Monday, 15 April 2013

Fantasy Writing - The Joys (or Otherwise) of Conlanging

One of the greatest pleasures of being a fantasy writer is the opportunity it presents for indulging the little known sport of constructing languages (otherwise known as "conlanging") or, as I prefer to describe it, composing languages.

Few authors bother to build an entire language much beyond a handful of phrases; naturally enough, only a small amount of the book is going to be written in any language that exists nowhere outside that book's pages.  Most authors refer to people speaking different languages only in passing, if at all.

Other authors need a naming language, for giving names to cities, landmarks and oceans.  Naming languages usually involve much less work than building an entire language from scratch.  But even if only using a small handful of phrases, or just inventing a language for giving places exotic names, there are some guidelines to follow.

Try to avoid inventing new sounds your readers cannot possibly pronounce.  "But they have two tongues, of course they can make a sound that is a tap and a flap at the same time!"  But your readers (very probably) only have one tongue, and they cannot.

Don't build your invented language around your own.  I have seen many maps where a naming language has been used for oceans, and mountain ranges, together with a useful translation underneath.  This often shows that the "exotic" language corresponds with the English translation... word for word.  Mix it up a bit.  For example, you might want to forget using articles (the, a, an), and maybe swop nouns and adjectives (ocean pacific, say), or even use something different.

[In my own conlang - sylph - The Pacific Ocean would translate as Zahabsan Umima, though I assure you that "Umima" does *not* mean "ocean".  "Umim" means peaceful, "habsan" means sea, and "zan" means great.  The "a" at the end shows the whole phrase is a noun group; in this case, a proper noun. Note that the adjective follows the noun, but the qualifier "great" has agglutinated with the root word and mutated.  This is what I mean by swopping sentence construction around.]

There are more examples of my constructed language in my article "About Sylphs", which can be found at the top of this page, below the masthead.

While building a naming language is (relatively) easy - you really only need words for physical features, size, and the like - building a complete language and its grammar is far more involved.  It took me months to compose the sylph language, and then I redid it twice more before I was finally satisfied.  Why twice more?

What I did was tweak the grammar and how I constructed compound words.  Some words I left as I'd made them up during the first draft, and some I left at the second draft.  This meant I had some words that were idiosyncratic, which made my artificial constructed language look more like a real language that had evolved over time.  Grammar affected some words differently from the rest.  It gives the language a "real" feel.

This is important, even if so much of your work will never appear in your books. It does however mean that you can use phrases and words from your invented language with confidence, know how words are constructed if you need some fresh ones, and you should also know how the grammar operates on the language.

Conlanging adds a whole new dimension and depth to any fantasy world, but you don't need to struggle alone!  There is a whole world of conlangers out there, and a good place to start is at The Language Creation Society.

I'll leave you with a sylph saying to unravel - see if you can do it!

Fewl netla necul rihopa.

It translates as "A land without sylphs is an empty land".  I'll give you a headstart and tell you there is no indefinite article (a, an) in sylph.

Have fun!

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