A Beginner’s Guide to Fictional Languages

Experimentation is a key part of writing and world building. It’s always good to try doing something new to grow as a writer. In this case, I decided to try creating a fictional language. This is vastly more complicated then I thought it would be.

“But surely,” some of you might say, “it just involves you making up a bunch of words, right?”

And it is, in part. But those words have rules. So, here is what I’ve learned about making up languages so far.

1)      Grammatical Structure is Important—You can’t just make up words and string them together without some form of organization. Creating grammar rules helps keep the sentences of your fictional language consistent and can even change the meanings of certain words in certain contexts. As a beginner, it would be advisable to go with a grammatical system you’re familiar with. In my case, I’m using English.

2)      Consider Suffixes, Plurals, and Contractions—Continuing from the English grammar structure, I had to look at what suffixes I wanted to add to my words to change their tense, or indicate more than one. For example –s is usually plural, while –ed is usually past tense. As a rule, suffixes should be short and easily tacked on to the ends of words. (I recommend printing out a small list as reference, and adding your own suffixes to the ends, so you remember what they mean). If your language uses contractions, you need to figure out hoe those work as well—I chose not to have contractions in my fictional language, due to some laziness on my part.

3)      Pronouns are a Good Start—Once you’re ready to start assembling words, pronouns are a good place to start. “I,” “Me,” “He,” “She,” “They,” We,” and the like are frequently used in our speech. But you will need to ask some questions. Are there gendered pronouns in this culture, or is the language ungendered? Does your language have ways of addressing how many people are in groups of “they”? For my language, I created three pronouns: male, female, non-gendered. Each pronoun has one way of saying something to indicate gender along, and then two more pronouns that indicate the age of the person being addressed (ie, one pronoun indicates the person being talked about is older than the speaker, while another indicates them being younger).

4)      Then Move on to the Foundations—By foundations, I mean the words that make their way into every sentence. “The,” “And,” “But,” “That,” “Of,” and all those other words are the building blocks of language and grammar. Make as long a list as you can and fill it in. If you’re trying to write a sentence and realize you don’t have a word for, say, “those,” then you can add that to the list. Between these words and your pronouns, you’ll be surprised at how many simple sentence you can make.

5)      Add More Words—Make a list to build from there. Words like “Name,” “Language,” “Food,” “Hungry,” “Tired,” any curses you might want. Find words to make more complex sentences. Just like with the foundations, if there’s a word you miss in your initial list, it’s never too late to add. Create a numerical system while you’re at it.

6)      But Make Your Words Look Like Words!—Yes, a lot of this will just be slapping a random assortment of letters together to create something new, but you need to say the word. Spell it out. Try it in a sentence. It’s easy to throw random gibberish onto a page, it’s quite another thing to see it spelt out, or hear it spoken aloud.

7)      Consider the Culture of the People Using this Language—The metaphors and even some word usage will vary depending on the culture of your fictional people. Are they from a culture that’s heavily influence by the sea and fishing? Then their metaphors or some casual phrases might show this. Do they have more than one word for an abstract concept? Some cultures have multiple words for “love” depending on what type of love it is. How do they insult each other? How is cursing done? Are there certain levels of politeness? Do different classes have different terminology?

8)      Know How to Pronounce Your Language—You’ll look pretty foolish if you slap these words onto a page, but then say you don’t know how to pronounce them when asked. As I said previously, this will also help you when making up your fictional words.

9)      In Addition, Prepare a Pronunciation Guide—This will help with the more complicated words, but it’s also good to consider if your language maybe has different sounds, or is lacking sounds. For example, if the language I’m working on, they don’t have the  “J” sound, instead pronouncing it as a “Y.” This has changed the name of a character, especially, for while his name is spelt Jude, in his own tongue it’d be pronounced like “You’d.” Doing this can also help you determine how a character’s accent might sound when speaking the “Common Tongue.”

These are just a few points I’ve discovered so far. Language is a very intricate beast. We may have to revisit it again someday.

Categories: On Writing | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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