21 Apr Creating Fictional Languages: Tips, Inspiration, and Points to Consider
One of the most underappreciated elements of worldbuilding in fiction has got to be languages. Even though language is practically the paint of the writer’s craft, many writers gloss over the topic of languages in their fictional worlds without much thought.
In a way, I can understand why. Handcrafting entire languages can be quite a thankless endeavour, as you go through all the painstaking effort of creating a complex and original language system that, at the end of the day, nobody else can even understand. Of course, you could just throw together a random jumble of syllables that sound pleasing, but that strategy won’t work very well long-term if you eventually want to reuse words and create more complex sentences further down the line. Then again, it’s difficult to justify spending the time to iron out all your different classes of verb, when that won’t exactly help you progress your plot. As with most aspects of worldbuilding, creating fictional languages can be more for the author’s satisfaction than the reader’s benefit. But just because something you create never makes it into your final draft, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth your time.
Naturally, if you don’t have a background in studying languages and linguistics, then creating a fictional language from scratch can be a very daunting prospect, but I hope to prove to you that doing so can be extremely rewarding and worth the extra effort. This won’t be a fully comprehensive guide to creating a language from scratch, as there are countless different ways to approach the topic that can’t all be condensed into a single blog post. Instead, consider this an introduction to some of the principles behind creating a language and using it to complement the rest of your worldbuilding. My goal for this article is to serve as a source of inspiration to you, and to leave you with a few questions to ask about your new language(s) that you might not otherwise have thought to ask yourself. Then hopefully you will discover new ways to express your creativity and represent whatever fictional culture you are trying to depict.
First off, before you even start planning out your new language, I recommend that you (re‑)familiarise yourself with the basics of language learning. By this, I mean primarily the different parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, article, etc.) and grammatical features (tense, person, number, gender, etc.) that are common in the languages you are already familiar with. This might seem like a load of useless theoretical terminology, but knowing all the fundamental building blocks will make it a lot easier to build up your language from scratch and keep it consistent.
Once you’ve got to grips with all these different components, you can start to make some general decisions about the language you want to create. The first thing to decide on is what language(s) to draw inspiration from. Whether consciously or not, you will inevitably be influenced by the languages you know when deciding what your language should be like. It is much better to own this fact and deliberately handpick the linguistic features you want to use, rather than let your ignorance of other languages make decisions for you.
You can model your language closely on an existing one if you want, but if you choose to do this, be very mindful of how you depict it. By basing your language off a real one, you instantly associate your fictional language with it, and anything you say about your language might be taken as a comment about its real-world counterpart. When you are writing an entirely fictional culture, even apparently superficial similarities to real-world cultures can have very real implications, and racism in traditional high fantasy is a pervasive and recurring problem that needs to be acknowledged. If you’re creating a language for hordes of one-note bloodthirsty orcs, dim-witted trolls or backstabbing goblins, for example, people would understandably be insulted to find their own culture being used as a reference.
But assuming your aim is not to recreate an existing language with a thin coat of paint, you will probably want to include a mix of linguistic features from different languages or create some unique ones of your own. So now, let’s get into some linguistic features and think about how they can fit and provide insight into your fictional world.
We’ll start with the most widely applicable topic of sentence structure. You likely know that in most Germanic languages, such as English, adjectives typically precede the noun they describe (e.g. ‘the black cat’), whereas in Romance languages, such as French, the adjective conventionally comes after the noun (‘le chat noir’). Similarly, whereas the typical English word order is Subject > Verb > Object, in Celtic languages the word order is usually Verb > Subject > Object. Some languages have looser sentence structures than others, and there are a couple of non-configurational languages which have no fixed word order, such as the indigenous Australian language of Warlpiri. This means that you can choose practically any word order you like for your new language, and you don’t have to limit yourself to the way you’re used to constructing sentences in English.
It will help you keep your language consistent if you plan out your language’s basic sentence structure from the beginning. That said, conventional word order can be subverted for a number of reasons. Can we ask a question by swapping the main verb with its subject in English? We can indeed. In French, the adjective is sometimes placed before the noun for extra emphasis, and Old Irish can repeat pronouns to clarify the subject in complex sentences. Conversely, the passive voice is often used in many languages to obscure or take emphasis away from the one doing the action in a sentence (e.g. ‘He was murdered’ instead of ‘[The culprit] murdered him’). In poetry, no matter the language, word order can be much freer so as to fit the metre and generate other poetic effects. So while it helps to have a general framework in mind, you should also know when to go against it. Then you can use changes in sentence structure to alter the sentence’s meaning or to imply something about the speaker; perhaps articles (‘the’, ‘a/an’) are considered old-fashioned and only used by people of a certain age, or perhaps very arrogant people tend to double up their first-person pronouns (‘I’, ‘me’). Essentially, make your own rules, but know when to break them!
