If you’re writing in fantasy/SciFi, you’re probably doing some world building. I’m going to stick with the fantasy example because that’s what I write, but this post can apply to other genre fiction as well. We’re going to cover some really basic ideas, thoughts, and principles when building languages and why.
In fantasy, I think the world and setting is one of the most integral parts of the story. This sounds really obvious, but it’s less obvious than you might think. The story and characters are the most important part because that is what makes people interested and care. But the world (in my opinion) is the second most important because the world provides the context for the story and it’s what separates fantasy from historical fiction or fiction that takes place in the real world.
In a lot of fantasy writing, language is often overlooked or all out ignored. I did a post about some things to keep in mind about language when writing fantasy and some of the points are relevant to this one.
Here are some points from that post to keep in mind that are relevant here:
- Language is your friend. Language is a tool.
- Your characters aren’t speaking English (or whatever language you’re writing in).
- Language is not set in stone. It’s fluid and changes.
With that, let’s get to it.
Don’t ignore language.
It can be intimidating. “I have to build a WHOLE LANGUAGE for this story!?” No, you don’t. You don’t have to be Tolkien. You don’t have to be a linguist to do it.
But then why should it matter? Think of how important language is in your life. You use it to communicate, you use it in different ways every day, you use it to get information or entertainment, etc. Most importantly, (as I learned from a linguistics professor I had) you use it for cognition. You think in language. In some ways, language helps construct how we view, feel, and understand the world we live in.
Same goes for your characters. This is the language your characters talk and think in. You don’t have to get super detailed, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Language also reflects history. I’ll keep this to English because that’s what I’m writing this post in, but please know that “English” can be substituted for any language you speak and write in. Looking at English words, it’s all over the place. There’s Greek, Latin, French, German, and a bunch of other stuff that got mixed together (also depends on the English speaking country/region) to form this mess.
By understanding this, we can see relatives of the English language, we can see who conquered what place, we can see how it morphs and evolves depending on where it is spoken. This is an incredibly useful tool when you’re world building, especially in regards to history and lore in your world.
So don’t ignore language because it’s hard. Embrace it because its a really informative and useful tool in your world, no matter what “real world” language you’re writing in.
Start with sound.
This isn’t so much how language evolves naturally (this can be argued) but it is valuable when deciding what language you’re building.
How do you want your language to sound? Do you want it to flow really well or is it more “rocky” and constant heavy? Which sounds do you want to use? Is the “R” sound trilled? Is it a heavy “R” sound? And so on.
For example, the singer/songwriter Enya and the lyricist Roma Ryan created a language called Loxian (that Enya sings in often.) This language is based on water so it sounds like water. It flows and it’s smooth.
So don’t focus on words and grammar structures. Unless your language has no sound (Such as American Sign Language, where it’s visual), then focus on sound. Put sounds together until it sounds right and go from there.
When we’re young children learning language through immersion, in almost every case, we all start with learning and repeating nouns. They’re the easiest thing to learn because we can physically interact with them. That’s part of why most babies’ first words are either words for “mom” or “dad” because this who/what they interact with the most.
That’s why young toddlers will speaking almost all in nouns for a period of time. “Mama! Kitty! Toy! Book! No!” and so on. They don’t yet know how to express “Mom, I would like you to read me a book please.” or “That cat is very cute.” so they speak in nouns to tell their caregivers what they want and need.
So when you’re building your language, start with the nouns. It’s the easiest place to start.
There’s one other important aspect on nouns that you should keep in mind when building your language. In your world, you’re not just building a language, you’re building a culture. Culture and language are intertwined and this will have an impact on the nouns your culture has.
In English we have dozens of words for “Horse”. These words describe different kinds of horses and differentiate between types of horse that aren’t just breeds: “Stallion”, “gelding”, “mare”, “foal”, “colt”, “mustang”, steed” (check your local thesaurus for more), as some examples.
On the flip-side of this, English only has one word for “camel” (other than scientific names). This is because camels weren’t/aren’t native to places where English originated.
Why is this interesting and important? Because the amount of different nouns a language has to describe one thing (like “horse”) tells you how important that thing is to that culture (and horses have historical importance). It tells you what was there where that language originated.
So let’s say your character goes to a desert country for some reason, and they don’t know the language, nor have they ever seen this place. When they see a cactus, they aren’t going to know what that is. They will see it, they may interact with it in someway, but they aren’t going to have a word for it. They’ll describe it as “Weird prickly tree” or something until they learn the word for that plant. That plant wasn’t important to their culture. They don’t know the varieties or how that plant is used by humans who live there.
