Fantasy Language


I was asked recently, by an unpublished writer, the seemingly innocent and easy question, “How do I go about creating a fantasy language?” That got me to thinking, which my hubby would say is a very dangerous thing. 

When a writer starts from scratch for a language, they have to know a bit about the world they are creating.  Okay, they have to have to have the world down pat.  Language has to come near or at the end of the world creation.  Here’s why.

In English, we have only a few words for frozen precipitation, and a lot of them contain the same words: Sleet, freezing rain, snow, ice, hail, snowflakes, and uh…frozen precipitation, which is where I got started on this.  The Inuit’s have many more. Why? Because their survival depends on an exact wording for the different kinds of frozen precipitation. So in creating a language, I have to know about the survival requirements of my world.

If I am creating a desert world, there will different names for the different winds, the rare seasonal rains, the names of clothing for sun protection, wind protection, traveling.  The names for predators and the weapons that kill them.  There will names for things that grow there, on this alien world, that may not grow here. Foods that can last in the desert heat, grow on little water.

I remember the first time I heard of breadfruit, a fruit that tastes like bread, I suppose, and I wondered why call it breadfruit?  The people there have no grains…but the Europeans who “discovered” the land had grain, so they named the fruit what they chose, not what the native peoples called it. Bread was a survival food.

For language, I have to know about the sexual interaction between the sexes.  If this is an alien world, then there may be three or four sexes.  There may be a totally different manner of procreation.

I have to know the conflict of the plot line too, of course. So for me, the language would come last.  And frankly, to keep readers from getting lost, I’d use English in different ways, with different syntax, rather than create a language.  Remember the Jedi warrior, the little green guy? “Lost to you, Luke Skywalker, is hope.” English with different organization of phrases and words is more effective offtimes, than starting from scratch.

But then, in my fantasy worlds, I always just used an alternate reality earth, which makes it so much easier. Lazy? Probably.  How about you guys? Have you tried the new language thing? How did it work? Faith Hunter   


14 comments to Fantasy Language

  • Todd Massey

    Introducing new language into a novel is a tricky line to walk.

    It can easily make or break a story. Too much and it bogs a story down by making the reader work too hard. Just the right mix and it can help transport you deeper into the world.

    Some invented words can crossover into the real world and end up embedded in our culture.

    Of course it isn’t just fantasy that can benefit or suffer from invented words, science fiction is another realm that often has to use invented words.

    When an author reaches into the future you can get a few subtle words that help to transport you like “Robotics” (courtesy of Isaac Asimov). This simple word did not exist in our world before he invented it for his Robot short stories yet it clearly conveyed its own idea and did not halt the reader or break him out of the story.

    Love it or hate it “A Clockwork Orange” is one of those novels that both works and does not work. It is so saturated with a “foreign” future language that many people are bogged down and turned off by it.

    But the following phrase is actually pretty clear even though most of the important words are “foreign” – “to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood.”

    If you happen to have been fluent in Russian you might have picked up on some of the words Anthony Burgess “invented” since many of them came from Slavic speak although slightly altered.

    While the book can be hard to read he wanted to convey what actually happens to our language as time passes, plus these were young street thugs that speak their own language anyway.

    I think new languages/words are important for F&SF works to help set them apart and fully envelop the reader in another world. It is up to the writer to masterfully and slowly drip the words into the readers brain so that learning the new language is a natural learning progression within the confines of the story.

  • I tried creating a new language for my first series and just sucked at it. What I came up with was totally random — based pretty much on what sounded good, as opposed to what made sense. I don’t have a linguistics background and I really needed one to do what I was trying to do.

    I agree with you that the best way to make the language of a book feel different — to have it reinforce the worldbuilding — without becoming something overly complicated and forced, is to find creative uses of the English language. That’s how I tried to handle it in the Forelands books and now in the Southlands trilogy. The way people speak is informed by the way they live; the way they conceive of their world, the imagery they draw upon when talking or thinking about their lives comes from the realities that surround them. Climate, the imperatives of finding food and water and shelter, whether they are at war or living in peace: all of these things shape the way they communicate.

  • I’ve never created a whole language for a book, and honestly, the very idea makes my poor head spin wildly on my neck! When writers use created languages, it seems to work most comfortably when the words are used in clear context, so I can make a good guess as to the meaning.

