Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Creating Your Own Language

by Jill Williamson


I’m sure you've heard me caution you against creating a language for your spec fiction novel. But if you insist, it is kind of fun. Just make sure that your language doesn't take over your story.

I created a language for my Blood of Kings trilogy. I didn't create very much of it. (My notes for the language are on one sheet of paper in my series notebook.) It was the Eben language, and it was first spoken in book one when Vrell, Jax, and Khai entered the Nahar Forest and come across some Eben giants. Here's an excerpt:

Vrell peeked around the tree to see a man as tall as Jax, but pale as a lily. His long blond hair hung around his face like a curtain. Animal skins were draped over one shoulder, across his white chest, and down around his hips like a skirt. He clutched a spear in one hand and a curved axe in the other. Both weapons were chiseled out of obsidian and lashed to wooden handles with leather. He stood on the road facing Jax.
Jax bowed to the giant. “We seek passage through Nahar Forest.”
The giant pointed down the road, back toward Walden’s Watch. “Wee ahlawa men teeah!”
Jax shook his head. “We will not go back. We must take this road to Xulon.”
The pale giant tipped his head back and bellowed a trilling cry into the treetops.

Since Vrell doesn't speak Eben—or even know what an Eben is at this point in the story, she can’t translate. Jax can, but he doesn't  The reader picks up on the translation based on Jax’s response to the giant. Here's another section of Eben dialogue I used in book two:

“Who sent you?” Sir Gavin yelled.
The raspy breathing of a dying Eben was the only answer. Achan inched over the lichen until the men came into view. Sir Gavin crouched on the giant’s right, blade held to the pale throat. Sir Caleb and Inko stood panting on the giant’s left side.
Sir Gavin pressed a knee on the giant’s chest. “Who?”
The giant’s ragged breath seemed to consume all his effort, but he blinked slowly and turned his dark eyes to Achan, his voice a raspy growl. “Tee saplaway sen katla sar.”
The intensity in that gaze shook Achan’s knees. The man had a black insignia inked onto his forehead, three lines, each thicker than the first.
“I know why you’ve come,” Sir Gavin said, “I want to know who sent you.”
“Faluk san.”

In this scene, I used Sir Gavin in the same way that I used Jax. Sir Gavin speaks Eben. Achan does not. But there's no need for me to put in a translation. That would mess up the intensity of the scene. But I do have a translation in my notes. Here’s how the Eben language works.

Verbs phrases I made up
to take: finla
to go: ahla
to come: sapla
to do: katla
to be: badla

Other words
there: men
here: sen
prince: sar
you: wee
I/we: tee
away: teeah

Grammatical particle
In Eben, particles modify nouns to indicate tense. (I got the idea for this from the Japanese language, though my language works differently.)  For example, “wa” indicates the present tense of a verb, and “way” indicates past tense. Therefore, the first example above, “Wee ahlawa men teeah!” is translated: “Go back where you came from.” But literally, here’s how it works:

Wee            ahla-               wa                men            teeah!
You            to go        present tense        back            away

And the second example sentence:

Tee         sapla-                 way                  sen             katla          sar.
I/we       to come         present tense           here           to take      prince

The whole thing is really such nerdly fun, isn’t it?

Things to consider when creating your own language
1. What do you need? If you only need a few sentences like I did with Eben (remember: all my language notes are on one sheet of paper), you don’t need to create a full translation of English to your language.

2. Choose some base words like nouns and pronouns. I started with writing the dialogue I needed translated and thought up the words I needed for that. But you might think those beginning reading books with sentences like: "I am Jane," or "See Spot run." And you’ll definitely want words for: he, she, we, I, you. You might also want to create numbers one-ten.

3. Make up some verbs and decide how you'll conjugate them in your language. Look at other languages you might use as a model. You might create prefixes or suffixes to alter tense.

4. Create suffixes or prefixes for other things like: plurals and endings like –ly, –ful, –er, –ed, –ent, –able, –ing, –ness, etc.

5. Look for ways to add consistency and sound patterns that will set your language apart from other languages. Think of how distinctive the French language sounds or Asian languages sound. For my Eben, all of my verbs ended in “la.” And I made certain words similar: here (sen) and there (men). And I/we (tee) and you (wee). English has the “–ing” that makes verbs active and sound similar and the “–ed” for past tense. 

