Worldbuilding: how to write a fantasy language without writing a fantasy language
New worlds and new cultures are my favorite parts of science fiction and fantasy. Language is a great way to add novelty and realism to your setting. If your character comes from another planet, is part of an insular group of people who have been in hiding from the rest of the general public, or lives on a colony ship thousands of years in the future… They won’t be speaking English or any other modern language, right? Shouldn’t you make your own language?
Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t recommend it. I started creating my own languages (conlangs) when I was in middle school and I continue to find languages fascinating. As an author, however, I wouldn’t recommend creating one or more entire languages for your book.
First, if you’re an author, your time is best spent writing. Creating a language takes a lot of time and postpones the work of putting more words into your manuscript.
Large blocks of invented-language text and long lists of vocabulary typically don’t work well in a novel. Even for language-loving readers like me. (Mythcreants has some good quick-and-dirty guides for this.)
But what if you don’t want to do any language invention at all? There are still ways to make your fictional culture’s language feel unique.
Describe the writing
How is your language written down and what does it look like? Does it use an alphabet? How about an abjad (consonants only), like Arabic, or logograms like Chinese? You can hint at this by describing how it looks written down
Omniglot is a great place to look at a wide variety of written scripts from both natural languages and invented scripts.
Here are some ways other authors have handled it:
It was inscribed with some squirmy letters like a child’s scribble. They did not have the straight edges or corners of our characters. – The Moon in the Palace, Weina Dai Randel.
…her signature in the curving Therin script that had become something of a fad among literate nobles in the past few years. – The Lies of Locke Lamorra, Scott Lynch.
I looked at the colorful, angular Kuyene script stamped on the
cover. “I can’t read this.” – In Daylight and Darkness (this one’s me).
Describe how it sounds
Mention the way the spoken language or individual words sound. If your language is spoken by a large population or you’re dealing with characters speaking it as a second language, you can mention or describe accents as well.
[The] rumbling tones of regul language that neither humans nor probably even mri had ever pronounced as regul might. – The Faded Sun Trilogy, C. J. Cherryh.
He spoke…very precisely, so the accent of Solcintra rang sharp against her ear. Scout’s Progress, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. (This series has my favorite treatment of fictional languages of all time.)
Terms of address
It’s common to convey respect and relative social position using different terms of address. Even in a relatively relaxed culture like the United States, Mister, Missus, and Doctor still get used, especially in professional settings. The English language has a wealth of formal terms to draw on, but if your language and culture doesn’t have a similar heritage, it can distract from your worldbuilding.
You can invent your own set of honorifics by either repurposing English terms in new ways or inventing your own terms whole cloth.
They can be straightforward, as in this matriarchal elf society:
Matriarch Seveliana Bluewater, known as The Wasp Mistress, stood with her two daughters in front of her. – The Corrupted Core, John Stovall.
Or tweak common English terms for something new, as with this extrapolation of “arcane”:
Our island’s founder was none other than Master Arcanist Gregory Ruma. – Knightmare Arcanist, Shami Stovall.
In The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison takes a mixed approach. The elven emperor is referred to as “your imperial serenity” for a subtle commentary on elf culture, while common address terms are invented, like mer, merrem, and min for men, married women, and unmarried women respectively.
Indulge your creativity
If you’re not trying to make a usable conlang, you can describe your language doing things that might be impossible.
In Hart’s Hope, Orson Scott Card created a language that uses the same symbols for letters and numbers. Words and phrases can be added up or down to create numbers that convert back into new words.
[The] cleverest scribes order their numbers to make words and their words to make numbers, too, so that in this book the whole astronomy of the universe is mathematically portrayed in the story of Azasa and the absigent… – Hart’s Hope, Orson Scott Card.
Any of these options will take some thought and awareness as you write, but they only take a fraction of the time of creating a full conlang. However, they still pay off by making your world seem deeper and more real.