WORLDBUILDING: LANGUAGE CREATION FOR BEGINNERS

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Submitted Date 12/06/2018
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Worldbuilding: Language Creation for Beginners

How to Craft a Realistic and Useable Language with Vicious Efficiency

 

Language is central to any culture. It gives insightful glimpses into what that culture values, how its society functions, and even how the people think, to some degree. It gives meaning to the sound of each culture. And yet, many worldbuilders overlook language for any number of reasons. Maybe you don’t know anything about linguistics, and doubt that you could create something beliveable in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe you aren’t interested in using any untranslated foreign phrases in dialogue. The truth is, whether you want it or not, language is an intrinsic part of the culture you are creating. To lend your world beliveable depth, having a language or two of your own is unbeatable. Just ask Professor Tolkien.

Speaking of Tolkien, I feel obligated to say that he would probably hate the method I am about to offer, so please don’t tell him about it. He is still the paragon of linguistic prowess in the world of fantasy writing. We are humble imitators. Now, let’s get down to business.

The easiest way to explain language creation is to show you. You can knock out a language in an afternoon, even without having the culture created beforehand. In fact, I would argue that through language creation you will get to know your culture better than you had already. Lastly, this is an extremely subjective process, so don’t get too hung up on the details. It’s easy to change later, I promise.

Today we will be creating a language for a race of nymphs. I am not using them in any books currently, and it seems pretty random and straightforward.

 

Step 1: Identify Major Descriptors

How would you describe your creature culture in three words? Nymphs put me in mind of dancing, emotion, and nature. Are there sounds that you associate with your culture?

I think I will focus on nice, smooth, rounded noises – nothing sharp like a “ck” sound. Another example could be my version of a draconic language. I focused on sounds that put me in mind of serpents, and used letters like s, z, and y quite a lot.

 

Step 2: Choose Your Alphabet

I typically work from the standard English alphabet, and then take out letters that I feel aren’t in keeping with the sounds I imagine for my culture (like I said – very subjective). It is important that you take out at least one vowel and one or two consonants, or else this system won’t work very well. It won’t fail entirely, but it won’t be quite as unique. Also, feel free to add letters or letter combinations that exist outside of English.

So our nymph language will use the following alphabet: A, B, D, F, G, H, J, L, M, N, O, R, S, U, W, Y.

 

Step 3: Choose Your Base Language

This is the part that is kind of like cheating, and what helps speed up our process. Choose a language that you feel is a good fit, or that you have some familiarity with (not a requirement!) to use as a basis for your vocabulary. Often I use Latin because I have studied it the most and can use it easily, but in this case I think it has too strong of a rhythm for our emotive nymphs. French would sound a little too airy for creatures so tied to the earth. German is too harsh, and uses too many of the letters we vetoed.

I’ll go with Spanish because I know that pretty well, and it has a smoother sound, while still feeling grounded.

 

Step 4: Write Your Rules of Speech

This is probably the trickiest and most time-consuming part of the process. Once it’s finished, though, your language is basically ready to go. Decide on what parts of speech you want on hand, and create the ending schemes and sentence structures. If you have studied a language ever, that will come in handy right about now. Since this is pretty complicated, I will break it down into smaller chunks.

First, how do you want your sentences to flow? In English, we have a subject-verb-object order as our base, and embellish from there with participial phrases and whatnot.

     The girl (subject) has (verb) a doll (direct object).

     They (subject) gave (verb) the girl (indirect object) a doll (direct object).

In Latin, sentences tend to sound more like Yoda:

     The girl (subject) a doll (direct object) has (verb).

     They (subject) to the girl (indirect object) a doll (direct object) gave (verb).

To me, the latter (subject-object-verb) construction feels a bit more formal. You could argue either way, but that’s just the impression it leaves me. I use it often, but this time let’s keep it chill and go with the standard subject-verb-object.

Next, lay out your noun declensions and verb conjugations and tenses. You have a few decisions to make here, and you can and should let your culture’s preferences come into play here.

Are your nouns gendered? English nouns are not, to my knowledge, but many languages include gender to differentiate nouns. This has the potential to add a history or gender statement to your culture. Maybe all proper nouns are female because women are in charge or are perceived as having more power and influence. Maybe all nouns for job positions are male because you have a society where women are not permitted to work. Maybe all nouns for children are neutral until they come of age. Honestly, go crazy here and really make it your own.

Though I realize this provides a poor example, I think that to be true to my nymph society my nouns will not be gendered. All nymphs are female in my crazy culture.