6. Write some sentences in different forms and tenses to brainstorm how they will be different. Use that same format for all verbs. For example: I walked to the house. She walked to the house. We ran to the house. They walked away from the house.

7. Simple is best. Most English words aren't difficult to pronounce, at least not for pronouns and verbs. Don’t make your words so hard to pronounce that your reader can’t even read them.

You can also:
-Create an alphabet
-Create a pronunciation guide for certain letter combinations
-Create symbols for your alphabet
-Use a dictionary to help you know what words you might need to create translations for.
-Name your language
-Practice speaking it to other people.

But most of that is really going overboard.

Have you ever thought about creating a language? If you have created one, give us one sentence and a translation.

47 comments:

  1. I actually had a language for my last NaNo novel, based on old Norse, Welsh, and Scandinavian words, but I forgot most of it. :(

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  2. Oooooh. I thought of someone reading that title, and chuckled the whole way through.

    Anyway.

    Actually, yes, I have, though not for a book. Just for fun. And I actually did it quite recently: about 3 weeks ago. So:

    Fah ruillb unjabud mikalls fas op.

    I really enjoyed making this up.

    Most of the language is just swapping one letter for another (for example, y to b). It's called "Vawulesh" because I started with swapping the vowels around and gradually built off of that. (See, I translated "Vowelish" into the language!) A few of the common words are translated into random words, as are some of the endings like --ing. :)

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    1. Just for fun? LOL! That's great, Amanda. Very creative.

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  3. This is most helpful! Thanks for posting! =] I have, in fact, created a few phrases in my own language (or two). One is based on the African Swahili and translates Dahti bwe'uom, "God be with you." Another word from that language (Makarian - of the country Makar) is Raja, meaning "prince." Raj is a given name in Indian Sanskrit that means "king" or "prince"; I thought it fit well in my story as a Makarian word, so I added the "a" and came up with Raja. =] I love languages! Norskan is another language I have, but I won't go into it... It's based off of the Old Norse/Viking languages. And, just like you, my notes only take up one page!

    Thanks for posting!

    Blessings,
    Sarah

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    1. That's awesome, Sarah. Sometimes--most times--all you need are a few phrases.

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  4. I haven't had the need to make a language since my fantasies are contemporary. :D But that's still a cool post. :D

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  5. What a great post, Jill! It was fascinating to hear how you developed the Eben language. I was definitely one of those Tolkien nerds who tried to learn Elvish and Dwarvish, though I never went so far as to try Orcish. ;) While I admire Tolkien's brilliancy in developing his own language, I've never written one of my own, aside from a few words here and there as I needed to.

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    1. Yeah, Tolkien really did the whole deal, didn't he? I can't believe you tried to learn it! Can you say things? Next time I see you I'm going to make you speak Elvish. LOL

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  6. I don't really create my own language, but I do have a little girl who writes a little journal. Her mom finds it and can understand what the girl is trying to say, but it is all phonetics. This is how I wrote it. Is this how I should do it?

    Wy cant raini das bee brit? *Why can’t rainy days be bright?*(this is in italics
    Wy arnt al dogs cut? *Why aren’t all dogs cute?*(this is in italics)

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    1. That is adorable, Alyson! I love that. How clever of you.

      I'd take out the italics, Alyson, and let the reader translate. The italics are "telling" the reader extra stuff. Show the reader instead with the other characters' frustration/confusion/understanding based on what they say, think, or how they respond. EX:

      She picked up the journal and read.

      Wy cant raini das bee brit?

      She smiled at her daughter's spelling. Then she remembered a time when it had been pouring rain outside and the sun's light had broken through the clouds. It had been the most beautiful thing. She hoped her daughter could see such a sight someday.

      Or whatever... But don't think the reader can't understand. And if the reader is a little confused, that's okay, as long as you make it clear with the other things that happen.

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    2. Thanks, that's exactly what I wasn't sure of : )

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  7. I've never had the need to create a language for a story, other than a few odd words.
    I've always wanted to try, though, since reading Lord of the Rings.

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    1. Well now you can, Kate! Though if you don't have a place for such in a story, I supposed it might distract you from writing!

