Worldbuilding: Languages

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

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I think this is something I’ve always played around with as a kid.  I used to create interesting-looking writing characters and put them to the English alphabet.  Never did a whole lot with them, though.  (I did actually create a new font type using Fontifier once.  That was a lot of fun.)

But really, languages go waaaaay deeper than characters and alphabets, as I’m sure you can appreciate.


I have a confession to make: I am a horrible citizen of the world.  I’ll learn a new language, oh sure, but don’t count on me to actually use it on a daily basis or, heaven bid, speak it fluently.  I took about four years of Spanish in high school, but I don’t actually use it a whole lot now (except occassionally at work, when people are trying to figure out what stuff to buy; I can generally pick up what they’re talking about and make recommendations for them).

What a waste, right?  Guess I’m just your typical American in that way, trying to earn some college credits to make life easier down the road.  I was an honors student (still am–magna cum laude, yo!); the GPA game, inevitably, took precedence.

It’s just I’ve always been fascinated with people who can speak other languages; it’s a mystery to me.  Though I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to become one of those people (as stupid as this may sound) because then the mystery of it all would be gone.

Call it a silly form of idealism.

I don’t know.  I think some people have a gift for speaking in different tongues and others don’t.  (Excuses, right?)  But I don’t think those four years and AP credits were a complete waste of my time.  In fact, it wasn’t wasteful at all.

Building a Language (or two, or three, or…)

If you speak Spanish, then you already know that the syntax rules are a bit different from those in English.  For example, if you want to say “the fat cat” you wouldn’t literally say “the fat cat;” you’d say “the cat fat” (el gato gordo).  Not to mention, words in Spanish actually have gender associations, so if you wanted to say “the fat girl,” it wouldn’t be la chica gordo but instead la chica gorda.  (But don’t go spouting that one around!  “Ey, chica gorda–ven aquí!” *slap*)  Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, further complicating things.

Anyways, I always thought this was interesting.

These two rules about Spanish are just the little, easy things to catch on to.  We haven’t even brushed verb conjugation!  (Good lord.)  I can’t properly imagine how languages like Japanese or Arabic might work, but I bet it’d be fun to learn (if only out of curiosity).  In any case, it’s stuff like that which you can incorporate into your own make-believe languages to make them more life-like while sounding foreign to the English-speaker’s ear.

There is an entire world of languages out there from which to derive inspiration and to serve as models for any languages you decide to create.  Even if you haven’t taken lessons in another language, you can at least look up phonetics and phonology or listen to audio and video clips of people talking in tongues that are foreign to you.  Honestly, being a musician, a lot of times I just go by the general sound that I want a certain language to take on, and I only develop enough of it to get by.  (If I didn’t, I would have never gotten around to writing the first draft in the first place!)

To create a new language, I would recommend getting a feel for the sound of it first by brainstorming sound combinations for words (which don’t necessarily have to have meanings just yet but can later) then establish the alphabet and “rules” while developing a vocabulary that you think you’ll want to use in your story as you go along.  Of course, you can get really in depth with this, but you don’t have to because the rest, as they say, is just gravy.

An Example

So right now in Element 7 there are actually seven languages which are made reference to.  (And no, that was not an intentional allusion to the seven elements in the story, though now that I think about it… Hm, I could really do something with that!)  Anyhow, those languages are:

  1. Windi (which is just my name for English, because it wouldn’t really make sense to use “English” in a make-believe world);
  2. Borellian (I use this one a lot, actually; it’s modeled after Italian and French and was meant to be a bridge language between the ancient Nolians, who spoke Windi, and the Trysteese, who were displaced from their homeland into Nolian territory–which is why it’s somewhat similar to Windi, or English);
  3. Heinu (only loosely developed at this stage; somewhat modeled after Japanese);
  4. Keshema (kind of inspired by Arabic, maybe?  Very loosely developed);
  5. Urzu (um…couldn’t tell you what that’s modeled after, though it’s certainly not Urdu; I haven’t used it much, at this stage);
  6. Qyowen (a weird mixture of Chinese maybe and early Mesoamerican languages, I suppose; it’s considered an antiquated language, so I haven’t used it extensively); and finally
  7. Trysteese (which originally was going to be modeled off of Greek, though it turned out to be something else; also considered an antiquated language).


