Worldbuilding – Language

Someday, after I meet my life goal of becoming tri-lingual (haha), I’m going to create a full language for a fantasy world of my own creation.

That day is not today.

But I’m writing a novel about a woman who walks through a portal (oops) into a fantasy world where the people don’t conveniently speak English, and while I usually only reference the fantasy language speech without writing it as dialogue, sometimes I need a word or a phrase here and there. The story is told in first person, so naturally, my main character would start to pick up on a word or two, or at least hear and be able to make out the sounds, and I want my readers to experience that with her.

Which means I have to make up fantasy language vocabulary, at the least, and maybe a few phrases. I’m about five chapters in, and so far, I’ve only created words for “tree” and “mountain”; “sorry” is still in brackets. I have to find the right apologetic sounds (although “apologize” is one of the least apologetic-sounding words in English!). And I’ll definitely need “hello,” “goodbye,” “yes” and “no.”

The funny thing is, I actually did this once, in my purple-people-who-live-in-trees story, which I love, but isn’t quite working for me right now. I’d like to return to it in ten or twenty years, look it over and realize, “I know exactly how to do this now!” That means I shouldn’t accidentally self-plagiarize and use any of the same words.

The good news is that the MC will learn to communicate with the people there – assisted by magic, but also through study of the language. And, she’s an ESL teacher (hey, they said “write what you know,” so I’m writing what I know), so you know she’s gotta geek out about this new language and thus narrate all about it. I can see it now – I’m gonna have to hold her back (you know how those verbose characters can be – they wanna talk about what they wanna talk about, and you just have to reel ’em in sometimes and tell them that that is not where the story’s going, so can it).

There are, of course, different ways of including fantasy languages in writing, some of which are detailed here. Even if I don’t go the full-language route (probably won’t), this language-creation kit looks like a handy way to brush up on my morphology and syntax (all that stuff I knew way back in college, lol).

Ultimately, my main will speak their language more-or-less fluently (thank you, magic), so I can write most interactions in English with the understanding that they’re actually speaking this other language. But as long as she’s learning, I’ll need words and phrases that don’t sound completely stupid. Or, maybe they can – some words do sound funny! Like “cow.” Usually, when you say “cow,” you just say it, and think of a large black-and-white or brown quadruped and/or hamburgers But when you say it over and over, you brain kinda disassociates the sound and the meaning. Go on. Say it: cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow cow…

Weird, right? You’re suddenly so aware of the movement of the muscles involved in making all these sounds. [This is why learning to pronounce a new language can be hard – you have to train your mouth and lip muscles to move in ways they’re not accustomed to. It’s like learning to dance, or doing Tai Chi.]

Speaking of sounds, I need to make some decisions about the sounds and sound combinations in this language (I’ve only made one so far, which makes it difficult for the fantasy people to pronounce the MC’s name – June. It’s one syllable – it shouldn’t be that hard! But in their language, the consonant + oo sound + n sound never ends a word – there’s always another syllable, even just a vowel (kind of the opposite of Japanese in that way). So, it’s not that they can’t pronounce her name, it’s just feels and sounds weird to them. They have to retrain their mouths and not second-guess themselves, like their brains are telling them to do (Are you sure that’s right? That can’t be right). People do this ALL THE TIME, which is why you hear “Chipol-tay” instead of “Chipot-lay”. Sound it out, folks. It’s on the commercial.

Anyway, she gets renamed (don’t do this to people if you can avoid it, which means don’t do this to people), which I think is relevant to the story, anyway. Whatever, it happens, and she likes the name, and it becomes (to her) her warrior name. See, it coincidentally happens after a fight in which she’s able to save herself from bandits (thanks to luck and pepper-spray), so it coincides with the start of her transformation into a total bad-ass.

And I’m the writer, so I can do what I want. But don’t rename people. Just embrace the awkwardness and keep trying to make those sounds and put them in the right order. You can do it! Believe in yourself!

Okay, now that that’s been said, I have to go do the things that pay for my stuff. Maybe by next time, I’ll have a few more words figured out – maybe even a phrase if I’m a good little writer-bee!