Everyone knows about Tolkien, right?
There are very few people in first world countries who haven’t at least heard of the name. No, not everyone has read Tolkien’s writing… but at the very least, everyone knows someone who has. He’s often regarded as one of the most influential fantasy writers in history. Every novelist yearns to be compared to him in a favorable manor. The quickest way to market a book (as much as I dislike it because it sets the bar far too high for anyone to reach) is to feature a review which praises said book as “the next saga in the footsteps of Tolkien” or some such phrase.
Everyone knows about The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and your more “hardcore” fans have read The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales and so forth.
They’re fantastic books, but they’re not what I’m here to talk about today.
See, Tolkien was also known as a linguist. He created languages. Over twenty of them.
I think we all, at some point in our lives, aspire to create a language. Young kids “create” languages to speak with one another in “code” when the adults are around. As we grow, we take foreign language classes in school. Then some of us try to create languages for novels.
The problem is… so very few of those languages work.
Let’s find out:
The Power of Language
Right now, you’re reading a blog post in English. It’s the English language, of the dialect of… well, me. Most people have their own special twist on a language. The way they speak it, how they pronounce the words, how they form sentences and paragraphs. We pick and choose our style out of hundreds and thousands of styles we interact with each day.
Language changes on a daily basis, as people transform and mold it to fit their needs. Sure, parts of it remain constant, but as a whole it is always absorbing new ideas and themes and words and meaning.
Without language, we couldn’t communicate with each other. Every aspect of communication is a form of language. Whether spoken, written, or gestured, it’s an attempt to exchange ideas and desires with one another.
Our lives would be rather boring without language. We’d never interact with one another, we’d never learn or grow or care. Without language, there would be no stories.
Language, then, is immensely powerful. What we do with our words has an enormous impact on those around us, and on ourselves. The stories we tell and the word we write can change lives and make people think.
It may seem a logical conclusion, then, to want to include this powerful idea in your novels. If you’re creating a world for your story (be it fantasy or science fiction), then you naturally have to consider language.
There are over 6,500 languages spoken on earth. Sure, some of them are quickly going extinct (as happens when a form of communication becomes less viable and important). But still.
Is it unrealistic, then to write a story in which every person your character meets speaks the same language?
Of course not.
What do we do, then?
The Problem with Language
The most obvious solution would be to simply smash your keyboard whenever you need to have someone speak a foreign, fantasy language.
Just follow the standard recipe for a fantasy language and go:
Ajkgnalkj dnglsjdhq aigi hgil dhi wpreiiow.
Which, in case it wasn’t obvious, is Geitu for “Creating languages by keyboard-smashing is idiotic.”
Why is this wrong?
It’s crystal clear that this isn’t a real language.
I don’t have time, this post, to explain why, but I’d like you to look at the second “word” in that sentence. Try to say it.
Turns out, it’s impossible to say it. When your brain sees that sort of thing in a novel, it glosses right over it and searches for context clues to explain what in the world that mumbo jumbo is supposed to be.
Another reason why this is wrong: it looks and sounds the same no matter who speaks it. This “language” has no room for dialect and accent and individual voice. Why? Because my brain doesn’t interpret it. If I don’t interpret it at all, how can I pull out an accent and an individual speaker?
Solution? Don’t keyboard smash.
What’s left, then, is to create an actual language.
I’ve dabbled a little in the art of con-lang, and let me tell you: creating your own language takes a lot of work. Language is so complex that you can spend years developing it and never finish. You have to consider everything from the bottom up: starting with phenomes (basic sound units) and morphemes (the smallest units with meaning) and work your way up to the creation of syntax, semantics, written form, spoken form, etc.
Turns out, we don’t have the time for creating a whole language. We’re not Tolkien, we’re not linguists. So… what do we do instead?
The first thing you don’t want to do is avoid fantasy/sci-fi languages altogether. They are realistic and they can add depth to your world.
When they’re realistic.
One of the first substitutes you can make is the reference-to-English substitute. This involves telling the reader: “they spoke [this] language” and then showing the rest of the conversation in English (or whatever language you’re writing your book in).
This is commonly done in novels which take place in this world, but cross multiple language barriers.
For instance, War and Peace – when translated – involves three language: English (the translated narrative and most of the dialogue), some French, and some Russian. Because many of the characters are Aristocracy, they switch languages to make a point, make a pun, or to sound a particular way (haughty, knowledgeable, etc.).
Sure, the translation includes some of those switches (which I’ll cover in a moment), but there are instances of this kind:
The two began to speak in French for the finish of their conversation. [dialogue in English]
That’s not a direct quote, just so you know. It lets us know that another language is being spoken, but gives us the convenience of not having to puzzle out what in the world is being said.
Next, you might consider the minimal development language. In which you (regardless of its realistic qualities) building a language with the bare minimum of knowledge. I’ve done this before, but I can’t claim it came out well.
You use an alphabet that already exists (English, for instance) and build a series of “roots” and “prefixes” and “suffixes” at random. Then you can combine these to form words, and the words to form sentences. For ease, you can use the grammar/syntax of the language you borrow the alphabet from. Sure, this can look cheesy, like the keyboard smash, but it can come across as more real.
The main problem you have to avoid with this sort of language is the “fantasy sound clichés”. Feminine words that end in “-a” or “-ia” are so cliché you can spot the fantasy novel out of a list of names. Evil words are always made with harsh sounded consonants and deep-throated growls. And so forth. The “featured” post for this week talks about this, too, so check it out for more details on that sort of thing.
One thing you should consider, however, is the use of a direct translation following a language. Simply putting in parentheses what was said during the exchange may sound… cheesy, but your reader will thank you.
Don’t think it’s worth it? Tolstoy obviously did. In the translated version of War and Peace, there are snippets of dialogue (no more than four sentences) which are kept in the original Russian or French. These are always followed by an English translation in parentheses. And it never robs the dialogue of authenticity and it never pulls the reader out of the narrative.
You’ll be fine.
The final language substitute is this: show diversity elsewhere. Building and using languages is a form of diversity. It reflects this world in fantastic ways, but it’s also one of the hardest ways to do so. It takes time and effort and knowledge to truly do this well, and sometimes… it’s not worth it.
“But Aidan, the readers will question of all my characters speak the same language when they’re from different countries!”
No they won’t.
There are dozens of good fantasy and science fiction novels out there where no one speaks a fantasy or science fiction language. Sure, they’re mentioned, but they’re not spoken. Everything happens in English.
Because the reader accepts that you’re trying to tell a story, and it’s not worth distracting them to have one instance of worldbuilding be super complex and realistic.
Instead of focusing on language, focus on the other areas you can show diversity and realism. When you make up for the lack of language by excellence in two or three other areas, your reader will come along for the ride, no questions asked.
After all, the point is to tell a good story, right?
We don’t need fantasy languages to do that. We don’t need our science fiction to be riddled with aliens speaking with clicks and whistles.
We need good stories.
Inventing a Language That’s More Than Stock Fantasy Sounds(Gabrielle Schwabauer)
As a side note and forewarning, Friday’s blog post will be postponed until Saturday evening because I’ll be at a writer’s workshop this week and so will be unable to post.