Friday, November 23, 2012

Conlanging for Beginners: Building a Naming Language for Your Fantasy Novel

[Follow this up with an addendum: Conlanging for Beginners, Some Things to Avoid]       

As a member of the Language Creation Society and of the Yahoo conculture forum, I've been discussing world-building and conlang-building lately.  I've also joined the forum at the excellent website Mythic Scribes, which is subtitled "The Art of Fantasy Storytelling."  They have many resources available, including a thread on building conlangs for your book.  Since I've composed two conlangs and several naming languages for my writings, I thought a post drawing upon my own experiences as a beginner might help out other beginners.
       First, let me stress that you don't need to be a professor of linguistics to write a conlang.  A lot of the members of the LCS are just that; they know every subtlety of language and they know  the lingo.  They're so learned that they can be a little intimidating, I'll confess.  I'm not a professional linguist, but I have studied Spanish, French, and German (French is the one I pursued the most deeply) and when I was cataloging books as a librarian, I dabbled in several other languages, including Russian, other Slavic languages, and Swedish (catalog librarians have to be able to handle any language -- there are manuals to help you do this).  I also investigated Hebrew a little bit at one point.  I've always been fascinated by languages and syntax.  If you find these subjects tedious and you never took a beginning language in high school and you barely squeaked through high school English and can't remember a thing about its structure, you may not be very successful at writing conlangs.  It's possible to get somebody else to write one for you if you're serious.
       However, if all you need is a naming language (a minimal conlang that consists simply of sounds thrown together, without contructing any syntax), you can still manage to do that convincingly.  Let's assume you're setting out to write a fantasy laid in an imaginary world where nobody ever heard of English.  You may have several different countries and several different peoples.  These peoples probably speak different languages, but you can have them all speak a common language -- a language of diplomacy, say -- in which case you can just render everything in English and be done with it. 
       But even then, you will have many names that remain in the languages of those countries.  You need names for the countries themselves and their citizens, for some of their cities, and for other places like rivers or mountain ranges.  You might also find yourself needing names of foods and flowers and minerals and gods and philosophical concepts. You can just unsystematically make up nonsense words for these, or you can try to systematically diffentiate the several languages of your countries.
       One way to do this is to make up a system of phonology for each language.  Just some notes will serve (I'm avoiding the International Phonetic Alphabet here):  Let's say the country of Talasu speaks Talasian.  So you decide that what makes the language different is that it has no voiced fricatives. 
       What is a voiced fricative, you say?  In a voiced consonant the vocal cords vibrate, in an unvoiced consonant, the vocal cords do not vibrate.  Here is a list of voiced fricatives in English (with examples): v (as in van), th (as in then), z (as in zip), zh (as in pleasure).  The corresponding unvoiced fricatives are f (as in fan), th (as in thin), s (as in sip), and sh (as in pressure).   Say them out loud and you'll hear and feel the difference.
       Thus you would be able to milk a little comedy by making a name (e.g., Zazavi) in a language that uses voiced fricatives.  A native of Talasu would pronounce the word "Sasafi" and might get teased about it, or he might be discriminated against because his speech patterns reveal where he comes from, thus becoming a shibboleth.
       From the rules, you know that the word "Talasian" will not be pronounced "Talazhian" but "Talassian."  But this introduces another point.  If you make the language "Talasian," you are making use of an English suffix -ian, which we use frequently in words like Italian, Indian, Canadian, Australian, etc.  Suffixes and prefixes like -ian  or -ed or un- are called morphemes (an indivisible basic particle, a building block for a word).
       Your imaginary people would never build their words using English morphemes, so you might want to call your language Talasunta (where the suffix -nta means "speech" or "language.")  Or you could call it Nis-Talashu (where "nis" means "language" and "Talashu" is a genitive case, thus making the word mean "Language of Talasu."  In your other countries' languages, if you needed a genitive case, you would construct it differently. 
       For my purposes here, I'll call the language "Talasunta."
       I find I can't write even about a naming language without getting into some minor linguistic terminology. But I hope you get my point -- set a few phonetic rules, make them vary among your languages, and don't use any morphemes (basic word particles) that are found in English.

