Thoughts on Writing – Developing a Fictional Language (Maijevan)

Lately, I’ve been working a bit on my conlangs (constructed languages). I started out with the Cantingen language (a “word magic” system used throughout my The Wishing Blade series). I’ve been developing it over time, adding words here and there as required and every once in a while going on a spree to flesh it out.

While going through my latest round of edits on The Shadow War (book two of the series), I double-checked that my attempts to create sensical sentences were correct. Most weren’t, and I had to rewrite many of the instances where the language was included. But I had a chance to flesh it out even more in “Stone and String” (tentative title), a short story based on the Cantingen Islands. I’m super excited to be working on that soon, as I’ve just about got all the feedback from the people I’ve asked to beta-read.

However, that short story led me to thinking about other places in the world of The Wishing Blade that I might want to develop further. Namely, Maijev. It’s a large city in the land of Cirena, but unlike the rest of the kingdom, it has a reputation for being anti-mage and isolated. Mages usually avoid the place because there’s something about the area that burns at their skin if they try to use ribbon magic (word magic is unaffected) and generally makes them uncomfortable.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not they should have their own language. Would they only speak that? Probably not. But it did seem possible they would have one for when they didn’t want to be listened to by outsiders, so I started considering how it would sound.

I’ve based the appearance of some of the character’s names from Maijev on Russian names, and as such, used that as a starting point. I looked to see what differences there were between Russian and English (such as the lack of vowel sounds and the concepts of perfective and imperfective aspects). Then I took that and ran (in other words, what I’ve developed thus far of the Maijevan language probably doesn’t look a thing like Russian. I haven’t studied the language, so I don’t know much about it).

Anyway, I started out by writing a few notes about Maijev’s general culture, which could affect the language.

  1. They don’t acknowledge the gods, at least not separately, though they understand that they exist. They might categorize the gods the same as immortal monsters (gods/immortals should be same word)
  2. Magic is cursed. Or, if not “cursed” per se, it is considered something akin to “evil”
  3. Whatever it is coming from the ground that burns mages is what keeps them safe
  4. Competition is encouraged/fierce.
  5. High possibility of strong family bonds? (Might explain why the lord of the city adopts a mage for a son… never mind that he sorely distrusts mages)
  6. They acknowledge a feudal-like caste system
  7. They’re fascinated with technology/science/academia. (While the rest of Cirena is fascinated with magic and what magic can do, Maijev has more-or-less started into the age of the industrial revolution).

I decided that their language system would be very rigid and precise. It’s a phonetic language, and for the most part, you can tell exactly how to pronounce a word based on the spelling. Also, the sentence structure is organized in a specific format:

(Subject) (Negative, if negative) (Perfect/Imperfect) (Tense) (Verb)

I also decided on a few additional rules:

  1. No articles.
  2. Adjectives and adverbs use same word. “Quiet” and “quietly” are both digaev) but placement determines which it is.
  3. When there is more than one adjective or adverb, it is separated by “and” (vo).
  4. Adjectives are placed immediately after the noun in question.
  5. Adverbs are placed immediately after the verb in question.
  6. Verbs are not conjugated. A subject of some form should always be given to show who is acting.

Thus, “The small and quiet dog was digging.” becomes Nitilver vreg vo digaev ni miski natch.

  • nitilver – (subject) dog
  • vreg – (adjective) small
  • vo -(conjunction) and
  • digaev – (adjective) quiet
  • ni – (imperfective aspect) – shows the action was not completed
  • miski – (past tense) shows that the verb happened in the past
  • natch – (verb) to dig

Now, I’m considering removing the past tense word miski and simply replacing it with ni (imperfective – incomplete action) or gadi (perfective – completed action), but then, that would remove the ambiguity if someone didn’t use either aspect. But, if they like having a rigid society, perhaps they don’t have an ambiguous form. Haven’t decided yet.

What have I learned thus far about creating a fictional language?

  1. It was helpful to create a list of phonemes and sounds first. That way I could create words without worrying that I might use a sound later that I don’t want to include in the language. Conversely, once I started working with it, I realized I wanted to include a couple extra vowel sounds.
  2. It was also helpful to create the sentence structure and rules system before trying to create sentences. Now I know a bit more about what words the language even uses, and won’t be stuck rewriting sentences later.

However, I’m not a linguist, and I could be doing these things completely wrong (I wasn’t familiar with how imperfective and perfective aspects worked before I started toying with this idea).

