Worldbuilding: Language and Names!

Discussion in 'Tips and Tricks' started by Lauriam, Jun 2, 2018.


Which topic would you like me to write about next?

Poll closed Jun 16, 2018.
  1. Environment

    0 vote(s)
  2. Magic Systems

    0 vote(s)
  3. Races

  4. Religion and Mythology

  5. Diversity

    0 vote(s)
  6. Economy, Export, and Trade

  7. Science, Technology, and Medicine

    0 vote(s)
  8. History

    0 vote(s)
  1. Lauriam I hope I didn't keep you waiting...

    Jun 4, 2009
    Nonbinary she/he/it?
    Alright, as requested, here's my guide on Language and Names in Worldbuilding! :D

    When you create a world, especially in fantasy, sci-fi, or some in dystopia, you're not just building environments and magics and governments. There are some things that have little to nothing to do with these things, and language is one of those things.

    Language, after all, might be the only category in my list that is not impacted by the Environment at all. XD At least, not the environment as far as weather and seasons. Social environment, yes.

    Language is the basis for all communication in any world, and yours is no exception. Even though you're going to write the book itself in whatever language you intend to publish it in, it's important to be aware that the characters' native tongues are as much a part of them as yours is a part of you. There are many ways to do this - to include language as a cultural heritage while still writing in a tongue considered foreign to the characters.

    Tolkien chose to explain the English in Middle Earth as a "common tongue" that most if not all races knew, even though they also knew their original tongues. This is a reflection of the Latin and Greek languages that spread and influenced throughout many cultures during the rise of the Roman Empire, and is also mirrored by the spread of the English language today. A "Common Tongue" language is very common among fantasy series' and for good reason. A Common Tongue is a useful way to write in a language the reader will understand without breaking the enchantment of a world in which this language would not normally be spoken.

    If you go with a Common Tongue approach, there are a few ways you can incorporate your created language (or other languages in general, in diverse earth-settings) without confusing the readers.

    1. Have non-POV characters sometimes speak in their native tongue

    Say there's a situation that needs discussing, but that the character speaking doesn't want the POV character (or others around them) to hear. Consider in the movie version of Lord of the Rings, the Two Towers, when Legolas and Aragorn start talking about the upcoming battle at Helm's Deep, and they slip into Elvish so as not to scare the non-elvish-speaking humans around them. This scene is powerful because of the gravity of their conversation, and the fact that they're aware of what their words could do: that courage before a battle could be the deciding factor and that by speaking thoughtlessly, the mere fact they have no hope could bring about their own downfall. This act, this switch from English to Elvish, made an already serious situation even more powerful.

    Of course, books have no subtitles, so you'd be very hard pressed to use such a tactic in the written word if you wanted to include the POV character in the conversation. But if the POV character is the one the speakers are trying to protect, your scene would have two other characters deep in a tense conversation the reader can't understand, and this itself could be used to drive the emotion of the scene even deeper. Having important, serious information purposefully withheld from you is sometimes just as alarming and worrying as knowing the potentially damaging information.

    On the other side of the coin, native language shared by two characters a third can't understand could also open the scene up to options of humor or confusion during the lighthearted or casual moments in the work. Believe me, I have written scenes in other works where two characters speak a common language and everyone else (including the POV character) is clueless as to what they're saying, and they can be funny, adorable, and excellent ways to add to a character's depth. "So... When did you learn to speak Spanish?!"

    If you want to leave your characters in confusion, simply don't translate the remarks, but providing a translating character who relays what's being said to the rest of the group is a good way to go if you want the contents of these remarks known. As long as you don't get carried away with translations, you should be good.

    2. Incorporate one or two words from other languages into the character dialogue without making it the focus of the scene

    This tactic will mainly involve foreign curses, so I hope you have a few on hand. XD Curses, expressions of surprise or pain, and heartfelt reactions to particularly emotional moments, are all largely reactionary, and as such, will rarely come out in a second language. It's different if you've lived in a different culture for a long while, spending most of your time speaking the second language and talking to native-speakers all day long. But for most people, your reactions will be in your native tongue rather than your second. An English Speaker will almost always say "ow" before they say "ita," even if they've learned fluent Japanese.

    The occasional word during moments of surprise will rarely need explanation or attention if you've set up the scene and your use of language properly. The reader should know, just from the context of the scene, that the character is calling down curses on whatever object tripped her. To have the POV character wonder what it means when So-n-So says those curses is only going to break the pacing of the scene and might even cause readers to feel slightly affronted that you thought they couldn't figure out it was a curse on their own. It's a hard balance - you want it to be clear that the character is being foul-mouthed in a new language, but you also don't want to get into over-explanation and risk breaking the enchantment or cause a negative reaction in the reader.

