Constructed languages, or conlangs, can add enormous depth to your world. Just look at Tolkien and his many varieties of Elvish: He not only invented several languages, he intertwined them with each other and with the history of his world. He was also a renowned professor of linguistics. You are not. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your own rich language for your characters to speak. This is the first part of a planned series that will show you how to do just that, using my experience as an example.
Let’s review my qualifications:
- Two years of high school Spanish (so no Spanish)
- About three dozen words of survival Japanese
- That’s it.
That about sums it up. I have zero useful experience with languages other than English, no education in linguistics, and no knowledge (when I started) of the construction of even the language I use every day. But that didn’t stop me from building a language, and it doesn’t have to stop you either.
Your First Steps
The first thing I did was decide on an alphabet, more specifically, phonemes. These are the sounds your letters make. Which letters you use will decide how your language sounds, and more importantly, how it feels to speak it. Want something aggressive? Use lots of k’s, g’s, and that phlegmy, back-of-the-throat “ach” thing like the Klingons. Just making that noise will make you want to rip William Shatner’s arm off. On the opposite end of the spectrum, use plenty of vowels to make your language flowing and songlike. “M”, “n”, “l”, “b”, and a few others are more neutral and suitable for any language. Don’t restrict yourself to just English, either; the Greek theta “θ” is pronounced like “th”, and makes a whole lot more sense as a single letter than a combination of two. Feel free to fiddle with the pronunciation, especially for vowels. There’s a big difference between “a” in “abstract”, “about”, and “aim”. Alphabets can be long or short, complex or simple. You may also consider a syllabary, like the Japanese kana: each symbol represents a combination of a consonant and a vowel. Since you’ll probably be writing your language out in Latin characters regardless, this doesn’t make a lot of difference, but it will affect the structure of your words.
The culture that speaks my language lives in a desert and worships the majestic sun god, and the language itself was given to them by the gods. I tried to choose letters that evoke a sense of power and majesty. I decided the vowels “a”, “e”, and “i” (pronounced as in “back”, “aim”, and “seem”, respectively, following the Spanish pronunciation) did that especially well, and for consonants, “k”, “v”, “l”, “m”, and “n”. Once you have a few letters, you can use the code snippet in my answer here to arrange them randomly and see how they sound. I used that code to find names for the sun god (Iravmir), a few cities (Ralduris, Durivon, Agubo), and various characters. I rounded out the vowels with “o” as in “show” and “u” as in “soon”, and the consonants with “g”, “b”, “d”, “h”, and “r”. You may notice “Ralduris” has an “s” in it that didn’t make the cut. I didn’t! But by the time I had formalized the alphabet, I was already too attached to the name. Mistakes like that are your friend at this point. In some later entry I’ll cover how to make your language evolve, this is one super-simple way to do that. Just pretend the “s” was dropped from the alphabet sometime during its in-universe evolution, or that it’s a different dialect. Instant realism!
The next step is to learn about grammar. This is the boring part. Open up Wikipedia and find some article on a grammatical concept. Click on all the links to anything you don’t already know about. At random points in your journey, say to yourself, “My language doesn’t have this.” If you find something that English doesn’t have, consider putting it in. This is your opportunity to really make your language unique. Consider choosing a symbol and using it way too much — Volapük had its umlauts, I went with hyphens. Your readers will never forget about a language with a semicolon every third word. You could rearrange the sentence structure — Yoda’s OSV syntax is deeply ingrained in every sci-fi fan. A ton more examples can be found in the answers on this question. Do something weird with conjugation. Drop a part of speech — can you make a language work without nouns? Like I said, this is really your time to shine.
For my own language, I have about two pages of rules I’ve modified, and copious examples of the usage of each rule. Don’t try to use invented words at this stage. Use regular English words to get your head around the grammar. Here’s a few highlights:
- OVS syntax. Turns out this is the same as Klingon, but I didn’t know that when I chose it. It also makes it easier to translate a sentence by starting at the end and working back, which is delightfully weird.
- Adjectives are hyphenated onto the ends of the nouns.
- Any word can be used as any part of speech.
- Verb tenses are hyphenated onto the ends of the verbs. There may be several. Will be going to have been, while a little awkward, is correct English. It gets translated to a single long word with suffixes for the future (will), immediate future (be going to), and perfect past (have been) tenses. This is where even vague knowledge of another language may be useful: An English speaker might use the past (did) and perfect past (have done) correctly every day, but not ever realize they are separate tenses. Learning another language forces you to learn some of your own grammar as well.
- No predicative adjectives. These are phrases like the ball is red or the world is round. I really have no reason for leaving these out, I just picked them at random.
- Some weird stuff with prepositions.
And so on. Examples are key here. I recommend writing some dialogue with your characters (if you have them) or finding a simple section of dialogue in a book, then translating it into your new syntax. I had a lot of fun doing this, and it’s an ideal way to figure out how your language flows in a natural conversation.
Altogether, the process up to this point took me about three hours, and gives me a fully-fledged framework for a language. You can bang out a language in an afternoon. Of course, there’s no actual words to it yet, but you’ll have to wait for Part Two for that. ;)