LANGUAGE CREATION – PART 2
Writing any kind of fiction is all about creating illusions
. Often when we read a book about dragons, magical realms, and otherworldly races, w
e say that it was enjoyable because it was “believable”.
This term suggests that despite our being aware that something like a dragon doesn’t really exist or that it is impossible for someone to travel to another world via a magical wardrobe, we believe
it is true because of the way an author described it, or presented it to us. If the gears behind the carefully-crafted words are doing their jobs, we willingly allow ourselves to think that impossibility is possible. A fictitious language is no different. If we know how to present it in a realistic and natural way, drawing from real-life linguistic technicalities, our readers will believe that it is a living, breathing language, even when it is the native tongue of spear-toting fish people.
So what are some of those ways? Everyone does things differently and each writer’s personal experiences will make his/her language creation process unique. However, below I will discuss a few tips and tricks that I have found useful to make the language you imagined feel a bit more real as well as some smart guidelines to help you avoid cheesiness and sparing your readers frustration.
- Avoid big blocks of conversation in a foreign tongue. It seems crazy to even need to mention this, but believe it or not, far too often I have seen paragraphs in published works that go something like this:
“[Protagonist] listened intently from behind the cover of the trees to the conversation of the [insert insanely weird race here]. “Argaboondah!” said the first as he banged his fist on his chest. “Morgo-theelai Restov,” responded the other. The first seemed angry and lashed out again furiously. “Asergardish blahdee blah blah foropist margeshah! Argo forknspoon flippity blah blah!” The other frowned. “Becka doodah mergonah.”
You get the idea. This is not only painful to read, but can be confusing and make your characters go from serious to silly real quick. It also is a nice, lace-bordered, formally sealed invitation to the reader to take an up-close and personal look at your artificial language and scrutinize every aspect of it. Fiction authors cannot afford to lose credibility with something like this. Referencing part one of this post, Tolkien, who had amazingly real languages invented for his books, is criticized even today by many a reader when he took the liberty to have conversations (albiet small) in a language other than English. Not because it wasn’t good, but because, quite simply, we don’t speak Elvish! One way around this is to explain the conversation through exposition with interesting adjectives:
“[Protagonist] listened intently from behind the cover of the trees to the conversation of the [insert insanely weird race here]. The taller one banged his fist on his chest and shouted while the other cowered and mumbled replies. Although [protagonist] could not understand them, the words sounded harsh and gargled like the sound of something drowning. To the smaller’s quiet replies, the larger of the two lashed out furiously again in a string of chokes and rumbles.”
2. But often use words you created – when they mean something.
Going off of the first point, you can use words of your made-up tongue to your advantage also. Depending on the background, culture, etc. of the character speaking another language, you can come up with some fun phrases that roll off the tongue and use them often, like a curse or an expression; just make sure that it is understood by the reader. Have another character ask what it means once in dialogue so the reader knows the translation, then use it throughout the story. This can result in a lot of fun banter or provide opportunity for deeper thematic exploration. Even better, make it an expression that doesn’t exist in the common tongue so you can pack a lot of meaning into it. So instead of a character of a different race simply saying their word-for-word language equivalent of “excuse me”, they could have an expression completely unfamiliar to the other characters that means “sorry” and “I’m rude” and “forgive me” all at once. (This is a real-life example of a Japanese phrase.)
3. Shake up the pattern.
Don’t feel like you need to follow English sentence structure and composition. Think outside the box. Remember that every language differs greatly and rarely is it a case of just substituting our words for foreign ones. Some languages don’t have spaces between their words as English does. Some languages don’t use articles (the, an, a, etc). Some languages take only half the time to write, but twice as long to say. Shake up the pattern of your language to make it feel truly foreign and strange. Perhaps an English sentence like “I’ll see you tomorrow” would simply be “Menin” in the language of the cannibalistic swamp trolls (why not?). Or a character’s simple name, Tom, is spelled with twelve symbols from bottom to top.
4. Take time to make the foreign words you do use, good.
Words of your new language are your creation so you can make them however you want, right? Well, technically yes but that gives us no right as authors to abuse that privilege. Let’s not forget that when we write a book and then ask people to pay money to read it, one of the unspoken promises we give our readers is that they can sit back, relax, and have a good time. Coming across word after word that’s missing vowels and looks like it was spouted out of a fantasy name generator can be frustrating and jarring to the point of breaking the reader out of the illusion of the story. Consider this example: R.A. Salvatore has written some great books in the Forgotten Realms universe, one of my favorite being the origin story of one very iconic fantasy character, the dark elf, Drizz’t Do’Urden. Yeah, you read it right. Or maybe you saw the name and skipped it. And keep in mind that this is the name of the main character. While I eventually got used to his name, many others in the story take it much farther to the point where I chuckled every time I saw them...and this book is not supposed to make you chuckle very often. Drizz’t Do’Urden hails, by the way, from the city called Menzoberranzan. Yup. Menzoberranzan
. Sure, these words can be slowly sounded out and committed to memory, but is it really worth wrenching your reader out of your world? Come up with names and words that flow and can be read easily and don’t rely fully on apostrophes and dashes to make them look special.
5. Let your foreign-speakers behave naturally.
If you have any characters in your story speaking a foreign language, make sure you take their individual circumstances and background into consideration to determine how they would realistically behave and interact with others. Did they just recently learn the common language and still haven’t perfected it? Were they raised speaking both from birth? For example, if they are newer to speaking the common language of your story, they would likely be listening to conversations significantly more than participating in them since it is difficult to follow every detail of two (or more) people speaking an unfamiliar language at full speed. Even for those with a lot of experience, speaking a language that is not your native requires a lot of mental effort and can be exhausting to hear and speak for long periods of time. When this character does chime in, his words would naturally be simpler, more direct or even a tad awkward, and void of slang or common expressions. Other conditions such as tiredness, fatigue, or agitation, can also have a negative impact on language skills. So what happens then, when all of the characters in the story speak English except for two of them who are both of different race- siblings, perhaps? As inconvenient as it is from a writing standpoint, these two would almost always speak to each other in their native tongue, even when others that don’t understand are around them. If you are ever unsure about how a character would act in a given situation, put yourself in their shoes. If you were an American in China and knew just enough Chinese to get by and you stubbed your toe, would your reaction be to yell ‘Aiyo’? Probably not. You would yell what is most natural to you. If you encountered another American studying abroad would you start conversing in Chinese? I doubt it. As your diverse cast of fantasy characters mingle with one another, be aware of what the foreign speakers are thinking and experiencing to add that extra little layer of realism.
We could talk forever on the subject and I know this post is long-winded, but it goes to show there is a lot more to language creation than meets the eye (or tongue). But if you can think outside the box, draw from real language as much as possible and carefully craft your wording, you could have a realistic second language that could withstand a good deal of scrutiny. And most importantly, you can focus more effort on telling a good story and your readers can stay immersed. Tell me about tips and tricks you have found to make the process easier in the comments below!
Until next time, keep that pen moving!