After settling on the parts of speech and their word order, you can start adding some more interesting linguistic features to set your language apart and tailor them to the society you’re writing. One such feature that you’re no doubt aware of is grammatical gender. You’ve probably learnt languages that still have gendered nouns and are familiar with the concept. In fact, Old English originally had a standard tripartite gender system (masculine, feminine, neuter), but over time it has collapsed almost completely. Some vestiges arguably survive in a few phrases, such as waiter/waitress type professions (generally originating from Romance languages), and some people might refer to their vehicles or some countries with gendered pronouns, but even these rare uses are dying out in favour of neutral alternatives.
It is important to note that grammatical gender is not necessarily tied to human genders as we usually think of them – the word ‘gender’ comes from Latin genus, simply meaning ‘type’ or ‘sort’. The word ‘genre’ comes from the same root and means much the same thing. Therefore, the grammatical gender of words does not necessarily align with the gender of the thing being described (assuming it even has one), and how closely these different genders correlate varies across languages. Old English wīf (‘woman/wife’) is neuter, not feminine as one might expect, and the modern French masculinité (‘masculinity’) is, ironically, feminine. In modern Scandinavian languages, grammatical genders have merged in different ways, with Danish and some others combining masculine and feminine into a ‘common’ gender contrasted solely against the neuter. In some cases, the genders of words can seem completely arbitrary.
Bearing in mind this distinction between grammatical and so-called ‘natural’ genders, we can now explore alternative systems for gendering words. A few languages divide nouns into the contrasting categories of ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’, which reveals a completely different perspective on the topic. (There have also been studies into how grammatical gender systems can influence cognition, demonstrating that not only do cultural ideas influence grammar, but the reverse can be true as well to some degree.)
When creating your own language, you can make your own genders as consistent or as arbitrary as you please, and you can choose categories that reflect and reinforce the preoccupations of the culture you’re writing. For example, you could split words into a moral ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’, the latter including some blacklisted words that are too outrageous – perhaps even blasphemous or illegal – to utter aloud. This in turn would forcing people to use euphemistic phrases to sidestep forbidden words, essentially a form of avoidance speech or naming taboo (think ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’). You could separate words according to the element, colour, or emotion associated with them, and this could become an integral part of your magic system and how incantations are written. You could even combine multiple systems of categorisation, having ‘Good/Red’ and ‘Good/Blue’ words alongside ‘Bad/Red’ and ‘Bad/Blue’ ones.
Hopefully you can see how this concept could be used to complement your worldbuilding, and although gender is mainly associated with nouns in the real world, there is nothing stopping you from categorising other parts of speech in similar ways.
A slightly less well known feature that I want to draw your attention to is the grammatical mood. English has five of these, which you may or may not have heard about:
– the indicative (‘You are better’),
– the imperative (‘Be better!’),
– the interrogative (‘Are you better?’),
– the conditional (‘You would be better if…’),
– the subjunctive (‘If you were better…’ or ‘… in order that I be better’).
Moods generally work quite similarly to tenses in that they modify verbs and sometimes change the word order, but they perform quite a different role. Whereas tenses (and aspects) express when an event takes place, moods specify whether the event actually takes place, or if it is simply being expressed hypothetically, or referenced in some other abstract way. Tense concerns a verb’s relation to time whereas mood concerns the relation to reality. This quality is called ‘modality’.
Mood does not directly reveal how the speaker feels about what they are saying, like the name might imply, but it can still impact the tone of a sentence. Some moods can express that something is newly discovered by the speaker, or that they deem the statement improbable, and consequently these moods can make for a tone of surprise or disbelief. Other moods can be used to make requests or ask permission, to make suggestions or offer advice, and you can imagine how such moods might give hints about the speaker’s attitude through their tone.
One of my favourite linguistic anecdotes is that in addition to an optative mood, which is used for expressing wishes or hopes generally, Turkish has what’s called an imprecative mood – a mood for wishing misfortune upon others. (An imprecation is a curse, both in the sense of ‘hex’ and ‘profanity’.) I hope that I am not alone in finding this incredibly cool – it’s almost as though this part of the language was designed specifically for casting nefarious spells!