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  8. I've done a little experimenting with language. I love writing fanfictions for the Chronicles of Narnia, and have worked a little bit on developing some of the languages.
    For example, the creatures and people in Narnia, speak English since their kings and queens from the beginning have always spoken English. However, there is an ancient language inscribed on the Stone Table which is part of the Deep Magic. Very few know how to speak it. I used a cross between Gaelic and Tolkien's Sindarin.
    The Telmarines speak an estranged Mediterranean language. They call Peter and Edmund "Elviorey" and "Adrianorey" which literally mean "blond king" and "dark king".

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  9. I've never created a language (my fiction is pretty realistic to the world, just a bit in the future and with a dystopian edge) but I think it's cool that other people do! Great post, Jill!

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  10. I'm bookmarking this page! I have need for as many as three languages in my book, although it's most likely I'll only use one (I hope, anyway :-/). I am also studying second year German, so maybe that will give me some ideas :)

    I just got through reading The Lord of the Rings for the fourth time, but whenever I think of creating languages for books I automatically think of Tolkien. He's hugely inspirational :) I wish I was *familiar* with even half the languages he was!

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    1. He was pretty amazing, Hannah. Good luck with your languages!

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  11. I have been thinking about creating a language for my current fantasy novel, but I hadn't quite figured out what to do with it or how to work it out (as I don't want it to be as extensive as Tolkien's elf language), but this seems a good way to incorporate bits of it

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    1. Cool, Arlette! Let us know how it goes. :-)

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  12. It sounds neat, but I don't think it would be my thing. :P Good advice! If I ever decide to try to figure all that stuff out, I'll certainly have to look back on it. Thanks! :)

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    1. LOL Yes, it's not for everyone, Bethany. :-P

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  13. My first official novel was an epic fantasy, so that had several languages. I only came up with a handful of words, though, as I handwrote it with various colored pens for the different languages and planned on changing fonts when typing.

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    1. Fun, Jessa. Sometimes a handful is all you need.

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  14. I have created languages but I find I just forget them right away.Plus all my languages have different symbols so I can't write it out for you guys. I do however, speak Russian.
    Privyet (privet) means Hi in Russian!!
    Thanks Jill!

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  15. The only "other" language I use is sarcasm. I hope no one needs translations for my books though...

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  16. I've never done this, no. It sounds fun, though. Maybe I'll try it sometime when I'm not writing as much realistic fiction (of course, that would be interesting--putting characters with a made-up language on the streets and everyone thinks they're crazy? Hmmm . . . ) Thanks!

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    1. It is kind of fun. A total time-waster, though...

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  17. In one of my books, I have a character who is from a country foreign to my MC's. I hope to develop his language in the future so I can know how to give him an accent, and what words might slip out without him catching them. So far, in a moment of deep tenderness I had him use the word "shara," meaning something like little girl, dear one, daughter.

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  18. I'm still currently working on it but I invented a language called EEdwarn'ean for my fiction book.

    "Aggo-na waes tolo menta re." Translation: "I am very pleased to meet you."

    Maddie

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    1. Thank you Raquel! I'm glad it came across as "melodic" because the people (or the EEdwarns) are very airy and musical:-D I wanted their language to compliment them.

      Maddie

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    2. Yes, very fun, Maddie. Good job!

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  19. Oh wow you are genius!

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  20. I have created a few words for the Ivnians in my WIP. Haiken (hi-ken) and Tradeae (truh-di-uh) means fire and earth. This phrase is practically every page as Alora is the second Haiken and Tradeae. (A.K.A. A red-head with brown eyes.)
    The only place I use Ivnian is when Alora is first found by Sage and Violet (Ivnians). The following conversation occurs on their was back to camp. They hear someone behind them: “Tawah(what) darea(was) baprus(that)?” Sage wrinkled his brow, “Durna.(clueless)” Violet seemed scared, “Tawah(what) dalfla(should) cand(we) reft(do)?” Sage sighed and said, “Cand(we) vocad(report) jand(it).”

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  21. Also, i really like the tips on tenses! I had completely forgoten about them for Ivnian! I forgot verb endings too.:) I think i must have just been tired of them; I have to study Latin, which has 864 different verb endings! Anyway, thank you for this post, I found it very helpful!

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    1. You're welcome. And, Latin! Gah. Sounds hard.

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  22. When I was little, I pretended I had my own language, but it was really just gibberish :)

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    1. Ha ha. It's all about intonation, really, Lexi. I'm sure it sounded like you were making sense to someone. :-)

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