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Conlanging 101

Last week I gave a very brief history of language construction and mentioned some well-known examples from fantasy, such as Sindarin and Dothraki. If you’ve been inspired by any of these books or TV shows to create a language of your own, read on! Note that I shall be focusing on creating languages for use in fiction; whilst conlanging for its own sake is a great hobby, it can be easy to get carried away and create something too arcane for your readers to cope with.

Bear in mind also that language creation is a vast topic that can’t be covered in a single blog post; however I shall link to resources that will help you to take your first steps in this fascinating hobby.

What’s the purpose of your language?

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Before creating your language, it’s best to think a little about what you want to achieve. Maybe you just want to come up with a consistent set of names for your novel’s characters and places, or maybe you want a language you can use within the story itself, to add the kind of depth that Tolkien achieved with Sindarin. The former is obviously a lot quicker and easier than the latter since you basically just need some nouns and adjectives, not the entire grammar!

Even if you do go the full nine yards, bear in mind that less is more. Many readers of The Lord of the Rings skip over Tolkien’s songs and poems (whether in English or Elvish); large chunks of incomprehensible text are rather daunting. When editing the later drafts of The Alchemist of Souls I cut a skrayling chant from the scene where the ambassador arrives in London, mostly to spare my audiobook narrator the hard and frankly rather pointless work! However I did retain a few full sentences here and there; just enough to give a feel for the skrayling languages without overwhelming the reader.

In addition to names of people and places, you might want to create a few nouns and phrases for things that exist in your invented world that have no English (or maybe Earth) equivalent. One word frequently encountered in the Night’s Masque books is amayi, an Aiyaluran word that means something akin to ‘soulmate’, though with additional shades of meaning that the English word lacks.

English is weird

If you’re a native speaker of English, you’re no doubt aware that we have some pretty arcane spelling rules, but you probably don’t realise just how atypical English is of the world’s languages. Our word order (subject followed by verb followed by object, e.g. I like cats) maybe fairly common, but the way we construct our verbs, with few markers for number, person or tense, is not. Also, English has some sounds that are relatively uncommon in other European languages (‘th’ is a particular problem for many non-native speakers), and is very fond of complex clusters of consonants. For example Japanese often inserts vowels into borrowed English words, to break them up into something closer to its own consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern.

Learning other languages, especially non-Indo-European languages, will help give you a much wider perspective, but learning a language is time-consuming. An easy shortcut is to read overviews that describe the main features of a language without attempting to teach it to you. There are some good books on the subject—e.g. An Introduction to the Languages of the World by Anatole V Lyovin, which includes brief sketches of such diverse languages as Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Hawaiian and Yu’pik Eskimo—and of course most of the world’s languages have a Wikipedia page describing their main features.

Designing a phonology

The full list of sounds that a human vocal tract can produce and that are used in extant languages is vast, and once you discover them it can be tempting to throw them all into your conlang. However bear in mind that if you’re creating a language to use in a book, your readers need to be able to make a reasonable stab at pronouncing the names in their heads, otherwise they will be constantly stumbling over the text.

Rather than adding new sounds it is often easier to omit a few; for example my skrayling language Vinlandic lacks labial sounds (p, b, and m) because the males like to be able to show their fangs when speaking. Also, unless you’re parodying pulp-era SFF, avoid weird clusters of consonants and needless accents/punctuation. Both will make your conlang look amateurish.

Words, words, words

Once you have your phonology you should come up with some standard morpheme templates (see below), so that you can start generating words, either by “hand” or using a computer script to generate lists of valid combinations (a topic I will cover next week).

A morpheme template is a pattern into which you slot sounds. For example:

CVCV(n)

where C = consonant, V = vowel, and (n) is an optional letter ‘n’. Using this template, example words in your languages might be leron, situ, tana, and so on. This simple process will ensure that your language has a consistency that will help to make it feel realistic. (I would, however, advise against using this exact pattern, as it’s become a cliché in SFF. It even has its own TV Tropes page!)

Grammar

Even if you only want to create names, you will benefit from a few basic rules of grammar for your language that will help to make it consistent. For example, do adjectives precede nouns, as in English, or do they come afterwards, as in French? (OK, not all French adjectives go after nouns; natural languages are often highly irregular!) What are the common ways to turn verbs and nouns into other nouns, as in English “walk” -> “walker”, “art” -> “artist”? As with the sound system your readers will pick up on these simple patterns, if only on a subconscious level, because our brains are naturally attuned to decoding language.

If you want to go beyond names, you’ll need to know how to fit words together into sentences. How much development you do is really up to you, but be warned—once you get into this stuff, it can be really addictive! It took me several attempts to come up with suitable languages for the skraylings in my Night’s Masque trilogy; the early iterations used all manner of arcane syntax, but I ended up throwing out a lot of it and starting again with simpler rules. Since I was running out of time by this point, I also only created the bare minimum needed for the books, instead of trying to complete a working grammar and vocabulary.

Even if you don’t create an entire language behind the scenes, it’s possible to come up with something that sounds authentic. The greatest compliment you can receive as a conlanger is for someone to ask “What language did you use in your book?” (with the implication that it was a real Earth language), as happened to me at a reading of Chapter 1 of The Merchant of Dreams at FantasyCon 2012. I admit I had rehearsed the scene thoroughly until I could speak the lines of dialogue as fluently as the rest of the text, but it was still very pleasing to hear.

Documenting your work

An important point that is rarely touched upon in conlang instructions is the importance of keeping accurate records. Writing a novel is a time-consuming and complex task taking months or years, and by the time you get to final edits it’s easy to forget the language rules that you came up with back when you were worldbuilding. And what if you want to write a series? Readers expect consistency, and if your books become popular you can be sure that a small minority of fans will start analysing your conlang!

My advice is:

  • Learn how to describe your language accurately and gloss entire sentences (i.e. give a written breakdown of the words in use) – see my description of Aiyalura for examples
  • Compile two-way dictionaries, e.g. English->Vinlandic and Vinlandic->English, to make your life easier
  • Back up any electronic documents, and ideally print them out as well
  • Conversely, if you do a lot of conlang work on paper, consider making scans of the finished documents and store them somewhere online

Learning Resources

I’ve really only been able to skim the surface in this article. For much more detail on how to put a language together, see the following:

  • Create a Language Clinic, by Holly Lisle (ebook) – aimed at complete beginners, this workbook is ideal if all you want to create is a naming language. It also has a great chapter on the weirdness of English!
  • The Language Construction Kit (web version; also a paperback book) – a great introduction to conlanging, suitable for beginners but going into some detail on linguistics
  • The Language Creation Society – provides links to masses of online resources for conlangers. Paid membership includes free web hosting for your conlang materials and related projects

Next week I’ll be concluding this brief series of posts with a look at a Perl script I’ve written to help with vocabulary generation.

#SFWApro