At some point when writing fantasy you’re going to encounter a world that needs its own language. Giving a name to a tongue is easy enough, as is differentiating when characters are speaking what and distinguishing dialects. But likely at some point you’re going to want to insert at least a handful of words somewhere. I’ve found often I want to add familial relationship tags to the end of sentences in my made up languages, so the first several words I develop are usually mother, father, brother and sister.
There are tricks to creating a language, and you don’t have to go as in-depth as Tolkien did when creating Elvish to still have a world enriched by multiple tongues. You also don’t have to be a linguistics student. Consider these:
- Don’t use random letters
Please just don’t. Your language needs to make at least a little sense, and literally have some rhyme and reason to it.
- Develop the mechanics of the language
Consider how you want to structure the language, and if you’re going to be using this language a lot, develop grammatical components like verb tenses and pluralization. For example, consider how you would write “I ran,” “I am running” and “I will run.” Of course looking to existing languages might be helpful in this, and you will likely only need a few examples, words or phrases for each structure you encounter.
- Decide how the words in this language will be pronounced
This is especially important for words that are going to be used multiple times. If you can, write them like they sound, and if that isn’t practical for your story then create a glossary in the back for reference. Remember that the words you create don’t have to be ultra-complex to lend the other-world feel you’re looking for. In fact, sometimes simpler, single-syllable words are better.
- Keep it consistent
If your language is going to be harsh and guttural, then consistently create words with few vowels; soft and flowing, maximize the vowels. Think about a language you hear on a regular basis that isn’t your own. Each one has a sound to it, doesn’t it? A handful of words or tones that distinguish it from something else. You want your characters to be able to do the same thing, and at some point, your readers as well.
- Develop an alphabet
This step might not be totally necessary depending on how much you’re going to use the language. Think seriously about how you want to break down the words – are you looking at English letters or something closer to the expansive number of Chinese characters, or perhaps two or three letter phrases? Keep your audience in mind here and use letters they’re going to feel somewhat familiar with for the languages they’re supposed to identify with, and letters more foreign for languages that are supposed to be exotic for them and your characters.
- Consider looking to ancient Greek or Latin
Especially if you want the language to stay close to home or have a historical feel. For instance, Mitera is Mother in Greek and in Latin it’s a phrase, Mater Matris. You can see the similarities between the two and from there it’s fairly straightforward to take the cores of these words and embellish them. Mamen, Mome, Meater, Meatera are just some of the ways you can use Greek and Latin as bases.
- Develop a cultural dictionary
Depending on your character’s social standing in the society that uses this fictional language of yours, you might find that you need to differentiate between proper words and cultural ones. You might find a small cultural dictionary useful especially if there are going to be characters questioning non-proper words. For example:
“Emuzka!” she hissed, ripping her hand from the furry animal’s teeth in a bloody gush, dancing back before it could snap at her again. Brax, standing off at a safe distance, laughed, all but pointing at her. She glowered over her shoulder at him, holding her wounded hand to her chest.
Grey was staring at her though, his brows drawn together, apparently unconcerned about the little beast in the trap barely a foot from him. “I don’t know that word.”
Ever the scholar, she mused wrly, nudging him back a couple of steps. “It’s not a word you would have learned in the temple,” she said in his tongue. “It means ‘shit’.”
- Write full sentences to test
I’ve found this to be particularly useful when your characters are going to be speaking your language frequently. String together enough to make a few test sentences like, “My name is Cian” and “I come from a land of great forest and red rocks.” Verbalize them as well, test how they look and sound.
There are a handful of other things you might encounter when writing or writing about your language. Consider also these:
- What’s the direction and orientation? Left to right, up to down and vise versa are all options.
- Consider any special punctuation.
- Is the language based on pictures?
- Will the letters be modified for cursive writing?
- Will the language have a gestural component, or be all signed?
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