” translated into Sindarin beyond what was already translated). My goal is to add flavor to the story, and keep the language consistent.
And maybe try writing a song in pure ancient Cantingen. That would be fun, though that’ll be after I get more words and verbs ironed out. There’s plenty more that can be said about creating languages, but I’ll leave that for a later post. Let me know what you think, and I hope you enjoyed my ramblings. 🙂