Last week my hard drive failed.
There were a lot of casualties there: my novel lost the good latter half of an important chapter, for one. But the worst loss was one I just discovered: somehow, all my conlanging notes were lost. They didn’t get backed up. This is heartbreaking. So for the next few Thursday posts, I’m going to re-do some of that hard work in an example of A., how to construct a language, and B., how conlanging can be a great tool for getting to know the world of your book.
Some Background Info
For those of you unfamiliar with the somewhat-arcane term, “conlanging” is the hobby of constructing languages. The most well-known constructed languages are probably Esperanto, which was meant to be a universal language and (maybe) has natural speakers, and Klingon, from Star Trek. Other constructed languages include Dothraki from Game of Thrones and Elvish from Lord of the Rings. The complexity varies from language to language– Klingon grew naturally as the show grew popular, while Tolkien was a linguist who would have written the entire trilogy in Elvish if anyone else had been able to read it.
Conlanging is a great way to really flesh out a fantasy or sci-fi novel. Language is a product of the culture it’s born in, and therefore creating one makes you think about aspects of a culture you’d never face otherwise. Are your people particularly sarcastic? Violent? Vulgar? Are they poets with a hundred words for “star” or a race of chefs with suffixes to describe the distinct texture of something when you taste it?
There are tons of real-world examples for this. Back in college, I had a semester where I was taking Old English and Classical Greek (Koine) simultaneously, and by some weird coincidence we ended up reading New Testament passages at the same time. I had the unique experience of studying the same stories in three languages: once in Greek, once in Old English, and once in English with my Catholic roommate when I couldn’t make heads or tails of a metaphysical passage. Greek is a language that lends itself to poetry, so those metaphysical stories flowed beautifully. Lots of allusions, lots of double-meanings, and a diverse descriptive vocabulary. Old English, on the other hand, had a very repetitive vocabulary when it came to poetry. The words had been translated nearly-literally, losing a lot of the subtlety (something that I think the Church struggles with to this day).
An example: the old phrase “Let there be light”. In Greek, a more direct translation would be “Let light become.” The word used for “be” is the same word used for birth. The subtext can be read in English, but for the general population the imagery isn’t much more than turning on a light switch.
I have (had) a couple conlangs in the work. My novel has a chapter/story that centers around an Earthling learning Irionite Common, which is the lingua franca of my fictional world. IC is spoken on a very aquatic planet, and is supposed to sound like an ocean: lots of L and SH sounds. There’s also Maskilian Elvish, the native language of a city-state involved in the novel. This one is a little less well-defined, and I didn’t lose much on it. The third language is the one I’m going to spend a few Thursday posts on: Codon.
Codon is a completely impractical language experiment I came up with a while ago. It’s based on the structure of RNA: two consonants and two vowels make up the total alphabet of the language, limiting it to four possible syllable sounds. Words consist of three syllables, mirroring the three-acid “words” of RNA: called “codons”, which is where the language gets its name. This limits the entire language to sixty-four words.
A sentence in Codon mimics the structure of a strand of RNA: it has one ‘start’ word and three ‘stop’ words. That leaves 61 words to cover not only all aspects of grammar, but all possible concepts one wishes to communicate. This can be made easier by creating grammatical concepts that relate to word order, or by tying together words in clusters that find concepts in a roundabout way (ex. ‘house’ could be given as person-safe-building”). So the actual vocabulary has to be not only vague but broad, something we can tie together.
This takes a decent amount of planning, which is what I’m going to cover today: how do we decide which words to use, and why?
Allotment of Grammar
Because English is what I’m most familiar with, that’s what we’ll base the parts of speech off of. First, we figure out exactly how much of English is given to each part of speech– what percentage is nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc.
Google is my friend. The blogger here found the percentages of several works and averaged it. You can read about how he did what he did on the blog, but I copied his table below:*
|Percentage and average of parts-of-speech usage in 9 works or corpra|
*If the author reads this: please message me if you’re uncomfortable with this use for whatever reason, I will remove it at your request.
Ignoring punctuation, which has three assigned words, we can use the averages and apply them to our total:
(I made and used this calculator to calculate the numbers, because I can.)
Clearly we can’t have .15 of a word, so we have a little wiggle room here. Rounding gives us the following:
Fudging it a little more to give us some leeway:
And now we have an idea of how to organize vocabulary! Next week I’ll go over choosing vocab words and the sound of the language, and the week after that we’ll put it all together with a grammar.
Okay… So why am I interested in this?
Because language is so cool. I mentioned above all the ways it can flesh out the world in a novel: language is a product of culture, and culture breeds plot. Learning your characters’ language tells you a great deal about how they think, the associations they make, what emotions words evoke.
And it’s shockingly easy. Codon is a highly simple language, in that it’s easy to write and not so easy to actually speak. At its easiest, conlanging can be a plug-and-play: write out a vocabulary and replace English words with those. At its hardest, conlanging is an intense mental exercise that challenges the way you process language. No matter what, you end up looking at your world in a whole new light.
Novel and real world alike.