Thoughts on Writing – Creating Fantasy Languages

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. 🙂

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21 Comments

Filed under Personal Work, Writing

21 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Creating Fantasy Languages

  1. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Thoughts from Author / Illustrator Stephanie Bibb

  2. Great post. I love making up languages and did a bit of it in two of my fantasy books (yes, keeping track of it in Excel too). I really had to think about how deeply into the languages to go, because at some point everything needs to be translated to the reader (or its just nonsense that they skim). Readers will learn those random words easily enough, but the sentences are more difficult. I used them infrequently and almost entirely to show “foreignness.” Your use of language as part of the magic system sounds intriguing.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

      I’ve tried making up languages before, but they haven’t really gone anywhere. This time I figured I’d start keeping track of it (Yay, Excel!), that way I could use it for more than one story as the world evolves. 🙂

      Indeed on translating the language for readers. When I was at Conquest, the panelists basically said you have two types of readers: the ones who look at the language and simply note ‘there’s another language here,’ and the ones who actually try to read it word for word. If you have the translation, the readers will be able to follow the characters’ reactions (unless the character doesn’t understand it either, in which they may not even be guessing the correct words being said).

      I remember reading one book where bits of it were in Russian. I eventually just skimmed over those segments, since I couldn’t read it. However, when there are bits of Spanish, I tend to be more inclined to see if I can translate it and figure out what’s being said before the book explains it.

      I also agree about words versus sentences being easier to understand. I used to read a lot of Tamora Pierce’s books, and I picked up quite a few of her words that were scattered about as I read. The same is true for playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Eventually, I started being able to piece together what some of the sentences actually meant.

      I’m debating how much to actually show of the magic system in The Wishing Blade, especially before the characters start learning. I expect that’s where having beta readers will come in handy. 🙂

      • This is fun stuff, absolutely. I do practice all my languages so that the sounds and rhythms work. That way if readers want to try it, they should be able to speak it without getting tongue tied. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about your book on your blog. It sounds intriguing.

        • Agreed. I was looking through my Excel file recently (adding the verb endings for ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘they’), and I noticed that while most of my words were consistent in how they sound, some had a long vowel where all other forms were short. I did a couple adjustments to differentiate them, so hopefully when I go to make a pronunciation guide, they’ll read how I actually picture them. And in regards to not being tongue tied– I thought about having the ‘she’ ending be -ag, then realized it sounded too harsh compared to the rest of the language. I ended up changing it to -al.

          Hopefully you enjoy what you read. 🙂 I’ll be making more notes about my book as I go. Monday’s post will be about my revision process– where I’ve been trying to decide whether to cut a plot point or keep it. 🙂

  3. TermiteWriter

    The best source of information on conlangs (constructed languages) is the webpage for the Language Creation Society (http://conlang.org/ ), whose former president is the creator of Dothraki for Game of Thrones. My science fiction books all contain conlangs because one of my main interests is what method we will actually use to communicate with extraterrestrials when we finally make first contact. There are many levels of conlanging, from casual naming languages in fantasy to scholarly treatises written by linguistics Ph.D.s, who often write conlangs as an experiment in what’s possible. There are also many Facebook groups that deal with conlangs. My favorite is one called Linguistics and Conlangs https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/Linguistics.and.conlangs/ If you’d like to join, I can add you as a member, if you’re on FB.

    • Cool, thanks for the info. I didn’t realize a created language was referred to as conlangs.

      Indeed, the idea of how we might actually communicate in a first contact situation can be a fascinating topic. It would likely depend on the physiology of the extraterrestrials in question. Would we use drawn pictographs? Spoken word? Charades? In any case, there’s a lot that could be played with. 🙂

      I’ve put in a request to join the facebook group. (I use my married name, Stephanie Flint). Might be interesting to browse and keep ideas fresh in mind regarding the construction of the language. 🙂

  4. Very interesting post – so much work went into Elvish and Klingon – hope your job is much easier!

    • Glad you like it. 🙂

      I probably won’t have it quite as difficult as Elvish or Klingon, since I don’t think it will go quite so in depth (though who knows? Maybe it will the further into the story I get). I never did try to pick up Klingon, though Elvish fascinated me. I did managed to pick up a few of the Goa’uld words when I was watching Stargate, though I’ve forgotten most of them now. 🙂

  5. Jaq

    Having some history behind the language can give readers something to discover. In my Goblin Trilogy, the goblin language is affected by practices of ancient Alchemists, who wrote words backwards to code their manuscripts. It comes out rather well.

    • Neat idea. The idea that the alchemists coded their works backward, and that affected another language could definitely be fun to play with. 😀

      • Jaq

        Oh it is. You get fun sentences like, “I emoc sa d’neirf, ew nac pleh h’cae rehto.” There is another species of goblin with a non-verbal language that consists of dance and gestures. It’s noisy in the goblin forgers’ caverns, especially with dragons wandering about. 😉

        • Nifty. Not only does it look neat, but after a moment, I got the urge to sit down and actually rewrite it forward. That ought to be fun for readers who like a little interaction in their stories. And the dance gestures ought to add a neat cultural aspect. 😀

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