Language Creation: Why do it, and what to avoid.

I want to talk a bit about language. I don’t mean whether or not your characters are cussing up a storm, but I sort of am. We’ll get to that later. Language. Everyone uses it. We can’t not, and when you create a world for a fantasy or science fiction story, you need to realize that, unless it’s taking place in an Anglophonic country on the planet Earth, then your characters will not be speaking English. For instance, there are no English-speakers in Middle Earth. If it wasn’t Sindarin, Dwarvish, or Rohirrim, they were speaking Westron. Tolkien was just the translator. At least, that’s the back story that he created. My point is that, when you create a world, you need to realize that the way people talk are going to be influenced by that world.

It may not seem like such a big deal because, simply put, you are writing the story in English or whatever language you’re writing in. It does matter, though, for a few reasons. First, there’s the fact that translation isn’t a simple matter of one-to-one word substitution. Languages often have multiple words for a concept that only exists as a single word in other languages, or even have no word for a concept that exists in other languages, like the Filipino word gigil, which translates to “the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.”[1] This might not seem like a big deal, but what if you want to introduce a concept to your culture that doesn’t have a name in your language? One example of that would be the Vulcan pon farr from Star Trek.

Another reason for considering language issues when creating a world is naming, both people and places. Not only might you include plants or animals that don’t exist in the real world, such as Tolkien’s mallorn trees, or Star Trek’s pig-like targs, but you also need to consider the fact that you will need names, both for people and places. There are two easy ways out of that, but I wouldn’t recommend either. One is to simply name everything and everyone after real names, or some approximation of real names. That would work, but only if your story is based on a particular place. You could, of course, pick names that just sound English, but not every fantasy world needs to be based on England. Plus, if it’s not Earth, why choose names that are very obviously common, and even modern, names?

I’ll probably make a few people made with this, but I’ve got to pick on the Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini. Now, I’ve only read the first book in the series, Eragon, but I saw enough to say that the naming language of the book is downright sloppy. Names like Eragon, Brom, Garrow, and maybe even Durza sound like they could all fit together in the same culture, but then Paolini includes the names Angela, Trevor, Evan, and Neil. Not only do these names not sound like they fit with the rest, but they are very modern names in a very medieval setting. To top it off, the evil king is named Galbatorix. Now, if everything else was pseudo-Celto-Latin, then Galbatorix would fit perfectly. The problem is that it’s not.

(That’s not even to mention the fact that he named the dwarven king Hrothgar. Really? If you’re going to pick a name from classic literature, at least use one that isn’t one of the three main characters.)

As for the naming of the regions, you have the vaguely pseudo-Arabic Hadarac Desert (side note: what’s a desert doing in the middle of the continent?), the Germanic sounding Du Weldenvarden to the north, the equally Germanic sounding Beor Mountains to the south, and all of them in the Greco-Latin sounding Alagaësia. These aren’t bad place names in their own right, and might even work together if we were dealing with a massive empire (although how a forest can be immediately to the north of a desert, I’ll never know). The problem is that it’s not. Based on the distances and length of time it takes to get places on foot, Alagaësia is a little less than twice the size of the United Kingdom. [2]

A massive desert and an actual mountain range in a region twice the size of the United Kingdom? That just doesn’t work. Geography aside, in a region that size, the names of places and people are going to sound similar to each other, unless there’s some reason that it’s a major hub of activity for the rest of the world. The problem is that there’s no indication that this is the case. You just have Anglo-American names mixed with Germanic and vaguely Arabic place names all in the same area. Oh, and I forgot to mention the Random Apostrophe Syndrome that appears in the names Gil’ead and Zar’roc.

Basically, when you’re making a language for the world of your story or your game,

1)      Make sure that it’s logical enough to make sense that all the names you use would work together

2)      If you have different linguistic origins for them, make sure that it makes sense how those languages came to be together.

3)      Don’t fall victim to the Random Apostrophe Syndrome. (I’ll explain that later on.)

In other words, don’t do what Christopher Paolini did. If you really want to know how to make a language, try the Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. There’s a free version online, but there’s also a more thorough book for it on Amazon.

Language Construction Kit Online