Fellow writer and blog reader Megs Payne graciously agreed to write this guest post about creating languages. Thanks, Megs, for providing us with such a thorough and thoughtful approach to building a language!
The Quick and Messy Way to Make a Language
by Megs Payne
Crafting a language is like writing a story. It can be a short story, novella, or a novel. When devising my very first created language, Vas’her, it took years to conceptualize, draft it, edit, and finally fully revise it. I’m still working on it. That is a novel, or series of novels even. When it came time to write a short story as a Christmas gift a few months away, I knew I didn’t have that sort of time.
Tatan took me three weeks.
This is the quick and messy way to make a language.
Step One: Conceptualizing
There are three main aspects of conceptualizing your language.
In order for the language to add value to your story, it must be tied to the culture and characters. For a fabulous description of how to consider the final result desired, check out Juliette Wade’s article on the matter.
The language should have an overall feeling or idea that keeps you on track as you write it. “A language is the soul of its people,” says Holly Lisle. This core idea must and will affect how its speakers think. Tatan is a cohesive language, completely built off of a single table of concepts and roots that is expanded only systematically. It differentiates between making and creating. Vas’her includes only a single negative word—“no”—and makes use of meaning over sound in its core alphabet.
From the very beginning, you should decide how your language makes use of syntax and morphology. Syntax refers to the rules for putting words together into complete sentences, whereas morphology refers to how to expand the meanings of words with affixes and declensions. Whether your language conjugates practically nothing (as Vas’her) or absolutely everything (as Tatan), you will have to come up with almost the same number of rules. For story languages, however, I recommend going with a fusional language and leaning towards more morphological rules. Vas’her was written in three years. Tatan was written in three weeks. Using the same method.
Step Two: Drafting
This is the stage where you get down the bones of your language. A language’s framework, or skeleton, is composed of how it categorizes things: people, space, time, number, ideas. There are five primary tables I always like to know up front.
Grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender, though it can be based on it. Gender is the way language categorizes people (and often everything else) and reflects the way its speakers categorize people. Latin languages use masculine and feminine. Several African languages use deity, human, and animal. Vardin, a language I’m currently writing, uses the four social positions. Tatan uses parent, peer/sibling, child, and unmarked. Just remember: the more genders you use, the more work you have ahead of you, especially if you include case.
Ideas and their application are handled by grammatical case (morphology). Is a gift received and the receiver of the gift grammatically identical? In English, pretty much, and it’s the objective case. In other languages, these are considered to be very different and take the accusative and dative cases, respectively. You can have a case for an object in motion, something that belongs to someone, something that was used in an action. In short, for anything you want.
Singular and plural are not the only numbers either. Number can included a partitive plural, a collective plural, dual, triple, or any other specific number. In Tatan, every word can be easily affixed to be of a certain number, though a simple plural can also be called.
Space is a cultural concept. In some cultures, personal space is not the norm (thinking of India, here). In others, six feet may be barely enough. Being close could mean intimacy, as in English, or it could mean rudeness. In Tatan, the idea of space as relationships is magnified. To draw near is to become close emotionally; to put distance between is considered openly hostile. The terms for going on a journey frequently avoid any mention of distance, no matter how far the destination. Also keep in mind whether there is anything different about direction, such as west and east or even up and down. A spacefaring race will have quite a different concept of space.
Another cultural concept enshrined in language is time. Grammatical tense is only one place this shows up. In English, time is conceived of as linear and generally traveling from left to right. In some cultures, it’s viewed as vertical or in a circle. In some languages, time is never mentioned unless necessary, as in Vas’her, or is viewed as happening in the past and also now or in the future and also now. The ways a character views time affects more than just language and it’s important to make sure they match.
Finally, check back over your culture and determine if there is any other point that is integral to your characters. In Tatan, the concept of blood is vital. To be blooded is to belong to the culture. To be blooded is to be an adult. To be blooded is to have conquered in some battle, whether that be between men or in childbirth. It’s how they define themselves versus outsiders. It’s in the personal pronouns table. There’s one for the unblooded and one for the blooded. Look at your overall language concept again if you need ideas.
Finally, the easiest way I have to nail down all these structural constructs is to simply build a table of the personal pronouns. I do this because even in nongender languages, some genders usually show up on the pronouns table. It’s an easy way to see if you’ve missed anything and if you’ve included the absolute maximum categorization available to nouns.
Step Three: Layering
The good news is that if all you want is how to make your characters sound like their language, you’re just about done. If you actually want to put some flesh on it though, add more than just a handful of vocabulary words to your story, then there’s a little more work to do.
This is where you get into syntax, regardless of whether it was your big point. Decide what word orders are acceptable. If you had a heyday using case, you really don’t have to select one. But if there’s a preferred one anyway, make a note. Consider how to deal with nested clauses, if statements, and complex sentences. Also think about whether word order or mere inflection is used to note questions. All of this should appear in your rendered English dialogue.
Decide how your language references previously mentioned items. Vas’her has a system much more complex than ‘it.’ They can reference ‘it’ for inanimate objects, ‘this’ for the previous idea or person, and ‘that’ for the idea or person mentioned before ‘this.’ In short, this will translate well in dialogue and gives more depth to the language.
Finally, I must point out stress. This is an oft-overlooked point. Words have stress. English has borrowed so many words from other language, that where its words are emphasized is all over the map. Most languages are not. In Tatan, I not only developed an extremely consistent stress pattern, I used it to increase my available meanings. Verb tense and several cases are changed by simply moving the accent mark (á) to another syllable.
Step Four: Polishing
Deciding on the sounds of your language, its phonology, is easier if you already have some words that sound right. When I began developing Tatan in earnest, I had several names (Daigan, Cautan, Ashreh, Ashikah, Shikai) and words (kinaté, rhaná) to go on.
