As a reminder, this is the fourth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you’re probably aware that J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, and he invented multiple languages over the course of writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings saga. A lot of fantasy and science fiction requires the writer to create an entirely new language for their characters to speak; after all, it’s highly unlikely aliens or foriegn elves or whatnot would be speaking English (or Common, or whatever you call the your viewpoint characters’ default language). The technical term is “constructed language.”
J.R.R. Tolkien may be best known for it (he created not just individual languages, but whole families of languages with dialect trees and the like), but he was hardly the only person to ever create a new language for a book. Edgar Rice Burroughs actually came up with one for his “A Princess of Mars” before Tolkien’s first sample of Elven appeared in the literary world. There have been multiple languages created for the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Avatar, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and many, many more. Heck, a very basic form of constructed language was a central plot point of the video game Skyrim.
Well, when I was first writing In Treachery Forged, I gave serious thought to construction one or more such languages for the novel. I got the rudiments down for one of them, and came up with a thing or two for another… and then I quit. I didn’t really need to have a complete constructed language for these characters — a few words here or there for flavor, sure, but nowhere in my plans were any of my characters conversing in one of these constructed languages.
And… well, I am not Tolkien. I did enjoy some parts of constructing a language, but other parts of it became a grind… and it was those grinding elements that had me stop.
Of course, I did save a lot of my notes, and I’m having my characters largely follow those bits of grammar and so forth I’d developed whenever one of these unfinished languages come up, so I might complete things some day. Who knows? But I think, from what I did manage, that it’s quite possible to construct a language for your books (or video games, or movies, or whatever other reason you might want your own language) even if you aren’t a trained linguist like Tolkien.
Constructing a language requires a number of elements: You must create some rules of grammar, add in a set of vocabulary, and then figure out how best to include your language’s use in your story. Tolkien managed to do it a lot of times… but most of us aren’t Tolkien.
NEEDING NEW LANGUAGES
J.R.R. Tolkien created not just one or two languages, but whole language trees. Several types of Elvish, Dwarvish, Numenorean, and probably others I’m not thinking of. Tolkien’s passion, however, was languages; mine was not.
But while writing In Treachery Forged, I was thinking about the possibility of developing multiple languages. I couldn’t use Tolkien’s languages without permission (not that I really wanted to), and didn’t really know them anyway, so I had to construct some new languages, myself. (Note: Calling this an article on research is perhaps a bit strong; think of it more as applying pre-existing knowledge to your writing career)
My Human culture was a formerly single civilization in diaspora, so some of the language issues (namely, the difference between Porosian, Sviedan, maybe even Oregalian) could simply be dialect choices; Sviedan is portrayed as English; I have yet to have to portray native Porosian or any of those other foriegn dialects (well, in what’s published), so I haven’t had to do much in that regard, but In Treachery Forged did encounter Elven, Dwarven, and Tel’Curlan as seperate languages.
Tel’Curlan, I’d determined, would have been a cross between Porosian, Dwarven, and Elven languages (reflecting the country’s origins). I also felt the Nekoji and Merfolk would have their own languages, but they would be languages that were beyond Human speech.
But I needed seperate Elven and Dwarven languages. And because of the first in-novel encounters with these two languages, one I started with my focus on grammar and the other started with a focus on vocabulary.
I had no prior experience or education in creating a language. I’m not sure many do, and I’m not sure if there is an established method for creating one. I couldn’t find any “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Constructing Your Own Language” type books, if there are. So I had to come up with my own method of creating a language. I reverse engineered the foriegn language courses I’d taken and came up with two.
I am a native American-English speaker, and for the most part the grammar in my head is American-English style. I have a passing familiarity with the differences between that and British or Australian English, but I really have to think about it.
I’ve also studied (never to fluency, I’m afraid) two foriegn languages in my life. One of these was Japanese. It was a difficult language for me. Even if I resumed practicing my studies on a regular basis, at best I’ll be functionally illiterate in the language: At one point I knew all the ‘letters’ (syllables?) in both hiragana and katakana, but never managed to learn to read them when put together as words; I have what is usually a mild case of dyslexia, but when I look at Japanese writing — and knowing that it might be written in any of three directions based on context — I can never figure out what order to read those Japanese characters should be read in. For me, it’s the equivalent of trying to learn to read, and every word looks like this:
I had a lot of reasons for wanting to learn Japanese, however (yes, I am a fan of Japanese anime and generally prefer those shows with their original Japanese voice actors, but my interest came from other places as well), so conceding to the idea of being a functional illiterate in another language I concentrated on learning verbal Japanese.
Curiously, I never learned much vocabulary in these lessons. A bare minimum, I would say, that would be necessary for the primary thing they were teaching: Japanese grammar.
So, when I got started on the Elven language, I started with the structure of the grammar.
I began by looking into sentence structure. English is generally subject-verb-object. In Japanese, it can sometimes be subject-object-verb. I didn’t want my Elven language to just be wordswapped English, because that felt… cheap. I also didn’t want it to just be wordswapped Japanese for the same reasons.
