My Top Tips for Utilizing Fictional Language in Your Stories
LISTEN TO TODAY'S ARTICLE:
Let’s face it: Tolkien set the bar pretty high as far as constructed languages go.
Whether you’ve considered outlining an entire conlang (that’s world-building slang for “constructed language”) or are simply looking to use a few invented words to liven up your story world, knowing how best to approach the construction of a fictional language is daunting to say the least.
Is the use of conlang really necessary? How much detail should you put into crafting your fictional language? And how in the world can you incorporate it in a way that feels natural and believable to readers? Let’s talk about all this and more in today’s article, writer!
Should you create a fictional language?
When it comes to storytelling, there are no should’s. But does utilizing a constructed language in your story in any way improve its appeal? The simple answer is: not without purpose.
Utilizing a conlang for conlang’s sake will win you no brownie points as far as excellent and effective storytelling goes. This cannot be reiterated enough. Your constructed language will not inherently make your story any more intelligent or otherwise superior to its counterparts.
Can conlangs be a great way to draw readers further into your story world? Absolutely — but only if crafted and utilized with care. Remember, language is a tool for communication. Without the ability to comprehend and engage, language becomes a stumbling block. It hinders the ability to communicate.
Being as conlangs are inherently incomprehensible — at least at first — it's only natural that they can easily become major stumbling blocks in stories. So if you want to avoid confusing or boring readers, it’s time to consider whether utilizing a conlang is truly necessary to tell the very best version of your story.
What purposes can fictional language serve?
To better understand whether utilizing a constructed language is right for your story, let’s take a look at the four key purposes they can fulfill.
Purpose #1: To avoid anachronisms.
When writing speculative fiction stories, authors must work to immerse readers in their fictional worlds. Language that feels too modern or doesn’t quite fit the setting can have the opposite effect, drawing readers back into their everyday consciousness.
Utilizing the occasional fictional word can be a great way to avoid such anachronisms. Common examples include those pertaining to currency, measurements, names, or curse words.
Purpose #2: To describe something with no English equivalent.
When you’re deep in the world-building trenches, you’re likely to dream up some sort of fictional item, expression, animal, or idea that doesn’t quite come with an English-language equivalent.
This is another area in which conlangs can come to the rescue, giving you the perfect opportunity to deepen your story world via the use of an invented word. Consider how J.K. Rowling uses “muggle” to describe a person without magical abilities.
Purpose #3: To show the protagonist out of their depth.
On occasion, your story’s protagonist may find themselves unable to converse with another character due to a language barrier. In such cases, you may wish to make use of a few constructed words or sentences to purposefully confuse readers, thus placing them in your protagonist’s shoes.
I personally recommend only using this trick when there are emotional stakes at play, so as to avoid bogging your story down with too much conlang. If your protagonist’s inability to comprehend leaves them feeling angered, embarrassed, or in danger, you’ve found a great moment to whip out a few fictional words.
Purpose #4: To imbue special meaning.
At times, your characters may use fictional words to cast spells, communicate in secret, or otherwise speak in ways that hold powerful meaning. Even common fictional phrases can become powerful if they bear the right emotional weight.
Take, for example, the word “Anoshe” from the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. The word — simply translated — means “farewell”, yet by the time you finish the third book in the series, this tiny word carries the weight of the most heart-breaking of goodbyes.
When crafting fictional words and phrases to use in your stories, I fully believe in the idea that bigger isn’t always better. Keep your introduced vocabulary minimal and provide readers with maximum purpose in its use, and you’ll have no issue drawing readers further into your world rather than pushing them away.
My top tips for creating fictional language...
Tolkien, as we’ve established, has set quite the high bar when it comes to crafting languages. The good news is that Tolkien’s excellence in this arena stemmed directly from his career as a philologist. To aspire to his level of language creation without the proper training is to set yourself up for failure, thus making this aspiration entirely unnecessary.
All that to say: you don’t need to be a linguist to create your own fictional words and phrases. If you do want to add a little conlang to your story world, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Tip #1: Begin with what you know.
Creating an entirely original language is nigh on impossible. Most fictional cultures find their roots in real-world ones, and there’s nothing wrong with fictional languages following suit. Identify the real-world language(s) you’d like to use as the foundation for your conlang, then begin studying it.
What are some of the common sounds in this language? How are its sentences structured? What tonal notes mark how this language is spoken? Use these elements to begin forging your fictional language, taking care to craft words and sentences that feel at once familiar and distinct.
Tip #2: Consider your world-building.
Culture, history, societal values, trade… Each of these elements and more can have a major impact on the evolution of a language. Before creating your conlang, take the time to define the society in which your characters live.
Would the language have adopted words and phrases from neighboring regions? How would societal values or religious beliefs affect common phrases? You aren’t likely to find a people that prize modesty making grand proclamations or flinging curse words, so consider your world-building carefully.
Tip #3: Make it believable.
There is fictional, and there is laughable. Don’t mistake the former for breaking every mold in sight. Combining too many consonants, putting apostrophes between every two letters, or completely ignoring vowel sounds is a sure way to leave readers rolling their eyes.
Once again, help readers digest your fictional language by crafting it to feel familiar. Conlangs that cross into the ridiculous do far more to pull readers out of a story then immerse them.
#Tip #4: Establish a clear set of rules.
You don’t have to be a linguist to create full sentences in your fictional language. Simply work to establish a clear rhythm within your conlang, specifically as relates to common sounds and sentence structure.
Does the language place verbs before or after nouns? How about adjectives and adverbs? Common sounds? The frequent use of particular vowels, consonants, or letter pairings will run through your language like a refrain, emphasizing its individuality and lending cohesion that can help fight against readers' confusion.
Before we wrap things up today, writers, there is one thing that needs to be said: if you are a philologist or a language enthusiast, don’t let me stop you from going buck-wild in creating your fictional language. Give yourself full rein to let your passions fly, regardless of how much of the conlang you create ends up in your completed story.
If you’re simply a writer looking to expand your story world, however, don’t make more work for yourself than necessary. You don’t need to develop a full vocabulary or to understand how all the common verbs in your conlang conjugate in order to successfully use fictional language in your stories.
Keep it simple instead, creating words and phrases as needed or establishing a small language reference guide to use as you write. Remember, a simple fictional word spoken with purpose is far more powerful than any conlang created for conlang’s sake, at least so far as good storytelling goes.
So let’s craft our fictional languages with care, writer. In doing so, we can add incredible vibrance to our stories!