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Tips for creating a believable fantasy-language.

November 15, 2010

(Fixed some errors. Damn tiredness getting in the way of good writing.)

A glaring error in most fantasy fiction is the fact that most writers hardly put any effort into creating believable conlangs (fake languages). Either they don’t even bother, draw from existing languages such as Old Norse/Celtic/Norman-French, come up with vaguely-language-like words, create a few words and then leave the rest vague or unattested, or make a “fictionary”, a language that sounds completely different then a real language but non-the-less follows theĀ  rules of English (or whatever language the writer is writing in), if it has language rules/structure at all.

Also, when a writer has a being with different mouth-parts from ours speak exactly the same way everyone else speaks, it runs into the fridge-logic of someone wondering why a being with a fang, say a vampire, can enunciate “s”s correctly. In real life, any creature with enlarged canines/tusks attempting to speak English would sound like this:

I vant to shuck your blood! (Romanian accent aside)

Sho what do you have planned today, my mashter?

Lookit! Dem ‘umiez ah shoilin’ demshelvez!

Name’sh Shuika. Nishe t’ meet you!

As you noticed, if you have a fang/tusk, you are likely to palatalize your “s”s, AKA s=sh. Some people use s=th for this kind of lisp, but it’s not likely, but still probable.

So, what can one do to avoid these problems? Here are some tips:

1. Don’t just copy the style of someone else’s conlang. When elves appear in fiction, they almost universally speak something very similar to the Quenya/Sindarin of Tolkien’s elves, what with all of the soft consonants and front vowels. Also, whenever someone wants a monster to appear brutish, stupid etc. they would probably create something vaguely-similar to Tolkien’s “Black Speech”, with a bunch of gutturals, fricatives, hard consonants etc. Doing this is not just highly uncreative, but it verges into theft.

If you want a unique language for your elves/orcs/etc. try creating a different sound system then Tolkien had. For example, I’m currently working on a elf-like race based off of Steppe Herdsmen/South-West Native Americans. Thus, their language will have sounds derived from Altaic languages (like Mongolian, Turkish etc.) and Athabaskan (Apache, Navajo etc.). Doing this, my elves would sound more like Worf then Legolas, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay to make a unique elf-language.

2. Relating to the above, don’t give the “evil” species/races Black Speech, and don’t give the “good/neutral” species/races pleasant Tolkienesque speech. Do something creative, work those neurons! Have an elf named Khadatl and a troll named Lavani! Don’t be scared of what others will think of your innovations: just push forward!

3. Read up on other, preferably non-Indo-European languages (Indo-European languages include English, French, Persian, Hindi etc.). It would be helpful to learn some linguistic lingo as well.

4. Unless the fantasy world takes place in our world, I highly advise against giving characters names like Smith, Hrothgar, etc. unless you are able to come up with an alternate meaning in the native tongue (and example with Human languages, “Ano” means “that” in Japanese, but “anus” in Spanish. Spelled/pronounced exactly same way, but completely unrelated).

5. Don’t throw in random apostrophes willy-nilly! Have them actually serve a purpose! Example: a glottal stop (like heard in uh-oh), an ayn-like sound (in Arabic/Aramaic), a ‘ to show palatalization (like in Romanized-Russian), or contractions (like English don’t, French qu’est).

6. All else fails, just learn a few tricks about language-shift and you should be just fine. As an example of this, I present my language Feic-ahec (pronounced fake-ake). All I did was morph English words a little bit and switch around some sounds, while making sure to remember to create original syntax as well. Also, I based the transcription method off of French to give it a quasi-exotic feel. The word knife, grieve, was developed this way:

Knife -> Krife (based on how cn- in Irish/Scottish is often pronounced cr-)

Krife -> Grive (here I de-voiced k and f. Voiced consonants are d, g, v, z, etc. because you use your vocal chords to pronounce them. Unvoiced consonants are t, k, f, s etc. due to the fact that if they were voiced, they would become their voiced-equivalents).

Grieve -> Grieve (Here I just made a French-style spelling).

So, as a finishing note, it is easier to create your own language then you would think. All it takes is a little bit of effort and research.

P.S. – As a note to my long-time readers, I have not forgotten about my “How America sees Anime” series. I’ll finish it when I know how to give it a satisfactory ending.

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