First, I figured out why I had two k sounds, then promptly discarded bothering about it again. If you don’t have a reason for using two different letters, DON’T. Ever. No matter how tempting.
Second, I made a list of all the sounds currently included and which ones I could not do without. Do not include any letters that you don’t have a word for. Ever. No matter how tempting. Nobody knows your alphabet anyway until well after the story’s published, so you can add it later if you find a word that needs it. (For more on why, see Holly Lisle’s language course.)
At this point, you’re just looking for a feel for what sounds right.
Go back to your stress rules. Consider how having a certain syllable stressed can shift pronunciation. Apply these consistently across your vocabulary. In Tatan, this resulted both in some irregular words and some words based on the same root being spelled and pronounced differently. This is because irregularities are initially produced when rules conflict.
Deciding on how to put those sounds on paper is why it’s so important to limit yourself. Throw out any grand ideas on forcing readers to pronounce words a certain way. They won’t. You’re going to have to get creative with your spelling.
First of all, note that American English and other English is mostly different in how vowels are pronounced. Use lengthening or shortening letters, like ‘h,’ to get the sound you want. For example: Sahlorih is a strange spelling sure, but it was the only way I could get it to be pronounced with a word final short ‘i.’ English doesn’t do that.
Second, use accent marks consistently. Generally, English uses accents to note stress, so recognize that when you decide to apply them. It will make a word final ‘e’ audible and generally gain you the long pronunciation of the vowel.
Step Five: Revising
Change your mind any time you want, just like with a book. You can always revise later. Well… Until you’re published.
For more resources, try: Zompist’s Language Construction Kit, Essays on Language Design, Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic, Juliette Wade’s blog, and How to Create a Language
A couple of thoughts.
I fully agree that you should not feel limited to the traditional male/female/neuter gender classification. Probably the most famous example of going outside of this is the Australian language of Dyirbal, which has an entire “gender” devoted to fire, lightning, women, and other dangerous things. 🙂
Also, remember that there may be a difference between spoken and written (informal and formal) versions of your language. Spoken German, for instance, generally only bothers with past and present tenses–either something has happened (and is over), or it hasn’t–while written German includes a variety of other tenses. (English sometimes does the same–“I am going to the store tomorrow” uses the present tense “am” to refer to something clearly in the future.) On a related note, German also uses different pronouns based on the speaker’s relationship with the listener (I believe Japanese takes this further, but I haven’t studied it, so I can’t say for certain). Something to consider adding.
And speaking of German: written German puts a capital letter at the beginning of *every* noun, no matter where it is in the sentence. So feel free to play around with capitalization rules…but you probably don’t want to go as far as Klingon, which uses capitalization only to indicate different sounds.
Love all your points! I wanted to get into formality, and quite a few other things, but I was also trying to cover a LOT of ground quickly, and I did give a nod to speaker relationships in there, so felt pretty happy about it. Formality is separated out, but it really behaves largely like a case, just only for pronouns. In some languages. In Vas’her, I used it just like a case on accident. :shakes head at self:
And don’t get me started on capitals… (Methinks of Mark Twain.)
Urdu has formal and informal pronouns, too, as well as masculine/feminine gender. One has to wonder who decides this things, though. Why is a lizard female? Or a book? *grin*
Someday I must do some linguistic analysis on Urdu. It was always the other language I spoke while growing up–and everyone else around me did, too–and I never really appreciated how different it and English are. 🙂
ps: Coming back to say that what I find more fascinating and useful in my writing is figuring out idioms, slang and insults for my cultures. I don’t do the best job at it, but it is a challenging exercise.
David, remember how we talked about how in German they say “it’s raining twine”? They’re right! We’ve had ample opportunity to see ropes of rain these last few days. 😛
My favorite Urdu expression is for “being ashamed”: drowning in a handful of water. It doesn’t sound half so good translated, though.
I do love that, but I have to admit, for me that comes more from developing the cultural implications and then looking at how they view their world and applying vocabulary correctly. In other words, I usually discover them in the course of writing the story.
For example: blooded. That term was a cultural idiom, so to speak, that it means so many things. One character told another that his was a bloody culture and it gave me pause because it WAS. They live by the sword, they consider only those with their blood to be insiders, and they call the adult initiations blooding. The reference system in Vas’her came about similarly. I found out on accident that “here” was the same word as “this” when I’d been looking for the word “here” for MONTHS.
It comes just as readily from playing with the culture and dialogue while I write in English as it does working on the language itself because that’s culture and perspective and what meanings overlap. Like in Spanish that wait and hope are the same word. In Vas’her, wait and stay are the same word. It’s the tiny details of how a speaker THINKS that creates such a richly different way of saying things.
And now to get off my waxing eloquent (I could go on all day), there’s more on those idioms and slang type of things in the first Juliette Wade article I linked to. Love her blog for dealing with the cultural aspect of language.
Argh. Almost done.
Masculine/feminine distinctions also come back to perspective. What is seen as feminine and masculine traits and then what exemplifies those traits. And that comes back to the cultural idea of what is feminine and masculine.
And now, I’m DONE.
Rabia. As you know, I’m not a writer but I invent impromptu stories for my daughters at bedtime. The concept of inventing a new language, beyond a simple code, is fascinating! I love finding new ways to stretch my mind, for it always winds up sparking a creative idea. So thank you 100x for this post. I will follow your links and explore this yummy idea further.
Oops, I apologize. Thank you Meg for this guest post, it wasn’t until I reread the piece that I realized it wasn’t Rabia!!!
I was so pleased that Megs could share her insights with us. I’m glad you found her post inspiring and useful. 🙂