This is part four of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
Takir si’shiar freirah nan sinouma nawelu, bree. Yir’ih ano fohrun mira sih sinouma sah s’sorahl, yir’ih ano fohrun ano erathalsir sinouma ra’alihlahe.
Yeah, don’t bother firing up the Google Translate or hand-me-down babelfish if you have one. They’d have to do some pretty fancy gymnastics to figure the above out, because it’s a language that doesn’t exist. I know because it’s my own, developed for my fantasy series, Swordwaltzer.
And that’s what we’re traipsing through today for your world-needs. Constructed Languages—conlangs for short. That, and the science of naming. Let’s do this.
Conlangs and You – The art of linguistics
We live in a glorious time.
Klingon. Quenya. Dothraki. Newspeak. Goa’uld. The Old Tongue. There’s plenty of noteworthy examples of constructed languages to point to in a lot of mediums. There are plenty of sources online not only for becoming fluent in any of them, but also for how to go about constructing them in the first place. But let me shine a little light on my own approach for a bit.
That language I fashioned for that bizarre opening line to this article was born out of a few sources, most notably Gaelic, Latin, and Sindarin—another of Tolkien’s conlangs. But words aren’t enough. To really get a conlang to function, you have to start small and precisely. That means understanding the culture that’s speaking it.
It all ties back to culture. Aren’t you glad you did that bit of homework already?
In my case, the first thing to tackle was the fact that the people speaking this language had a different concept of time than we do. That immediately forced a hard look at tenses and how they would work in such a strange mindset. I could have done away with it entirely, but for the purposes of the world and stories that took place there it was essential.
And that’s another thing you’ll have to seriously consider before you start flinging around the funny sounding words for the hell of it. It’s a question of flavor vs. substance. Simply put, if your world doesn’t need a conlang, then it’s probably a good idea to skip out on this kind of workload. No shame, no losing face. Conlangs are a LOT of work.
So you have to ask yourself “why” if you’re dead set on forging your own language for this world you’re shaping. For Jordan in the Wheel of Time series, it served a fair few plot points that were crucial. For Tolkien, it served not only his love of linguistics, but established a framework for the fae cultures he was presenting. For Stargate SG-1, it gave them a continuation on the mutated Egyptian that was already established in the movie.
But if you do decide to sally forth, keep one thing in mind: CONSISTENCY. That means diving into the deep end of grammar, syntax, and establishing hard rules for your conlang, and giving it a test run with some translation work.
Naming Tricks – From words to proper addressing
Let’s be honest here: You HAD to know this was coming.
Going back to Tolkien again, take a look at some of the names he uses for principle characters in Rohan. Éowyn. Éomer. Théoden. Notice anything? That’s not a coincidence, and it’s not because the good professor just happened to like the sound of “Éo”. That’s pulled straight from Old English. Eoh means horse. And wouldn’t you know it, the people of Rohan have a great love and use for horses.
Let’s go more recent. J.K. Rowling loves her some names, but more importantly is her use of history and language to bury characteristics inside the names themselves. She pulls a lot of etymology tricks with the handles her characters are saddled with. Harry is the Middle English variant for Henry, a name worthy of kings. His arch-rival Draco derives from “dragon, and Malfoy is broken down from old French/Latin into “Mal” and “Foi”, or “bad/evil” and “faith/trust” respectively.
Hermione comes straight out of Greek myth. Remus Lupin is a delightful pull from the origins of Rome, and the Latin laguage itself, both name and surname having to deal with wolves. Pick any name out of her stories, and there’s an undercurrent of meaning that affects the reader on levels both subtle and overt.
And the rad part? You can do just the same with a little legwork.
For my part, I love pulling from history, but I also have a healthy appreciation for the “music” of a given name. It has to sound right to me, as I’ve mentioned before. But sometimes I draw a blank, so I turn for inspiration to two particular sources. The first, and most obvious, it lists of baby names from around the world. This is where having a healthy appreciation of anthropology will serve you well. If nothing else, seeing how other cultures approach naming their offspring, and even following trends for names can inspire you to formulate your own.
The other, not so obvious source? End credits.
Stop laughing. I’m serious.
Movies, television shows, videogames. You want to break out of the humdrum conventions of John/Jane/etc.? Take a gander at some of the names that populate the credits of something you enjoyed. That’s a great primer on the spectrum of names of our own vanilla world. Some of them seem downright fanciful. But there they are. One wonders what you could make of that unusual first name, or that delightfully unique surname.
Like I said. Not so odd an idea after all.
A Rose by any other name (would still be stuck in a parallel dimension) – When to rely on made-up terms and words.
Oh please. That was three Doctors ago. Let it go.
Even if you opt to skip out on cultivating your own conlang, your world might still present instances where you need something new and entirely your own to describe something. Person, place, thing—I’m equal opportunity with nouns. But there’s a caveat here.
Again, we run into the issue of flavor vs. substance. My general rule of thumb is to keep things simple unless the nature of the world is such where they simply would not have that term. A good example of this is the “autocaiste” from The Rhyme of the Golden Aegis. In essence, it’s a car. I know it’s a car. The reader knows it’s a car.
But while the level of technology in my world was sufficiently developed, it didn’t necessarily follow that they’d have the same linguistic origins that would lead them to the words “automobile” or “car”. Hell, even what we call a car today was called everything from motor-wagon to motorized coach. And, the technology being very new to my world, I needed something fresh that followed the line of technology AND the culture’s linguistic and conventional rationale for the word.
But there’s also something to be said for creating new words out of simplicity. In the world of Rhyme, there are great flying cities that serve the airships, and function as bastions in their own rights. Holds, if you will. Holds that are in the sky. Skyholds. Boom.
How about how the laymen view the probability-altering powers of the Yathir in the world of Calopa? Probability is a mathematical concept. Arithmetic. What they do is magic. That could denote the -mancy suffix. Arithnomancy. So they’re Arithnomancers for simplicity’s sake. See?
Yet again, I stress the value of simplicity. More times than not, you can leave a rose as a rose, and you know the rest. In those instances where having that flavor will add something of substance, or serve the world or story, then it’s time you take off the governor and throttle up that imagination.
Conlangs, naming, and you. The art of weighing values, and telling stories from within the humble words and names we use in worlds both literal and fictional. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the tricky tangle of your world, and their religions.
With that, I’ll leave you with a farewell from one of the conlangs in Swordwaltzer:
Mennalih’o sinouma, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)