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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Creating Languages for Peoples in Your Fiction

Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, authors must occasionally confront the problem that their alien species or secluded elven kingdom could not reasonably speak English, or its analog,  as their native language. If you’re not a linguist by profession or as an obsessive hobby, you face a huge challenge. Fortunately, with a few things in mind, you can manage something that sounds reasonable and realistic, and if you’re lucky, could become as adored as Robert Jordan’s Old Tongue, or even the lofty heights of Tolkien.

All languages possess characteristics that lend each the sound and nature of a unified, functional whole. Without this, if you randomly put sounds together and assign them meaning, your invented language would likely read as disjointed or specious, or when you later needed a new phrase, you’d struggle to figure out how to construct it or, at the least, could invent yourself into the nettles of poor planning. Much as plots and characters need consideration, planning, and intentionality, language cannot simply be vomiting syllables onto the page.

First, before you begin creating vocabulary, decided the major characteristics of your language.

1.      Is the language synthetic, where person, tense, number, grammatical place, and so forth are indicated in one word with affixes and such like in French, Latin or Old English, or analytic, where the words around each word and placement in a sentence reveal its context? For example, in English, we might say “The boy walks the dog.” In Latin, this could be “Puer ambulat canem,” but a Roman would also just as easily understand it if it were, “Canem ambulat puer,” “Ambulat canem puer,” or “Ambulat puer canem.” In Latin, the -em ending on canis indicates that it is accusative, or the object of the sentence, and thus, it matters not at all where in the sentence it appears. If we switched the positions of boy and dog in the English, it would change the meaning, “The dog walks the boy.” There’s no such problem in Latin.

2.      Does your language use articles (“the,” “a”)? If so, when? All the time or only in certain instances?

3.      Does your language use gender, and if so, how? This doesn’t mean that it has he, she, him, and her, or at least not only that. In languages such as Spanish, German, and Latin, every noun has a gender that does not necessarily derive from the category, male or female, we might assign it. Most of the time, gender is broken down into masculine, feminine, and neuter. Or Danish has common and neuter gender. English has phased these out to almost nonexistence. Think of niño (little boy) and niña (little girl) in Spanish or Deutcher (male German) or Deutcherin (female German) in German. Bier (beer) in masculine in German, Fenster (window) is feminine, and Schreibtisch (desk) is neuter. (Note another potential characteristic here. In German, all nouns are capitalized no matter where they fall in a sentence.)

4.      What word order is common for statements and questions, and does it matter? Are adjectives placed before or after nouns? Is the verb at the beginning or end of a sentence or, like in English, typically right after the subject?

5.      Decide your suffixes, prefixes, and how you will indicate person, number, and tense. Do all your verbs follow the same endings, or like in English’s strong and weak verbs, do you have two or more types of structures: bake to baked versus feel to felt.

6.      What sort of symbols does the language use in writing? Does it have any? If you don’t have a specific reason not to, I recommend keeping a mostly English alphabet to spare your readers the strain of figuring out what they mean.

7.      Consider the history of the language. Is it related to other languages in your setting? For example, English is a Germanic language, but it has been heavily influenced by Latin and French. It began as a synthetic language when it was Old English, but over the last two millennia has shifted to an analytic.

8.      Please, do not go crazy with apostrophes, dashes, and any other such element to make a language look different and foreign. Remember, everything in moderation.

9.      Also, consider the sound your language makes. It is composed of more hard or soft consonants? Does it rely more on fricatives like f, s, v, or z; nasals like m or n; or some other articulation? Do they roll their r’s? Do they pronounce every letter or use many silent letters like French? Are there letter combinations uncommon to English speakers? How do they pronounce their vowels and diphthongs? Ae is pronounced very differently in many different languages.

You can invent your language from the ground up in every aspect, but if that’s more work than you’re comfortable with, get a dictionary and textbook, or a “For Dummies” or somesuch guide, on a real language that has a similar sound to what you wish to create. Study the other language until you have a basic grasp of its characteristics and use is as a skeleton to flesh out your invented language.

One final note on using language in fiction: There’s a debate over whether or not it’s wise to include the actual foreign words or simply to translate them automatically and mention that they’re in whatever language you wish. Foreign words can weigh down a story and make it tedious for a reader; however, they can add a nice touch that makes a great impact. The Old Tongue and Tolkien’s many languages are prime examples where fans embraced, sometimes obsessively, the language wholeheartedly. Decide before you go to the trouble of creating a language if you really want to include the foreign words. If it doesn’t add what you want to your story, don’t take the trouble. If you feel like it would be tedious and you cringe at the thought, don’t let anyone force you into it. Your resistance will transfer to the page and, almost as if it had an empathic link, negatively affect a reader’s opinion.

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