Creating Languages for Speculative Fiction

Quenya_Example.svgAnyone who reads or writes speculative fiction understands that English isn’t always the language that’s spoken by the characters.  What is generally spoken by characters in fantasy is often called the Common Tongue.  This is written in English.  In science fiction, English is more likely to be used, since it’s usually based in our future reality.  However, far in the future, the language is likely to be very different than today’s English.  I’ve often seen it called Standard, but not always.

But what about other languages?  In fantasy, it’s important to create different languages for different cultures.  Some languages may be linked, evolving from a common root language.  On Earth, there are many different language groups. For example, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian all have a common root in Latin.  The master of language creation in fantasy was J. R. R. Tolkien.  He created several languages, including the example at the top of this post.  That’s Quenya, one of the Elvish languages.  He developed the languages so well that you can even learn to speak them.

In science fiction, languages have likely drifted from what they are now, and I’ve often seen new words being used, especially slang and expletives.  And then there are alien languages.  These would be so completely different from anything we have on Earth, so they need to be very creative.  One such example is Klingon, created by Marc Okrand and James Doohan (Scotty), which was later expanded into a complete language by Okrand.  You can learn to speak this language, too.  You can read Hamlet in Klingon and learn to understand what “taH pagh taHbe'” means.

Anyone who wants to create a language for either fantasy or science fiction can probably make up a few words, not the entire language.  However, it’s best to set up some rules, particularly for pronunciation, spelling, and basic grammar.  That way, when you need more, you can expand using the rules you created.  It’s particularly useful for place names, names of characters, and so on.

How useful do you think it is to create a language?  Have you tried before?  Share your experiences in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “Creating Languages for Speculative Fiction”

  1. It’s one of the best ways to add depth to a world – but it’s also one of the hardest to get right. Tolkien managed it because he was an academic linguist. He even simulated the way languages evolve (Quenya changed across the history of his imaginarium). It took him years – I believe the fantasy tales followed the invented language rather than the other way around, and the creative process was iterative – which to me suggests that anybody following suit will need to devote similar time to it.

  2. I have one fairly fleshed-out fantasy language, Gheshvan, which is my world’s version of Latin I suppose, plus a bunch of dialects of it in the manner of the Romance languages. I also have a few others (Talishan, Caioleth, Eiyenriu) that I’ve only worked on a little bit but will probably expand as I move the stories into the physical area where these languages are used. Technically the language the story is written in (English atm, and whatever else it might get translated into) isn’t English but New Imperial, which most of the characters speak because it was imported via invasion into the areas where most of the story takes place.

    I’ve tried my hand at translating the story into Gheshvan, because why not? But I’m notoriously flaky in my side projects so I only have a page or two. The language is also more pictographic than alphabetic, so I’ve done some work on that. I need to turn it into a font.

      1. I have 846 words in my pseudo-dictionary, including 158 verbs, all the colors, and all the bodyparts I could think of down to fingernails. For verb tenses I have six persons (kinda like in Spanish: me, you, that person, us, you all, them) each with suffixes for the past, present and future tense, plus compound, imperative, and past and future state suffixes. There are also possessive, diminutive and personified suffixes, plus some that add gender to otherwise ungendered words. I probably have the terminology wrong but I’m not a linguist, I just do this as a hobby. Whenever I want to use a word and realize I’m missing it, I either make it up or reverse-derive it from the rest, since the language likes using compound words (a bit like Finnish).

        Not sure how long it took me to get this far. I had to convert my document when I switched computers so it no longer has the original date stamp but I’ve been piecing this together for at least five years, probably more like ten. The work on the script is more recent; I did a couple posts on it last year or the year before.

  3. I don’t have what it takes to create a new language. I would love to own a Universal Translator! Or its equivalent…

    Computers have the capacity to translate, and to some degree, create languages based on a given set of linguistic and grammatic rules.

    I can’t imagine trying to create a language myself, just learning the rules of English, and smidges of Spanish and German, and Cherokee is more than enough for me.
    Over the years I have picked up a smattering of fictional languages among them Elvish, Klingon, Ferengi, and more recently the language of Pandora… Words are amazing no matter their origin. Learning them is a window on the thoughts and feelings of a people.

    My hat is off to anyone who has the discipline and courage to create a fictional language.

    Jay, are you planning to / or already doing so?

    1. In Ariadne, I’m not working on a language at the moment that uses words. However, there is a certain species that will communicate in a completely different way.

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