5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional Languages

5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional LanguagesGone are the days when you could speak gibberish in a movie or a novel—think Princess Leia’s scene negotiating with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi—and pass it off as obscure, exotic fictional languages.

Today, when your characters speak fictional languages, your audience expects these languages to sound real, with natural-sounding vocabulary and an authentic flow and syntax. Blame authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, who spent many decades fine-tuning Quenya, Sindarin, and the other languages in his epic fantasy trilogies.

But Tolkien wasn’t alone. From Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to HBO’s Game of Thrones, using believable fictional languages helps readers believe in your mythology and immerse themselves in your world.

And unlike HBO, you don’t need to hire a team of linguists to start creating your own language. These five tips can help get you started.

1. Find Inspiration in the Real World

There’s a reason many of the most popular fantasy languages were created by linguists. For example, David J. Peterson created the languages in Syfy’s Defiance, CW’s Star-Crossed, and more recently, HBO’s Game of Thrones where he invented Dothraki.

Fictional languages are more believable when they’re rooted in something our culture or society has heard before. Linguists and authors often draw inspiration from real languages in order to invent something new. In Lord of the Rings, Sindarin was inspired by Welsh, and Quenya was based on Finnish. In A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat was inspired by Russian slang.

Expose yourself to other languages, including non-Indo-European languages, like those from the African subcontinent. If possible, learn other languages, or at least study how they construct their grammar and syntax. The goal is to get used to new sounds and new ways of arranging words so your fictional language doesn’t sound like just another spin on English.

2. Modify the Sounds

Star Trek’s Klingon uses sounds found in actual human languages, but mixes up how they’re combined to form something unique. As you craft your new vocabulary and build a dictionary of words, break the mold and find new and unusual ways of pronouncing each vowel or syllable.

This all comes down to how your tongue and lips move, or what linguists call your “place of articulation.” Take the letter “r.” In French, this letter is said with the tongue compressed in the back of your mouth, whereas in Spanish, the tongue moves forward to just behind your front teeth. It’s the same letter with utterly different sounds!

Playing with sounds can help you rearrange letters in ways you wouldn’t think possible if you were using traditional English pronunciations.

And don’t forget: you’re building a fantasy world! Does the monster or alien have a different type of tongue? Do the elves or goblins have a different facial structure? These things affect language. By modifying the language to reflect a character’s culture or physical shape, you can make your entire world more believable.

3. Add a Secondary Language

There’s no such thing as “English,” at least not in a true sense. Many common English words are stolen or borrowed from other languages even though we use them in everyday conversations without batting an eye. You see this even in the writing and publishing world. For example, “genre” comes from French.

Once you’ve established a new root language based on a real-world language, incorporate slang and words from other fictional languages in your world. This adds color and flavor to your fictional words, and it also mimics what happens in the real world.

4. List Your Vocabulary, Slang, and Common Phrases

Don’t get so bogged down in creating a fantasy language that you lose sight of your end goal: writing compelling fiction and drawing readers into your fantasy world.

As you create common phrases and develop common words like “hello” and “yes,” jot them down in a translation journal:

  • Keep a thorough list of invented words. Don’t think, “I’ll do this later.” This is how language creators get mixed up and miss key details or create noticeable inconsistencies.
  • List all words and common phrases in alphabetical order. Consider further grouping them in categories like “geographical places” and “curses.” This lets you quickly look up what you’ve used in the past. You could even turn it into a glossary in the back of your novel for your readers’ benefit.
  • Add each word or phrase to your word processor’s spell-check tool. This helps you avoid typos or punctuation mistakes that jar the reader out of the experience.

5. Find Like-Minded Authors

Developing a believable language for your fantasy world takes practice and time. Learn from other authors who have done it successfully. Brainstorm with writers who are in the trenches and going through the same problems and exercises as you.

Many writing groups offer support for language-building. The Language Creation Society brings together authors, TV script writers, and other creative minds who are building new dialects for books, TV and movies.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun. You’re the author. You are the master of this fictional world. Just as you do when creating characters, build a language that inspires you. Your readers can sense the passion and joy you put into your language, and this helps make every word more believable.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever created fictional languages for your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About Amber Massey

Amber Massey is a wordsmith and communications enthusiast with over 10 years of experience. Editing is her passion. New media is her medium. She is currently the CEO of Mellel, a powerful app redefining word processing for Mac.