Is it crazy that I’ve listed that many languages for one novel?  I hope not.  It’s not like I’ve fully developed them all, either.  For most of them, I’ve just given them distinct names and only use a couple of words from each in my character’s dialogue.  For some, it’s mostly just been useful for coming up with city and region names.

But anyways, those are my languages.  I am by no means an expert in linguistics.  Not even close.  I just like making stuff up (or mixing stuff, as may be the case).

Here is a snapshot of an Excel table I’ve created using Holly Lisle’s Language Clinic suggestions.  It helps me keep track of all the words and rules I develop along the way for Borellian (though, honestly, I sometimes just wing the rules or follow the ones used in Spanish, heh):

(Click it to see it full-size!)

A few examples of sentences in Borellian might be:

  • Ah, e Dammissi Román–noittro piolotti nouva!  (“Ah, and Miss Román–our new pilot!”)
  • Nes no saene viti dammene, no?  (“She isn’t very lady-like, is she?”)
  • Ouele, nes saelét cala fete fer tad tempe.  (Literally, “Yes, she has been like that for all time,” or more simply, “Yes, she’s always been that way.”)

Random, I know.  Only the first one is in the story now.  And here’s what Trysteese would look like if it was written out:

Voi’s name in Trysteese, though it’s spelled the approximated “Foi” since the letter V doesn’t exist.

Why Use Languages At All?

I think the number one reason would be just to make any cultural differences between your characters stand out and feel more realistic–particularly if they are incumbent on the plot.

Language is important in my WIP because certain world events have happened to certain peoples, which makes them perceive things differently than their neighbors.  (Vague, I know.)  The idea of the seven elements is one of those things which is understood differently between cultures in Element 7, and this colors some of the world religions.  Also, the word emelesia, which is the condition Voi has, has its roots in both Borellian and its predecessor language Trysteese.  And since Voi is half-Borellian…

It’s all very connected.  Let’s just leave it at that.  (Element 7 has first and foremost been a labor of love, people.)

Also, you can have a bit of fun and create language tics which can effect people differently.  For example, urche, the medication Voi takes, is a Borellian word by origin and is pronounced “oor-keh” in that language, though Windi-speakers tend to pronounce it as “yerk.”  This naturally annoys some Borellians to no end, as the two sound nothing alike; it entirely loses its Borellian flavor when pronounced the Windi way.  So sometimes I have one of my Windi-speaking characters use “yerk” to deliberately piss off a particularly annoying Borellian character.  (Voi’s name is another one–“voy” versus “vwah.”)

A minor thing, but I use it to build character.

Hey, what do you know?  My posts are still looking long!

Okay, so tomorrow I’ll touch on magic systems.  (I know Brandon Sanderson wrote a good article on this somewhere…I’ll have to find that.)

Qui aba vú?  “What about you?”

Okay, so that’s not actually 100% original at all because qui actually means a few other things in French and other languages like Latin and Catalan (but I really, really love that word and kind of want people to be able to guess at the meaning anyway, so meh).  And according to Wiktionary, vu means “you” in Ido.  Though honestly, I didn’t know about that last one.  (I just looked it up, heh.)  But aba doesn’t appear to mean “about” in any language I have access to, so hurray for that, I suppose.

That’s another thing you can do is Goggle the words you think you’re inventing to see if they’ve already been invented.  It can be crushing. *sighs*

So how about you?  Have you tried your hand at creating a new language, or do you think it’s just a waste of time?


7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Languages

  1. >I think creating such a rich and elaborate language is a waste of time, sort of. As a minimalist, I want as little as possible to be between the reader and my story. Creating and using these imaginative languages not only can create a barrier for the reader, but it's also self-indulgent and can easily be a distraction for the writer.When you watch a movie like Troy, why don't they speak Greek? Or why not Latin in Gladiator? Because reading subtitles would get in the way. You would be spending a lot of energy looking and reading at the bottom, potentially missing a very important visual. If two characters of the same language are conversing, write in English (if you're writing for English speaking readers).If two characters are speaking foreign languages to each other, have the non-English person's ENGLISH words be in italics. The English person would be thinking, 'I have no idea what he's saying. It's a foregin tongue.'And until they find a common language, it's realistic for the two to not get each other, while the reader gets everything, creating a little dramatic irony and tension while you're at it.I know a lot of epic fantasy writers create these huge worlds with so much detail and all of these languages. But I think it's an extravagance. The writer can get lost, distracted from the most important thing – storytelling.I say let the language and world building be a part of the story, not just adding another 300 pages to a book to flex your imaginative muscle. Don't make the readers have to work too hard. We read stories for fun, to escape – especially fantasy/speculative. We like to use our imaginations. But you pump in too much detail, you don't leave much room for that imagination, and everything is so spelled out, that reading your story takes so much effort.As an editor, I come with a samurai sword, and I'm not afraid to cut and slash!


