The last of the conlang rants, on more general ideas when coming up with specific languages in fantasy worlds.

1) “Your language will breed a mythology.”

That’s a quote from Tolkien, and with him it was obviously spectacularly true (though a lot of people didn’t believe him when he said that Middle-earth was mainly a home for his Elvish languages), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be true for other people.

Stuck on worldbuilding? Wander over and look at some of the words that your conlang using, especially the ones that are sacred/mysterious/powerful. Could they possibly refer to gods? To legendary heroes? Does a name that you’re worried about because it isn’t typical of that language’s culture actually belong to somebody special and important at the beginning of history, so it got passed down even as other names contemporary with it changed and fell out of favor? Does a place name hold records of an ancient event?

Of course, you can do this the other way around, too. The name of the god Pan gave us panic, the overwhelming, all-consuming fear that Pan was said to inspire. Names of gods and demigods and mystical mortals went to planets and moons (Mercury and Europa), to months (January, from Janus), to days of the week (Wednesday, from Wotan, or Odin). Tons of American places were named after reigning European Kings and Queens (Virginia, Louisville, Carolina). Places earn a certain reputation and get mythologized (Arcadia was originally part of Greece, but most people know it now for the literary and mythological ideas it’s inspired, especially terms like the arcadian pastoral and Et in Arcadia ego).

Don’t think that the only possible use of language in worldbuilding is to fill out linguistic history. It can help you with plenty of other things.

2) There is a place for mystical, untranslatable terms.

What I wanted to say in the other rant was simply that the language should not be solely those, while missing all the words that you need to hold a regular conversation.

Most languages have certain phrases and concepts that it’s hard to translate, maybe impossible. What are those in your conlang? They don’t have to all be at a grand and exalted level of importance. An exclamation of disgust could hold a force that the person who makes it will never be able to explain to someone speaking a different language, because that culture doesn’t find the idea of menstrual blood gross, or find anything blasphemous about referring to a god’s body parts. (It can tell you a lot about a culture/conlang to know what their profanity refers to).

Other interesting ideas for this category are:

  • specific religious concepts. Someone who accepts the idea of bodily resurrection as fact, embodied in the word atero, may falter when trying to explain it to someone who does not. At the very least, she’ll have to use more words.
  • political/social systems. If someone is a dhavilot to his people, someone to be honored and adored, but a tyrant to outsiders, those outsiders are going to have a hard time understanding why his people don’t rebel.
  • features common to that culture’s landscape, but which don’t occur elsewhere. Someone who lives in a desert may tell a story in which she unthinkingly differentiates between edsle dunes and tirimit dunes. She’ll need to explain them when someone from the jungle stares at her blankly, though.
  • divisions of space, time, and events that occur in one language and not another. For example, the English language has many, many more terms describing what the male body does during sex than what the female body does. It has a word for lap; many other languages don’t. Perhaps your imagined culture calls the night before a wedding happens okaleo and honors it, while the culture a few valleys away focuses all its energy on the wedding itself, and the wedding night.

3) Language does not eliminate the capacity for thought.

I made this point in the comments on the other rants; I’m going to make it again here. Language certainly influences culture. It can be used to trace back cultural movements and moments, so that we can know (or know with some questions left) where the original Indo-European speakers lived before they began their migration. It can make communication across boundaries difficult and bewildering.

That does not mean that it acts like a straitjacket on someone’s view of reality, and if I hear one more person reference Newspeak, I will go ballistic.

Newspeak would have failed. It certainly could have influenced its speakers’ thoughts and probably dumbed down their culture, but people do think outside of language, and someone who had never encountered the concept of political freedom would not be incapable of understanding it if she learned another language that had it.

That applies to fantasy, too. I see it most often with all the variants of an elven language—that elven language is just so pure and wonderful that mere mortals are incapable of understanding it except on a superficial level, and elven culture is the same way.

[cracks knuckles]

Look, I’ll buy that different species may be incapable of fully participating in each other’s languages. (See point 4). But insisting that a human can’t understand the reverence that goes into the elven word for “rock,” even when it’s explained to her, is just another instance of saying that elves are superior to humans, let us all worship them, they will be the humans’ guide into the light, anyone who’s allergic to iron is clearly our lord and master. More often, the elf doesn’t even bother to explain; he just sighs and closes his eyes, and “Kayli was left with the unsettling feeling that she had disappointed him, though she didn’t know why.”