A real world example: I’m from a maritime culture. Maritime cultures have a lot of words that reflect that lifestyle. For example, someone can tell me “She’s yardarm under” and I know that means. Someone who doesn’t have that knowledge might not. Also different types of maritime vessels have specific names as just “boat” or “ship” is far too general for maritime cultures.
After children get a grasp on nouns and what they are (people, places, and things) they’ll start to learn how to describe what those nouns are actually doing. This is where verbs come in.
So instead of say “Toy!” they’ll move into “I want toy!” or “Want toy!” instead of just “Dog!” they’ll say “Dog bark!” or “Dog run!”
This is why you should do verbs after nouns. Nouns are the things, verbs tell you what those things are doing.
Now this is where conjugating becomes more important when describing language. In English, the infinitive verb “To be” is conjugated different ways depending on what we’re talking about: “I am, you are, He/she/it is, we are, they are.” and so on. Other languages do this as well, but some don’t.
In Mandarin Chinese (which I studied a little bit, but am not an expert in) the verbs don’t conjugate into different words. So instead of saying “I am 102 years old.” it would translate (literally) as “I be/is 102 years old.” The same goes for any variation or sentence.
The English infinitive “to be” also changes depending on the time the noun is doing that thing. “I am running” in the past tense becomes “I was running” (or get rid of the “be” altogether and have “I ran”.)
In Chinese, the tense doesn’t change with the verbs either. You just add the time that the noun was verbing. “I ran/I was running” roughly translates as “I be run yesterday.”
So think of how your verbs conjugate. They don’t even have to conjugate at all. But think of how you want this to work.
Grammar Structure and sentences.
This isn’t universal to all languages, but most languages follow a grammar structure that in its simplest form is: Subjects, verbs, and objects. These can be in any order, but if you’re building a language, you need to define how they’re used and how the sentences’ meanings change based on what order these things are in.
Quick rundown (again, in it’s simplest form)**:
- Subject: What I’m describing in the sentence. I am giving you information on what the subject is doing: “I like cake.” means “I” am the subject, the main character in the sentence.
- Object: To what/or whom the subject is verbing. in “I like cake.”, “cake” is the object, since it is the one thing I am doing the verb to/on, etc.
- Verb: Tells you what the subject is doing to the object. In the “I like cake” example, the subject (“I”) is verbing (“like”) to the object (“cake”).
**Now English does switch it up a lot, yet English speakers still understand it and as long as others understand it, then it is valid. For example: “With this ring, I thee wed.” deviates from the standard SVO form. Yet, if you are an English speaker, you probably understood exactly what I meant without a second thought. For the sake of simplicity however (since this isn’t an essay on how weird English is) we’re gonna stick with it’s simplest form in order to help you construct your language.
Like I said, the combination of these and what the mean varies by language. English is very SVO (subject, verb, object), but other languages switch it up and use different combinations to mean different things.
In “Yoda speak” (I’ve never seen Star Wars, so bear with me) the SVO form is changed. “I like cake” becomes “Cake I like”. The object moves to the front of the sentence. I’m still liking cake so the meaning doesn’t change, just the order of the words. “I” is still the subject, and “cake” is still the object.
In English, generally, if the verb moves in front of the subject, the sentence becomes a question. “You are there.” is a statement. “Are you there?” is a question. The words used didn’t change, the subject is still the subject and so on. The only thing that changed was the verb’s position in the sentence. The roles stayed the same.
In Chinese, the word orders don’t change this way. In order to make a sentence a question you add a sound/character at the end of the sentence. This sound/character is a tonal variation of the (romanized here) “ma” sound.
So when you’re constructing your language, think of the position of subjects, objects, and verbs. Think of how questions are constructed. It can be as complicated or simple as you want, but there needs to be some basic rules (even if they’re broken all the time, looking at you, English.)
Sound, meaning, and grammar.
Sound also matters in grammar. In English, often times an upward inflection at the end of a sentence denotes a question. For example is I ask you “Good?”, you nod, and I say “Good.” I’m likely to say those differently so you understand the first is me asking a question. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but all the same, it’s an example of how English speakers often communicate.
One thing that doesn’t exist in English, but does in languages like Chinese is tonal meaning. In a tonal language there could be a number of sounds that mean completely different words (and have different characters) depending on the tone. A romanized example is “ma”. Depending on the tone it can mean “Horse” or it can be the word you put at the end of a sentence to make a question. When I learned Chinese this was incredibly difficult to learn because no language I had previously studied did this and it was unfamiliar, but it is completely natural to native speakers.
Even in English sound can have an impact on the meaning of words. We’ll take homophones (words that sound the same, but mean different things or are spelled differently) as a (wonky) example.
