Words and the Lonely Writer, part 5 – Made Up Languages.

I don’t think there’s ever been a budding linguist — even those who aren’t writers — who hasn’t tried to make up their own language. I found attempts at this dating back to when I was eleven.  And maybe it’s not just linguists but weird kids.  My husband is a mathematician and he made up a language. Older son not only tried this, but then tried to teach it to us, and yelled about grammar errors.
The attempt is probably inevitable Budding Monster Hunters burn down buildings, budding Linguists (and weird kids) make up a language.  Well… languages don’t explode anything, but self-communication while important rarely justifies a whole new language.

But depending on how you go about it, as a writer, it can make your book more difficult to read.The first thing to remember about your made up language — which you love and adore, and want to take home and call George — is that it has to be kept to a minimum.  Contrary to the copyeditor who translated vast passages of Sword and Blood into French via google translator and wanted me to put them in French because “don’t they speak French?” most people realize that even for a story set abroad or in a made up world, you’re still writing in English.  You know, so your readers can read it? And pay you?

(Why yes, that’s why there were no more books in that series, and now copyright is mine and I have time I’ll finish the series indie.  Well, that’s one of the reasons.)

So, just like the occasional foreign phrase or foreign construction in English to give your book foreign flavor, save your made up language for occasional sentences, or constructions that follow the structure of that language. Remember that unless the meaning of the made up language is completely explained in the following or preceding text, people will stop and be annoyed.

Oh, and use it for naming conventions, if your world is that kind. That always goes over well, as people catch on to the pattern.  Other than the use of apostrophes — they make the Baby Jesus cry — Anne McCaffrey did that wonderfully in the dragon world.

Why do apostrophes make the baby Jesus cry? Because while perfectly acceptable as a marking they were a) overused by early sf/f writers so those of us who’ve read deeply into the field roll our eyes to the back of our heads when we see them.  b) because they’re not THAT common in English, particularly not mid-word.  So when I see R’neker’vir I pause for a couple of seconds.  This can be enough to break the spell.  Sure, your writing can overcome it, but why make it more difficult?  Do you have so many readers you need to cut down some?

Okay, so you aren’t a linguist, and you’re not as weird as the rest of us, and you’ve never made up a language.  BUT your new world absolutely needs it.

Start small. First, if you’re doing weird names, decide what the parts of the name mean and whether they bear on the society or the hierarchy or just on your species.

For instance, a species born from eggs (external, laid eggs, smarty pants) might have a lot of names with egg or shell or whatever.  One that’s incredibly hierarchical might build in things that mean “second son of the lowest sweeper.”

After that consider your society.  Is there some feature so weird, so outlandish you feel the need to emphasize it with a made up word?

Say your society is ruled by those who catch fish.  Create in a word for “great fisherman”and use that for ruler.  Of course, use the components for other things, so that we get they mean great and fisherman.  Readers (okay, me, but…) love this stuff and it makes the world more real.

Oh, yeah, and be careful.  Even though you’re writing in English, the puns or assumptions of the language will not translate to a different one.  Unless your character is our contemporary and an English speaker, and can say something like “they also used S to form plural, so the confusion between princes and princess made perfect sense.”

In the same way, if you really MUST have the pun and it must work in the world (I just HAVE to have one about lay, because it humanizes my protagonists who are very, very weird otherwise) make the language descended from English.

Yes, I just wrenched the universe to keep a pun.  May you throw the first stone, etc.  But in all seriousness, if you have a language that comes from English (or another Earth language) and is close by (say 200 years) go and look at what happened the last 200, then extrapolate.  Or get a crazy linguist friend to help (not me. I’m so out of practice.)

If it’s 10k years or more… well, don’t. It doesn’t matter. You can do whatever you want and call it “descended from English”.  (Why, yes, I AM lazy.)

Anyway, invented languages can give heft and reality to your world, but don’t go overboard, okay?
Now go write.



  1. Keep in mind if you have a non-humanoid species that anatomy shapes language. If your species lacks movable lips, or has relatively immobile faces, they might use body language a lot more than most humans do. Or pheromones, or color changes, or… Just please be consistent. Please, please be consistent.

    1. One of my stories has an insect race that communicates in clicks, chirps, rasps, etc. Humans need a sampler/synthesizer to speak it, and they can’t speak outs either.