What cases and pluralities are you using? If you decided to go with the subject-verb-object route you will need fewer, but can use as many as you want. Since I am familiar with Latin, I tend to default to the cases used in it (Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Ablative). If you’re feeling fancy you can throw the vocative in there, too. I will explain those in a minute. Languages need cases when they have no articles (a, the), and when they frequently change the arrangement of words in a sentence.

How does your language deal with the plural? Do you simply have singular and plural? Or maybe you have a special way of indicating the number three (or five, or seven, or whatever)? Nymph language will have the standard singular and plural only. Now, about the Latin cases (n.b. Classicists – this is super over-simplified to try to get us there quickly. If you want more details a Google search will take you the rest of the way):

Nominative denotes a subject or subject complement.

Genitive is most easily translated to mean “of” whenever that might be used in English. Possession, quantity, etc.

Dative denotes an indirect object – to/for whom. In the example below, the girl is receiving the action. 

Accusative denotes the direct object, or the thing being transferred through an action. It is commonly used as the ending for prepositional objects dealing with action and movement.

Toward (preposition) the door (accusative prepositional object).

Ablative is the trickiest. It’s a bit of a catch-all and is often used in place of from, with, and by. It is also used for prepositional objects, but usually when they are stationary or more intangible.

They (nominative subject) gave (verb) the girl (dative indirect object) a doll (accusative direct object) of silk (genitive) with love (ablative, possibly as prepositional phrase).

If you want more detailed information on cases and their uses, any university’s Department of Classical Studies webpage should get you where you need to go. For our purposes, the above will suffice.

For our nymph language, let’s set the following parameters for nouns: We will use only one gender. We will use the English subject-verb-object construction. We will not have articles, but we will also not worry about prepositional objects. For our purposes, we will use cases for subjects (nominative), objects (dative and accusative), and possession (genitive). We will not use the ablative at all, and will only use accusative as it pertains to direct objects. All prepositions will be tied to their objects and clearly separated from the rest of the sentence.

So here are our noun endings (using only A, B, D, F, G, H, J, L, M, N, O, R, S, U, W, Y):

                        Singular           Plural

Nominative     -ha                   -hab                

Genitive          -yr                    -yl                   

Dative             -ym                  -umy               

Accusative      -yd                   -yda

            *This is a good place to note that your declensions don’t have to be endings. You could put them on the front, or even in the middle of, words instead!

            **You can have more than one declension! It will add even more dimension to your language, but isn’t strictly necessary. If you decide you need another one later, it’s not hard to come back to it.

What verb tenses are you using? Let’s brush up before we discuss.

Present: The girl has a doll.

Past: The girl had a doll.

Future: The girl will have a doll.

These are the basics. Where you go from here is up to you. Does your culture not believe in dwelling on the past? Maybe they refuse to acknowledge it as a way of expression and don’t use the past tense ever. In Latin (and many other languages), there are a host of other verb tenses that help convey the concepts of possibility and uncertainty, as well as repeated actions and more complex future constructions. I am not going to cover all of these in this post, otherwise we’d be here all day. You can start by prepping just the main ones or just the ones you think you’ll need. Be as discerning as you’d like – it’s your language! Here are a few that can be useful to consider early on in the process:

Subjunctive: expresses possibility or doubt. Used where the English may is appropriate.

She may have a doll. (Present Subjunctive) / She might have had a doll. (Past Subjunctive)

Passive: expresses a lack of control on the part of the subject. The action is being done to the subject, but without the subject becoming an object. It often involves the verb to be as a helper.

She was given a doll. (Present Passive) / She had been given a doll.  (Past Passive) / She will be given a doll. (Future Passive)

Infinitive: the unconjugated state of a verb. Usually begins with "to".

She wants to have a doll.

Since we are doing a quick and easy language creation today, I am going to just stick to the basics. But you can easily build on what I’m doing here with whatever time and knowledge you have. Think of this as the starting point.

Our nymph language will have the three main tenses prepared. We will devise anything else on an as-needed basis. We will also ignore the second person plural form, since nymphs don’t say “ya’ll.”

Present Active Indicative

                                    Singular           Plural

First Person                 -un (I am)                    -una (we are)                          

Second Person            -us (you are)               

Third Person                -al (he/she/it is)            -aly (they are)

Past Active Indicative

                                    Singular                       Plural

First Person                 -arun (I was)                -aruna (we were)                                

Second Person            -arus (you were)                     

Third Person                -aral (he/she/it was)     -araly (they were)

Future Active Indicative

                                    Singular                                   Plural

First Person                 -yrun (I will be)                       -yruna (we will be)                             

Second Person            -yrus (you will be)                  

Third Person                -yral (he/she/it will be)            -yraly (they will be)

*Please notice that I simply added a syllable at the beginning of the Present Active Endings to create differentiation with the other two conjugations. This is pretty typical from what I have seen linguistically, so it’s not cheating at all, and it really does simplify the process.

