I’m sure you – and especially if you’re a writer – have had at one point in your life, a craving for making up a language. You just want to make words, and memorise them, and get your best friend to memorise them too, and then voila! A secret language which nobody else understands! Next thing you know, you’ll be spies working for a secret agency solving crimes and saving the world!
However, you soon found that it wasn’t that simple. You had to actually make up the words – there are only so many that your brain can come up with at once! – and then you had to memorise the things. That experience probably put you off making up languages forever.
As a fantasy writer, I believe that making up languages is essential to world building. Having a language and throwing in odd words every now and then throughout the story can be an awesome way of making your writing look well researched, and sophisticated. So over the years, I have tried and tried to make up languages, but always hit a block as soon as I realised that no, I can’t just turn every english word back to front and call that my language. Nouns do have to be pluralised, and verbs do have to have a tense!
For the past few years, I have been very interested in languages – invented ones in particular. I even tried learning JRR Tolkien’s Quenya with my sister, which you can do as well right here (and have a look at the site while you’re there, it’s so full of wonderful Tolkien stuff that it’s awfully exciting!)(BUT make sure you come back!). We had heaps of fun, even though I remember close to zilch.
Since then I have started to dabble in writing my own languages, something that I believe is essential for fantasy world writing. It has not been an easy road, and I have made many, many mistakes along the way, so I wanted to share with you some steps for making your own language.
Firstly, however, I would like to make a slight disclaimer. I AM NOT A LINGUIST. I PROBABLY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. That said, over years of trial and error, I’ve picked up some handy stuff of my own accord, and THAT’S what I want to share with you here 🙂 This is going to be in two posts, because otherwise it would be insanely long!
I warn you; it’s not going to be easy. I’m not giving you the hard and fast rules (there are none, anyway!), I’m just giving you a list of thing you need to consider before you start making up words, and the order you should probably do things in. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Eight Steps for Making a Fantasy Language (from scratch)
1. Decide how you want it to be formatted.
Okay, so for the purpose of this exercise we’re going to say that there are two types of languages (There are actual technical names, but they are long and boring, so we’ll keep it simple). One is like English – it uses lots and lots of supporting words, and connecting words, and pronouns, and so on.
The other is more like Latin, or Koine Greek (New Testament Greek), for example. Every verb has a pronoun included in the actual word, and the tense of a verb relies on the actual word and not on added words, such as ‘had’ or ‘will’. There are barely any supporting words.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that English style languages often rely heavily on the order of the words in a sentence to create a meaning; whereas in Latin meaning is more reliant on the endings of the words. You need to decide which is more important, though this is more likely to happen naturally. It’s just something to keep in mind.
Choosing how you want to show the tense of a verb is really, really important. In fact, it’s nearly as important/basic as deciding how you’re going to show that a noun is plural.
Just choose. Now. Are you going to make your language look more like English, with supporting words and where word order is really important? Or is it going to be more like Latin, with lots of added endings to words and not a lot of stress on word order?
(if you have absolutely no idea, then I would suggest to make it more like Latin. It’s way easier to learn than English, anyway. Plus Tolkien’s Quenya is of the Latin variety, and it looks and sounds AWESOME.)
You’ve chosen? Awesome, let’s go onto the next step!
2. Decide what sounds / letters you will use
This may not seem important, but trust me, it is. Do you really want all of the letters of the (rather messed up) English alphabet in your language? Do you really need both C and K in your alphabet? Are you even going to use ‘x’?
Take risks, and make your own alphabet. Decide what sounds you want. Make ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ a separate sound, if you want to. Make up your own sounds! What about that rasping at the back of the throat? What about the ‘ny’ sound in ‘new’? What about ‘ing’ or just ‘ng’? Be creative, and go crazy!
Don’t forget to take into account the culture of your world that you’re actually writing the language for. Is it a warlike culture (therefore most likely to use harsher sounds) or a peaceful one (most likely to use softer, calmer sounds)?
Also, now would be a good time to decide what sounds you want to be most prominent in your language. If you have a harsher culture, use harsher sounds, and if you have a more peaceful culture, use calmer sounds. Write out the sounds you want to use the most and have them by you for when you start making up words. Skip this at your peril. You will wish you had. It is little things like this that make the language more realistic and better researched.