Comments

  1. Robert Billing says:

    I put in a few words of a constructed language into Imperatrix Galactica. One thing I did to try to make it more real was to let the characters work out the meaning of a word they didn’t know.

    There was a smell in Cinnamon’s nose now. A heavy, non-human smell, overlaid with fear. An animal smell. Automatically she translated – an animal was amzas in Galactica.
    Of course. If amzas was an animal and micath meant medical it made sense to run the two words together. Ammicath must mean veterinary.

    I still think that one of the best constructed languages in in H Beam Piper’s “Fuzzy Papers”. The initial puzzle is that the fuzzies clearly communicate but nobody can hear them. The someone realises that they are a quarter of our size, and hence talk using frequencies that are far too high for us to hear. Once the humans realise this, and build some electronics, the fuzzy language has a quite clever structure.

    • amber massey says:

      Hi Robert, great observations and unique language construction you’re using. Exactly what I’m talking about. Re: high frequencies — I wrote a short historical sci-fi piece once that also made use of a high-frequency language mechanism. I found that this was actually harder to convey to the audience than constructing a fictitious one since the reader’s experience with it had to be revealed by it’s description and use.

  2. Thank you!!!!

    I got super excited when I saw the title of this post. I’m just preparing to enter the fantasy genre and was considering creating, well…three or four languages.

    I’m still a little daunted by the idea, but, needless to say, this article is very helpful and encourages me to give it a try. 😀

    • amber massey says:

      So glad it’s helped! And no worries. Getting started is usually the hardest. Relax. Watch movies in other languages to introduce your ears and imagination to different sounds, intonation, etc. Making languages is fun. Happy writing.

  3. Howdy!

    Yep. Making my own. It’s been fun, although I haven’t done it consistently. It’s based off of Hebrew and Japanese. Some words are easy to pronounce but others are more gutteral. The vowels and syllable system are more on the Hebrew side. It reads right to left too.

    Definitely make a journal to keep track of words, roots, definitions. Better yet, make a personal lexicon with all the word roots and every word based on upon it. Fun stuff!

    • amber massey says:

      Very thorough. And the right-to-left display has a good chance at grabbing the reader’s attention. Just curious. How are the languages displaying? Some Mellel users switched to our word processor because they tired of their old one inconsistently displaying multidirectional text per sentence, per document. Good luck!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Amber!

  5. This is great stuff. Sharing widely.

  6. This is a great article, and I can see would be really useful to anyone inventing a language. (In fact, I should remember the trick of making sure I keep a vocabulary list…) I decided not to invent a language for my book, but I do have this thing where my main character sometimes has to mentally translate ideas from one language to another. At one point he stops himself from telling someone he’s alone because `alone’ in the language they’re speaking is the same word as `death’ and he’d have been calling himself a ghost.

    • amber massey says:

      Keep that list! “He’d have been calling himself a ghost.” That’s powerful. If you didn’t use that verbatim, you should.

  7. Ooh, yeah. For a science fiction novel I’m thinking about making up languages. Most of what I thought about is related to point 3 above:

    1) I specify that my aliens are speaking a trade language native to their planet (English vs. Humanese). I also have a “Navajo code talker” situation in my alien-occupied colony, except the humans are using Hebrew and Korean. I won’t have aliens to speak “Vulcan” unless they are extremely ancient, becoming homogeneous before humans meet them (as in, flying in spaceships while the Late Bronze Age collapse was happening on Earth).

    2) Is there also a prestige language? A Roman British person would know Celtic plus Latin (the lingua franca), and if they were educated they’d know Greek. Perhaps the inhabitants of a “British” village will be more hospitable if a character speaks “Celtic” instead of “Latin.” Maybe a British character is underestimated as too barbaric to know “Greek.”

    3) Will a language make the Anglo Saxon vs. Latin distinction, where the Anglo Saxon is “vulgar” and the Latin is “educated” (gut vs. eviscerate)? Alternatively, word choices may be equal but different: Americans say “flashlight,” the British say “torch.”

