In a post on language factors, we already went over some basics about languages and building them for specific areas as well as basics on how to do it in general. In this post and upcoming ones, we’re taking a look at this more closely. This is a process that is entirely optional, and people do varying degrees of it. Some go all out while others opt out entirely. Neither is wrong. A language you’ve created isn’t necessary to lend credibility to your work in most cases, but it can be very helpful. The goal of this section is to equip you with tools you’ll need to build languages if you choose to do so. I can’t cover everything, but I’ll try to cover what you need to get started. We’ll begin with an introduction to building languages and why you might decide to do so.
Why Create a Language?
First and foremost, creating a language should be done for fun. It isn’t required, even for high or epic fantasies, to make a good story. In fact, it’s easy to end up taking away from the story with this type of world building if you’re not careful. Because of this, the predominant reason to create a language is because you want to for the sake of experimenting, having fun with it, and being able to say you’ve created your very own language. If playing with sounds, coming up with new writing systems, and dabbling in creating grammar or structure rules sounds fun to you, then this area of world-building is for you. If you already know you’ll hate it, move on. It isn’t worth driving yourself nuts. For those on the fence, I encourage you to give it a try. You never know; you may love it. At the very least, you can say you tried it.
Besides fun, another reason to build a language of your own is because you want a naming system (or just the names) for people, places, and things that sound suitably unique but also have some sense of cohesiveness and weight behind them. This could mean you just want names that sound like they could come from the same regional location or it could mean you want names that go as far as having root words from a language that gives the names an actual meaning, much like our names on Earth have meanings behind them. Those two different sides of the spectrum obviously require differing levels of involvement from you in terms of language building, but they’re both valid needs.
Finally, language is so entwined with culture that many times your culture ends up changing with the language. If you’re writing something heavily invested in culture, language–spoken and written–plays a big part in it. You may only choose to add in some exotic names and maybe some insults or curse words to lend to the illusion of depth you create, or you may choose to go all out and create the language that you need to include songs in that language, like Tolkien does with Elvish in Lord of the Rings. How far you go depends on your interest in it and on what your readers are expecting. You can go overboard with this, so it’s important to always have balance. Don’t overwhelm readers with a lot of text in fantasy languages you’ve created. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some terms or names that are pulled from the language creation work you did.
Where to Start
If you’re feeling like this is complicated at this point (or have felt so since you saw the topic of this post), I’m not going to lie to you. It is complicated. But it isn’t impossible, and there are ways you can make life easier on yourself. Let’s just look at the starting point I’ve used for this in the past since a starting point helps to make things seem a little less chaotic.
Usually, I start with the alphabet. I take the time to think about all the sounds available to me in my language and alphabet (English in my case), and I weed through those root sounds. I may take out a vowel or a consonant here and there to lessen the number of letters I have to deal with. I have also, in the past, chosen to incorporate the diphthongs (vowel combinations like ae) found in Latin or other languages. When you’re adding sounds to your alphabet or syllabary that your native tongue doesn’t have, you can look at the sounds of other languages. This is a tremendous help, and it can give a lot more depth to your language, especially if you’re doing this for the first time. Even Tolkien, a well-accomplished linguist in his own right, borrowed from other languages to create the dialects of Elvish.
Starting with your alphabet or syllabary gives you the building blocks for words. It makes it easier to determine what sounds can and can’t be involved, and you’re making a call on what the language will sound like at the very basic level. If it’s going to be soft and lilting, it’ll be because of the sounds you kept, added, or threw out in this stage. If it will be harsh and guttural, it’ll be because of what you kept, threw out, or added at this point. Everything in a language pivots upon two things: its grammar and its vocalization/sounds. Grammar is more complex, so start with what’s simple and build up from there.
Hopefully you have a better understanding now of why you might want to create a language and the uses it can serve in your novel. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath. This isn’t as bad as it seems, and I hope to show you that it can be a ton of fun for creative minds in future posts. You can set up the language in whatever way you choose. Look at the languages we have here on Earth. There’s tons of variation there, right? Well, for your fictional languages, you can use systems just as varied, and you also have the freedom to mash together concepts, sounds, and techniques from other languages around you in real life. If you let go of the stress of thinking everything has to be perfect and just start with your sounds and the premise that this is meant to be a lot of fun for you, you’re going to be fine. You can take it as fast or slow as you need to, and you can choose how much you feel like doing. No author is required to build a complete language, nor are they required to do any language building at all. It really is entirely up to you, so have fun with it and don’t stress! Just like all other areas of world building, this is your chance to do things your way and to have fun while doing it. Take advantage of it!