This post was meant to go up last week, but burnout got to me and almost nothing went up. So, first of all, I apologize for the missed week. Here’s the post you were meant to get last week, all about how to build a language (conlang = “constructed language”) that will add realism to your world… even if you’re not a linguist and don’t care to go full Tolkien with your world’s language(s).
Here’s the thing. I love to go in-depth with my worlds, and I love for my worlds to feel real and for individual cultures to reflect consistent values… but I’m not particularly interested in building languages. This combination means that I’ve figured out which elements of a language will create the most impact with the least work, and these are what I’ll be talking about today.
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Choose a Base Language (or Two)
You’ll want your conlang to have a cohesive sound, and an easy way to do this is to choose 1-3 languages to base your language off of. For example, with the Virilen language I borrowed from Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese. I tried to create words with a similar sound, or I created frankenwords (more on that later), and in developing things like character titles I looked at how names were formatted in that language and adapted those formats into something that had a similar sound but worked better for Virilen.
Choosing a couple of languages might add to the challenge of creating a sound that works well together, depending on how different your base languages are from one another, but it will also help your created language sound distinct from the languages you’ve chosen while still remaining cohesive with itself. (And this cohesion is easier to keep up if you use the frankentranslation method I’ll talk about later.)
This isn’t a completely necessary step, depending on how little work you want to do on your language, but it can be really helpful to establish just a couple of rules for your language early on. I like to have gendered endings and pronunciation rules set in my head fairly early in the process so that I can maintain consistency (which helps both me and my future readers).
Just because you’ll want to do this early doesn’t mean you necessarily have to do it first. When I was developing the Virilen language, I’d created a number of words before deciding my gendered endings; in fact, I largely developed my endings from the words (and names) I already had. The “nh” combination and “i” became masculine endings; “a” became a feminine ending; anything else fell into the category of “neuter.” I shifted some endings to accommodate this new rule, while some endings remained as exceptions (because every language has its exceptions).
Likewise with pronunciation. I gave each vowel a single sound, made certain odd consonants consistent (for example, a Virilen “d” sounds like a “z”), and decided that the emphasis always falls on the second-to-last syllable of a word. But some words are still pronounced in ways that don’t follow the rules, either because they flow better some other way or because they’re locked in my brain from before I made the rules. (Virilia should really be pronounced “vee-ree-LEE-ah,” according to the rules, but it’s permanently “vih-RILL-ee-ah” in my mind and therefore that is the official pronunciation, exceptions and all.)
Create Character Titles
One thing that will add depth to your world is to create character titles. These come in a few categories: Titles of address like “Mr.” or “Mrs.”; titles of reference like “King” or “Duchess”; titles of relation like “Mom” or “Uncle”; and titles that substitute for a name, like “Sir” or “Your Grace.”
It will depend on your world which of these titles are most important to translate. If your world doesn’t have anything equivalent to a “duchess,” for example, you don’t have to worry about that one. On the flip side, you might create new titles that need to be invented from scratch.
If a particular title is especially important to your culture, you might want multiple translations for it. For example, Virilia has a word for “grandmother” (“Lonpia-Meuma”) and a word for an honorary grandmother (“Dachia-Meuma”). Matriarchal types are respected for their wisdom and considered to bear similarities to the overseeing goddess Chiean, so “grandmother” is an important title to Virilens.
In titles that are commonly used, you can also consider how it might be shortened or adapted over time. “Lonpia-Meuma” is the technical term for “grandmother,” and some use the full title, but many Virilens shorten it to “Lonpaia” (more akin to “Grandma”). A small child might shorten it even further to “Lona,” giving it yet another variation that adds realism to your world without a whole lot of effort.
Another element to consider would be the format of your titles. Do titles stand in for a name, or do they accompany it? Are they paired with the first name or the last name? Do they come before or after the name? Are they hyphenated to the name (e.g. “Zen-Misonh”), abbreviated before or after the name (e.g. “Mr. Smith”), written in full before or after the name (e.g. “Monsieur Du Lac”)?
I wrote a lot more on this, but I wrote so much more that it warranted its own post, so a more in-depth look at how to develop different kinds of character titles will be coming later.
