Language Building Basics

A few lines of Peter Pan translated into my main fake language, Arbin.

A few lines of Peter Pan translated into my main fake language, Arbin.

Given the past popularity of Building a Magic System, I’ve been meaning for some time to put together some starting tips for developing a constructed language. Much like magic systems, fictional languages fall pretty firmly within the realm of world building. Furthermore, they can probably also hang out with creation myths, carefully drawn maps of undiscovered continents, and the sad tales of woe involving side characters’ childhood pets, may they rest in peace. These things might be important to the story itself… but usually aren’t. Still, they add another layer of flavor and reality to your world, as well as just being ridiculously fun.

I may as well just come out and admit that I read grammar books for fun. (We’re not gonna talk about how many I own.) And, as previously confessed, I am a world building fiend. So it probably comes as no surprise that I have scraps and bits of several fake languages, a few of which get a line or two in the books, and most of which get no face time at all. Yet I still find myself an incorrigible conlanger.  (Conlang being shorthand for constructed language.)  Therefore, proceed with caution in your linguistic endeavors- you may be setting yourself up for a lifelong addiction.

All languages have some common features, and it helps to look at these even if you plan to create a language from scratch. I’ve broken these features down into four super, super broad topics: sounds, lexicon, grammar, and ideas.  Be sure to think about each of these aspects as you make your language.

Sounds: The first step is to sit down and think about what sounds are possible in this language. (Or if it’s not a spoken language, whatever its medium of communication is- maybe it’s a tasted or smelled language, or a seen language, or some other sense I don’t even have.  Like all things in fantasy, your imagination is the final limit.)  You will need at least two distinct sounds, but will probably end up with a whole lot more.  Maybe you want a language that is beautiful and flowing like Sindarin, or maybe you’d rather it was harsh and guttural like Klingon. The sounds that make up your language are like the cells that make up a body. So think about what sounds can be pronounced in your language (and if you think English sounds are the only sounds possible, please go educate yourself). What sounds can it make that aren’t found in your native language? What sound does it not make? If your speakers are nonhumans, consider the ways that their unique physiology would play into the sounds of their language.

Lexicon: These are the words of the language, built up from the set of possible sounds. (This will end up looking something like your French-English dictionary: pomme = apple; verre = glass; etc.) While building up your lexicon, keep in mind that words often evolve in ‘families’, where words with similar meanings have similar sounds due to a common root word. On the other hand, they often don’t. So have fun with this part! This is probably the easiest part for a casual conlanger to hop into.

(Little sidenote here: you know how English has very different sounding words that mean basically the same thing? Ever wondered why? Check this video out about the evolution of the English language!

Grammar: What are the rules that govern how words, phrases, and sentences are formed? How do the parts of a sentence fit together? How do you indicate past, present, or future? Plural? Gender? How do you form questions or exclamations? Are there formal and informal versions? (Grammar alone could be an entire blog post- or an entire series of pages, actually, like the top two links in the resources below. If you want to create an actual, usable language, you will spend most of the time here in grammar.)  Another thing to keep in mind when creating a grammar is that, if your language is supposed to be a ‘natural’ language within your world, it will be rife with exceptions to the usual rules.  (Think ‘I after E, except after C’ or whatever your favorite grammatical goof-up is.)  If yours is a ‘synthetic’ language (intentionally created, spoken by robots, whatever- divine, supposedly perfect languages would probably also categorize here), it wouldn’t have those sorts of accidents in its rules.

Ideas (not sure what else to call this): What sorts of things do the speakers of this language talk about? Do they have thirty words for different kinds of ice because they live in the arctic? Or do they live in the desert and have no words for ice at all? Do they have senses that humans don’t, and require different words to describe them?  What words do they have that wouldn’t exist in another culture? What idioms have developed due to their unique culture?

So there you have, the absolute bottom level language building intro.  This is all super-duper basic stuff, but if I get into much more detail, this post is going to get absurdly long. (And this is just for a spoken language. If you are interested in creating a written aspect for the language as well, then you’ve got even more work ahead of you. But we’ll save that for another day!)  If you’re interested in more details, I’ve listed some resources below which might be helpful.  Until next time, happy writing!