Once you’ve written out your letters, and decided what sounds you want to use the most often, you can go onto step three 🙂
3. Making an alphabet
This is the fun step – the one where you get to make up lots of different scribbles and call them letters!
Okay, so you have your letters from the previous step. Now you need to decide how you are going to write them down.
Go crazy with this step! Use that creativity! Anything works! Should some letters always have to be written above others? Should some always have dashes over the top? Work out what you want to do and just do it! Experiment until you have something you like! Even if you’re not super happy, you can always go back and change it later.
Once again, though, keep in mind your culture. Are your citizens going to have the time to write out that huge letter, and make it picture perfect? Is handwriting an important subject in schools, or is warfare? Make your letters suit your culture for a more realistic language – and remember that realism is what we’re going for here.
Always, Always, Always remember that it is good and okay to change things in your language. It will always be better for the changing. If you have made a good recording system, it shouldn’t be too hard to change things anyway.
Right, when you’re happy, or close to happy, or impatient to move on, you can go onto step four, the last step! (or at least, the last till I put up Part Two!!)
4. Take different types of words into account
Okay people, this is gonna be a big step, so hold your hats and lets jump right in!
As you may already know, there are eight types of words. When making a language, you need to realise that there are different types of words, and you can’t just jump into making up words without setting the boundaries between the types of words. (Well, you can, but I can tell you from experience that it ain’t the best idea at all.)
Let’s just go step by step and review this pile of kindy knowledge: The Eight Different Types of Words.
Nouns: A person, place, thing, or idea. (chair, Emmeline, red, light, love)
Adjectives: A word that describes a noun. (pretty, red, big, cold)
Verb: A word that describes an action, or a state of being (walk, have, be, do)
Adverb: A word that tells ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, or ‘how much’. (often, happily)
Pronoun: A word that replaces a noun. (him, he, she, it, they, them)
Preposition: A word that shows how something is related to another word. (at, by, after, with)
Conjunction: A word that joins other words or phrases together. (And, but)
Interjection: A word that expresses emotion. (Huh, hurray, oh)
So now that you know that, you’re probably wondering why on earth did I have to read that? Well, you need to work out what you’re going to do with each type of word. What I mean by this is that you need to realise that every word is different, and needs to be treated differently. Especially if you’re going the Latin language type route, you need to know when to add endings onto the words.
We’re going to go through each word type one by one, and take it as it comes. Read through, then go back and read it again until it makes sense. You need to know how to treat every single type of word, as they are all different.
Right. Let’s take a look at the Latin language as an example. Every noun has five* different endings that you can add on to the end, and each ending does something different. The nominative ending, as it is called, is added onto the noun when it is the subject of the sentence. The Accusative ending is added onto the noun when it is the object of the sentence. The Genitive ending shows possession in a sentence. And so on. I don’t want to go too much into the grittiness of it all, and you probably don’t either, but you need to understand that it is complicated, but not impossible. If JRR Tolkien could do it, and I can do it, then you can do it too.
So what do you need. Apparently** English nouns have only two different types of endings – nominative and Genitive. Not sure how true that is, but it goes to show that you don’t need a gazillion or so different endings. Keep it simple, you can always change it.
But you do need a way to show that something belongs to something else (genitive), that something is just there (nominative), and that something is plural. If you decided way back in step 1 that your language was not going to be based on word order, then you will need some more types of endings.
You’re probably confused at this point, so I’ll give you an example from one of my languages, Samaan. Okay, so the word ‘woka’ means cow. ‘Wokar’ means ‘cows’. That’s my nominative case. Just add a letter, and you have the plural. Take it away, and you have the singular. Easy, right? That’s what I’d recommend.
I only have one more case in Samaan. It has been through highs and lows and disappearances, but I finally came up with something I’m happy with. It’s the genitive case, and the ending essentially is translated (just like Latin) as ‘of’. So ‘wokas‘ means ‘cows of’. Add in a man, and there you have it! Cow of the man! Or alternatively, the man’s cow! And then if you go, ‘wokaser man‘ that means, ‘the cows of the man’ or ‘the man’s cows’.
Anyway, to summup: The three things you NEED are a nominative case (so how you write the word normally), a genitive case (a little ending would suffice), and a way to make a word plural (that works for both cases). If your language is not dependant on word order, you will also need a few more endings/cases. The important thing is just to experiment and experiment and try out different sentences and more and more sentences until you have what you want. Just keep trying, and make it work. MAKE IT WORK AND IT WILL WORK. That’s my motto.***
* Yes I know you clever person that there are actually seven not five noun endings in Latin, but five is better for this purpose. Ssssshhhhh.
