WAW: Made-up languages

Writing About Writing: A once-a-week post about some aspect of writing. I’m not an expert; I’m just some guy. Take it with a grain of salt.


I like languages. Mostly, I like figuring out how they work, as though I’m taking apart a clock to watch the gears move.

But languages aren’t for everyone. Making up a language for a secondary world sounds at the outset like an overwhelming task.

Made-up languages in books

So why invent one for your made-up world? Because it adds so much:

  • History: Languages don’t spring out of a vacuum. They come from history and culture and usually illuminate what a nation or people values.
  • Names: Made-up names that follow the “rules” of made-up languages have an authenticity that you don’t get by smashing your forehead on the keyboard.
  • Scope: Your world isn’t real, but for some reason they all speak English. It’s a thing most people will overlook, but languages add depth and scope and realism.

It’s too much work

But it doesn’t have to be.

In the Malazan books, Steven Erikson suggests the languages people are using, but he’s not Tolkien. And readers don’t want him to be. The mere fact that he has a word for “seller of goat meat” makes us all believe that language. He sells us by putting words in the text in context and giving us a short glossary in the back of the book for those who are really curious.

 

Three short steps to creating a workable language

  1. Figure out what the language sounds like. Spanish? Japanese? Quenya?
  2. Figure out which sounds it contains and write them down in a list.
  3. Figure out if it has any quirks: Last names are their jobs. City names are colors. Gods are written in all caps.

Now you have a frame. And that’s good enough. Build from the frame. Name your characters from the frame. Give us a couple relevant, in-context phrases from the frame (like “seller of goat meat”).

And then let it go

Too many made-up words will make people’s eyes glaze over. But just a sprinkling of made-up words that appear consistent with characters’ names and are in context will add another dimension to your world that helps immerse readers. And if you just do the three things I listed above, that’s probably enough. Do it two or three times for your world if you want to get really fancy, but even that should take…an hour? Two? Certainly a small enough chunk of time, in the scope of writing a novel, to be worth your while.

Resources

  • Conlangs: A subreddit for people obsessed with making up languages
  • Fake languages you can actually learn: Some are silly, but there are things worth learning in here
  • Keyboard for weird characters: Sounds and symbols not found on English keyboards
  • IPA: The International Phonetic Alphabet. This can look overwhelming, but it’s a good place to “find” sounds you might not think of as a native English speaker
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