Building A Fictional World: Language

Is developing your own fictional language for a novel really necessary?  For most fiction novels that are not fantasy or sci-fi, your characters will simply speak your native tongue and that will be the end of the conversation.

However, when it comes to fantasy or sci-fi, the answer to this question becomes more complicated.

You can choose to forgo the long task of creating a language to instill in your new world, and many new writers choose this option.  Our own languages in the real world developed over thousands of years into the complex speech that you hear every day.

If you are creating a new fictional language, you have much less time to essentially do what it usually takes thousands of years to accomplish.

If you are reading this, we will assume that you have decided to explore the possibility of a new language that you create.

Why Are You Creating A Language?

First, we will explore why you are creating a language.  There are a few simple questions that you need to ask yourself at this point in the exercise.

1.  Am I creating a language in order to differentiate different cultures in the same fictional world?

This is the usual reason that people undertake creating a language.  The practice gives a bit of realism to your world just as different countries in the real world speak different languages.

It creates an “us vs them” type of existence.  This helps create a definitive difference between two factions or groups in your fictional world.  The groups may live in near proximity to each other on your world map but the different languages set them apart.

2. Can differentiating different cultures be accomplished in any other way than by developing a new language for them?

Let’s face facts.  Creating a fictional language is hard if it is your first time, and it is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart.

Can your characters speak a common language that resembles your own native tongue?

This is a far better way of dealing with the language problem simply because it doesn’t require hours or even weeks of hard work trying to get every part of your language just right.

If you find you really want to continue to create your own language, then read on.

Keep meticulous notes of your new fictional language for quick reference.

How Will Your Characters Speak The Language?

Is the fictional language written, spoken, or signed?

There can be many variations of ways to convey a language.  Are your characters highly developed aliens that use telepathy, or do they use light flashes like Morse code?

Do your characters have the ability to speak the language, or are they mute and must sign the language?

Knowing your characters’ abilities and limitations from the beginning will make the process smoother.  An alien with no discernible mouth will probably either need to use telepathy or some way to sign to others who understand the language.

This should be the first thing you decide when developing your language.

Will All Of Your Characters Speak The Same Language?

Creating multiple fictional languages is not for the faint-of-heart.  If you want multiple languages, then, by all means, create them, but do so knowing that in the time it takes you to create them, you could have written a couple of chapters or even the whole novel.

The more reasonable way of accomplishing multiple languages is to create regional languages that vary from the original language only slightly.

In the United States, there are multiple variations of how to speak English.  Pronunciation of words in different ways or even accents can help create the differentiation that you are trying to accomplish.

You could create slang words or variations of jargon that sets each group apart.

Will you have a common fictional language that encompasses all regions and then have each individual region with their own language?  This approach allows you to have one language with some smattering of a different language when people from the same region are trying to talk without being understood by others not from their region.

A common language with occasional slang words from a newly created language might be a better option as it would require much less work and still get the point across that there are different cultures within your fictional world.

Be Consistent In Your Language

You will want to keep detailed notes of common words and phrases that you will use.  As you develop a fan-base for your novel, they could become super fans of your language and will notice if you just randomly throw out some letters and call it a language.

If a word like “athmorna” means apple in your language, then whenever you talk about an apple, you will need to use the same word.

Every language has rules that are essential for words.  For example, every English-speaking native knows that “I before E except after C”.  While it is also well known that there are exceptions to this rule, it is still widely taught to young children learning to spell.

If your fictional language always has the noun followed by the adverb, then this must follow through whenever someone speaks your language.

Make the rules but also make them consistent.

Your language will have rules that make it easier to follow for a non-native speaker.

Now The Real Work Begins

If you have gotten this far then, I will assume, you want to become a conlanger.  A conlang means a constructed language.

This is a language that has been constructed artificially rather than through culture and age.

A conlanger is a person who develops the conlang into a fully functional fictional language.

Check this article on the development of the Dothraki language that was developed for HBO’s Game of Thrones. 

This is a lot more work than it appears at first glance.

It often takes years to develop a fully functional language and often authors do not do this because of the time it takes.

A little-known fact is that J.R.R. Tolkien actually began creating his Elvish language around 1910 but continued perfecting it until his death in 1973. 

He actually wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as a way to show history and context for his created language.

That is correct.  He wrote those series as a showcase for his conlang.

For a fully functional fictional language, you would need to keep careful notes and develop a lexicon or dictionary so that non-native speakers can learn the pronunciation and spelling of unfamiliar words and phrases.

Write a lexicon or dictionary to compliment your new fictional language and keep all of your new words ready for reference.

Hire A Conlanger

If you are dead set on having a constructed language, you might decide to just hire a conlanger.

If you have the resources to do this, it would allow you to continue working on your novel and have someone who is proficient at conlanging do the hard work for you.

There are ways to hire a professional conlanger.

The Language Creation Society has a listing area for hiring a conlanger.  Here you can submit a project and have professionals apply for the job.

The price for their services ranges from $100 USD to $800 USD depending on the depth you wish to go with the language.  There is room to negotiate more extensive work with the conlanger. 

It should be noted that the original conlanger has the right to promote the new language unless you negotiate and give additional compensation for all exclusive rights and control.

To Conlang Or Not To Conlang, That Is The Question

Developing a constructed language will ultimately boil down to how much time and/or money you wish to invest.

If you are writing a lone novel, the development of such a large undertaking may not justify the end results.

If you are writing a series of novels, it’s best to weigh all the information available before you decide.

You can research authors of the most popular conlangs for ideas on how to develop your own if money is tight or this is your first attempt at conlanging.

You may find that you enjoy both the idea and the work involved in creating your own language.

Whichever you decide should be based on what is best for your novel and you in the end.

Read my other posts on creating your fictional world here!