    3. Use the created language as a call to arms or sign of rebellion, or as a beloved but dying piece of culture (or both)

    This is especially useful if you're crafting a work that features oppression of a race or culture, so will do well in dystopias, though it's not restricted to that genre by any means. This tactic features the language itself as something to be used and protected in situations where it's frowned upon, socially unacceptable, or even forbidden. A conquered nation, for example, that has been stripped of their right to their culture and is ordered to learn and speak only the language of the conquering kingdom might rebel against it by shouting out an emotionally charged line in their native tongue as a battle cry before leading the rallied troops into a fight. They might utter this battle cry as they spit on the shoes of the antagonistic enforcer that arrests them after they lose the fight. They might refuse to say anything else while the enforcer interrogates them for information about the other rebels. And they might call it out as their final farewell as they're executed for their crimes.

    Or, if you're not writing an oppression but rather a simple preservation of a dying culture, have some beloved phrases or words used in addition to the common tongue, that share a feeling of happiness, nostalgia, and realism with the reader, even if they're on the outside looking in. This is a tactic I'm intending to use in one of the nations in my story, where the old tongue is used interspersed with the 'common' one, and so certain terms are spoken in the old language even though the residents mostly speak the common tongue. If you're confused about what I mean by this, consider it sort of a reflection of the way English speakers say things like "carpe diem," "voila," or "c'est la vie." Oftentimes, cultures with more than one language will still use both, even if one is more common than the other or one is not even their language at all.

    If you have taken a Common Tongue approach, these are three ways you can incorporate language naturally and effectively, especially if you use all three tactics as appropriate for various situations.

    One of the biggest criticisms to a Common Tongue approach to language is the "common tongue" itself. Mainly, the existence of one language widely accepted and spoken by all in a world or known world. Yes, there are mirrors of this in real life, as I've mentioned, but not everyone in the world speaks two languages in real life. Even a widely accepted "common tongue" is not actually a common tongue at all, just a tongue spoken by significantly more groups of people. There will always be people who don't understand or speak it. If you wish to preserve this realistic element in your work, feature scenes or chapters with one or more characters who don't speak the common tongue, or better yet, place your party in a situation where they're the outlier and it's everyone else speaking a language the MC can't understand. Not only does this showcase the diversity of your world and add realism, it can also be used as a plot device for serious moments and humorous ones, with or without a translator (see point 1 above.)

    Now that I've talked about a way to incorporate language into your story, let's briefly talk about the language itself.

    If you're creating a whole new language from scratch, there are a few things to keep in mind. Sound profile, sentence structure, the written word, and cultural circumstance (idioms, honorifics, phrases unique to one language or culture, "lost in translation.")

    1. Sound profile

    Languages are not particularly similar to each other. Some that share a common parent language might have similarities (i.e. the Romance languages that evolved from a form of Latin) but even they have differences, and sound nothing like some of the other languages in the world (such as Asian or Hispanic languages.) This is important to remember, especially if you're writing more than one language. They don't all have to sound like Tolkien's Elvish, some can sound like Doctor Who's Judoon.

    To build a sound profile for your languages, consider things like harsher vs softer tones and consonants, long and short vowels, and frequency of sounds. Harsher languages will contain lots of H sounds, I find, in combination with consonants and vowels alike. It won't be uncommon for a harsh language to have lots of "ach," "sh," "hah," "arhk" sounds, whereas a softer language might have more "ss," "ahh," "el," or "ia" sounds. One thing to be aware of, when choosing a sound profile, is to try and avoid coding, which in this case is the accidental practice of giving stereotypical real-life racial attributes to a fantasy race that paints said real-life race in a negative light. Unless you're going for allegory, which is intentionally giving real-life attributes to a fantasy race to prove a point, it's best to try and avoid making a race too similar to something in real life. (And if you are going for allegory, I highly recommend hiring a sensitivity-proofreader for your work to make sure your allegory is accurate and inoffensive, but that's beside the point.)

    2. Sentence structure

    One trap writers might fall into when writing a language is giving it a distinctive sound profile, but otherwise just copying English. The sentence structure as well as the sound should be unique: Not every language has to be structured according to English standards; and many real-life languages are not. If you're writing a language from scratch, throw all your English rules out the window. Subjects and Predicates, Prepositions, Conjunctions, toss 'em out. Try going for something new, or draw inspiration from a different language's sentence structure. If you want to write a language, try to study as many different languages as you can - even if you don't have enough time to learn them all fluently.

