Curse Like an Orc, Woo Like an Elf: The Secret to Fantasy Languages
Fantasy languages hold undeniable appeal. They are transportive, offering you a treasured glimpse into the secret minds and daily lives of elves, Klingons, wizards, and dragons. They are evocative, lending elves their otherworldliness, Klingons their intimidating nature, and the Sims their emotiveness. And they create an almost instant kinship between those devoted to these magical languages that cross fantasy worlds.
I remember the thrill of discovery when I picked up Magician: Apprentice and realized that Raymond E. Feist had used one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages as the basis for his Elvish—as did countless other fantasy works. It made the mystery and the magic of the elves somehow that much more tangible. I cherished each decoded word, for by studying the language I felt closer than ever to the mystical elves I had read about. And I’m not alone.
Something about fantasy languages captures the imagination. It can be the final touch that sets your creations apart—that spark that gives them a feeling entirely their own. But regardless as to whether you’re featuring full conversations, or using a couple words here and there for flavor, or even just need a few names of characters and kingdoms that fit together, making up words is a tricky business. Here are a few quick-and-dirty tips to get you started:
A Pretty Language for a Pretty Elf
Most people create fantasy languages to enrich their fantasy worlds. Tolkien created a fantasy world to enrich his fantasy languages. Assuming you’re not a linguist and fantasy languages aren’t the point of your whole creation, it’s important to think about the purpose your fantasy language will serve in your book.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the language of oppression, a tool actively used in the story to limit the thoughts of the sheeple by limiting their capacity for expression. On the other hand, in A Clockwork Orange, the harsh slang is first used alienate readers, and then to make them feel uncomfortably complicit with the characters. Simlish, the nonsense language in the Sims games, is used solely for emotive purposes (and yet, there are around 50 songs recorded in Simlish). Harry Potter’s Latinesque terms are used for magic--and lend magic a credible, educational feel. And of course, Tolkien’s Elvish languages and Star Trek’s Klingon effectively reflect and enrich the cultures they are a part of.
The purpose you have in mind for your fantasy language will dictate not only its sound and vocabulary, but also its use. So figuring out the purpose of your language--be it to add flavor to a culture, to serve as a calling card for a character, to manipulate the reader, or to accomplish some new goal--is the first and most important step to creating your language.
Swear Like an Orc
“Vini, vidi, vici” is an intimidating, dominating, powerful phrase written by Julius Caesar. But how much less intimidating would that phase be, Eddie Izzard jokes, if the “v”s were pronounced like a whiny English “w”? After all, we have no idea what the actual Latin accent sounds like.
Sound is everything when it comes to perceptions of a language. And in creating your own fantasy language, you have the unique chance to make a language that reflects its culture. (For more on the power of sound, read my column on writing Evocative Description). For example, Klingon was specifically developed with sound combinations not usually found in earthly languages. In addition, it has only one sibilant. Together, this makes for an alien, harsh, and clipped language. A sound that helps build the character of the Klingons.
When you’re picking sounds for your language, make sure to come up with some basic rules. Which letter/sound combinations are frequent, and which are never seen. This will help you keep it consistent and believable.
Pro Tip: Try not to just “adapt” a real language, or smoosh two languages together willy-nilly. Remember—real people actually speak these languages! Being inspired by elements is wonderful—Simlish was invented by playing with fractured French, Ukrainian, Fijian, Latin, English, Finnish, and Tagalog—but make sure the end result is your own.
Vampires Have 27 Different Words for "Sparkle"
More than sounds, the words common in a language—and what words are absent in a language—says a lot about your fantasy culture, as does the grammar you choose to use. How many words are there to describe snow or love versus the number of words used to describe disemboweling techniques? And what kinds of words do the metaphors, similes, and idioms make use of? Klingon is famously centered around battle, making everyday conversations in Klingon a triffle . . . interesting. And yet, four Klingon translations of world literature have been published (Hamlet, Gilgamesh, Tao Te Ching, and Much Ado About Nothing)! How different that reading experience must be from English!
The grammar of your language also says quite a bit. The Ancient Language of the elves of Eragon is a direct substitution language for English. But Gargish, the language of gargoyles and magic from the Ultima computer game series, tends to avoid unnecessary complications, such as pronouns or different tenses for verbs. Even the order of words tends to matter somewhat less. This makes everything feel both timeless and impersonal—perfect for the gargoyles.
Don’t Wear It Out
One of my favorite uses of fantasy languages is as a calling card, used to enrich a character. In Dragonlance, Raistlin, a mage, says the magical word “Shirak” to activate a light spell in his staff. It’s a simple spell and a simple word. But the association of this word with Raistlin is so strong, that whenever you hear that whispered word in the dark from then on out, you know Raistlin is nearby. And considering his twisted path, that knowledge can be loaded. The use of a fantasy word as a calling card is particularly effective as we don’t have prior associations with the word, so we are free to form our own associations.
When everyone is speaking the same language, it is usually best not to just replace a select few words. We assume the language spoken is already being translated from whatever is commonly spoken in Fantasyland into whatever we’re reading, so a new word only makes sense for new concepts, or to fix the “feel” of anachronistic words, if your world is going for a more classic feel.
However, when any two people who speak different languages meet it is perfectly acceptable for one to drop words here and there in their native language. Just be sure that the words are always understandable from context—or else that it is not necessary to understand them. You don’t want to lose your readers—either to frustration, or to too many conversations about linguistics.
There is an unbelievable amount of research and resources available to those questing to build new languages. Here are a few great resources to get you started.
- From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
- Talk Now! Learn Klingon
- Klingon Language Institute
- Elvish Linguistic Fellowship