There’s a difference between: “I led the group.” and “I ate lead paint.” English speakers can pick this up very easily and the context provided helps, but still sound and context have an impact on the meaning.
In English, this has a lot to do with similar sounding words have completely different linguistic roots, so it gets kinda funky.
So think of how this may play role in your language.
This is later in the post for a reason: Writing is not language. Language is what is spoken (I’m including non-vocal languages such as American Sign Language when I say “spoken” as well). The written system (letters/characters, spelling, punctuation, etc.) Writing is a tool of language. It’s a way of communicating language, but all it is is a visual representation of what is spoken (i.e. the actual language). It’s arguably an important tool, but it is not the actual language.
Take a painting for example. If I show you a neat painting of a tree, you know that what is pictured is not the actual tree, but a visual representation of that tree.
Language always predates writing. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of languages spoken before writing was even invented. In the real world, writing always comes after the language. That’s why when new words are invented (we’ll use slang words like “bling” for example), the spelling and dictionary entries of the word come after the word is spoken, not the other way around. There are languages that are alive even now that have no writing systems.
However, inventing language is different. Does your made up language need a writing system like Tolkien? Not necessarily unless you’re including an appendix at the end of the book. However, constructing a writing system can tell you a lot about your language for your own purposes as the writer.
In English there are 26 letters that we are confined to using to visually represent all our words. They’re scribbles on paper, but when deciphered, we can translate them back into sound (just as you’re doing now by reading this!) These letters do different things depending on the word, where the word comes from, and how it’s used, but we’re still confined to those letters.
Other writing systems are pictographic (Chinese again) others use different things altogether. So in your writing system, think of what sound these characters translate into. Does each character represent only one sound? Are there characters that make a combination of sounds? Are they letters that when combined make words or are there symbols that represent entire words (Chinese)?
Your writing system should reflect the grammar of your spoken language. When I say “I like cake” vs. when I write “I like cake”, the sentence doesn’t change. It’s written how it was spoken. You probably can make a language that doesn’t reflect this, or does something entirely different, but if you want to keep it simple (and make more sense, probably) have the writing system be written how the language is spoken.
Location, location, location.
Location can matter when creating language and how its spoken. Not only for nouns, but for accents, dialects, and speed of speech.
I’m from a northern climate and have been told by southern friends that we talk really fast. The joke goes that because it’s cold and you want to communicate the information as fast as you can before you get too cold, and in the south you don’t want to do anything quickly because it’s too hot. This isn’t really factual, but hey, if it helps you construct your language and it’s various forms, go for it.
But location is important by other things. Rome’s empire expanded far and conquered all over the place (including the Catholic Church). This led to the Romance languages we see today (Spanish, French, etc.). English is not a romance language, even though it has Latin influences, because English came from the really old Germanic tongues.
Remember that when conquerers take over, they bring their culture with them. Not just their religions, dress, and all but also their languages. There are many Native American language with less than 10 speakers left because of the influence of English and cultural attitudes. People are working to help preserve these languages and keep them alive.
Different people in your world will speak different languages or with different accents and dialects of the same language depending on where they’re from. Ireland is heavily influenced by Gaelic, even if they’re speaking straight English. In the United States, different people speak differently depending on who conquered and settled where. New Orleans is heavily influenced by French, Minnesota by Scandinavian languages, and Wisconsin by German.
There are languages called pidgin languages (pronounced like “pigeon”). These are primarily trade languages where two unrelated languages collided but had to find ways to communicate for trade. In this way, depending on how isolated your culture is, your language will be influenced by these things based on its history and location.
So you need to consider your culture’s history and location when forming the language. Consider what they do, who conquered what/where, who they trade with and what they trade.
Dead languages vs. living languages.
Latin is a dead language. You can learn Latin, but it’s still dead. Dead doesn’t mean “unable to learn” it means there are no native speakers.
Klingon, although completely made up, is (believe it or not) a living language. Living language means there is at least one that speaks Klingon as their first and native language.
Can a dead language become a living one? Yes, it can. But it takes a lot of work and can take a few generations in order to solidify. An historical example of this is Hebrew. It was once a dead language, but now has many native speakers.
Languages die, just as empires fall. Again this is historically influenced. There are many “dying” languages, like some Native American ones. Cultural attitudes shift and the language becomes “bad” where in some cases, it’s looked down upon to speak that language as opposed to the “culturally acceptable” ones. Dead languages reflect history of the world, and it’s something to consider in your world.
It’s a common theme in fantasy that there are “old” languages that few people can read and decipher. Unless there are native speakers, these are dead languages.
Lost in translation.