Devising your own grammatical moods is a great way to give your characters unique voices, and to subtly showcase how they perceive the world. You could have a separate mood for speaking about ‘myths’ as opposed to the one reserved for ‘real’ history, as the speaker perceives it, revealing their beliefs and biases about the past. You could have a positive inversion of the imprecative, a mood for bestowing good fortune and healing, or one used for prophesising the future. You could effectively have an apologetic mood, a boastful mood, a reverential mood, and separate moods to distinguish loyalty from fear, demonstrating the importance of all these things both to individual characters and their society at large. Even the number of moods you use can be a comment about the language’s speakers. For instance, if you’re writing a famously stoic society that generally values dealing only in cold, hard facts, they might just have the standard, unambiguous indicative mood and leave it at that. On the other hand, their more emotive and free-thinking neighbour civilisation might have a dozen or more distinct moods.
When it comes to crafting the individual words of your language, remember to pay attention to the way you want your language to sound, since most languages are primarily oral phenomena (at least to begin with). The general sound of a language is often distinctive enough that people who cannot understand it are still able to distinguish it from other unknown languages. There are many things that contribute to this – rhythm, intonation, even volume – and some things will be much harder than others to convey in writing. But one thing you have to decide on is the selection of phonemes (i.e. sounds) that your language will include.
No real-world language includes all possible sounds that can be made with the human mouth, and each language includes its own selection of phonemes. This is why pronouncing languages is usually so much harder for non-native speakers, as they have to learn to recreate sounds that never appear in their native tongue. So consider trading out some of English’s phonemes in exchange for some less familiar ones – you could even include some rare ones, such as the clicks of the Khoisan languages or sounds from the world’s various whistled languages, although you might find these difficult to transcribe. If you’re writing a language for non-humans, you might want to account for their different anatomies and create some original phonemes that only they are able to produce. If you’re writing multiple languages, try to make them look and sound distinct, and make some languages more similar than others if they are supposed to be more closely related.
You can also implement your own system of punctuation, creating your own punctuation marks or devising ways to punctuate things like sarcasm, rhetorical speech and hyperbole (some of which have real-world precedents). Obviously, if you go overboard with uncommon symbols for standard letters and punctuation marks, the reader will eventually have no idea how to read what you’ve written, and they will simply skip over the gibberish without a second thought. Fortunately, there are many ways to Romanise foreign languages into a form English-speakers are able to process without having to resort to a punctuation guide.
And finally, while this article has been fully geared towards creating spoken and written languages so far, remember that there are other kinds of languages that are very much worth exploring as well. Speech and writing are by no means the only modes of communication, and in some contexts, it makes more sense to use alternative kinds of language. For instance, sign language is essential in the worlds of A Quiet Place and The Silence, wherein nonverbal communication is a necessity to survive the invasion of human-eating monsters with exceptional hearing. Other visual modes of communication include Morse code, semaphore, and smoke signals, which are all effective for long-distance communication and have very practical applications, especially in a fantasy setting that lacks modern technology.
There also exist tactile writing systems, such as braille, which are predominantly used by people with visual impairments. Fascinatingly, though, braille was based upon a nineteenth-century tactile code known as ‘night writing’, which was developed for the French military to read secret messages in total darkness. If you’re writing a book that involves espionage, or an adventurer exploring hidden passages and booby-trapped ruins, a writing system like this could serve as a plot point in and of itself. So while you’re thinking about creating your own languages, ask yourself if any alternative modes of communication such as these would lend themselves well to the story and the world you are writing.
There is still so much more to discuss surrounding the complex world of linguistics, such as how languages evolve over time and how different languages interact with one another, which many writers don’t fully consider. But for now, I hope this has given you a new perspective on linguistics, and an appreciation of the potential of languages to reinforce the qualities of the societies that created them. At the very least, I hope that something here has managed to spark your imagination and encouraged you to think of your own original linguistic features. Some might see linguistics as a stuffy world of tedious rules and restrictions, but to writers, it is a playground for you to exercise you creativity and innovation.
If you want to start making languages but still feel you need guidance, there are plenty of resources out there to help you flesh out your language and learn a thing or two along the way.
To learn more about how to use different languages in your writing effectively, be they real or fictional, click here to read my previous article on the subject.
Written by Dominic Pattison.