If you’ve been following my Twitter at all, you’ll know that I started reading Dune this past weekend. Despite my many criticisms, I’m getting into it– I was sad to put it aside at the end of two hours.
Anyway, Frank Herbert’s devotion to inserting new vocabulary has my mind on language again. Why is it that some authors’ use of invented language makes me giddy, and some just drives me up a wall? Why is Tolkien’s language more accessible than Herbert’s? They’re doing the same thing, inserting an invented language into an epic work. They’re both brilliant writers with high acclaim. But Herbert’s made-up words are driving me nuts and make the book less accessible; Tolkien’s barely fazed me. The difficulty that comes with reading his writing comes elsewhere.
What Not To Do
I’ve said before that an invented language can offer amazing depth to the world of your story, and I stand by that. When used well, language is a fantastic worldbuilding tool.
I’ll say it again: when used well.
As illustrated in the XKCD (originally found here) above, language can be and often is used pretty poorly. I’ve been turned off books altogether because the author forced new vocabulary on me one too many times. Dune did this, the first time I read it; you have to push through it to get to the rest of the novel. So how do you avoid it?
1. Put some thought into your language. Don’t just make up words, like the imaginary XKCD author does above. Even if the reader knows nothing of language, they’re familiar with it to some extent– enough to read your book, right? And that means they can tell if you’re talking out your ass. If your elders are fra’as and your swords are krytoses but your children are called farmlings, the reader is going to notice that one of these words has an English root. Sit down and think about it.
2. Don’t force the vocabulary. You don’t need a new name for things we already have words for. Don’t tell us that this body of people call a sword a krytose unless it has a meaning that’s relevant to the rest of the book. By all means, name your all-consuming drug soma, give us names for geographic regions of your world, maybe even a couple cool titles. But fra’as should sure as hell mean something interesting: maybe it’s a pluralized form of the ancient god Fra, who blesses all people above the age of seventy-five and shows up later in the book in a whirlwind of geriatric fury. Don’t just type out cool sounds.
3. Tell us the meaning. This is where Dune fails miserably. In just the first chapter, Herbert introduces several huge vocabulary words and only presents one of them as a mystery. The others are eventually defined… several chapters later. I’m about a hundred Nook-pages in and I still don’t know what the hell a Mentat is (a robot? a school of thought? an ability? I have no idea). Do not do this. If you’re writing in English, write in English. Chances are we do not have a dictionary of your language on hand– we need a way to access the words.
What Your Language Needs
In addition to that, your language needs to be worth actually inserting into the book. Keep in mind that constructing language is fun, and you don’t need to over-complicate it: you don’t need to go as far as Tolkien did. He studied ancient languages for years before constructing his multitude of tongues. But it does need to add to the story, not just float around as extra material.
1. Give it purpose. Whose language is it, and why do we need to know it? A lot of constructed languages are “ancient lost tongues” that add a level of mystery to the plot. It’s a little over-used, but it works well. Conlangs are also great for mis-communication, for culture clashes, or even for plain old translation errors. They can add to the conflict or just make for funny asides.
2. Give it depth. A simple re-writing of English vocabulary usually adds nothing to your story. Sure, you’re probably going to want words like “name” and “rock” and “fish”, but it’ll add a lot more depth if you add in concepts we don’t have words for. If you have a seafaring people, maybe they have a word for “the undulation of the surface of the water when you’re so far out that you can’t see land” or “a fish which can survive in air for a longer-than-normal amount of time”. Maybe they treat their word for “blue” as a neutral word for “color” and just add prefixes and suffixes to form the others. Ideally these concepts would tie in with your plot, but sometimes they can just add a little depth to your culture– or make for a funny aside.
3. Create what you want to; use only what you need. I heard somewhere that Tolkien would have just written The Lord of the Rings entirely in Elvish if he’d been able to. This is in fact a tempting idea for the language-lover, but the problems are pretty obvious. For one, no one would be able to actually read it. You can be fluent in your language, or you can just know a couple words, it doesn’t matter. But fluency doesn’t mean you need to use everything you know, just like not knowing much about the language means you need to write more. Use what makes sense, and keep it accessible.
But I Really Like My Farmlings!
That’s fine. If you have one of these half-thought-out languages sitting around, you actually have an advantage. You have a source from which to build up your language organically: use your vocabulary as a jumping-off point and see what you can create! I have a ton of these lying around myself.
Think back to the books you’ve read that did this well: what did you like?
Think back to the books you’ve read that did this poorly: what did you hate?
Is there anything I’m missing? Let me know below in the comments. Or hell, just share your own conlangs, if you want!