And it might not even matter, because, as Isaac (my husband) pointed out, the Maijevan and Cirenan languages should be at least somewhat related. So I need to go create the Cirenan structure before I do much more work with Maijevan. On the bright side, since this time period is far from the “original” use of the language, and Cirena is a much more travel-oriented community, I might have it pull a few stunts from English. That is, itcan borrow words from the other languages, and have a few more “irregular” rules. *Shudder.*

But, given the mythology of their world… well, we’ll see what happens.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Have you tried creating any fantasy languages of your own? 🙂

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Developing a Fictional Language (Maijevan)

  1. I did enjoy this post. Very much. At first I hoped you would provide a sample sentence or two of the language, but I understood your reason for not doing so. I haven’t yet created a complete language, but I did create a dialect for the characters in an as-yet unpublished book. I head the dialect from the beginning and it gradually became firm.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve enjoyed working on the languages. 🙂

      I didn’t post too much because I don’t have many words in Maijevan yet. But here’s a sample:

      Nitilver vreg vo digaev ni miski natch. Krev miski dega jev nova. Nitilver vreg miski ceta digaev.

      (In English, the sentences mean: The small and quiet dog was digging. They (it) heard scary sound. The small dog hid quietly.)

      I have a lot more for the Cantingen language. This next phrase has a possibility of being in “Stone and String.”

      Be la kagiméan vegornis duhan so ma moctra drat la be.

      (In English, this translates to: “Make the monster before me speak only truth.”)

      Neat about creating a dialect. I haven’t really tried doing that. I understand about making it looser at first, though, then having it become more concrete the more you work with it. 🙂

  2. Fascinating stuff! I’m in the middle of researching my notes of old Norse languages for my novel which in itself is interesting to learn. Glad I’m just writing it and I don’t have to speak it!

    • Enjoy the research; it’ll pay off. Sometimes I get so hooked on research I don’t write regularly, but it’s a good investment in gaining authencity and authority.
      .

      • Yeah… I sometimes get distracted with the research and spend an hour studying something that’s only going to have one line later. But it’s definitely interesting. 😀

    • Cool. 😀 I enjoyed reading about Norse mythology. It was neat, because a lot of the names you could start figuring out what they meant the more you learned. I want to say “brandr” meant sword, and later on, the name “Brenda” might have come from “brandr.” But there were a few others… I think “ein” was “loner” or something to the effect of being alone, and “dis” was “lady.”

  3. Mark

    This has been a thought on my current WIP. I would, but I don’t know where to start, and I wonder if it’s worth it to create a language that only appears at a couple points.

    For a character originating of a fictional tribe who originally spoke no English. First it shows up in a flashback scene, where his dialogue is basically all through someone that can translate it. But now I’m approaching its more extensive appearance, where he basically goes home for a couple chapters.

    • Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      If you’re basing the story on Earth, what you might do is consider what is the closest culture/language it relates to, and read up on that to get a feel for what’s already out there. Even for my secondary world fantasy, I sometimes look at real languages as a starting point. Sometimes it helps to give you an idea of what differences you might find from English, and rules you would never have thought of otherwise.

      If he’s only going back home for a few chapters, you might simply make a note in the story that he switches to his original tongue, without having to go super in depth on the details. For flavor, you could select a few words that are either important to him and his culture, or unique to his culture (and maybe doesn’t translate well to English), and then you could sprinkle them into his regular dialogue so that we get a bit of a feel for the language without having to construct a whole new one. Context clues can help out a bit, or simply making a note of it before using it regularly.

      This is an example from my work-in-progress for the second “Stone and String” story:

      “Her vera, her mother, had ordered that she go out into the city and get the essentials, not that she find the best prices.”

      Later…

      “She picked up her pace and rushed to her vera’s house, where she kicked off her sandals outside the arched door.”

      Note: Normally I would have written “vera” in italics, for both cases, though I’m not sure how to include italics in replies.

      Alternatively, when characters are speaking a different language than the “standard” one, I’m experimenting with italicizing speech that is in another language, while not directly translating it. (The main thing here, I think, is to be consistent).

      Here’s a couple other posts I’ve written about conlangs, if you’re interested:

      https://sbibb.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/thoughts-on-writing-developing-a-fantasy-language-interrogative/

      https://sbibb.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/thoughts-on-writing-developing-a-fictional-language/

      Good luck with your writing! 🙂

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