Creating Fantasy Languages

DISCLAIMER: This post is not for people interested in learning the intricacies of languages and linguistics. This is for people who just need to create a language deep enough to use it a few times in a fantasy or science-fiction story. I am by no means an expert.

I have created several fantasy languages (or conlangs). I created the first four (Mucheinu, Adiliiei, Joqastiin, and Liirip) when I was nine years old. I created Gídnei for The Edinön Trilogy. I could speak none of them fluently because I only created enough rules and words that I could use it when needed in the story.

If you would like to construct a fake language with the click of a button, you can buy Vulgar, a fantasy language generator, for only $9.95. I haven’t used it, but it looks like it could be very helpful.

Now, what is my process? How can you create a language that sounds real and adds to the authenticity of your world?

Step 1: Who (or what) is speaking?

First, figure out who is speaking this language. Where is it spoken? For example, if this new conlang is spoken by trolls who live in swamps, perhaps it sounds a bit… muddy? How do trolls use vowels and consonants? How extensive is their vocabulary? Do they use long words or short, clipped words?

Gray Haze, my current work-in-progress, happens to have a society of trolls that live in vast marshlands in the south. Their land is called Po’zik’so, because I imagine they use short words and sharp consonants. If I were to come up with a sentence that sounds troll-ish right now, what would it look and sound like? (Jo dab ek i’nizek. | Joe dab eck ee-KNEE-zeck.)

Elves, on the other hand, might use longer, softer words, with long vowels and L’s. They live in the north, far longer than humans, and are tall and fair. I can create words that match what I’d imagine them using. (Eliethet merimei alivylo. | EL-ee-ETH-et MARE-i-may All-ee-VIE-low.)

Step 2: Establish Patterns for Consistency

To make the language seem more authentic, regardless of how often you use it, make sure it remains consistent. You can do this by establishing patterns in the vernacular. Say, for example, “jo” in troll-speak means “I” in English. I can make other pronouns similar to that: joi = you, ju = us, je = they, etc. This simplifies the process and makes coming up with new words easier and easier as you take established words and alter them slightly. (Pro-tip: keep a vocabulary list handy so you don’t lose track of words you have used already. Even better, divide the list into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or some other category that will make words easier to find.)

Step 3: Create Unique Rules

Don’t make your conlang too similar to your native language. I could create a vocabulary that is just like English, for instance, with word-for-word translations and easy English sounds. (Hi, I am Mitzi. –> Ko, li en Mitzi.) But that would be pretty dull.

One example of a “unique” rule I created for Amatong, a conlang in Gray Haze, is that its speakers often combine words into titles or names:

  • The second lunar cycle of spring is called Muli’quen, literally “spring second,” combining the words “muliva” (spring) and “quen” (two/second).
  • The queen of Amal’en is named Arda, but everyone calls her Ardazon, combining her name with the term for queen, “zonei,” to show the proper respect.
  • A river between two lakes, Lake Nevem and Lake Thiri, is called “Nevem’et’thiri,” which literally means: “magic between sight.” The literal translation is meaningless; to speakers of Amatong, “Nevem’et’thiri” simply means, “Between Lake Nevem and Lake Thiri.”

The possibilities are endless. However, don’t make your conlang so far from the language in which you are writing the rest of your novel that it frustrates certain readers. I always try to pronounce the fake words in my head when I’m reading to feel more immersed in the story. If the words are so complex and incomprehensible that I have to skim over them, you might as well not put them there in the first place.

Feel free to leave a pronunciation guide in the back of your book, though! That is very much appreciated by readers like me. I love “hearing” characters speak their own languages in the book once in a while.

Step 4: Don’t Overdo It

Don’t write more than a sentence or two in the fake language on a single page. The only reason it should be there in the first place is to add a sprinkle of authenticity to your world (a sprinkle). You want your readers to comprehend what is going on most of the time, right? (An example of where this is done very well, in my opinion, is Six of Crows.)

You can make your characters use a word or two frequently as an expletive or greeting, and the reader will grow accustomed to that word/phrase. But once you introduce a language, you don’t need to display it very often, unless your POV character (and therefore, your reader) isn’t meant to understand what is happening. Still, you don’t need to use too many fake words. You can point out that they are speaking in a foreign language and leave it at that.

Any Thoughts?

What do you think? How have you created fake languages in the past? Do you think they’re necessary? Do you enjoy them as a reader? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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