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.