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Monday, July 8, 2019

Creating Fictional Languages (Conlangs)



I wish I could say I'm an amazing linguist and could give you my take on creating languages for fiction, but I'm not and I can't. 

So seems kind of strange I'm doing this post, right?

Well, recently I spent a good deal of time researching how to actually make a constructed language (the term for a constructed language is "conlang," by the way), so I could create one for a manuscript. It was easier than I was expecting (and yet more complex than I was expecting at the same time), and super fascinating! So I wanted to do a recap/review of my experience for anyone else out there looking to do this from scratch. If I can do it, chances are so can you! (For the record, I don't speak any other languages.)

I used a couple of resources, but I found this guide to be my favorite.

As Always, Start with the Basics


The idea of creating a language can seem really daunting, especially when you look at conlangs like Tolkien's Elvish or Star Trek's Klingon--which are essentially full "complete" languages. But like just about everything, you don't need to start with a huge complicated language, you need to start with the bare basics, and you know what's amazing about the basics? Everything else builds off them!

And as an added bonus, for books, you don't actually need a complete language, you just need to give the impression of one. (However, if you are the type of person who really gets into this, you might have so much fun that you don't stop and that's cool!)

At this point, some of you may be wondering if it's really necessary to even create a language--that depends on the project, the effect you want, and your personal opinion. Because I want to expand my conlang to other projects, I decided to create one--even if I only needed 4 - 6 sentences for my current WIP. 😂🙈


The Very Basics

If you're like me, when you think of creating a language, you think of coming up with words and sentences. But guess what? Those aren't the very basics! Sounds are.

So if you are going to create a language from scratch, it will go in this order:

Sounds --> Syllables --> Words --> Sentences

Roughly. You might have already made up a few words, and that's okay. You can break what you have down to syllables and sounds, and when you identify those, build from there.

Selecting Sounds

Each of the three sources I used (including a linguist briefly), said to start with sound. If you aren't really sure how to do that, I'll get you going in this section.

So, there is this thing called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and it includes every sound of every language (even has clicks!). If you've looked up words in the dictionary, you've probably noticed symbols like this:



That's how to pronounce the word using IPA symbols.

You can go to InternationalPhoneticAlphabet.org and click on the symbols to hear the sounds. The chart is also organized based on where in the mouth (and how) a sound is made.

But if you want to give the impression of a real language, you shouldn't just jump in and pick a bunch randomly, because there are natural reasons certain sounds occur together and others don't.

You think I know all the ins-and-outs of those rules? No way! But this video will help guide you.




Some of the common sounds in languages include: p, t, k, s, h, m, n

Some sounds are voiced, some are not (compare how you say the "p" sound with the "b" sound--they are essentially the same, but "b" requires your vocal chords). If a language has the voiced version of an obstruent consonant (ex. "b"), it will also have the voiceless version ("p"), but not necessarily vice versa. Most languages have at least one nasal (such as "m" or "n") and one (what's called) liquid (such as "r," "l," or "w")

Most languages have five vowels, but every language has at least two.

Most languages have 20-30 sounds. But if you want a distinct language with more "character," it might be smart to go with fewer.


Making Syllables

I thought I had a good understanding of what a syllable was. After all, I remember clapping words out like "ap-ple" and "bas-ket-ball" when I was in elementary school. And as a native English speaker, that was good enough for me.

What I didn't know was that in other languages, there are actual rules for syllables!

That's when I realized my understanding of syllables was rather narrow.

But don't worry, it's still not too crazy.

You can handle it.

In general, a syllable is made up of these components: the onset, the nucleus (hey, bet you didn't know we had sciency terms), and the coda.

So in the syllable "bas" (for "basketball"), "b" is the onset, "a" is the nucleus, and "s" is the coda. Bas. Ket. The "k" is the onset, "e" is the nucleus, and "t" is the coda.



Every syllable has a nucleus (almost always a vowel), but not every syllable has an onset or a coda (for example "ap" in "apple" doesn't have an onset, and the "za" in "pizza" doesn't have a coda).

Some languages have rules for codas.