    2. The ears in The Goblin Emperor. If more writers used the elves’ ears like that, I would grumble A LOT less about “humans with pointy ears.”

  2. In my recently-published story “Vigil For The Longest Night” I used a few things like “kay” for “kilometer” to show that the apparently medieval world the story is set in is actually a lost Earth colony in the far future. It was nice and simple and needed no explanation.

  3. Hello, my name is WyrdBard and I’m a language addict. *sweeps her language families under the rug and whistles* (In my defense I need naming conventions, both locative and personal, and a few other linguistic things so I can get the different cultures to ‘sound’ distinct after the 6 series merge. Upside, it is a 6 series merge, so the work shall get much milage.)

  4. […] copyeditor who translated vast passages of Sword and Blood into French […] and wanted me to put them in French because “don’t they speak French?”

    I understand that Tolstoy actually did this in War and Peace, but his audience was bilingual; so, it was not the big deal it would be here and now.

  5. I must be weird then because I made a language for the aliens in my second novel. Also, been known to insert Chinese and Russian phrases into my stories. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a big name author?

  6. I have done three languages to some extent or another: Old Aerochi which is the language one of my magicians use for spells and of languages in that part of the world, High Chanakran which really only appears in names in a different part of that world, and “Orcish” (in my short “Oruk Means Hard Work”).

    One of the weaknesses I’ve noticed form most made-up fantasy languages that I’ve seen is a lack of thought given to the grammar of the new language. Often they get away with that using just using isolated words or very brief phrases or they simply use existing grammar.

    For the languages I started first with the “sound” of the language (Latin sounds quite different from German and both sound quite different from Japanese) then went to grammar. Only then did I actually start working on a vocabulary for the relevant languages.

    1. Unless you’re going to have entire sentences in the constructed language, is there really a point in developing the grammar? I doubt you can really expect readers to learn more than five words of your language in the course of a novel (other than proper names).

      1. Well, it actually mattered in-story even for single words and short phrases. Old Aeriochi had two different “imperative” cases. The “weak imperative” and “strong impertive.” And so “sorthenkal” (weak imperative) was a mild sleep spell, basically used to help someone rest from injury or the like. “sorthenkyl” (strong imperative) is basically a “does this rag smell like chloroform?” spell. The reader might well never notice, but it’s a nice Easter Egg for those who do.

        When I started it, I didn’t know where the story was going to go. I thought I might end up with inscriptions and the like (a la Tolkein) and if I did, I’d have a grammar ready to go.

        In Oruk, my POV character started out not speaking Orkish and so I rendered what her captors said to her in Orkish–along with their pantomimes and what not used to get her to understand what they were demanding of her. After a “time jump” to when she did speak Orkish, I stopped using it except for special purposes, even rendering names in their English meaning (giving it a rather Native American feel).

        1. Here’s a useful term I learned when I was getting my Masters in Linguistics: performative. A performative form is one which causes the world to change. “I now pronounce you man and wife.” “I christen this ship the Olympic.” I had a teacher who was obsessed with performatives.

          In my (unpublished) story there were two classes of performative: declarative and imperative. If you were susceptible to it, you’d automatically believe a performative declaration and you’d be unable to disobey a performative imperative. The issues of who was vulnerable and who wasn’t (and what responsibility came with being able to do this) were key issues in the story.

          I ended up translating the effect into English just by adding, “I insist” at the end of a performative statement.

    2. “Lack of thought given to the grammar” may actually be an example of higher intelligence taking over. Or guardian angels watching out for the author.

      A while ago I thought it would be a great idea to posit an alien language in which indicative sentences actually act upon the nature of the universe, while subjunctive sentences are magically inert. Three books into that idea, while wondering how to convey it without putting readers to sleep, I’m seriously considering scrapping the whole notion. (Good thing about having four books stacked up in the publication queue — I can still edit the subjunctive/indicative divide out. If I do it this month.)

      Most readers do not want to think about grammar.

      Heck, most Americans have only a vague idea of how to use subjunctive, and I’ve known that for almost as many years as Sarah has been alive! And yet my inner language nerd still pulls this kind of thing.

        1. Most reasonably educated people can use things like subjunctive mood even though they don’t know that’s what they’re doing (“If I were a rich man” is subjunctive mood–conditional contrary to fact).