Other resources:

http://www.zompist.com/kit.html (I found this one as a freshman in high school and life was never the same. If you want to make a language that is as real and complete as possible, this is worth digging through.)

http://www.angelfire.com/scifi2/nyh/how__all.html (Another awesome language building kit that lays it all out there in a clean, understandable manner.)

http://www.vistawide.com/languages/language_statistics.htm (Just interesting stuff. Most isn’t applicable to constructed languages, but some bits, such as the most common sounds, most/least vowels, etc, can fuel cool ideas.)

http://conlang.org/cl101.pdf (Basic info about conlanging, both the culture of it and how to go about it, as well as a pretty good reference section for the super nerdy among us.)

The Red Pen Rendezvous

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m kind of a terrible writer. I spend way too much energy in pointless world building and back story, rely far too much on the luck of my characters, and have at least one adverb in every sentence I write. First drafts are always awful. Like wrap-it-in-a-plastic-bag stinky.

But I think I’m a decent editor. (Do let me know if that’s just not true. Thanks.) I can take that nasty first draft and make it substantially prettier with a bit of work. The fact of the matter is that I can pump out a first draft in a month or two, but I spent usually two to four months cleaning it up. Me and the red pen get mighty cozy in that time.

A big part of the cleaning process is trimming the fat. I have a decent nose for fluff and I’m getting better at cutting it out. I’ve cut out conversations, chapters, whole families, even entire story lines. And what makes this ruthlessness possible? Having very clear knowledge of what my story is.

If I don’t have a solid sense of where my characters are going and growing, it’s hard to know what’s pointless and what’s integral. Mentioning that your main character is scared of cats could be absolute fluff. Or it could be vital to understanding the story. (It could explain why she chokes up at the pivotal moment, dropping the entire cast knee-deep in disaster.) The key is knowing the difference.

For first drafts, I don’t imagine it makes a huge difference if you’re a pantster or a planner. Just getting your story onto paper (screen?) is the main battle. But once you have that first draft, I personally have to be able to look at the whole and see a definite plot arc. And once I see that plot arc, I have a much better sense of what belongs and what doesn’t. Anything that doesn’t directly propel my protagonist in the pursuit of her goal doesn’t belong. This takes a special brand of brutality. It’s taken me more than a decade to shed the extraneous, and I’m still in the process of it. But if you don’t have a clear story, it’s harder to tell what’s necessary and what’s not.

Other things I find myself editing for…

Adverbs. I am an adverb fiend. Whenever I’m going through a draft, I pluck out about three of four adverbs and then it’s about right. Don’t get me wrong: adverbs are great. But not that great. They’re great like salt is great. A little sprinkling enhances the flavor. A big dump makes the soup nasty and your kidneys cry.

Pronouns. I know who’s talking in my head. But I don’t necessarily translate that onto the page. I use ‘he’ when there are five guys talking instead of using a name or some other marker. Or I just don’t mark at all, leaving the reader to guess. And anything that pulls the reader’s thoughts out of the story is a bad thing.

Lack of emotion. My characters do things and they frown and stuff. But I’m really terrible about actually conveying what they feel. People are constantly asking, “How did she feel about that? What was she thinking when blah? Why was she making that face when whatever?” They ask these things because they want to connect with the characters and I am giving them nothing to connect to. Because I am lame. And it makes me sad.

Bull puckey. Sometimes you write something and then you read it later and realize it’s completely unbelievable. Deus ex machina. Total character 180. Ridiculously good luck. Whatever. (And I’ve done all those things. Repeatedly.) This stuff is the product of lazy writing. I want to drag my characters from point A to point B and I don’t want to put the effort into getting them there believably. Don’t do that, writers. If we want readers to invest their time, money, and heart in our books, we have to be willing to invest our own. Don’t be lazy.

There are lots of things that I need to clean up, but these are the main perpetrators. What do you find yourself editing? What are some other things for budding editors to watch out for?