As a writer of fiction, a table top gamer and a free form role player, creating fictional worlds has been a pretty big part of my life, creatively.
World building is a fun exercise, and it’s also a really important exercise if you ever intend to dabble in writing genres like fantasy or sci-fi, or, if you intend on running your own original tabletop campaign!
So I’ve decided to dedicate Wednesday’s, to world building, in the form of a fortnightly post. (That’s once every two weeks for my American frens.)
Don’t worry, it won’t always just be me waffling on at you about this stuff. I’ll be speaking to plenty of creators from all walks of world building life to hopefully bring you some fresh insights and good advice to help you on your artistic endeavours!
Now, here it is, the inaugural post! A topic that I feel is perhaps the most unpopular aspect of world building… (that’s just a hunch I’ve got no stats to back that claim up guys.)
It’s difficult to escape from the shadow of Tolkien when you discuss language in world building. The languages Tolkien created for Middle Earth are some of our best and most complete examples of fictional language. (Closely followed by Klingon from the Star Trek universe.)
I think perhaps the most intimidating thing for people about creating a language, is the linguistic knowledge necessary. You can just plough headlong into creating words, but you may find your end result is quite unwieldy. (I speak from the experience of my own attempts here!)
Creating a functional, fictional language requires a little bit of thought about the patterns that exist in real languages. The combination of sounds and phrases which are unique to different parts of our world. Without years of evolution and etymology to help, it can be really hard to create patterns of speech in a fictional language that blend well together.
Start with sounds
One of the ways around this is to start small, with sounds. As an English speaker, it is pretty natural to be drawn to creating words and alphabets first. But by choosing to focus on the sounds, rather than individual letters, we can start creating natural sounding words.
Looking at Japanese is an excellent way to get a feel for thinking in sounds instead of words. In these languages, characters are not the familiar letters, but symbols with a series of sound associated with them. Have a look at both the hiragana characters and the phonetic sounds in English lettering for this word; If you’re an anime fan, you may be familiar with this word already. But if you’re curious and don’t know it translates to idiot or stupid in English.
The two hiragana characters represent the sound of the word in English, rather than being a direct translation of each individual English letter. By thinking in sounds, like we do when we’re translating hiragana characters into English ones, we can create words which are easier for us to pronounce aloud. This helps us get a better flow for how it sounds when we speak our language.
Look at dead languages
Dead/ancient languages are not widely spoken, and can be an excellent tool for inspiration when creating a language for your fictional universe. Latin, Anglo-Saxon or Enochian might provide you with helpful flavour. The internet is full of resources and translators dedicated to all languages, even these obscure ones, but there is a pretty extensive list available here on linguistlist.org which can provide you with a good starting point to explore your options.
Decide on those prepositions, conjunctions and determiners early
These classes of words are the joining words of all of our sentences. Deciding these particles early will save you a lot of headaches later down the track, as these will be some of the most common words your language will use.
For a quick refresher,
Prepositions in English include words like; after, in, to, on, with
Conjunctions in English include words like; and, because, but, for, if, or, when
Determiners in English include words like; a/an, the, every, this, those, many
Have a look at how these language functions work in languages other than English as well, to help give you an understanding of different types of sentence structure. The more you understand how these classes of words work, the easier it will be for you to create your own to make your fictional language functional.
Feel free to ditch pronouns
Pronouns are an important part of some languages, but plenty of language function perfectly fine without them. Rather than worrying too much about Pronouns like He/She, focus on nouns like Father/Mother/Sibling.
Indonesian is an excellent example of a language where the he/she pronoun is not used, instead all pronouns in Indonesian have a single form, and it is simpler to understand as a result.
Dia memiliki mobil merah
He has a red car.
Dia memiliki mobil merah
She has a red car.
The word Dia is used to represent either he or she. Context fills in the gaps about the gender of the individual being spoken about.
Of course, these are just starting points!
Building a language is not something that will happen over night, but with a little bit of investigation and experimentation, you can create a functional language for your universe or world. You don’t need to be a professor of linguistics to see results! c;