          When I was in the Air Force they were doing a short lived experiment of sending people in my field (never you mind) through an intensive English grammar course before sending us to our foreign language training schools. The purpose wasn’t to make us better at using English but rather to understand “the language of grammar” so that when we encountered subjunctive mood or dative case in our foreign language instruction we’d know what they were talking about.

          It must have been effective because they cancelled the program a few classes after mine.

      1. “Three books into . . . ” Yikes! Maybe just italicize or bold the phases they put the magic into, versus leaving it inert? A visual signal for us speed readers who can be oblivious to the exquisitely crafted details?

      2. Margaret,
        I once called the offices at Ace to scream at people because they’d edited my subjunctive out of a musketeer’s mystery and made my character sound illiterate.
        I guess I should have had alarm bells at their reply which was “Years, and this is what you’re mad about?” But it didn’t occur to me till years later there were OTHER things they thought I should be incoherent over. 😀

      3. And now I ponder a peculiar linguistic affliction for such a race of beings…

        “Little $NAME-ling can’t seem to make any changes.”
        “Oh no, is he coming down with a bad case of subjunctivitis?”
        “Seems so.”

  7. There’s a rule among translators that you translate meanings, not words, and I think the same principle ought to apply to SF stories.

    At the recent WorldCon in Helsinki, there were several different tracks about translation, and several of the translators talked about struggling to translate puns and idioms. That is to say, they make up a new one or pick a different idiom that exists in the target language rather than attempting a literal translation that readers won’t get. (E.g. “He bit the dust” might turn into “He grabbed the sneakers.”)

    I think we should view any SF story as representing an excellent English translation of whatever language the story was “really” written in. That means it should use English puns and idioms. (It might work to add a footnote that said something like, “Translator’s note: literally “grab the sneakers.”)

    Another rule is that you translate weights and measures. When a US story is translated into French, the distances are generally translated into kilometers and the weights in to kilograms. Again, I could see a footnote if the units came out awkwardly. (E.g. “One watch is 1 hour 23 minutes.”)

    I realize that’s not the style at present, but maybe it should be. Not footnotes on every page, of course, but maybe one or two early in the story to make it clear that that’s the idea.

    1. A small tangent: when Chinese “adopt” foreign words, sometimes they’ll use characters that (sort of) match the sound, rather than try to find characters to (sort of) match the meaning.

    2. I think a good example of this is the Asterix & Obelix translations from French into English. For example, the druid’s dog in French is named “Idéfix”, and in English “Dogmatix”

          1. ‘Asterix and the Horribly Blunt Anti-Nationalist Message”


            ‘Asterix and the Poorly Forced Anti-Capitalist Message”


            ‘Asterix and the Heavy-Handed Environmentalist Message”


            ‘Asterix and the Poorly Concealed Anti-Organized-Religion-Especially-Christianity Message”

            (sorry, I’ve read summaries of the newer Asterix comics….)

    3. David Drake puts a foreword in each of his Leary novels that includes something like, “No, I *don’t* think they’ll be using English measurements millenia after Earth is gone. Metric either. Or the English language, for that matter. Link up the word ‘ translation.’ Jeez…”

  8. Related to “made up languages”, in one story universe I made up Time Terms for my aliens.

    IE A name for “hours”, a name for “day”, a name for an eleven day “week” and so forth.

    But when I tried to write a story in that universe, I found it easier (ie not having to define the term for the reader) to use the “human” term. Even if the “alien hour” was slightly longer than the Earth Hour. 😉

    1. I think the whole problem of coming up with times for a story deserves an article by itself. If you invent whole new terms, you’ve got the same problem as with any new words. If you use “months” and “years” readers will wonder what they mean on this alien planet. If you keep saying “local-years, earth-years” readers will get tired of the repetition.

      Oh and add the fact that for scientific purposes, the length of the second cannot be changed.

      I have a lot of ideas on this, but I think the key point is that the system needs to lend itself to writing a good story. Real colonists might make different decisions. 🙂

      1. And Calendars. I’ve got interactions among cultures that put the start of the new year at the winter solstice, January first, or the first new moon after the winter solstice.

        When ever possible, I have nothing happening between the solstice and mid-January. Because I don’t want the complications of figuring out dates.

        1. Heh. In the WIP I added work weeks for the first time in the Merchant world. Because the fire miners have to have at least 36 hours to do their work and then get air back into the mine, the others get the Eighth Day off. Thus they have eight-day weeks, and calculate things like rent, and pay-day, based on that.