       Now, I'll confess -- I have usually violated the rule of devising the phonology first!  I've always just thrown a bunch of sounds together to start with.  And I've gotten in trouble, too.  When I started writing "The Termite Queen," I had to name my dying termite right off (see sample chapters 1 and 2 on my other blog, Ruminations of a Remembrancer.) because the first line in the book is "My name is ... "  So I blithely thought, "What would be a good name?  I know!  Ti'shra!"  And I wrote "My name is Ti'shra." Then when I got to working out the details of the language, I thought, "So what does 'Ti'shra' mean?  I know!  Sweet Flowers!  Lovely!  Perfect name for this harmless little creature who gets abducted by aliens!" 
       But then I thought, "So 'flowers' is plural.  What element of the name makes it plural?  I know!  In the Shshi language, prefixing sh- makes a plural, just like with the word 'Shshi.'  You have one Shi, two Shshi."  And I stuck myself with that system.  Unfortunately, in English the combination of sh plus certain consonants doesn't occur and so leads to difficulties of pronunciation.  When we get the Shshi word "shza'zei|" for example, which means "little ones," you're likely to spit all over your computer trying to pronounce it!   Other tough combinations are sh+f, sh+d, sh+h, sh+j ... you get my point. 
       So another rule is, try to think about the consequences of a rule before you set it in stone!

       Names often mean something, like my "Ti'shra," and all words derive from older roots, so you have to decide -- do my names of people, provinces, cities, mountains, rivers, etc., have meanings apart from themselves?  If so, you need to decide how the component parts fit together.  Maybe the country of Talasu has a range of mountains called the Black Jaws (obviously you're going to make something sinister happen there!)  "Jaw" becomes "frago," "black" is "nat."  You decide that in Talasunta, the adjectives follow the modified word, as in French or Spanish, so your mountain range becomes the "Fragonat." 
       At that point you should begin making a vocabulary list -- extremely important, because there is no way you can remember every word you've used, and as your book gets longer and you create more words, you'll never be able to find them again.
      You should also write out every decision you make regarding syntax, like the rules for placement of adjectives, for how to construct plurals and genitive case, etc. 

       What if you want the people in your world to sometimes speak privately, not using the common language?  You want someone to overhear a few phrases in Talasunta.  You can construct just a few rules and usually you can come up with something that will work.  That's what I did in the beginning with !Ka<tá, the Bird language spoken by my Prf. A'a'ma, the avian alien that plays such an important role in "The Termite Queen."  Mostly what I constructed were expletives (birds apparently curse a lot!) but there are some full sentences, too.   In Chapter 2, he says, "Prf. Jerardo ali ♫hi ♫ko’ó∙wa gi !i po∙atré]” and Kaitrin humorously upbraids him, "Tió’otu!  That’s not nice!  But what’s going on?  You surely didn’t go to all the trouble to contact me just to make fun of one of our colleagues.”
        I don't tell the reader of the book what Prf. A'a'ma's insult meant, but I'll reveal it here: "Prf. Jerardo has dung beetles in his head."  When I first wrote the book, I decided on the English of what I wanted him to say and then I just cooked up some words that sounded like birds might twitter them -- I had done nothing on the phonology yet.  I did come up with some non-English sounds and some characters to represent them, like ∙, which is a cough, and ♫, which is a warble and, as a prefix, makes words plural.  
       But this remark did require devising a third person singular present tense form of the verb "to have."  In English, "to have" is an irregular verb.  Most languages have some irregular verbs, but I decided that in !Ka<tá, "to have, to possess" is regular.  I don't remember whether at that point I decided on a form for the infinitive, which would be "khe'ali."  I think I just  said, "OK, 'ali' sounds good for 'he has'" and went from there. 
       But again, I kept careful notes on what I'd done -- I made a little table of verb forms and started by filling in the 3rd person singular masculine present tense.  At first I had just two or three entries, but later it grew to include all possible forms and tenses and aspects and moods ...  So I stress again, keep records on all grammatical decisions! 