    4) Is there a liturgical language? Is it living or dead? Would a priest be expected to know the equivalent of Aramaic? Are non-priests forbidden to speak or learn it?

    5) Honorifics — when I watch anime I love when kids are calling each other Misaki-chi or Midori-chan to mean “Misaki dear! Midori sweetie!” Or kids use “senpai” for upperclassmates, e.g., “Jenny-senpai is graduating.” Do your aliens have status-based honorifics? If Haldir or Glorfindel say the equivalent of “Galadriel-chan, Elrond-kun” are they being rude and overly familiar in your fantasy world? I gather if they were Japanese the answer is YES since Galadriel and Elrond are respectively their queen and lord.

    All of these considerations are why I was thinking I’d hire a conlanger like the ones at the link in point 5 🙂

    • amber massey says:

      Yes, so you’re saying that, beyond relatable language structure, you’d like the reader to relate to social structure — how language in your narrative is used to differentiate class, hierarchy, liturgy, etc, as it does in our own world. Great idea. Good luck writing and glad those wheels are turning.

  8. Hello ^^ I adore creating new languages. One of my favorite resources is at http://www.zompist.com/kit.html. Especially the Language Construction Kit and the Advanced Language Construction kit. There’s also a forum there as well. I was heavily into Con-Langing for a while in high school and college. Thanks so much for this post!

  9. I’ve thought of another angle to conlanging — In real life we have people wanting to split up their country because they speak Catalan and the national language is Castilian. Or a group wants their own country because they speak Basque or Kurdish and their people are located in more than one country (the Basques straddle Spain and France).

    What if your Quenya elves are angry that they have to speak Sindarin, but the Sindarin speakers suppress Quenya? Do the political borders in your fantasy world correspond to cultural borders?

    • amber massey says:

      If it does, it’s yet another way to pull your reader’s in, to have them relate and understand the intricacies of your world.

  10. All my bird characters speak a form of English but altered to suit a particular species. The ravens might be Klingon, all their names are guttural with plenty of ‘k’and ‘g’ sounds but their language is archaic in form, and poetic. The chickens on the other hand are more playful with simple structure and made-up words that replace actual words that sound familiar, or nouns that describe something else but based on their observations are an understandable and logical divergence. As for the owls, well, the less said about that the better.

  11. amber massey says:

    …Now I’m interested in what the owls have to say…in their own language!

  12. Saja bo storm says:

    Hello Amber! Thank you for an enriching and informative post. When I was an English major, one of my required classes was the History of the English language. English consists of various Teutonic languages such as German, French, Latin etc. I also studied the root or base of words which has helped me with the realization that language is both universal and global. In my Sci-fi stories however, I create the language strictly from my imagination but use the words repetitiously and in contexts until the reader recognizes the meanings. Ironically. I wrote an American western piece and used archaic American words to add authenticity. I decided to add a glossary after the story so as not to confuse my readers. Creating language for me is exciting and so much fun so thank you again for your timely insight.

  13. This has nothing to do with this post … but I feel like you should know. Last night I had a dream and then after the dream, still in my dream, and you came in and critiqued my dream’s plot structure.

  14. Lela Markham says:

    My fantasy series has several peoples groups who do not speak the same languages. To demonstrate that, I use borrow words from actual languages. My Svard, for example, are descendants of Vikings that somehow ended up in this fantasy land. My Celdryans are the descendants of Celts who also ended up there. So, I borrow words from Swedish & Norwegian and from Welsh and Gaelic to distinguish their different groups. Then I have the Kin, who are indigenous to the land. Mostly I’ve just used naming-conventions with them. But I also do a tonal trick. The Celts speak in a lilt that readers say they notice (which was my intent), but the Kin speak (when translated, of course) in American cadences. So far, the groups have only interacted on a limited basis … mostly with people who have unusual facility with languages … but I’m moving into where these groups will be interacting more, so I need to give some serious thought as to how to use words in dialogue to show that they are speaking what are to them foreign languages.

  15. thearcherofGod says:

    Creating languages is a sign that the world can still hope. It can still hope that his heart may be filled with wisdom, virtue and truth by his inhabitants. A world free from evil talks new languages than those we used to speak in our sad and poor lands. I love creating languages, because in the language I craft lives the soul of all creation.

Trackbacks

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