      2. Seconds can be redefined. A lot of textbooks would need rewriting. If aliens develop physics, their small time unit will not equal our second.

        I’ve often wondered if we picked the right units if a lot of weird constants would just disappear. For example: F=G(m1m2/r^2). If we picked the right units, G could be 1. If you kept doing this, could you make all them 1? It hardly seems sensible that 6.023×10^23 or 3×10^8 are actually “natural” in any way. Then again, there is pi.

        I’ve never bothered to try. Even it is possible, no one is going to drop SI units for Mark units.

        1. Such a system already exists. It’s not used much, in part because you can’t entirely make the constants entirely go away. As just one example, F = G(m1m2)/r^2 Force has dimensions of mass*distance/time^2 where m1*m2/r^2 has dimensions of mass^2/distance^2 so you need a constant with dimensions mass*distance^3/time^2 to have both sides refer to the same “thing”. You can make the value of many of them unity but they’re still needed to keep the dimensions right.

        2. There’s a very cool set of natural units called “Planck units,” which I’m sure you’ll be interested in. It makes the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, Boltzmann’s constant, and Coulomb’s constant all equal to 1. These are the ultimate natural units.

          Unfortunately, this makes the basic units for length, mass, and time really tiny, and it makes the unit of temperature really big, so they’re not practical for everyday use. (Have a look at the link above and see if you agree.)

          The trouble with changing the value of the second is that you’ll break too many other things. For example, units of pressure and force would change. Equipment calibrated to the old units wouldn’t work anymore. The whole body of scientific results would be invalidated, minus a few things that don’t depend on time. No sane colony would even consider it.

          In my story, I assumed there’s nothing you can do about the day; it’s going to be the planet’s mean tropical day. But people are conservative; they’re still going to want to talk in terms of hours and minutes, so I figured they’d define the local “hour” to be the unit closest to 3600 seconds that evenly divides the planet’s rotation into some multiple of 2. (You want a 16 or 18-hour day–not a 17-hour one). Then the minute would be 1/60 of an hour and the “tick” would be 1/60 of a minute (leaving the second unchanged).

          By the same logic, I figured the week would be the number of whole days closest to 86,400 x 7 seconds and the month would be some number of whole days close to 86,400 x 30.5 seconds that leaves the smallest remainder of the tropical year.

          That way, although you’re stuck with whatever “day” and “year” the planet gives you, when you speak of “months,” “weeks,” “hours,” or “minutes,” you’re using terms that are roughly the same as what Earth people use. And, since all of your readers will be Earth people, that’s a good thing. 🙂

          1. In David Weber’s story-universes, seconds minutes hours are all Earth seconds minutes hours for human settled worlds.

            Since extremely few (if any) planets have a day exactly the length of an Earth day or one that would be an even division of hours, there is a “comp period” at midnight planetary standard time.

            The comp period is obviously less than an hour.

            Local years, of course, depend on the planet’s orbit. Mind you, for worlds connected with the over-all human civilization, there is an official year which is a Standard Earth year along with the local year.

            By the way, Weber’s Star Kingdom (in the Honorverse) has three local years as well as the Standard Earth year. Fortunately, the Star Kingdom has good computers with computer programs that can keep track of the different years. 😉

            1. You can make a pragmatic argument for making “year” only mean “Earth-year” and using “turn” for the local tropical period of revolution of the planet around its sun: You want to be able to say that a character is 30 years old without having to say “30 Earth-years old” all the time.

              That said, I wrote a short story once where a lazy character from a starship has to pick a goodwill project to do on a planet they’re visiting, so he looks down the list and finds one for someone to host a group of local guys aged 25-29 on a week-long hike into the wilderness. By the time he realizes they’re 15-17 Earth-years old, it’s too late to back out.

          2. Saw one once where they measured all time in seconds. Kiloseconds instead of hours, megaseconds for weeks, etc. And everybody just translated–it’s a simple table lookup, after all. Sorta like a Stardate.

          3. Thanks for the Planck link! So much for my original thinking: Originally proposed in 1899 by German physicist Max Planck. I was only about 100 years late to the game.

            And you’re right: Even peta-planck units are quite small.

        3. I’m wondering if some the the fundamental constants are transcendental numbers. There’s no theoretical derivation, so no way to prove it or disprove it. It would make an interesting background item if, say, the permissivity of hyperspace is 1/pi^40.