       Now I'll construct an example of Talasunta: The hero hides behind the curtain and he overhears two men talking in that language, which he doesn't understand.  You could just write, "so the Prince rushed off to find the Ambassador, who spoke Talasunta, and repeated the words as near as he was able.  The Ambassador was horrified at what he heard ... "
        But it would be much better this way: "The Prince overheard two men speaking in Talasunta, but all he could catch was "Asolya dimerumu chinsa."  A few moments later, he was consulting the Ambassador, who spoke the native tongue.  And the diplomat was horrified.  "He said, 'We plan to kill her at dawn'!"  That enhances the realism of the story.
       In this language, the subject pronoun is suffixed to the root of the verb, so "asolu" means "to plan" and "asolya" means "we plan."  Infinitives end in -u, so "dimeru"  is "to kill" and "mu" is the objective case of the third person feminine pronoun, which is suffixed to the full infinitive.  "Chin" means "dawn" and the suffix "-sa" is a postposition (the language doesn't have prepositions) meaning "at the time of."
       As you can see, if a conlang, even just a naming language, is done right, there are multifold complications!  But you know what?  Writing a conlang is the most fun of anything in the world, for anybody to whom language is fascinating and not a tedious bore!  Actually, I got quite interested in Talasunta while I was writing this, but conlangs can be very time-consuming, and so I don't think you'll ever learn any more about that language!
Summation of How to Write a Naming Language
  • Set up a system of speech sounds (phonology) for each of your languages in order to differentiate them.
  • Never use any morphemes (basic word particles) that are taken directly from in English, or for that matter from any other Earth language. That is, you could use the syllable, but it can't have the same meaning as it does in Earth languages.
  • Try to think about the consequences of a decision before you make it (and that's harder than it sounds!) But this is important, because going back and changing a whole language structure is almost impossible.
  • As you construct words, make a vocabulary list, preferably in two directions, Talasunta to English and English to Talasunta.
  • Keep careful records of rules of syntax, so you won't put adjectives after nouns on p.6 and before nouns on p.300.  (And parenthetically, don't use the same grammatical structure for all your languages.)
  • And if you can work it out, use syntax that resembles English or other Earth languages as little as possible (that's one of the tougher rules to follow, unless you're more familiar than I am with all the languages of the Earth). 
       When I started this, I had intended to talk about the naming language in "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder," but I got sidetracked.  Maybe I'll write about that in a later post!



  1. [re-posting the above, deleted post with my wordpress id instead, so you actually know who is posting! :-P]

    Great post, Lorinda! Will definitely come back to check it out when I'm tidying up this NaNo as I'll have at least two different non-earth originating sentient creatures in the book, I suspect. I love languages as well--and rather wish I had studied more about them from the linguistics perspective (maybe someday?).

    I suppose another interesting way to play around with syntax would be to have a language like Hungarian, Greek, Russian or German, in which cases play a more prominent role, and so syntax is less important than in English.

    At any rate, fascinating post. Thanks for writing it! :-D

  2. Good! (And I have learned who Anduril Elessar is, by the way!) I hope this will be useful! I may do a couple of other posts on the topic.
    And, sure, you can endow your conlang with a case structure like Latin or German or whatever. It does, however, make things a lot more complicated, especially for a person natively comfortable with English and Romance languages. In English the word "book" has only one case with singular and plural forms) (actually it's two cases, because you do have genitive: the book's cover). In Latin declension you have 7 cases, each with its own singular and plural. 14 different forms to remember - and there are different sets of declensions, too.
    In some languages you get masculine and feminine and even neuter worked into that - German comes to mind - and conditions called "strong" and "weak"; and all that applies to adjectives and articles, too. If it were me, I would stick to determining meaning mostly by word order!

  3. I'm still trying to accomplish writing a book, let alone adding a language. You are light years ahead of me in the writing department--but the whole idea is very fascinating!!

    Cheers, Jenn

    1. I'll bet you'd be surprised if you knew how many conlangers exist in the world. Many thousands, a lot of whom are professional linguists or write the conlangs purely for their own sake, apart from any fictional cultural context. Somebody put this post on the WordBuilding page of Reddit and that's caused it to get (as of this moment) 1056 page views! I was flabbergasted!