Friday, June 1, 2012

On constructing a fictional language

This is by no means a comprehensive guide on how to construct a language, rather it is a guide on picking your language styles and using it in a manner appropriate for your story.

To add a touch of other language to your work you can use a few words and phrases of your construction 

Choosing phrases and the odd word for usage: 

  • Choose amongst the phrases commonly used when people are emotional and convert them. If people are emotional they tend to switch to their native languages when speaking. 
  • Definitely convert swear words as these are generally uttered in the native language and will by conversion you take the edge off the 'bad word' or 'lower language' stigma while creating a word or two that people would like to memorise.
  • Choose phrases or words used as honorifics and make your own class and/or command structures.
  • Choose phrases that refer to basic functions or needs living beings have.
  • To save time and effort, base the words and phrases on an alphabet currently or previously in use which has been altered. Use the base guides for alternate alphabets construction in creating your words and phrases.
  • Record your phrases and words for later reference as you'll likely reuse them.
Sometimes though, there are times in writing fiction when use of a fictional language is required. Most of us make do with the odd word or phrase peppered throughout to give a little bit of otherness to the mix. But sometimes just a few words or phrases isn't enough to lend authenticity to your language or world. A greater use of a fictional language is often needed if your work is of epic proportions or revolves around cultural clashes between totally foreign civilisations.

There are a few options for when necessity dictates a new language be added to your work. One is to alter a language currently in use and the other is to make an entirely new one up. There are advantages and disadvantages to both though the first option is by far the most popular.

To change a language currently or previously in use:

  • To construct a fictional language then changing an alphabet currently in use is the easiest approach. The author is familiar with how to manipulate the language from the very beginning, writing it as though it were just their language in code.
  • Changing an alphabet from a base set like the English/Latin alphabet or the Greek will only get you so far in making a language truly other. This method is quicker and easier but it lacks a certain authenticity when used regularly. The reader or viewer will pick up that the language isn't all that foreign sooner or later and the worst of the critics and most avid of fans will then tear your work apart for it because they're the most likely to look so closely at your work.
  • Altering an alphabet that hasn't been in common use in centuries will add a little more authenticity but if the alphabet still mostly resembles the ancient one then it may be recognised, as happens with Norse or Egyptian. If it is recognised then there is cause for the audience to believe there was once a meeting of cultures or a diaspora or peoples.
  • If you use an ancient alphabet you can intentionally point to or suggest a common point of evolution or of historical contact between cultures. In this way you can use your fictional language as a plot device as well as a method of adding otherness and civilisation creation to your writing.
  • For irregular usage, though more than the general phrase, and for quick writing this method is the best one to take, especially if your fictional civilisation is not reliant on being completely separated from human culture and contact.
  • Some attention must be paid to how the language sounds when constructing these languages but not nearly as much as when constructing a language from scratch. If you are using an altered alphabet then the words and flow of the language, in essence the beat of the music, will sound very much the sake as the original language. What will change is the particular notes or sounds made.
  • Making new sounds to go with the new letters will take some time and I suggest using a recorder when doing so, particularly if you are intending these languages to go beyond print. Even in print you may need to reference how the language sounds; guttural or lyrical etc, so that the audience can imagine or 'hear' it properly. If your characters have a different tongue and throat structure then there will be different vocalisation methods and thus different sounds being used as language. To find these you may have to completely depart from any know language to fund your sounds.
  • From an altered alphabet most words will still be similar, as will the phrases but there are options of making the words used refer to different objects, concepts, relationships etc. Even with the limited play available through an altered alphabet you can use the language rather effectively when creating a different culture. Throughout our world the alphabets and languages used vary widely but what is being referred to is the same. With this similarity in objects referenced it can be said that we have a global language despite the different tongues we speak it in. How we reference changes through the fashions of slang, which may or may not permanently enter the base language structures. If you are constructing a fictional language with the same alphabet base then do the opposite of what is done on our planet. Make the words and phrases used refer to something completely alien to our world. This will add a layer of complexity.

To create a fictional language from scratch (almost never done except in part):

  • For use when entire worlds revolve around the language or a civilisation completely separate from humanity. Most of the guides on altered alphabet construction come into play but there are some important differences.
  • Time consuming and incredibly difficult as you are effectively doing what thousands upon thousands of people would have done over centuries. The end product is worth of a book or two by itself.
  • To create and use an alphabet that is completely new will indicate the absolute foreignness of your characters to human civilisation. This is great for use in space dramas but not entirely necessary for any civilisation living alongside humanity on Earth. That isn't to say that you shouldn't but that you might not have to expend so much energy on language construction if you allow some early interaction between the cultures and civilisations.
  • Great attention has to be paid to making the language structure different, the beat and flow of the language as well as the sounds used different. The sounds will need to be unusual and their combination has to sound consistently fluent or guttural or singsong.
  • The phrases commonly used, slang in particular, will inevitably need to be new and this will require you to think carefully on alternate grammar and sentence construction. This will likely require you to study languages other than your native one just so you can get enough of a grasp on how different languages work that you can use this information to form your own language and put it to fluent use.
  • You will need to make excessive notes and record all the sounds used wherever possible, enough to make a dictionary of your own. You may even want to create your own writing styles so that you aren't just printing every line.
  • You will have to construct new words to go with your new alphabet, requiring you to find different ways to refer to the same objects or words and concepts or to refer to new objects and concepts as yet unknown to us.
  • Great authenticity comes as a result of this hard labour and if your work is published your language will likely be immortalised simply because of its existence, popularity disregarded.

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