 

Step 5: Put it All Together

So, we now have a way to express the basic elements of speech, and a ready-to-use language (Spanish, in our case) to help supply vocabulary. Anything else we might need (participles, adverbs, prepositions, other verb declensions), we can create as we go. I tend to treat adjectives the same as the noun they describe, for simplicity. You can also use the genitive sometimes.

If you aren’t planning to use the language in dialogue, it will help with meaningful name creation for people, places, and things (like magic items!). Let’s translate Light of the Forest into a cool nymph name in their own language.

First, we need to take the words in Spanish and make sure they only use letters in our nymph alphabet. Remember, we are using A, B, D, F, G, H, J, L, M, N, O, R, S, U, W,  and Y.

Light = Luz

Forest = Bosque / Selva

I have decided to use “m” in place of “z” in any words. Though I think bosque is a closer meaning to what I want, the sound of selva is more like what I’m hoping for. I will use “w” in place of “v” in any words, and “a” in place of “e”. Therefore, we have:

Light = Lum

Forest = Salwa

BUT! Don’t forget these are not declined. Therefore, to have it actually mean "Light of the Forest", we must use the nominative singular ending with the word "Light", and the genitive singular with "Forest". Ergo:

Light of the Forest = Lumha Salwayr

BUT! That’s really hard to say based on sight. Not kind to readers. Contractions happen in every language, so using them in yours is completely OK. Which leaves us with:

Luma Salwyr

It makes sense to me that the “h” would be deemed unnecessary, and the “a” would be dropped in favor of the grammatical ending.

Finally, if we want this to be a nymph’s first name only, we can further contract the words (like happens with actual naming all the time), giving us a few options: Lumasal, Lumalwyr, Lumaswyr, Lasalwyr. You get the idea. And I promise, the more words you look up, the quicker this will go. Let’s write a full sentence together just for fun!

Lumaswyr loves the hot springs. (Who doesn’t?!)

Would be:

Lumaswyra (nominative singular noun) amal (Spanish amar “to love” conjugated to present active third person singular) aguamy darmalumy (Spanish aguas termales “hot springs” converted to aguas darmalas and declined to the dative plural for both the noun and its adjective).

So, “Lumaswyr loves the hot springs” would be Lumaswyra amal aguamy darmalumy. And no one would have any clue that you used Spanish (or any other language) to get there.

 

*When you use Google Translate (because, let’s be real here, guys), make sure the word Google gives you is the correct part of speech. I know that “light” is luz  in Spanish. But, when you translate "light" from English you get "ligero" in Spanish. When you pull down the list of all results, the first one is the correct one – the noun for “light”. Ligero does not even appear anywhere on the list that comes up, because ligero is an adjective. Be sure to check!

 

And that’s really all you need to have a language that you can pull from throughout all of your writing in your world. It will give everything a deeper feeling of authenticity, and you can feel crazy awesome that all of your names make sense in the context of the setting you created. Plus, if you’re a language nerd like me, it’s a ton of fun! I hope this helps!

 

 

           

 

Comments

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  • tmarion 2 months, 1 week ago

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Adam 2 months, 1 week ago

    As a guy who loves grammar and usage, this is a really great piece. I especially like the concept of setting up rules for speech patterns and language. A lot of Fantasy writers take this concept for granted. In addition, so many fantasy novels are (must be - word count wise) longer because of scene building - I’m thinking R.A. Salvatore, and King’s, The Stand. However, when I read their works, I note and learn from them that even though the word count is much higher, there is still very little wasted language, very deliberate. I’d love to see a piece on scene building, as I am always learning the craft. Again, really well done.

    • Elizabeth Johnston 2 months, 1 week ago

      Thanks, Adam! I completely agree. Something else I noticed is that all of the worlds that I find immersive have created languages - Tolkien, Elizabeth Haydon, etc. Though I feel qualified to write on a variety creative topics, I myself am still a student of scene building. If you find that article, let me know!

  • Andrea Hope 2 months ago

    I love the idea of the language actually teaching you about the culture you've created. It's a great reflection of culture to think about not only what characters say but how and when they speak.

  • Bjorn 2 months ago

    Thank you for creating this. It is complex for me, but I liked it a lot.

    • Elizabeth Johnston 1 month, 3 weeks ago

      Hi, Bjorn! Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It does get a bit nitty gritty right in the middle, but I hope it was still helpful for you. If you'd like to see any kind of follow-up article, I'd love any suggestions.