Fantasy Languages for Dummies
Ever since Tolkien introduced us to Quenya and Sindarin, not to mention a smattering of Dwarvish, Adunaic and the Black Speech, there’s been a assumption among fantasy writers that they have to develop languages for their worlds. I haven’t been immune to this: in my late teens, I put a lot of effort into creating the main language my characters spoke at the time, basing the grammar largely on Ancient Greek.
Tolkien was a special case, though. He was first and foremost a linguist, and his language creation was not only of the first order, but also was the engine that drove his world-creation and storytelling. Neither is true of most fantasy writers – certainly not of me.
Do fantasy stories really need developed imaginary languages? For the most part, no. Either the point-of-view character understands the language, in which case it can be rendered as English (most other-world fantasy is theoretically a “translation”) or s/he doesn’t understand it, in which case it would just sound like “bar-bar-bar”, as all “barbarian” languages did to the Greeks. In that case, there’s no reason to quote it precisely.
There are two reasons for developing a fantasy language, at least to some extent. One is to make the names you create for places and people linguistically consistent; the other is if your characters need to use the language precisely without understanding it – for example, using spells in another language, like the Latin spells in Harry Potter.
On the other hand, some writers might want to take language creation a little further, simply for their own pleasure, even if nothing other than names appear in the stories. Like all extensive world-making, it runs the risk of distracting from actually writing the stories; but, on the other hand, it might offer a deeper understanding of those stories.
The best way to learn how to create a language, if you wish to do this, is to study a wide range of languages and their structure in detail. For now, though, I just want to give a few thoughts about some of the features real-world languages have.
One thing to decide is the language’s sound. Are most of the words monosyllabic, or do they flow on for half a line? Do they have long clusters of consonants (like German) or do single consonants separate the vowels (like Hawaian)? What sounds does the language use? Some don’t use all the sounds English does, whereas others use sounds that seem outlandish to us. How do the letters combine? The combinations of letters speakers of one language pronounce naturally will make speakers of another language stumble, like the Greek words beginning with ps-, gn- or x- which we lazily treat as “silent letters” (“psychology” should properly have the p sounded).
The language’s grammatical structure is crucial to how it works. In real-world languages, there are four basic structures (though one is rare), with many, notably English, combining elements of several. In isolating languages, words don’t change their form to indicate that they’re, for instance, plural or past-tense – these elements are indicated solely by extra words or word-order.
Agglutinative languages indicate their grammar by having bits “glued on”. In English, for instance, an opposite can always be indicated by putting un- in front of a word – even if it isn’t correct. Any English speaker would instinctively understand what “ungood” means, even though the word doesn’t exist. Many language have a complex system of prefixes, suffixes and even infixes (put in the middle of the word) that forms its entire grammar.
Synthetic languages show their grammar by changing the form of the word. The change can come at the beginning or end of the word, or even in the middle, and will indicate things like singular or plural, the tense of a verb, or whether a noun is subject or object. In English, for instance, the past tense either has an -ed at the end or the middle vowel changes, although other tenses are formed by using extra words. In a thoroughly synthetic language, word-order isn’t important – provided the words are in the correct form, “man bites dog” can mean the same as “dog bites man”.
Polysynthetic structures, which are only found in the languages of the Inuit and related peoples, are incredibly complex. The grammar works essentially by putting a subordinate word in the middle of the main word – a little like Eliza in My Fair Lady saying “abso-blooming-lutely”. In a polysynthetic language, though, an entire sentence can be folded in on itself that way.
It can be useful to know which structure a language has even if you’re only wanting to create names. If your language is synthetic, for instance, names might tend to have specific endings – the best-known example is the -us and -a endings for male and female names in Latin. It’s not as simple of that, though – certainly not in Latin, where some names are the other way round, and there are many other endings used too.
One language-culture I included in At An Uncertain Hour has an agglutinative form, using mainly suffixes, and has noun-categories, a way of indicating what a word refers to that’s used in many African languages. I didn’t invent a single word of this language, apart from half a dozen names, but its structure is clear from the fact that all people’s names end in the suffix -va and all place-names in -ne.
Another thing to bear in mind is that languages don’t usually exist in isolation (though there are probably real-world cases where they do, and you could certainly create a fantasy-world example). Languages that come into contact with one another will tend to exchange words, especially when the word represents an object or a concept the speakers of one language haven’t come across before. A lot of words entered English from Indian languages during the period of the British Raj, and many have also been derived from specific things or ideas from Native American or Australian Aboriginal languages. No European language, for instance, had an adequate word for a boomerang.
The likelihood is that neighbouring languages will be related to one another, forming a bloc of similar languages. This doesn’t always follow, though. Sometimes, related languages will be spoken a long way apart, and neighbouring ones will be unrelated. For example, Hungarian and Romanian are surrounded by Slavonic languages, such as Russian, Polish and Serbo-Croat, but neither is Slavonic. Romanian is a Romance language, related to French, Spanish and Italian, and only distantly to Slavonic, while Hungarian is completely unrelated to either group, though distantly connected to Finnish.
It’s not always immediately obvious why languages are regarded as related, since the sounds in words can change radically. For example, the Latin word for foot, which has the basic stem ped, is actually the same word as foot. There’s a phonetic connection between p and f, and between d and t, while vowels change even more easily than consonants. That can be heard easily in regional accents.
Linguists have, over a couple of centuries, worked out fairly regular rules by which the sounds of one language will change in those of another (that one was discovered by the Brothers Grimm – yes, those ones) and developed a series of families and sub-families to categorise the world’s languages.
There’s no need, of course, for a fantasy writer to work out all these rules for their world’s languages, but it’s as well to understand in general terms how it works, even if you’re only using it for names. The same name might appear in different forms in different countries, just as John becomes Ian in Scotland, Sean in Ireland, Jean in France and Juan in Spain. Understanding how this operates in your own world can give it a feeling of interconnectedness.
In the real world, some languages are clearly related, while others appear not to be, but this might be the result of the evidence being buried over countless millennia. In the example given above, it’s entirely possible that Hungarian and Finnish actually are related to the Indo-European family, which includes most European languages, but the connections are too difficult to work out.
There’s long been an argument among linguists over whether all human language derived from a single source, or whether it developed independently in different areas of the world. This depends largely on when humans began speaking. Until recently, it’s been believed that this happened at a time when we were already spread all over the earth, but recent evidence has begun to point towards a much earlier period when our ancestors all lived in a relatively small area of Africa. Maybe it’s really true that English, Chinese, Swahili and the languages of the Aborigines and Native Americans all had their origin in the same primal tongue – like Tolkien’s Quenya. In any case, when you create a fantasy world, it’s your choice. As long as you can make it convincing.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t attempt to be a kit to make a fantasy language. What I aim for is to give an idea of the kind of things you’ll need to learn if you want to create a convincing fantasy language. Good luck.