** According to the clever people who get to make the rules. Though I believe there is some debate on this topic.
*** Okay, fine, it’s not my motto, but it works great for making languages. I guess you could call it my ‘making languages motto’.
Adjectives are probably – no definitely – my second favourite part of speech. They’re just so versatile and you can do so much with them!
In most languages, adjectives don’t have any added ending. They are just there. Think of English, for example – whether we are talking about a boat, or a girl, or a tree, or a dog, we call it beautiful. Yes, we may not call a man beautiful, but that’s just society – a man is handsome, not beautiful! (I was told off for calling a man beautiful by my friend the other day. Apparently I should have used handsome. Don’t worry, I was talking about a fictional character, not an actual person, calm your farm :D)
But some languages actually do have added endings, depending on what the adjective is actually describing. Is it an animal, is it plural, is it singular, is it a thing, an idea, a person, a colour… the list goes on and on.
So with adjectives, you can just leave it as a word that you don’t change, or you can go with the changing option. In which case you’re on your own, and have fun 😀 But seriously, no, I love giving adjectives endings! It’s totally up to you which you choose! Either way will work wonderfully! Just pick one, and stick with it (for now, you can always change it later :D).
Right. Pronouns are words like her, him, his, they, them, and so on. They are words that replace a noun. It’s as simple as that. But wait. Someone decided to make it more complicated, so you have to keep reading – we’re not done here yet. Yaaaaaayyyyyyyy.
Someone in the history of the world decided to put all the pronouns into three boxes. There are the First Person pronouns, which are the ones like Me, I, Mine, or Us. There are the Second Person pronouns, which are the ones like You, and all of You. Then there are the Third Person pronouns, which are the ones like He, She, It, and Them. This is important stuff, and when you think about it it makes sense.
Now, when you think about it, most of the time pronouns are used in relation to a verb. He ate, she swam, it barked, and so on. But occasionally, very occasionally, there comes a time when it is not in relation to a verb. She was pretty, for example.* So pronouns are used with a verb, or without a verb.
Now in your language, you can choose to have pronouns or not. No, I’m serious, it’s okay to not have them. It may make those instances where pronouns are used without a verb difficult, but the verb itself should take care of all of the other cases – just hang on there till we get to verbs, and trust me. So are you going to have them, or aren’t you?
Well, let’s take Koine Greek (biblical Greek), English, and Latin as our examples. Now, in Latin all of the pronouns are added endings onto the verbs. There are no separate words for pronouns. They are just all endings. But in Koine Greek, there are both pronouns attached to the endings of verbs and pronouns as separate words. The actual separate pronouns that are actually words are used when the situation needs clarifying, or for emphasise. And then there’s English, where the verbs don’t have inbuilt pronouns, so we use the actual separate pronouns to say who actually did the thing.
So in your language, you have four options (yes four). You can make it like Latin, and make no extra words for pronouns – it’s all in the verbs. You can make it like Koine Greek, and have both inbuilt pronouns in the verbs, and actual independent words for pronouns. You can have it like English, where there are no inbuilt pronouns in words – we just use the independent words. OR you can make up your own combo and just have fun with it! I can’t guarantee the safety or sanity of this one – but hey, just enjoy experimenting!
* YES I KNOW THAT WAS IS A VERB we’ll get to it later!
Here we go. Hold onto your hats, folks. Verbs are a complicated, icky, confusing – and yet a so wonderfully delightful – part of speech. So let’s just jump in and see what happens.
Okay, so if you have decided to go the route where every verb has a pronoun is built in, then this is for you. If you haven’t, this will still be useful, but disregard the parts about the pronouns.
The easiest way of explaining the Latin route is to actually analyse a verb. Because I am overly proud of my little Samaan language, we’re going to look at my particular favourite verb: mak-, which means ‘eat’.
So there are six main types of tenses, or forms, of verbs that you need to account for. You don’t need to have them all. You can even have more. You just need to be aware of the main types so that you don’t jump in to word building while having no idea of what you’re doing. Here are the six main types: Present, imperfect, future, perfect, past perfect, and future perfect.
