Monday, November 20, 2006

Watch Your Language

In writing fantasy, more than likely we find ourselves developing a world with more than one culture and more than one language. As writers, if we invent languages just as we do characters, there are a number of ways to use those languages effectively. This article focuses on three approaches I’ve seen and used.

One of the more common elements I see with language invention is to refer to the language by its name but never use words directly from that language. For example, I could write: I couldn’t understand anything he said, for the elf spoke in ìloâ. It’s like a character without dialogue. I can describe how the language sounds, what it may look like on paper, but I won’t give a single word of it to the audience. The key thing is not to be so simplistic in this approach so as to make the reader think you’re just too lazy to flush out actual words from the language.

A second approach is to create what you need and nothing more. With this, you let a character say or read some strange words, and that utterance is probably all you’ll ever invent for that language. Even though but a few words are relayed to the reader, there should still be a consistency to the fragment of the language revealed. The words should sound (or look) like they go together. There should also be a reason to use this approach versus the first one, other than to just throw some nonsensical expression out there. I’ve done this to be cute, but cute didn’t get me published.

My favorite approach, depending on time available, is to go the whole hog and create a base for the new language. Certainly it seems unreasonable to sit down with a dictionary and translate every word, but I do have a few suggestions for a startup kit. First, I highly recommend learning a foreign language. This helps train the mind to think differently about linguistics and will give you a broader language base to borrow from. Second, start with the small everyday words like personal pronouns and greetings. Third, as you create verbs, conjugate them to your personal pronouns in a manner relative to your language. Finally, put together some simple phrases, like: I am going for a walk outside. Or: That dwarf’s head will make a fine paperweight. Make sure all the words sound like they go together. Imagine how characters sound while speaking in that language, even before you begin creating it. As you need additional material for your stories, follow the pattern of your base. Be sure to keep your language document broken into groups so that you can easily find the words you’re looking for later.

Languages add depth to a fantasy story, and I highly recommend inventing them in order to better show the differences between disparate groups of people/races. We must be responsible with them, though. Hinting at another language without giving any specifics makes it seem completely implausible while writing paragraph after paragraph in an invented language can aggravate the reader. Let’s choose our words wisely.

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