This blog post was suggested by YokoNakajima from deviantART. Big thanks for suggesting 🙂 So I thought I would add it to my World Building series.
Creating a different language
Having a different language in your story can be tricky, after all languages are not so easily created. Let’s take English as an example (since I’m English). This language has changed many times over the centuries.
We had a Celtic language that had a nice mix of Latin from when the Roman’s invaded. Then when people came over from Germany/Denmark they brought with them their Germanic language that got nicely thrown in as well.
Follow that up with a little Saxon invasion, then a Norman invasion. The Normans’ language was very similar to French, which is the reason we still have certain French words in our language today such as bureau and etiquette to name a few. So, many of our words have French origins.
Mini trivia: The word Dandelion is a good example. It comes from Dent de Lion meaning Lion’s tooth in French due to the jagged leaves.
We have language of Shakespeare, the Queen’s English, not to mention the different dialects all over this small island that mean one word in one area means something very different in another area!
So right away you can see how messy languages can be when developing.
Difficulties of Language
You only have to look around this world and the many different languages to see how complex they are.
It is not like we all use the same alphabet, there are letters in Russian that we don’t have in English and the Asian languages use symbols rather than letters.
Not to mention in different languages, each word cannot always be translated directly into another.
Also, even when words can be translated directly, all languages contain many phrases or sayings, which make no real sense if taken literally, or can’t be adequately translated as the saying doesn’t exist in another language (these are called idioms).
For example, someone who doesn’t know much English might ask you why you’re so upset that your mother “kicked the bucket” yesterday.
Then each language can be different in terms of grammar. In French for example, all nouns are either masculine or feminine, and this affects other words in a sentence. In English we can use “the” and “my” with any noun: the book, my bottle etc, and also for plurals, the books, my bottles. “The” and “my” don’t change.
But in French it’s different. Le livre, mon livre, mes livres and la bouteille, ma bouteille, mes bouteilles.
Couple to this, the order of words in a sentence is important in English “The man walked the dog”, is fine. “The dog walked the man,” is odd but still ok.
“The man dog walked,” makes no sense unless there is a man-dog walking around in your street. “Walked dog the man,” means nothing.
There are many many more examples of how different aspects of language change dramatically from one language to the next. The main thing is to be aware that in order to set up a fake language for a novel, if you want to do it well, will take a lot of thinking.
For those still with me, I just wanted you to think more about language in general.
Tell the reader there is another language
Sometimes the simplest is the best.
Rather than creating an actual language which your readers will have to read and pronounce, you can just tell the reader that there is another language. There are many novels that have done this effectively.
Joe Abercrombie does this in his trilogy The First Law (which I highly recommend you read, his work is awesome!).
He has the North Men who have their own language which appears harsh and guttural to those who are not from there. Instead of spending time making up words he merely uses the narrative to tell the readers that some of his characters speak differently.
This is now so difficult to do. Maybe showing an outsider frowning as others have a strange exchange, feeling isolated for not understanding. Or maybe throw in someone from another place actually understand.
This gives you a little scope in your plot.
Example 1: Man A and Man B speak the same language. Man C listened awkwardly while A and B discuss a proposition. Man B speaks Man C’s language so then translates. Of course Man C has to assume what is being translated is correct.
There will be some isolation for Man C, maybe frustration from being left out. (This can be shown by a long discussion between A and B and then B comes over and gives a very short translation. This would leave Man C wondering what was not said to him).
Example 2: Man A and Man B speak the same language. Man C listens awkwardly while A and B discuss a proposition. Man D, a servant and nobody to Man C listens with interest. His father had been a trader with the clan A and B are from and had learnt some of their language. So while he cannot pick it all up he gains enough to realise that they are planning to deceive man C.
At each dialogue, just write as normal and let the narrative show they are speaking differently.
Creating a language
Maybe you do want to create another language that one or more of your characters speak. Now, I personally think this should be done carefully.
You have to remember your readers are most likely not going to want to choke through a load of “fake words”. Learning a new language is not that easy at the best of times so trying to learn to pronounce a fake one can be clunky and slow the story down.
I would definitely stay away from large chunks of dialogue written in another “language”.
The less text that is fake, the better. This also allows you to just create a few words. If you decide this, do keep a “glossary” of your words in case they have to come up again. Consider if you will have amendments for plural words.
Will you have someone translate? Will the translator have to use a different word as there is no equivalent in the other person’s language?
If you have a translator, then maybe you will want to think “realistically” with your fake language. After all there is very few languages were each word you speak can be translated exactly (as mentioned above).
So while it may be easy to create a language by making random words and then translating a line.
The dog ran in the rain (English)
Ti cansi knru a ti wahr (fake)
It is unrealistic that every word will have a matching one in the fake language and that they will be laid out in the same way. (just hammering home from what I mentioned above) 🙂
I would like a black coffee (English)
Je voudrais un café noir (French)
From this you can see that the sentence in French doesn’t use the same number of words, and the colour description now goes after the noun not before.
Another method is to do what author Richard Adams did in Watership Down (again, if you haven’t read it, read it! While I do like the (original) animated movie, the book is still better).
He created some “rabbit words” such as Silflay. This meant “to go above ground and eat”. When he first introduced the word, it had a little asterisk that led you to the footnote where it gave you the definition.
It’s a different approach and may not go down well for lots of things, but it’s worth thinking about (works really well in Watership Down) 🙂
As a final thought, there is also the language of gestures. Think sign-languages, where the movement and gesture of the hands creates a language. You could look at making a gestural language and using (some) of it to bring a character(s) to life and show their ways or culture.
Even if you didn’t do this, you may want to remember that communication in general includes not just verbal but non-verbal as well. You could add in gestures and postures that are either culture (think the bowing in Japan) or as part of the language itself.
These are just my thoughts on the idea of developing language in a story. I hope they help or at least get you thinking.
More articles on my World Builder Series.
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