  9. The cover of one printing of Jack Vance’s “The Book of Dreams” cites it as “THE FIFTH AND FINAL DEMONS PRINCESS NOVEL”. I have the image, should any care for it. Perhaps the “layers and layers of proofreaders and editors” would.

    1. Not as much as you’d think. I needed an elective from the non-computational side for my Linguistics MS and picked a class on Japanese Semantics. I figured my Japanese was pretty good and even though I didn’t know anything about semantics, I thought I’d learn it easily enough.

      To my surprise, my Japanese was the worst of anyone else in the class (about 8 people). But for me, I think he could have taught the class in Japanese. And all of them had already had lots of classes in classical linguistics at the undergrad level.

      But modern semantics is all math, and I was the only one with a strong math background. So while I was struggling to learn what “deontics” were, everyone else was trying to wrap their minds around set algebra. It turned out I had the easier task, and I got the only 4.0 the teacher gave. The rest of them hated math and, unsurprisingly, weren’t very good at it.

      I’d say it’s pretty common for math guys to be interested in linguistics, but not really to study it seriously. And although 100 years ago the big names in linguistics were all serious mathematicians, I think that’s not the way to bet anymore.

      But I went ahead and took two more classes in Semantics that I didn’t even have to take. And the other folks studying it really were linguists who like math. They do exist; we’re just rare. 🙂

      1. I’m not sure that your anecdote counters the rule. I might view “learning a language fluently” as a very different thing than “linguistics,” for example. But I’ve not done either, so are the two of them actually the same thing that use the same skills?

        That doesn’t mean that people who are good at languages don’t go into linguistics, but possibly they wash-out or struggle when it comes to the scientific elements? Because that seems to be what your story suggests. The students who went on to higher level classes were the ones who understood and could do math. No?

        1. Used to, they did use the same skills, because you had to know how the languages worked and meanings shifted in order to do linguistics. Now… ohhhboy. There are a few Olde School linguistics people who learn the languages and do the analysis. Linguistics as an academic field has shifted into a lot of strange (to me) grammatical minutia and gotten very political. Lots and lots of theory, psychology, and deconstruction, not as much about language per se.

          1. Ugh.

            Anytime I see an article about some national language conference I wonder why a singularity didn’t spontaneously erupt and swallow us all.

          2. I am not an academic, and I only read occasional articles about the subject, but you might like Computational Linguistics.

            Studying how computers can understand (or not understand) language is fascinating. And it has fascinating revelations about how humans think with language and about language.

            One of the last ones I read was all about how humans don’t actually follow any of their so-called “rules” about language. It’s ALL pattern matching, which is what you’d expect from a deep neural network (aka, a brain). What confuses the computers a lot is all of the parts of the pattern that commonly get left out by the speaker or writer, then subconsciously filled in by the listener.

            And of course sometimes a writer will craft a sentence that is deliberately confusing in order to make his reader carefully parse it, and then the rules come out. Or the reader makes the best guess he can at the time.

            But anyway. As a computer guy, I think it’s cool how trying to understand human things at such a deep level that a computer can be told how to do it reveals all of this fascinating stuff about humans.

            Reminds me of an author I like, E. William Brown, and his Alice novel. One of the characters in there says something like, “So if I want to understand human interaction, I should read the textbooks about android morality engineering?”

        2. People who are interested in languages go into linguistics. People who are good at languages become professional translators. 🙂 Linguists know a lot about languages, but most linguists aren’t fluent in anything but their native language.

          There’s a big division in linguistics between the computational linguists and the classical linguists. The computational folks definitely know math and computer programming, although even there I was disappointed at how little value most of my fellow students put on that part of the curriculum. (And they probably thought I was overly obsessed with algorithmic efficiency.)

          During my studies (I went back to school for my Masters just a few years ago, so I’m very current despite my age) I didn’t see much evidence of a political agenda. However, the task of linguistics is to find a model that describes all of the world’s languages in a single framework, so that definitely leads to things that may not seem obvious (or not obviously useful) to someone who is only interested in analyzing English. Also, for computational purposes, that model must be something that can be implemented on a computer. Classical models often have elements that require human judgments.