    I’m introducing a race of people different from the Islanders, who speak their own language. But instead of creating a completely new tongue, I’m using Turkish words changed slightly. Makes them sound different from Kestrel and her people, without the hassle of creating a whole new language. And since I have the luxury of a real Turkish speaker, I can make sure I’m not doing something that’ll be misconstrued. 😀

  • David, don’t you also find that a language needs to reflect the stress levels of the peoples? I’m no linguist, either, but when I hear people from a laid back island world speak, the tones and rhythms are totally different from a more urban society’s vocalizations.

    That idea of having a foreign language speaker around, and then changing the language slightly, makes sense, Misty. Unfortuntely, I only speak Southern… *grins* And I know no one well enough to call them at odd hours and ask such questions….

    But it’s a good idea and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for someone stupid enou–ah–kind enough to help out.

  • “And I know no one well enough to call them at odd hours and ask such questions….”

    I can’t guarantee an answer at odd hours, but feel free to call me, and give me a chance to actually USE my bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages. *grin* And if I can’t answer, maybe I can hook you up with someone who can….

  • Isn’t this great!
    I love you guys!

  • Faith, yes, absolutely. People in crisis speak differently from those in, say, a jacuzzi. Okay, that’s a joke, but I do agree with you. As the pace of our world increases, our speech patterns change. They become more clipped, almost staccato. Is that the kind of thing you mean?

  • Yes, exactlly!
    Also, the gutteral, harsh voice sounds of martial peoples versus the liquid language sounds of Island folk. I have met some paddlers, and they are all, *Hey, man, it’s cool, you know…*

  • God, I was busy with what not and couldn’t comment right away on this. I’m curious how, even if you create a language (a task I want to do for one of my worlds) can be used. I mean since the book is written in English, how can you apply a new language?
    Any ideas?

  • Harry, all the mscpt is in English, yes, but you can add flavor of a new language in several ways:
    1. syntax as mentioned earlier.
    2. basic words inserted in text where the reader has no doubt what they mean.
    3. basic words inserted in text with explainations following the first time you use the word and any time there has been a lot of mscpt text between usage.
    4. basic words inserted with glossary at front or back.

    However, one still has to be very careful with this not to overdo and confuse the reader. One of the very best usage of created languages is Star Trek. It is well done and easy to follow. And very *humanized* to make them understandable.

  • Thank you Faith! I will keep those in mind. The only work of fiction I have encountered that uses language as a world building tool is Tolkien and man he knew how to work it.

  • My methods for creating languages depend on whether I’m using the Roman alphabet or not. In Blade (a language in my current book), it’s made out of symbols, so I put in a different symbol for every word. In Blade, most symbols are comprised of straight lines and dots.

    In the other languages, they both use the Roman alphabet, so that is much easier.

    For example, in my “elfin tongue” (I haven’t come up with a name for it yet), many words are formed in three ways. I either reverse the English word and change/add/remove letters, use a Latin derivation, or take a synonym of the English and add/remove/change letters.

    For example, I got the name “Mount Tulemiph” from a) reversing “pinefoot” (there’s a pine forest at the bottom), b) changing the “oo” to a “u”, adding an h, and making the l a p.

    I formed the phrase “non clam” (“be quiet!”) from the Latin “clamat”, meaning “shout”, and the Latin “non”, meaning not. So “non clam” actually means “don’t shout”.

    Finally, I got the word “prepas” (“ready”) from the English word “prepared”.

    So, in answer to your question, yes I have tried to make a fantasy language. And as for working– I don’t know yet.

    P.S. If you want to check out the first chapter of my book, click on my name. The story is under “The Opal-Encrusted Blade.”

  • Mike

    I think a more infusing use of another language is to create the feel of real different countries, it doesn’t really have to be a massively in depth language with local changes in dialect, emotional changes, environmental changes etc etc just something that shows the reader that there is a difference between these two peoples, for instance maybe putting in a word or two or maybe a phrase that is obvious to the general meaning yet shows the difference in speaking, and leaving the rest in English. Somebody mentioned Tolkien so I will use his works to sort of illustrate what I mean, Legolas spoke elvish and it is assumed that elves speak elvish to each other, yet only at certain points did he ever speak it, the bulk of his dialect is in English, or the language of men.
    I don’t know if this is helpful at all, it is just a thought I had.

  • Linnea & Sussa

    We think that latin should be more used! Could it be more ancient than lain? No one is inovative today, alla are inspired of celtic, gaelic and nordic mythology. Why is that? Use more latin please! Best wishes from Sweden and two latinlovers! Thanks for a good article.