Building a World for a Novel – Part 22
New to this project: Start with Part 1
Part 22: The Language Primer
Years ago I spent much time studying Linguistics and Psychology, a combination that I thought might serve me in the future. While a career in neither appeared, the two disciplines have proved useful in writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Why? Because creating a new language is by far more complex than you might imagine.
OK, sure, you can just make up a new word to replace each English word, and you can probably get away with it. Still, if you have ever studied another language, you’ll have realized that not only are words different, but how they are placed in a sentence can vary greatly. Replacing each word in an English sentence with a new word is the mark of a neophyte in the practice of language making. You’re not making a langauge, you’re making a secret code.
It is even more complex than that. Think about the content of language. There are a different classes of words in our speech. For example, while a humanoid may have a word that means heart or liver, they would certainly NOT have a word to describe the game of “poker” or “Monopoly” unless they were visited by people from Earth who brought their games with them.
How might your alien speak? One way that seems to work very well is the “Object: Description, Action, or Reason” format. For example, “Food: Raw, need cook”, or “Monster! Run, hide”. Adding your new words to this format, a translation that would have a very different syntax, even and possibly a different number of words, can sound very alien indeed.
Now, the BIG WARNING! While I believe most writers would not fall into this trap, someone new to language crafting might decide that an alien language must really sound alien. For example, the phrase “Korgi! Your shoes are escaping!” might be written, Kgorhhgii! F’llqahjd Brrrkaf’ah’t’d-za!” All right, I’ll give you that this looks alien. The problem is, your reader won’t be able to pronounce the words. In fact, after the first attempts, he or she will ignore this “language” altogether. One of the last things you want is for you reader to get in the habit of skipping over even a single word of your work. It is a habit that will just grow worse as they read your story or novel.
So, what have we learned? A good new (alien) language should:
- Be easy to pronounce, e.g., written phonetically (unless the complexity of the language is a feature of the story)
- Be made up of local concepts, not transliterated Terrestrial ideas (more or less)
- Have a logical syntax
- Be entertaining, not a challenge
Well, world maker? Are you up to this?
Greeg! Vavor V’seelim!
Of course, while the spoken language needs to be unpronounceable, the written langauge can be anything you like.