LANGUAGE CREATION – PART 1
LANGUAGE CREATION WITHOUT BEING A SCHOLARYou’re writing the next epic fantasy saga. You’ve started to create an amazing world and have begun to fill it with three-dimensional, unique characters that draw upon the powers of a magic system so sweet it would make Brandon Sanderson weep. Now all you need to do is bust out that notebook and start concocting a second and maybe third language for your races to use. After all, in order to successfully weave a convincing, amazing fantasy story, you have to have the alternate language’s alphabets worked out, the sentence structures built, and a small dictionary of words for at least the lines your characters will speak. Right? Wrong. Absolutely wrong. The thing is…there are very few people in this world, even among skilled writers, who could actually create a completely fleshed-out and fully-functioning language. I know--I know what you’re thinking. “Nuh-uh! Tolkien did it!”. Yes. Yes, he did. Let’s talk a bit about him for a bit, shall we? Professor J.R.R. Tolkien has something special about his name. Can you find it? I’ll give you a hint: It’s preceded by a title given to him by Oxford University. He was a professor. And not just any professor, but a professor of linguistics, well versed from infancy in English, Latin, French, and German. This guy was speaking four languages from the cradle, one of which is a dead language. If that wasn’t enough, by the end of his life he spoke: Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh, as well as being competent with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish and other older Germanic languages. That’s at least 21 different languages in one skull! If you have mastered even half that count, stop reading this post. You’ll find nothing in it for you. If you’re like the rest of us however, and can barely hold in a handful of other languages (or none at all), keep reading. Tolkien was, to put it lightly, a master linguist and was more than capable of constructing a new language for his books. The good news about that is that it resulted in a masterpiece of fantasy and arguably, the source of modern high-fantasy fiction. Never before had a fantasy story been so deeply embedded in sophisticated culture and language. The bad news? That’s a high standard to live up to. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. To create a deep, functioning language for your story would require some serious work. It would be more than just making up cool sounding words and deciding how to string them together. A spoken language is very much a living thing in that it evolves, adapts, and changes its characteristics through historical events, cultural shifts, and just plain passing of time. One word could mean something one time, then take on a whole new meaning later. Phrases and idioms to express ourselves come from the culture of the society where one lives and can be deeply understood in one region, while making absolutely no sense in another. Volumes could be written on the complexities of language. How crazy it is that we try to replicate that in our stories! Now before I go on, I want to make it clear that despite what it seems, I am in no way trying to scare anybody away from the idea of trying to create languages and make them a prominent aspect of your story. Stories differ as widely as their writers do and if you think you have it in you, well then I say, Godspeed. What I want to communicate is that instead of sweating bullets in thinking you must face this monster in order to write your story, just don't do it. As a writer, and especially a fantasy writer, you should know there is no obligation to do so. You never signed a contract forcing you to make such an endeavor and if you don’t, you will not be branded as a failure and your book has just as much potential as any other to be grand. In fact, I submit that most people that try to replicate Tolkien’s efforts (and maybe even do a decent job at it), often distract from telling a good story about characters more than enhance it. In LANGUAGE CREATION PART 2, we will dive in and discuss specific ways to make your artificial languages feel authentic. We will look at things you can do with little to no second-language experience to create a fantasy tongue your readers can believe so you can get on telling the amazing story you want to tell without having to use precious months or years of writing time figuring out how language works. You can just tell a great story. Because in the end…isn’t that what it’s really all about? Have you ever felt overwhelmed trying to undertake language creation? What are your failures and successes? Sound off in the comments below and until next time, keep that pen moving!