If you’re going to insist that some differences are impassable, and rest on differences in species more than language, then apply it right the other way fucking ‘round. That means that elves should be incapable of understanding some things about human culture and language—and not always the bad things, like the human desire to conquer, or the word that means “murder.” Perhaps they can’t understand the local human concept of honor. Be fair. One species shouldn’t be confined within its language while the others are able to learn them all and tsk at the clearly inferior beings in their midst who don’t know that you put the z before the e when you’re referencing the queen, and can’t learn it, either.

4) Some nuances can come from nonhuman features.

Here’s a good way to put the ubiquitous elven pointy ear to work for once. Perhaps they add depth or emotional content or nuance to their words by moving their ears. It could be as simple as flattening the ears to the head when angry or frightened, as wolves do, or as complicated as moving both ears to the right to ask a question.

Of course, do that and you immediately trot headlong into some problems with writing and distance communication—is it impossible for an elf calling out to another through the forest to ask questions unless he can see him?—but it’s an example of a solution if you really, really want it to be difficult for one species or race to learn another’s language. In writing, diacritical marks or specialized modes of emphasis on certain parts of the words may indicate “Ear-flap here.” For distance communication, especially in, say, times of battle when such communication would need to be rapid, perhaps certain words pick up the function of the ear movements.

There’s other, non-visual ways, most of which I’ve seen used at some point. People with tails flick them. Insects loose scents. Unicorns play music on their horns that complements the words they’ve just spoken. Dwarves use signals tapped on stones. Elves cut marks in trees, or have complicated sign languages due to their hands being more swift and dexterous than a human’s. Dragons flap their wings, or breathe their fire in certain patterns.

Interestingly, these systems are most often accents to, or paler imitations of, the full spoken language—so the humans may miss some emotional nuance, or the dwarves may use the tapping on the stones for very limited signaling, but most everybody will still speak in the way that the humans are accustomed to. It’s nothing at all like the difficulty that a human experiences when trying to talk to a dolphin, or decipher the song of a humpback whale. Sometimes it’s reduced to no more than a few cutesy gestures, as if the whole nonhuman culture had only three means of expressing emotions with distinctly nonhuman bodies.

Play around with this idea. I’d like to see a story where a human, due to his poor sense of smell and lack of experience at watching ears and tails, missed a large and important part of the werewolves’ conversation—the same way I’d like to see one where a mute human had to really work to get his point across.

5) Have fun with expressions.

Fantasy authors seem to get all uptight about this. I cannot count the number of debates I’ve seen about what slang expressions to use, whether “fuck” is all right when you’re writing about a society that does not speak English, whether someone who lives in a desert really would say “Right as rain,” and so on.

I say:

  • Relax.
  • Take a load off.
  • Come up with creative solutions to this instead of angsting about the limitations.

Yes, some invented fantasy expressions are really, reallystupid. (I stopped reading The Glass Dragon partially because the characters would not stop saying “S’murgh!”) That doesn’t mean they all are, nor that, with practice, they won’t become easy and familiar on your tongue.

Want a historical one? Go and look at what the slangy and profane expressions were in English five hundred years ago, six hundred years ago. Or look at the language of the culture you’re basing your story culture on. You may be able to pick out patterns, and if you can’t use the exact same ones, at least you might know what that particular culture considers wonderful, foul, shocking, obscene, or interesting.

Want an untranslated one? Come up with a word that sounds appropriately nasty. S’murgh didn’t work for me because of That Fucking Apostrophe, because I had no idea how to pronounce it even without That Fucking Apostrophe, and because it was stuck into all sorts of sayings it had no business being stuck into, like “S’murgh you!” But, once you know your conlang’s sound system (and you know it, right?) you can know what kinds of sounds its speakers might find distasteful when crammed together, or when pronounced in particular combinations. Then invent your own sentence structure and way of saying it. Try to use it too much like “Fuck” or “Shit,” as in “Shenz off!” or “Walls smeared with shenz,” and I’m going to start wondering why you didn’t just use that other word you’re so obviously enamored of.

Want it to be topical? A certain joke might be scandalous in a certain circle for a while, and then wither and die when the event that spawned it becomes old news. If an expression is currently popular or unpopular in the halls of power, then you can comment on the character using it at the same time he uses it. Perhaps he’s a social climber, or doing it to show he doesn’t give a damn, or it’s a sign of his sorry lack of education.

Want to use a familiar word? Then use a familiar word. I use “fuck” as a crude word referring to sex—and only that—in several of my stories, because the villains are the sort of people who would say that, or I really want my heroes to be able to say, “And now tell me your theory of fucking.” With limited use, and as long as the writer doesn’t seem overly fond of making her characters sound like they came from Pulp Fiction, I think it can work.

And that is the last of the conlang rants. Next up: keeping static worlds plausible, and then a poll.