You’ve probably heard of Sindarin and Quenya even if you don’t know a word of either language. These two constructed languages which J.R.R. Tolkien created have, for many, become the benchmarks of languages used in fantasy and for science fiction, there is Klingon from the Star Trek universe.
Writing in a secondary world means creating not only peoples and cultures but also the world’s languages – or at least parts of the languages. The problem with creating these is where to actually start.
This is also the question I came to stand before when starting to write fantasy, and I hope some of these tips and resources will come in handy when you start to create your own language(s).
Take your time
You might not want to tinker with a language more than is absolutely necessary for the story or novel you are writing. Perhaps you only need a greeting, a blessing or a curse. However, if you’re planning on writing a series, you will need to have a much better grasp of the language you’ve created and build on the vocabulary as well. This takes time – you cannot build a whole language in a day.
Get some help, aka, resources are your friends
I came across some very helpful books (which also don’t cost the world, as most of the linguistics textbooks are quite if not extremely expensive to buy…) in my search for language building resources – The Conlanger Lexipedia and The Language Construction Kit, both by Mark Rosenfelder.
Quite a small crash course in linguistics, these volumes show you how languages of differing complexities can be created.
Bilingual dictionaries – especially, I find, of dead languages – are very good to have at your side when you are in need of vocabulary inspiration.
University departments often have available niche dictionaries that can either be searched or downloaded. Then there are also sites like Wulfila.be that goes into the minutia of the Gothic fragments still available to us.
Archive.org is also a fascinating site on which to find these kinds of dictionaries and they also often go for a steal in the Kindle store, just saying.
Listen to languages
Honestly, though. Listen to other languages being spoken even if you don’t understand them. (She says, living in a country with 11 official languages…)
If you’re living somewhere where mostly one language is spoken, go onto YouTube and listen to videos in other languages to get the feel of their sound, their rhythm, etc. You can then use some of these characteristics in your own language(s).
There may even be a language you love the sound of. Then all you do is incorporate those sounds into your language if you don’t want to or can’t use the actual language.
Start with what you need right now
Although you can start building your language by making lists and lists (and lists) of words, it’s important to keep in mind the type of words you’re actually going to use. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy epic set somewhere in 400 BC, you probably won’t need a word for “spaceship” or “laptop”.
How I go about building languages
The way in which I build my languages is by first seeing what I will need to write or name in those languages. For instance, while building a chant for The Ruon Chronicles, I first wrote it in English and then translated it:
English: Show yourself, servant of the deepest Darkness. One who has turned from the path to follow the Betrayer, show yourself.
Fantasy language: Khalla sah s’elaras verdun nakhan han sah.
Agr elstanbrahta se tellaria na Lewjan nakhan han sah.
In this case, the word that actually needed the most work was “deepest”.
The word for deep/deepest was constructed ‘backwards’, working from the word for “valley” (elir), which was already in place. I decided that the word for deep would, therefore, be “elara”, which would mean that “elaras” would mean deepest.
Most of all, remember that you’re supposed to have fun while creating the language. Choose sounds you like (cellar door, anyone), make the grammar as easy or difficult as you want, and let your imagination run wild. It’s your world, so you get to choose!
Here are some resources that I use (or plan to use in the future…)
Archive.org (Basically anything your heart desires)
Grammar, etc. of Afrikaans (I’m biased as it’s my mother tongue…), Dutch, and Frisian (written in English)
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins
Advanced Language Construction by Mark Rosenfelder
Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction by P.H. Matthews
The Conlanger’s Lexipedia by Mark Rosenfelder
The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder
Carin Marais is a South African fantasy author whose fiction and articles have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Jozi Flash (2016, 2017), Dim Mirrors (2016), Speculative Grammarian, Inkspraak and, most recently, Vrouekeur. She is also a contributor to The Mighty.