If you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction, it’s quite possible that one or more unique languages will feature in your story. Creating a new language can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five tips I learned and adhered to while creating languages for my own writing.
(Of course, if you’re not writing speculative fiction it’s entirely unlikely that this article will be useful. But I’ll try to keep it fun.)
Tip #1: Know your scope. It’s important that you know why you’re creating a new language and where you’ll use it. You may be a trained linguist who wants to write poems in your invented language, but you’re probably just creating a new tongue because it doesn’t make sense for your red-skinned sea wizards to speak Spanish or Dutch.
Any work you put into your language is time that you’re not spending on characterization and plot, so you want to put the right amount of effort into it. Don’t make an entire dictionary for two lines of dialogue. And conversely, don’t “just wing” that language that shows up in every chapter of your book. Your new tongue should accomplish your goals for it and nothing more.
Tip #2: Pick some sounds before you start. If your language is going to seem cohesive to readers, you can’t totally change its dominant sounds between scenes. You don’t want a language to always use the same vowel or anything, but understand in advance if the language should be harsh or flowing, if the sounds should be guttural or held in the front of the mouth, if the words tend to be short or long. These characteristics define and distinguish a language, and beginning with a sense of the language’s character can help keep it cohesive.
One way to make sure you have the right character is to speak some sample syllables aloud and see if they’re creating the sound you hoped for. Pro tip: do this when nobody is around. Especially your spouse. (Sorry, honey.)
Tip #3: Make it up as you go, but know what’s being said. Planning a novel is enough work without creating an entire language beforehand. Even if you could afford the time, it’s highly unlikely that you’d think of everything your characters need to say in a scene before you write it. So start writing, and inject bits of your language as you need them.
As you add lines or words from your new language, mark down what’s being said. (I’ll pass on some tips for managing your new language in Scrivener in a future post.) That’s important for your own sanity while editing, for keeping the language consistent in the future, and also for tracking any idioms or “popular” sayings your characters may be leveraging.
Tip #4: Create a dictionary and a grammar primer (if needed). As you write lines or words into your manuscript, create a quick translation guide in your notes. If your language uses an alternate structure for sentences, has a strange method for denoting possessives, involves a new system for conjugating verbs, etc., you’ll want to create a short grammar primer to remind you how to properly leverage your dictionary of words.
When you need new lines in your language, you can construct them using your dictionary and primer, and then place the fully formed sentences into your manuscript. I found doing so handy, because if I decided I wanted a new idiom or quirk of speech, I could try it out in a sentence and then immediately add it to my resources if I liked the way it worked.
Tip #5: Stick with it. Keeping your new language consistent and constantly updating your notes and resources is hard work. But if your story prominently features a fabricated language, you owe it to yourself and your work to put the extra effort in. It’s really rewarding to know that the language in your book is consistent. More importantly, having strong resources to work with will make you more free to include your new language wherever your story calls for it.
And if you’re looking for some nerd cred, well, you can’t do much better than making up a new language for your Orcs or Elves. Trust me. I’ve got experience with that.