  10. I rather think that I tried to create a language when I was small – just because the notion intrigued me. But ever since … English is sufficient.
    I have had to renew acquaintance with Spanish, though – for Luna City, where many of the locals speak it as a second language. And for reasons of plot, one of the characters, who is English and fiercely proud of it, has to pretend to be Hispanic, and in a tough place, has to uncork the only Spanish he knows: “Wipe your Feet”, “Rise and Shine!” and “I don’t speak English…”

    The comic possibilities of this scene … I should elaborate on it, I know.

    1. I sort of had to create a language for the Azdhagi, because lizards don’t have lips the way humanoids do. I opted to make it agglutinating, just out of curiosity. (For example, Rada Ni Drako’s war fan is a rehdakhschleera, which literally translates “fan-iron-war weapon.” She is called Reh-dakh-tahss, “fan-iron-lord”. The first word is the thing, the second the primary specifying modifier, the third assigns a function.)

  11. For one of my story ideas I probably *ought* to create a language. I most likely won’t. The characters will speak Galactic Standard and several of the native alien languages of the world in question and at least one human language other than GS. The comparison would be if people from Earth spoke Hindi, Japanese, Swahili, Czech, and Navajo… and Galactic Standard and Klingon.

    In concept, it matters that the alien planet is not a mono-culture. It even matters to the plot rather than just because I twitch at the idea of “the alien language” in about the same way that I twitch at the idea of “the swamp planet”…. right over from “the desert planet”…

    “They speak Truassnian.”

    “Oh, okay, which of the 682 known Truassnian languages do they speak?”

    1. Good point, but counter argument: If the planets are founded by a mono-culture (New America, New Texas, Newer York, etc…) and they stay in touch, would (American) English drift much? We have regional accents, but are they diverging or converging with mass communication?

      On second thought, perhaps America is not the best example. How French-like is African French? I have no idea.

      1. On the other hand, Latin doesn’t change because no one speaks it. So if people didn’t use Galactic Standard for their daily lives it might not drift as much. Everyone would know the “school boy” version.

      2. Somewhere I heard that French-Canadian is noticeable different from “Standard” French.

        1. My first wife was from Mexico. According to her, Spanish is pretty fragmented also. Spanish from Spain, vs Puerto Rico, vs Cuba, vs Mexico is all pretty different. They can generally understand each other, but sometimes it takes some work.

          Me, I’m dumb. I always wanted to learn another language, but just don’t have that talent. I barely passed the minimum Spanish in High School for enough foreign language credits to graduate, but was never able to speak it reliably (even after marrying a Mexican woman, although most of the Spanish I heard from her was her cussing at me LOL!).

          Funny thing was, the Spanish teacher at the High School BEGGED me to keep going. According to her, I was the first student she had ever had, after years of teaching Spanish in Central Illinois farm country, who could actually SAY THE WORDS CORRECTLY. Couldn’t remember what most of those words meant, but man could I say them well (so well in fact, that I stopped telling people I couldn’t speak Spanish, IN Spanish, which was one of the few phrases I remembered, because I said it so well that they assumed I was kidding and would keep on speaking Spanish to me.)

          1. Spanish in Spain is even more fragmented; Canary Islands is very different (use different words), Andalucia is very different from Castilla, Galician is half way to its own language, Catalon is its own language, and Basque (Euskadi) is like nothing else.

            Just like English is England – English accents/dialects are more diverse than American.

            And Quebecois is supposedly more similar to early French (say 17th or 18th Century) than the French in France (and, of course, French, German, and Italian have very significant dialects. “Official” French is Parisian, “Official” German is Prussian, “Official” Spanish is Castellian, etc).

      3. Actually, American accents are diverging, even within neighboring districts of cities. That was the point of the more recent American dialects telephone study, and pretty entertaining to see people’s heads explode.

        (It also supported an old argument of mine to my American Dialects prof, so that alone made it value for money! Nobody wanted to believe me that native Daytonians use warsh and wash in the same sentence… But then they got recordings. Ha ha, I win!)

        OTOH, a lot of people do codeswitching or have mutual intelligibility of neighboring dialects, so diversification of accents in the US is not a problem most of the time. But computer voice recognition has tons of trouble with certain accents, though it is getting better.

    2. For stuff like this, I tend to find that even in such multilingual places, there will be a trade common language or bridge language. In the Philippines, English served that function between the native languages, or so my mother tells me. In her small mountain village alone, there were two different languages spoken, and apparently the tribalism was such that a fair number of the population REFUSED to learn each other’s; Mom was one of the very, very few who learned Ibanag, even though she was Illocano…

      To me, the two languages sound exactly the same to my very untrained ear, and I’m told no, they most definitely are NOT.