Hawaiian is what's called an "open syllable" language. That means none of their syllables have a coda. They all end on the vowel. Have you noticed? Ho-no-lu-lu. A-lo-ha. O-ha-na.

Other languages have codas, but only certain sounds can be a coda.

Mandarin has set codas. Only "n," "ng," and "r" can be codas. So every Mandarin syllable will end in "n," "ng," "r," or a vowel (nucleus) as an open syllable.

Crazy, right?

One thing I've learned from this process is that the English language is super crazy. For example, we sometimes have syllables with up to five codas! "Angsts."

Along with syllables, you'll want to consider stress. Some languages have very specific rules for stress. For example, in Finnish, stress always falls on the first syllable of a word. In Armenian, it's always the last syllable. Some have systems like "always the second-to-last syllable unless the last syllable is open." Then you have languages like English that is kinda haywire, but the stress can also change the meaning of the word, like in "present": PREsent or preSENT.

I've learned I'm kind of terrible with stress! (Luckily my language will be written more than spoken).

Hawaiian is an open syllable language. Every syllable ends in a vowel.


Creating Words

Now you can get to creating words.

First you want to create some simple root words. String together your sounds into syllables, and your syllables into words (make sure you follow any rules you set). Root words are words that can't be divided down further. Often these have simple concepts.

There is more you can go into here, like creating (believable) prefixes and suffixes, compound words, articles, plurals. If you want to make this realistic, you can check out Biblaridion's videos. He explains things like how prepositions often come from either nouns or adjectives.

Structuring Sentences

Once you have a few words, you can start making some simple sentences. First you'll need to decide the basic word order. In English, we structure basic sentences as subject, verb, object.

Here are your options:

Subject, verb, object -- I hug her.
Subject, object, verb -- I her hug.
Object, subject, verb -- Her I hug.
Object, verb, subject -- Her hug I.
Verb, subject, object -- Hug I her.
Verb, object, subject -- Hug her I.
(Note: some languages can actually go in any order, but the words have to be modified)

Then you will be able to start constructing simple sentences with your words.

Beyond that, you have adjectives, which describe nouns.

Adjectives are primarily derived from either nouns or verbs.

Derived from nouns: I hunt tall thing animal.
Derived from verbs: I hunt animal [that] is talling.

English adjectives primarily come from nouns. If your adjectives are primarily from nouns, they will go before the noun. If your adjectives come from verbs, they will go after the noun they are describing.

Similarly, prepositions originate from nouns or verbs. Likewise, if your prepositions come from nouns, they will go before the noun. If they come from verbs, they will go after (and technically be called "postpositions")

Then you have possessors ("the man's food"). Most of the time, languages will order the possessor like an adjective, so it will go where your adjectives go. Either "man's food" or "food of man."

After this basic word order, you will need to consider tenses--if your language has them. Some of them don't.

Yoda talks in a different word order than typical of English.


Language Evolution

All languages evolve and change over time. If you are trying to give the impression of a real language, yours should probably "evolve" as well. I'll be honest, some of this stuff was a little over my head, but I think if I were to go over it several times, I'd get it.

Why didn't I simulate this?

Well, luckily, my fake language is meant to be very ancient, so it wouldn't have evolved much, so I didn't stress about this part.

Here is a video on how to evolve your language phonetically.




And here is a video on how to evolve your language grammatically.


 
Once you have established (and written down!) all your language's sounds, structures, and grammar, you are set to create whatever sentences you need as you need them. You can "grow" your language from there, and it will stay consistent, giving the impression of a real language. Just don't forget to record all your made-up words in a dictionary. And when making new words, check to see if you can make them out of words you've already made up.

How cool is all that?

One more thing, your language may need a writing system. With that said, not all languages have had writing systems. This video will guide you through different types of writing systems, how they develop, and how they evolve. It's just as fascinating.




If you do need a language, I highly suggest Biblaridion's playlist, which will guide you through the whole process.

Until next time . . .

Vol shēla hla

(P.S. If anyone who knows more about languages than me would like to chime in, feel free to comment!)

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