There are many cases in real world languages of words and phrases that just don’t translate. The German “Schadenfreude” (meaning happiness at someone else’s pain/suffering) is one case. We don’t have a word for that specific meaning in English.
This can be minor (as the case above) or it can tell you a lot about that culture.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you might remember a scene with the Dothraki where Daenerys marries into the Dothraki culture. Her new husband gives her a gift and she asks her translator buddy how to say “Thank you” in Dothraki. The translator says there is no word meaning “Thank you”. We learn something here. We learn that this is a warrior culture that is tough and doesn’t express gratitude (at least through speech). It’s a small detail, but it can go a long way in telling cultures apart.
In the same way, Khal Drogo (the leader of a Dothraki “horde” as they’re called) doesn’t know what a “throne” is. They don’t have a word for it other than “chair”, but we know that a “throne” is drastically different than an ordinary “chair”.
So consider things in your world that may be lost in translation and how that impacts the world and its history. What does it tell the reader about these cultures?
Who speaks what language or languages?
Depending on what cultures are close to what other cultures, education of character, etc. The languages, or the amount of languages they speak will be different.
In the Southwest United States, many native English speakers can speak some Spanish because a lot of people from Mexico also live there and/or there is a lot interaction between this region and Mexico. In immigrant families across the world, many people speak one language at home and another language outside the home.
Until the 1940s, it was very common for people of Lutheran faith to speak German and hear church sermons in German in the U.S. Amish and Mennonite people today often speak a form of Dutch or German as well as English.
In the past (and even today) it was common for well educated and high status people to study Latin in school and use Latin in school.
So here are three different examples of language use: Proximity, religion, and education.
How does this apply to your made up language(s)? Cultures that are close to each other will probably need to communicate. It will be common for both cultures to have knowledge of each other’s languages or they will have a pidgin language that develops due to these interactions.
Is religion tied to language? We see this with Catholic christianity (Latin) and some protestant faiths (German). In other protestant faiths (Anglican/Episcopalian and Baptist) it’s English based. How old are these faiths and how do they influence language and culture?
Education is also a big one. Your uneducated peasant isn’t going to be bilingual unless they are from an immigrant household or they interact regularly with another language. The more educated characters will be more likely to study other languages, whether it be for social class reasons or practical political ones.
Different social classes may also speak completely different languages. Not just various dialects.
You also should consider where the dividing lines of languages are. In the real world, Spain is next to Portugal, but the languages spoken are different. There may be people who speak both and the languages could be similar in ways, but these are two distinct languages.
So think of how this applies to your world. Who speaks what languages, where, and why?
Language can create conflict.
Language is strongly tied to identity. Poland for example has seen a history of being taken over and experienced attempts to have their culture erased. As a result, culture and Polish identity is very dear to the Polish people.
In human history there are many cases where a conquerer came in, brought their language, and tried to erased the native language of the place they conquered. Language is so important to culture and identity that in modern times, attempts to erase a language is considered cultural genocide.
Don’t overlook this aspect. Language is a powerful tool when creating conflict among cultures and factions in your world.
The common tongue.
If you’re writing a world where two cultures who speak two languages interact, they’ll either be unable to communicate or you’ll need a “common tongue” which will in all likelihood be the language you’re writing in. This is fine and all, but remember that who speaks it matters.
People on the far side of the world who don’t interact with your culture at all will not know the common tongue. If they don’t have mass communication, they won’t speak the common tongue.
So you can have the common tongue, but use it in a way that makes sense and isn’t just convenient for you.
Do I need all of this detail?
Perhaps yes, perhaps not. It’s entirely up to you. I encourage you to explore language, however, as it’s often overlooked and is a very powerful tool.
You may use some of this advice, all of it, or none of it. You can still create compelling work no matter what. It entirely depends on your wants and needs as a creator of your work.
World building is fundamental to fantasy fiction and the more you know about the world, the more you develop your world, the better stories you’ll be able to write in that world as a result of this understanding. (Just be sure not to get caught in endless world building and not write actual stories. Stories and characters still trump the world, in my opinion.)
Your reader may not even have all this information. Think of it like an iceberg. The surface is what the reader gets/sees, but what’s under the surface (the larger part of the iceberg) is underneath the surface. What’s underneath the surface is what the writer has to know, above the surface is what the reader has to know.
Well that was long and exhaustive. Congrats if you made it through. There’s a lot more on languages I could cover, but here are some links to also serve to help you in your language building:
How English Sounds to Non-English Speakers (This is for fun.)
The International Phonetic Alphabet (helpful in constructing sounds.)
Language Tree (See how real world languages developed from each other.)