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Thoughts on Writing – Developing a Fantasy Language (Interrogative)

For my short story, “Stone and String,” and for The Wishing Blade series, I’ve been trying to develop a functional conlang (constructed language) to add flavor to the world and for use as plot points. However, I ran into a problem… how do I ask questions in my Cantingen language?

See, I’ve been developing this over a period of time. Figuring out potential words and jotting them down for future use… figuring out a grammar rule (researched a whole slew of grammar rules from various languages to figure out the previous grammar rule)… and adding them to the dictionary as I go. I already had verb conjugations figured out (at least for an imperative style phrase in present tense), numbers, possessives (sort of) and adjectives. Apparently I already figured out adverbs, too, but hadn’t realized it. (And so I jotted that down, too).

But then it hit me that I hadn’t figured out how to ask a question in the Cantingen language.

I considered not having them use questions at all… then decided that would be just a bit too bossy for them. While word magic based on the language isn’t likely to use questions (though Isaac has challenge me to figure out how they might make it work) since it’s based on commanding magic to do what they want, the casual speaker is going to want to ask questions.

So I did some quick internet research on interrogative language stuff… (it may become quickly apparent that while I am trying to learn what the various mechanics are, I have trouble remembering the names for those mechanics)… and began formatting how to create the questions.

First off, I knew that I couldn’t use tone to imply that something is a question. That’s because word magic is intended to be read and still be clear… without the use of a question mark. I didn’t want to mess with swapping sentence structure around to make a question. And I didn’t want to inflect the verb in order to suggest that it’s a question.

Somehow, the result ended up reminding of an elementary school English lesson:

How does the dog run? The dog runs quickly. The dog runs how? Quickly.

And thus I decided on these rules:

  1. Questions are to be phrased so that the interrogative portion of the question replaces the who/what/etc portion of the question.
    1. (Ex. The dog runs how? vs The dog runs quickly.)
  2. To form a question, the who/what/etc suffix is attached before the word quéth, thus forming the phrase which replaces the part of the sentence in question.
    1. (Ex. nanlli mean “how,”quéth indicates that the sentence is question. Together, they create nanlliquéth.)
  3. Because the question is indicated in the sentence, there is no need for a question mark.
    1. (Ex. In English, it would look like the person says: “The dog runs how.” It should read flatter, without the rise in tone that a question in English would have. )
  4. Yes/No questions simply attach quéth to the verb in question.
    1. (Ex. hasil is “dog” and nivé is “to run.” “The dog runs,” translates to Hasil nivétra. If you say “The dog runs?” in English, you would say Hasil nivétraquéth. in Cantingen.

 

The questions ended up looking something like this:

 

Who – ka 

Who is that girl? Edyli is that girl.

Kaquéth dratethol ali doran. Edyli dratethol ali doran.

*
What kas

That sound is of what? That sound is of leaves.

Ali runin dratetha so kasqueth. Ali runin dratethtra so inarame.

*
Whenvésa

We leave when? We leave soon.

Yliav vésaquéth. Yliav jano.

*

Whereuru

The scroll is where? The scroll is in the box.

Kev dratethtra da uruquéth.Kev dratethtra da vari.

*
Whyji

She weaves why? She enjoys to weave.

Walol jiquéth. Kaviol wal.

*
How  – nanlli

She weaves how? She weaves quickly.

Walol nanlliquéth. Walol naf.

*
Yes/No Questions

This is the girl I seek?

Éda dratetholquéth doran somaria.

It’s still rough, and probably needs some polishing, but that’s what I have so far. It came in handy while working on The Shadow War. While there aren’t anyone asking questions directly in the Cantingen language, there are a few times when the main characters are speaking to people who are from the Cantingen Islands. Knowing how their primary language worked, I was able to change the sentence structure to add to the voice of those character.

For example, there’s a scene that takes place at the marketplace outside of Ashan.

The merchant bowed politely to the horses. She spoke softly in a Cantingen dialect, nothing Toranih understood, before finally turning to her customers and smiling. “Something attracts your eye?” she asked. Her Cirenan speech was articulate and careful, common among the Islanders. A rich blue sash wrapped around her hips and across her slender, bronze shoulders. Her dark hair had been pulled into loose curls and silver ribbons.

Daernan gestured to a pastry with a flaky, golden-brown crust, apricot paste, and streaks of yogurt frosting. “I’ll have that.”

Though I use the question mark here to mark correct English grammar, note how the question is phrased… “Something attracts your eye?” rather than “Does something attract your eye?” or “Do you see anything you like?” Theoretically, you could read it as a statement: “Something attracts your eye.” But if the merchant were to be speaking in the Cantingen language, she would use “quéth” to designate the question. “Eliaved nicolquéth naenlli.” (Literally, it translates to “Unknown sweet bread attracts your attention.” but the merchant knows enough Cirenan to phrase the question in a more familiar way).

* * *

I hope you enjoyed this post. 🙂 Have you tried constructing your own language, and if so, what problems have you run into?

If you want to read more about conlangs, I also have a post about Developing a Fictional Language (Cantingen) and Developing a Fictional Language (Maijevan).

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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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