Here’s another thing – each tense has two ‘forms’ too: active and passive. So in reality, you’re looking at creating twelve endings. And then you need to take into account the inbuilt pronouns too. That’s just complicated. But it doesn’t need to be like that. Let’s just go through one by one, and I’ll explain what all these words actually mean if you don’t know already.
- Present tense is essentially “I eat.”
- Imperfect tense is “I was eating.”
- Future tense is “I shall eat.”
- Perfect tense is “I ate”.
- Past perfect tense is “I had eaten.”
- Future perfect is “I shall have eaten.”
Right, that’s done! Makes sense? I hope so!*
The active form is when the inbuilt pronoun of the verb is doing the action. The passive form is for when the inbuilt pronoun of the verb is having the action done to it. Now if all that made sense, you either learn a language or are a genius, so let’s go onto some examples.
Remember the ‘mak-‘ I showed you earlier? I hope you are wondering why there is a dash at the end. Well, if you aren’t such a nerd that you know Quenya, then you won’t know that you never actually say ‘mak’ (actually you do – but we’ll get to that later). Mak is merely the stem (it’s actually called the ‘stem’), and you will always have an ending that explains the tense after it. The dash represents the space where the tense and pronoun ending belongs. Okay? Okay. Moving on.
Okay so it’s pretty hard to explain what I mean using just words, so I’ll give you some examples before I blow up your brain any further.
- Makan = I eat Makän = we eat
- Makun = you eat Makün = you (plural) eat
- Maken = he eats Makën = they eat
That’s the present tense, and then….
- Makam = I ate Makäm = we ate
- Makum = you ate Maküm = you (plural) ate
- Makem = he ate Makëm = they ate
And that’s the perfect tense.
You get the picture. The vowels after the ‘stem’ represent the pronoun. The consonant after the pronoun-vowel represents the tense. I have six different vowels and all I have to do is remember what pronoun they each represent. Then I have to remember which of the six tenses each of my six consonants represents, and there I have it! The formula for the perfect verb!
Aha, we still haven’t covered the passive and active ‘forms’. Well, in most language, the active form is just normal. You’ll notice that if you think about English for a bit. That is also what I did for Samaan. You do have to treat the passive form a tad different, but because it still occurs heaps you don’t really need to make it too fancy. What I did for Samaan is simply added ‘a’ onto the beginning of my verb if I wanted it to be in passive form. Let’s have some examples now.
- Makäm – we ate
- Amakäm – we were eaten**
Easy peasy lemon squeezy. It doesn’t have to be complicated – unless you want it to be, in which case go ahead – just don’t blame me if you completely lose all of your sanity 🙂
I firmly believe that with languages you just need to understand what you need to do, and then you can work out a gazillion different ways of doing it. My Samaan is extremely simple (which I do have many long reasons for) – but your language doesn’t have to be, in fact it shouldn’t. I’m giving you examples but don’t go copying them. You’ll enjoy it far more if you work out what to do yourself.
Just one more thing, and then we’re done with verbs. Okay, so you know how occasionally you get a verb that sounds like this “to eat” and you just stare and go what even how am I meant to turn that into anything. Well, don’t worry. That type of verb is called an infinitive verb and you need a complete other form for it – or you can make up your own word to stick in front – or you can do what I do for Samaan and just leave the stem. So in Samaan ‘to eat’ is simply ‘mak’.
Yayayyyy we’re done with verbs! Now onto…
* Some of you are probably questioning my knowledge of grammar at this point, and that’s fine! I simplified it for the purpose of this exercise.
** Generally speaking, this is not a very scientifically accurate example, as you cannot ‘be eaten’ and still live to tell others that you ‘were eaten’. Anyway, let’s not think about it too much.
Adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections
Woah I just squished the rest all into one pile. I know, such a rebel. But that’s because they all need to be dealt with the same way, and that is: LEAVE THEM BE.
I do NOT mean that you shouldn’t invent any (that would make your language extremely difficult to speak). No, I mean that they are all indeclinable – meaning you don’t add or change anything. They’re just there.
I honestly just made up a heap of random words for these. That’s all that you have to do.
Though if you want you can make up some random rules and change things up. I find the more complicated a language is, the more rules you have to remember, and the harder the code is to crack.
Well, that’s the end of that, humans! Tune in next time for another dose of language making in part two. Hope you enjoyed, do let me know what you think down in the comments!
Keep smiling, and until next time, humans!