Language is a passion of mine. Specifically, conlanging is a passion of mine. The nuts and bolts of how words fit together is fascinating to me: I have literally spent hours coming up with language concepts.
But it’s not for everyone. Which I totally get. Most writers are in this for the story, not because they’re weirdly obsessed with letters. In which case, those who want to address the problem of language might feel a little overwhelmed: it’s a huge complicated worldbuilding monster that can often appear like an all-or-nothing deal.
Don’t worry. You can have a realistic language without having to build the whole damn thing. Here’s how:
First, come up with how your language sounds. Second, come up with some words. Third, come up with how you’re gonna name things. Really, it’s that easy.
But I’ll go into more detail.
Most writers have been members of the “hit the keyboard and see what happens” school of conlanging at least once in their life. Honestly, that school doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves: for barely-mentioned languages or a place to start it’s totally valid. Hell, they used it in Star Trek for the first season.
The problem comes up when you have more than a few phrases or names in the language, and the reader will start picking up on the fact that you’re just smashing your forehead into your laptop. The easiest way to delay that realization for as long as possible is to sit down and pick out five letters.
Three consonants, two vowels.
You can combine these letters however you want. It’ll sound much more genuine, and it’ll give different languages different flavors. For example, let’s make two phonologies right now. I’ll mash the keyboard for the vowels, then the consonants.
A: a, o. t, s, h.
B: i, u. k, r, p.
Language A would sound like this: “Ta? Sosa ho sot sa.” Language B would sound like this: “Ki? Riru pu rik ri.” Same configuration of vowels and consonants, totally different phonology.
You can vary this, of course: choose only one vowel, or all vowels, or try to use all consonants (which sounds grating but works). As long as you keep the sounds consistent throughout the language, it’ll sound like an actual language. Which is what you’re going for.
If you want to do absolutely nothing else for your world’s language, do this.
But do you really need to stop there? Once you have the phonology, making up words is easy. The hard part is deciding what words you need to make first. The best way to answer, of course, is to write the book and figure out what you need to “translate” in dialogue, but there are a couple things to think about if you want to.
First, language is in many ways a representation of the culture that speaks it. If you have any unique concepts or titles this is a good place to start. This can also extend to concepts that are important to the culture: are they nature-loving hippies or warmongers? They may have words to encompass those values that you choose to use for later in the story.
Second, every language has swear words and every bilingual person in the world reverts to their home tongue when they want to curse. Not only does this offer a great semi-censorship for young adult writers (I’m looking at you, Eoin Colfer) but it gives you a chance to think about what they’d curse about. Swear words are strong words, so put some thought into them.
Example: in English cultures, sex and excretions are taboo. They tend to make up most of our cursing. You’ll notice in subculture that lesser derogatory words tend to circle around perceived bad qualities: terms like “tree hugger” or “corporate pig”.
So what in your language would they consider so filthy that only it can encompass the sheer pain of a stubbed toe or gullible moment? What trait makes a person the lowest of the low and can only be used in a moment of anger or betrayal?
Third, and probably most usefully, you need to think about names.
This is the most intricate suggestion for creating the facade of a language, but it’s probably my favorite. Names are also powerful words, and they’re probably going to be the most frequent use of different languages you’ll see in a novel. The best names have meaning behind them, be that influence from a person (“Virginia” or “Jamestown”), influenced by other tongues (“Philadelphia”), or even just a cultural relevance (“Los Angeles”).
The best way to fudge this is to come up with a theme for each culture. Do they name their cities after geographical locations? Do they name people after virtues? Do their surnames come from their parents or are there family names?
To use an example, let’s use the languages from the previous section. In Language A, they name their cities after geographical locations. We’ll say the word “sosa” means “river”, the word “ta” means “two”, and the word “tos” means “bank.” That’s enough to name three towns on the same river.
Our hero could be raised in Tososa, “Riverbank”, and travel downstream to Sosata, “Two Rivers” to trade. Maybe various events lead him to Tatos, a trading town called Two Banks. Three named cities, and we instantly have an idea of what they look like: a sleepy river village, a town at a split in the riverbed, and maybe a delta-side trading post.
In Language B, they name their children after virtues. The culture values oratory skills and cleverness, so we’ll say “pir” means “eloquence”, “ki” means “to speak”, and “ruk” means “something unexpected”. We can come up with names: “Pirki” or “eloquent speaker”, or “Ruki”, “unexpected speaker”. Or my favorite, “Rukpir”, “unexpected eloquence”.
Literally just assigning meaning to sounds in a way that fits your story: it takes ten minutes of thought. But your names gain depth.
If this sort of thing interests you (and you’re in Iowa City), I’m currently co-hosting writing sessions with the awesome Erin Casey that go into this stuff in depth. They’re called the Violet Realm (under the auspices of the Iowa Writers’ House). We have amazing discussions about writing techniques, try prompts that help reinforce the theme of the day, and generally enjoy writing in the company of other awesome people.
We meet up in the Iowa City Public Library (room B) every second and fourth Tuesday of the month to talk about writing. The sessions are geared toward fantasy and science fiction writers.
Everyone’s welcome, and I hope to see you there!