    3. The Written Word

    There is a vast difference between the written and spoken word. Someone can speak a language fluently and with ease and yet when you place a book in their hands, they might be at a loss. Even some native-speakers have trouble reading their own language on paper. Written word is hard, especially if trying to bridge the gap between alphabetic and logographic writing systems.

    If you want to create a unique written word for your culture, remember that it's okay to stray away from your known alphabet. You can make new letters, new combinations of letters, remove letters. You can take some consonants away from your language completely, you can add new vowels that represent either the long or short form of one of ours. You can abandon alphabet completely and create a logograph where certain symbols represent words or forms of words. You can have as much creative freedom with a written word as you can with a spoken word. And, if your culture or race allows it, it is okay to have an entire people be illiterate, as long as this isn't offensive coding, and it's not just an excuse to not invent a written word. XD

    4. Cultural Circumstance

    Language stems from many sources, and is a major part of cultural identity. As such, it draws from the culture that appropriates it, the two influencing each other in a way that makes language deeply personal and unique to its' people of origin. And while it might bleed over into other nations through trade and travel, there are some things that are specific only to that language, that can't be imitated or translated into other cultures. When you write a language for a race or culture, you must be aware of that culture's history, identity, and personality.

    Some aspects of language that are reliant on cultural circumstance can include (but aren't limited to) idioms, curses, slurs, religious terms, honorifics, greetings, formal speech, and the like. Idioms are basically ancient memes, lol. They stem from a certain parable or circumstance that caught on and became common in speech due to popularity. "The proof is in the pudding" actually stems from the phrase "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," which roughly means "You won't know if you'll get food poisoning from bad food 'til you eat it and get food poisoning, because we're in the lower class and don't have the money nor means to make sure our food isn't rotten." XD "The writing on the wall" means that the signs that warned of tragedy were obvious to see from the beginning, and is credited to a Bible story in which the hand of God appeared to a king, literally writing on the wall to warn him that his present course of action would lead to ruin. The word "okay," though harder to trace, has often been attributed to a jokey intentional misspelling of the words "all correct" to instead read "orl korrekt," first rising to popularity in the 1830's and then abbreviated to "O.K." and cemented in culture in 1840 when U.S. president Martin Van Buren, nicknamed "Old Kinderhook," ran the slogan "O.K. is O.K." during his re-election campaign. Honorifics, greetings, formal speech, all those can be reflections of a socially strict or conscientious culture, and the severity of these social behaviors are reflected in the terms used.

    All in all, be mindful of the culture you're writing for when creating a language to give them. The two are irrevocably connected, and must be handled with care.

    I've already been at this for several hours now and it's almost 11:30, so I'm going to just touch on names and then wrap this up. If you've built your language (or at least a linguistic type profile) for your nations, names will follow naturally. Especially if you've already set up religion and mythology, and history. Names oftentimes are given based on historical or religious meaning, and the importance of language doesn't even need mentioning. Pick names for your characters that are important to their parents and societies (unless they've chosen their own name, in which case pick names that are important to them) and try to make them reflective of their country of origin.

    Also, if you're making up your own names, please try to avoid making up a dumb sounding or overcomplicated name. XD If your MC is named Argathaniansorlot, you might have gone too far. I understand it's very hard to create brand new names in this day and age of seemingly endless media and an over-saturated market, but come on, have some standards. XD

    And there you have it!

    As a writer, you've chosen a path that will require you to be well-learned in many subjects. You need to be a scientist, architect, politician, detective, layman. You need to be beggar and king, hero and criminal mastermind. And above all else, you need to be a linguist. Even if you're not writing or incorporating other languages into your work, it's crucial you know as much as you can about language in general. You are, after all, a dealer in words. It's kind of crucial for you to be an expert therein.

    Poll for the next guide is up! As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to post and I'll try to get back to them as soon as I can, and if you want to follow me on twitter for more Writerly thoughts, the name's PlushChrome. Good luck with all your writing, I hope I gave some good advice, or at least inspired a couple fun ideas, lol. XD See you next time!
  2. Lauriam I hope I didn't keep you waiting...

    Jun 4, 2009
    Nonbinary she/he/it?
    Oh! I almost forgot to link to other guides in the Worldbuilding series. XD For anyone interested who hasn't already read them, here are my other two guides in this series so far:

    Architecture, Music, and Art