      Going back: so say, if your interplanetary travelers are meeting a non-monoculture planet, they’re most likely going to speak the traders’ common, which could be generally named after the planet; (e.g. Pernese, for example) only linguists and culturalists will really want to delve into the different distinct languages and dialects; and there is likely to be a translator if you want to go that way, I imagine.

      1. A lot of those trade languages are sort-of local and somewhat limited to the subjects likely to be discussed… berthing fees and trade transactions and making it with the barmaid. I’ve heard claim that English is global which reminds me of my Peruvian neighbor in CA who worked in the tech industry and was certainly fluent in English *for the tech industry*. He didn’t know the English word for “vegetables”. French tried to be global. I don’t know if it is. People often suggest Spanish.

        In the case of my particular story world I imagine cultures on the cusp of the industrial revolution, global trade by slow ships when humans showed up, maybe some rich dudes in a scientific society are showing off experimental radios, so it’s quite possible that the “common” language adopted would be the one that allowed them to talk to the “aliens” who just showed up.

  12. the use of apostrophes — they make the Baby Jesus cry

    Thank you! I loathe that. The only thing worse is writing in dialect.

    I’m currently reading about Ta’kara. How is that in any significant way different from Takara, except I don’t wonder how to pronounce the latter?

    I don’t care for Ghatakzhok, either. “zh” is not an English diphthong. To be fair to the author, there is other Russian influence and “zh” is “Ж”. I just read “Gatazok” and press on.

        1. Fair enough, but note they are not spelled Mezhur, lizhur, and Azhan. Ghoti is not fish (in case anyone hasn’t seen that before: enou”gh”, w”o”men, and na”ti”on).

  13. Contrary to the copyeditor who translated vast passages of Sword and Blood into French via google translator and wanted me to put them in French because “don’t they speak French?”


    I’m sorry, but I can’t help wondering if you have a special talent for attracting the stupidest self-described editors on the planet or if the vast majority of people in that profession couldn’t dump maple syrup out of a boot even with instructions printed on the heel.

  14. I may have written a chapter once where our heroine had to translate from the ceremonial/archaic tongue she only barely knew for her merchant companion, just because it didn’t make sense for all the random isolated tribes in the middle of the desert to know the trade language of the continent. It was a tricky line to walk, and I’m still not sure I managed it. Thankfully, I shouldn’t have to do that again, at least not with that series.

  15. Cordwainer Smith had C’Mell.

    OTOH, this is a shortening of Cat-Mell. You can often work out the original animal for one of the Underpeople from the initial letter.

  16. I have to second the bit about apostrophes. I have NO FREAKIN IDEA how to pronounce R’neker’vir, and words like that will almost always screw with reading pace for me. Which in turn screws with how much I enjoy the story.

    To tell the truth, I usually mentally replace those words with the closest curse that my brain comes up with. So if you don’t want your Magi, or Alien space lord to be retroactively named “Pig F#@Ker” by at least one reader (no idea if anyone else does this), you’ll step away from the shiny candy-like apostrophe. 🙂

  17. I made up the language for my buried MS. as I went along, which meant that most of my characters had recognizably earth-based names from wherever I grabbed them. By the time two (human, but fictional) cultures met, there was almost no semblance of coherent philology in what had been given to the reader.

    But some takeaways one might use for flavor are:
    Titles and Address – what’s the equivalent of Mr., Mrs., Ms., and Miss? In my story those from the primary urban setting used Riin / Riia for Mr. / Mrs., and out-of-town dialects said Rijn / Rija.
    A foreign family joins the cast, and their cultural differences are noted by juxtaposing given and family names, a la Chinese or Korean language conventions.
    Comment in passing that your books (if they play a role in the story) are read from right to left, or from top to bottom, or are printed on scrolls (scrolls– only if you’re willing to impede the in-world Reading Public that much, or the setting demands it!) The realization that their books or writing are so very different from ours lends a notion of Other Tongues without quite as much fleshing-out of the philology. Describing single runes or letters, for sounds English spells with two or three characters, also adds to this.

    Just my own sixpence.

  18. I could never decide if The Lensmen‘s “QX” was neat or stupid. (If anyone hasn’t read them, QX is OK.) It is immediately understandable, but so close that it seems a bit gratuitous.

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