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Going back to my roots: conlanging for novels

I have a confession to make: I’ve been playing at making up languages since before I discovered Tolkien.

It started in school, inspired (I think) by Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy; a friend and I created a whole world, albeit more SF than fantasy, and made up our own “language” out of obscure words we found in the dictionary and made up new meanings for. A few years later I read Lord of the Rings and discovered that Tolkien had done a much better job, and I was too much in awe of his magnum opus to try and compete.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the advent of the internet, which was when I discovered The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It showed me that my early attempts at a conlang (constructed language) was a mere cipher of English, so I immediately rose to the challenge and started studying linguistics to try and make my invented languages more realistic.

During the course of writing my fantasy series, I realised I would need two languages for my non-humans, the skraylings: the everyday language they use among themselves, and a much older language, analogous to Latin. At first I went crazy with the linguistics, coming up with intricate verb morphology inspired by Native American languages, but I seemed to spend most of my time on the structure and history of the languages, and didn’t produce much actual vocabulary for use in the book. The other constraint was that I wanted the languages to be aesthetically pleasing; admittedly a purely subjective thing, but one that’s important to me. Trying to make all these things work was a disaster – like my early attempts at writing a novel, I made false start after false start, throwing each one out as I became dissatisfied with the results.

Finally I came across Holly Lisle’s Create-a-Language Clinic, which was a timely reminder that I was creating these languages explicitly for use in a novel, not as an intellectual exercise in itself. As with the novel, the reader comes first. A reader who speaks English and probably little or nothing else.

I’ve therefore had to make compromises. On the one hand, I’ve stated in the book that the Elizabethans find the skraylings’ names unpronounceable and therefore warp them into Anglicised versions; on the other, I can’t make the language too weird, because I use snatches of it here and there. So I abandoned my over-intellectualising and just played with sound patterns until I had something that looked a bit alien but was still easy to render in normal letters. Then I reverse-engineered the structure of the language, creating just enough complexity for it to be realistic – and no more. It’s taken longer than I hoped, because it requires an intuitive approach to what had previously been a very left-brained process. On the other hand I now have snatches of language that I’m pleased with, and enough documentation on those examples that I can expand them in future.

William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. I would argue that the same applies to novels. I hope that my conlangs are both beautiful and useful, and I like to think Tolkien would approve.