Conlang 101

Hello my friends!

So you've decided to write fantasy.  No? Science fiction, then of the alien variety? Either way, you've come to one simple conclusion: you need a language.  Regular Earth tongues just won't cut it.  You've signed on for the monumental task of creating your own language, also known as Conlanging.

Conlangs are a big deal.  You may think you know what you're getting into, but you don't, not until you've started.  A lot of authors think they can dive in headlong and just be fine. Do not do that thing.  Conlanging is hard! It's complicated! Think of your favorite conlangs (Quenya, Klingon, Dothraki...).  Those took years to build convincingly! If you want a language that's not just an English/Spanish/French knockoff, here are are three absolutes to get you started.

1. You cannot write a conlang without a basic knowledge of linguistics.
A lot of people think  they can just dive in and start writing a dictionary for their language, but lemme break it to you: that's not how languages work. Seriously, if languages were just word for word, we wouldn't need translators. It's important to understand how language works, as a science.  A basic understanding of phonetics and phonology.  For instance, say cats.  Hear that s? It's the same sound as... well, the s at the beginning of sound. Now say dogs.  Hear that s? That sounds more like the sound at the beginning of zebra, and it has everything to do with English phonemics.

Your best bet is to get a linguist friend to write the language for you, especially if you can't afford to take the courses required.  I'm currently using my limited linguistic knowledge to start work on a language for my best
friend's book, and I've spent the last few days just putting together which consonant sounds exist in the language. I can't imagine trying to do this with no concept of linguistics at all.  If you have a willing linguist friend, use their expertise! They will help you more than you know.

If you can't have a linguist friend help you work, get help from other conlangers and talk to the community. They can help get you on your feet. Consider buying books or courses to get your feet wet with how to go about it. Seek help.

2. You cannot write a conlang without an in-depth knowledge of the society's culture.
Language and culture are intertwined at every level. If you speak English, you probably don't realize this because it's such a conglomeration of other languages that it can do practically everything.  But quick, think about this: there's a language in Africa that has only two words for time; "now" and "not now".  Time-focused society? I think not!

Whatever is the most important in your culture is going to have the greatest degree of precision in your language. The one I'm working on now has not one, not two, but nine words for love. That's because relationships are absolutely crucial to these people. There's a word for love between partners, between a parent and child, between a child and parent, between siblings, extended family, close friends, friends, acquaintances, and objects. Time, on the other hand, only matters in relation to the sun, because they use it for food.  They're a society that synthesizes solid food materials and so in their language, you cannot say anything that's alive belongs to you. "That's my dog"? No way to say that in Terani. Dogs don't belong to anyone. Neither do people, or plants.  That's just not how their culture works, so they'd never  need to say those things. Make sure to take stuff like this into consideration when you're working on grammar and vocabulary.

And last, but not least...
3. YOU can, absolutely, write a conlang.
Okay, so I've spent a lot of this post saying what you can't do, and how hard it is, and how much you need help.  All of that is true!  But hey, you speak a language, right? You can write one too! If you're really dedicated, conlanging will be fun, promise.  You can do this, my friend. It'll be awesome.  Whenever it gets you down, just think about future ComiCons....

you sit at your booth, signing posters for the movie based off your bestselling novel that is about to come out.  a fan approaches.  "Greetings," they say to you, but it is in a different language.  A language you created.  people are speaking this language. they learn it for fun. it is cool. like klingon. you have become the author of a subculture.

Awesome concept, huh? So if your language gets you down -- and remember, languages are mean and messy and tend to do that -- just go listen to some LOTR soundtracks in Quenya or some chatter from ASoIaF in Dothraki. You can be like those legends. If you can write a book, you can write a language, and you will be awesome.

-- Black Widow

1 comment:

  1. I actually do have a conlang in the making at the moment... And there are words for concepts that are hard to express in English, ones like the Old English "wyrd," which implies fate but a host of other things as well... ;-) I want to learn to speak Old English at some point... or at least to read it. ;-)