Most Important Concepts
What concepts are most important to your culture? Or which would they want to be clearest about? Give these the most thought when developing their language. My favorite example is the collection of words that the Greeks had for “love.” Instead of one word that encompassed all potential types of love, the Greeks had five or more words that described different varieties of love.
Consider what your culture values and what it might create multiple words for, either based on importance or simply for clarity’s sake. An importance-based example might be the “lonpia-meuma” and “dachia-meuma” pair in Virilen. For an example of clarity, my friend Allie created a language in which to know something on an intellectual level is “scina” while to know something on a more internalized level, to truly understand and believe it, is “taescintel” or “taencil.”
Slang and Terms of Endearment
Slang terms and terms of endearment could likely warrant a whole post of their own, as well, but I’ll keep this point brief for this post. (If you’d like a more in-depth look later, let me know in the comments!)
Slang can cover a number of things. Activity or tech-based things like “That wasn’t on my radar,” off-handed comments like “Good luck!”, curse words, greetings and farewells, etc. Some of these things you might not even think to catch and change for your world, but tweaking these little things can make a big difference. A world without radar won’t say someone “went under the radar,” right?
Even comments like “Good luck!” can be given the task of communicating details about your world. In Virilia, they don’t say “Good luck”; they say “Gossalu be with you,” a reference to the Virilen goddess of fortune. By changing that one little detail, I can add flavor to the world and hint at the larger framework of the culture in only four words.
Greetings and farewells can serve a similar purpose. Do people in your culture say “Good morning”? Do they wish for sunshine upon other characters? Do they beseech the favor of a sun god?
You might also consider how this could be flipped. If they’re having a bad day, or talking to someone they hate, do they still wish the other person favor? Does it become sarcastic? Or do they say something to wish the opposite upon whoever they’re talking to? If they usually say “Matroia shine upon you” to wish someone good morning (the Virilen example), might “Matroia forsake you” be the bitter opposite? (And is this still a greeting, or does it become a curse?)
Terms of endearment, too, can reflect things about your world. What does your culture consider beautiful, sweet, cute, etc. that they might reference in complimenting another character? Might a brother’s nickname for his cat-obsessed younger sister translate to “kitten”? Or are terms of endearment more straightforward, translating to things like “beloved” or “sweetheart”?
And now we arrive at the explanation of my favorite method of quickly building fictional words. This is where the “lazy” part of this title really comes into play, lol.
After I’ve decided what I want a given title or word to mean, I translate it into my fictional language by first translating it into real languages: my base languages. I look at the results from each language, maybe jot them down, and then mix and match pieces of those words to make a new word.
For example, if I wanted a Virilen word for “peach,” I would start by translating it into Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese. I’d end up with this:
I might decide I like the “mo” from the Japanese, the “dà” from the Vietnamese (changing the “đ” to a “d” since Virilen sticks to Latin characters, and pronouncing it “zah” according to the Virilen rules), and the “zi” from Chinese and piece together something like “zimodà.” I might go with that, or I might decide it doesn’t quite fit and instead shuffle things around again and end up with something more like “támozi.”
Once I find a combination I’m happy with, I run it back through Translate into English and make sure it doesn’t mean anything weird in a real language. My second combination means “supports” in Hungarian—which isn’t too weird—but the first option doesn’t mean anything at all, so it’s better.
And just like that, I have the Virilen word for “peach”: zimodà.
If I want to make it even more consistent with Virilen rules, I’d change the “z” to another “d” and run that through translate to double-check it. It still doesn’t mean anything, so I can go with “dimodà,” or I can keep it the way it is if I prefer the look of the “z.”
For a more complex concept, I might put in multiple English words to approximate my meaning (e.g. “true knowledge” vs. just “knowledge”) and mix a single word from the multi-word translations that come up. As I mentioned earlier, this method helps me to create a cohesive sound for my language with minimal effort. Just make sure to translate your created word back to English before adopting it, lest you accidentally say something you didn’t intend.
I hope this post helps you create stronger languages with less effort! If you’re an author who wants to invest more time and effort in your world’s languages (in which case, I commend you), stick around for the guest posts I’ll be sharing over the next couple of weeks that go into more detail.
Do you enjoy creating languages, or would you rather spend less time on those so you focus on other areas of your world instead? What are your biggest questions about building a language? What is your favorite part of creating a language? Let me know down in the comments!