Then I came up with a wonderfully original — and, in the end, awful — idea: Bifurcated verbs, one part to indicate the actual action and the second to indicate the tense of the verb. It would go subject-verb (action)-object-verb (tense). I liked the idea of it, and in the samples I constructed it gave the language a truly foriegn feel while still allowing a strong sense of “yes, there are real grammar rules I need to follow.” That one rule, by itself, gave the language its own character.
It might have worked for the language I was building, but it made things very difficult for the novel. This rule gave my Elves a unique verbal tick, but it became horribly confusing when rendered into English. All too frequently I found myself losing track of what I was doing. The phrasing, which initially seemed quite lyrical, became horribly awkward half the time. My editor didn’t understand it and corrected it wrong, and I’d make an even more wrong mistake trying to correct him.
In the end, at least when they were speaking in English, all that survived of this plan was that the Elves would frequently repeat their verbs (usually with one of those two being a contraction and the other the full word, but not always) at the end of most sentences.
I had other “rules of Elvish grammar” I was employing, but this was the most central of them… and it proved too complicated to make it viable. Oh, words of the language I’d been working on have and will surface from time to time, but I doubt I’ll have any of the characters conversing in Elvish, very often.
Remember me saying I studied two foriegn languages (outside of various official forms of English)? Well, while my study of Japanese began with grammar (and only just enough Japanese vocabulary to learn this grammar), when I was in Junior High, High School, and even College, my classes all tried to teach me Spanish by focusing almost entirely on vocabulary.
I never enjoyed those classes… but when I started on the Dwarven language I found myself starting here by working out some vocabulary lists. I figured these lists could also, eventually, be used to fill out the Elvish language, as well.
But how to create these lists? I couldn’t just grab a dictionary and go through it (too many words would be too irrelevant, as I found from the very first page when I tried it), and it would be unethical to just steal another language guide’s vocabulary lists. So how should I build them?
Well, I started by trying to think of book-relevant verbs. Dwarf or Elf, the characters would want to be able to call out that they were surrendering (verb: To Surrender). I make Dwarven archers a serious component of the armies, so I needed something “to shoot.” And that reminded me of other martial commands — to attack, to march, to hone, to punch, to kick, to burn, to follow, to train, to provoke, etc. And then these are Dwarves, and I kept some of the stereotypical Dwarven characteristics (such as business accumen being critical to your social standing). That would require words like to trade, to buy, to count, to add, to subtract, to bribe, to want, to serve, to appraise, to offer, etc., etc. Then I went into figuring out verbs specific to various jobs that I figured characters in a fantasy might need. And so on, and so forth.
So I started with these verb lists. I had somewhere between three hundred and four hundred verbs that, I figured, had a good chance of coming up in my books. But a bunch of job-specific verbs do not a language make; even if I duplicated English grammar, I still needed more vocabulary to make things work. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, expletives, etc. I couldn’t build even one sentence with all of the vocabulary lists I’d created.
Well, statistics say that half of everything written in English is made up of the one hundred most common words… and it also just so happens that there’s a lot of disagreement about what those hundred most common words are. You’ve got opinions by Prentice Hall and Brown University Press, the Oxford English Dictionary, and more.
I combined all of these “100 most common English Words” list and came up with a few more than one hundred words:
the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, their, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call. who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part, only, other, time, new, any, over, such, our, man, me, even, most, after, also, off, before, must, well, back, years, much, and where.
Put those together with the 300+ words I’d already come up with, and you’re starting to get enough words to make complete sentences. Your Elves, Dwarves, and whatnot can start talking to each other in their own languages, and you can add more words as needed.
WHAT YOU CAN DO WHEN IT’S TOO MUCH WORK
Well, “too much work” is probably the wrong way to put it. “Too much of a distraction from my writing” might be, however, as I found myself putting all my time into developing these languages and not in writing. Again, I’m not Tolkien, I don’t have a special interest in linguistics, and I really don’t want to have to put that much time into a constructed language when I’d rather be writing. I still have pages of notes full of vocabulary lists, sketched out grammar rules, and more for both of these languages I was working on, but development has been halted on them for more than ten years, now. Writing the actual book was far, far more important.
Building a language was getting tedious. I’d overloaded myself, and was losing interest. Rather than giving up on the book, I gave up on the new languages. I have done my best, since then, to keep the books compatible with my old notes, but I haven’t really made any advancements.
Well, I take that back. There were a few times I added a word or two of vocabulary when needed (a specialized Elven weapon would be referred to in Elvish, for example). Or when I wanted to apply the “rule of fun” for a 4th-wall joke, like when I gave a Dwarven Inn a Japanese style bath and called it a “fu’ro bathing system” (basically, the Japanese word for that kind of bath with the fantasy cliché apostrophe in the middle).
Creating a language as I was writing the book was too much work… but keeping to the rudiments, and adding the odd additional word or two on occasion, will allow me to finish these languages some day. If I ever need them.
Creating a language is a lot of work. You may find, like I did, that it’s too much effort for what you’re trying to do, or for where you are at this point in your writing or your story.
But if you really want to, nothing is stopping you from making up your own words, developing your own system of grammar, and constructing your own language.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t already heard, I have updated the Convention Calender this week. I added two new conventions, and put in 2016 dates for several more. I’m always looking for new suggestions for appropriate conventions)