  2. >Thanks for the honest response! This really interests me.To be clear, I don't actually write out entire blocks of dialogue in foreign languages in my story. When it's used, it is done so sparingly. Maybe a sentence in Borellian (and actually, I only do this a handful of times through the entire manuscript). But even then the meaning can be implied by how my characters react to it, and all the verbal reactions are done in "English."The reason I'm trying this out is because a lot of times authors who create secondary worlds will mention, "Oh, there's this language and that," but we don't actually get to *see* much of it. It may be in the names of characters and places, but usually that's just about it.If I'm going to read about a foreign fantasy world, I kind of want to *experience* it's foreign-ness–and for me that means occasionally feeling "lost" in translation. Though, at the same time I don't want to feel lectured to like I'm stupid. I want to feel like I can participate in the exchange while still maintaining that foreign quality. I want to be able to infer the meaning of whatever is being said, without it being overtly spelled out for me like I'm a kindergartener.But I can respect the whole minimalist approach. [Creating languages] can become self-indulgent, if you let it. It think it depends on what kind of reader you are and how much worldbuilding you are willing to indulge in. Personally, I like richly developed worlds, for the most part. I don't mind an author showcasing this, so long as it makes the story stronger.As for Troy, I actually would have preferred if they spoke actual Greek and used subtitles. It would feel more authentic to me. Yes, it requires that I put more effort into paying attention, but I don't mind that at all because I love hearing the sound of foreign languages. It's a different kind of music. This is why I enjoy watching foreign language films every now and then.As another example of this, I love how Quentin Tarantino handles languages in Inglourious Basterds. Yes, sometimes the characters speak in English, but they also speak in other languages, too. It's mixed. (He may be my greatest inspiration in trying this, and I really admire his use of dialogue.)


  3. >I'm going to deviate a bit, for fun, with regards to Troy. I mean, Brad Pitt does not look Greek. If they wanted to make an authentic movie, then put Greeks (or Greek-looking people) and have them speak Greek, right?But foreign languages is so much fun. And for many writers, so is creating new ones!But the world building and the lanugage creation really can be a trap. I've seen so many writers procratinate with writing their story by doing all this background stuff. Creating a language and all of that includes (syntax, grammar, etc) is a LOT of work. That's why you hear of many unpublished authors taking 3,4,22 years to write a book!The balance is to create a foundation of the world, including language, and it can really help guide the writing. And the inverse is true, as your writing can influence the language and world building. But that balance can be tough to find.From a reader's perspective, they don't want info. dumping either. Which can be so easy to do when you're excited about this wonderful exotic world with it's own language that you've created. Striking that balance helps create another texture to your plot, and it allows the reader to get lost in the world you've built.


  4. >That's true about Brad Pitt, but that's probably just one of the many reasons why I didn't care for the film, heh. It is what it is, I guess.In regards to writers taking years to produce a novel, that’s a whole other discussion, on which I’ll have to agree to disagree with you on some (implied) points. I don’t believe that taking longer than two (or however many) years to write a debut novel is necessarily a bad thing; some writers need that time to mature. There are plenty of published authors out there who have taken their time (particularly on their debut novels), and they aren’t thought any less of for it.However, I do agree that writing is largely a balancing act. Balance should always be aimed for. And infodumping should be avoided.


  5. Actually, funny enough, I’d read this before – but I read it when I first started following you, and hadn’t decided whether to comment yet. That, and I didn’t have anything to add except that I’m supportive of the idea of creating languages for the worlds we write in – though I’ll concede their use within the frame of the story needs to be tempered.


    • Lol, I do that on new blogs sometimes. I might wait until I’ve read it for a week or two before I decide to contribute, heh.

      But yeah, languages is definitely one of those things you could potentially go overboard with…


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