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I'm working on a fictional story set in a fantastical (although coherent) universe; I'm used to seeing, in works like this, invented languages: Tolkien's languages for The Lord of the Rings, or Paolini's languages for his Inheritance Trilogy.

So, they are pretty and all that, but why would I want to use them? Or even better: What would you use them for? What's the benefit of actually inventing the language and writing (dialogs) in that language as opposed of simply specifying it exists and letting people know when it's being used?

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Something to watch out for (WARNING: TVTropes): tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/… –  TehShrike Mar 7 '11 at 21:20
    
@TehShrike - Even worse when the foreign word translates to "The Chosen One" (which is usually does). –  sjohnston Mar 7 '11 at 22:26
    
@TehShrike thanks for warning people ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 8 '11 at 23:00

8 Answers 8

up vote 13 down vote accepted

An invented language can be a tool for exposing the traits of a culture. Different languages not only sound different, but they feel different. They shape ideas differently. They are also shaped by their environments. The way a language works can help illustrate the thought processes of the people who speak it.

As an example, I recently saw the Star Trek episode "Darmok," where the Enterprise encounters a race whose entire language is based on metaphor and comparison. Their actions seem hostile until the crew begins to understand their language, at which point it becomes apparent that the alien captain acted with surprising selflessness in order to open the lines of communication.

Another example comes from Dune. Paul and his family move from Caladan (a water world) to Dune (a desert world). They are shocked when they natives spit at them, taking it as an insult. In fact, the natives are offering their allegiance by giving away a small part of their bodies' water. As water is a precious resource on the planet, this is a gesture of respect.

Many stories simply use invented languages for flavor. Sometimes this can help the world feel a little bit more alive. Still, I feel that the author misses an opportunity if they don't bother thinking about the mechanics of the language at least a little, and about how the language reflects the unique aspects of that culture.

I would also be very careful to avoid over-using an invented language. Paragraphs of made-up words are going to be off-putting to most readers. However, carefully used phrases, words, or even body language, can be a very powerful tool, revealing differences between cultures and their modes of thinking. They can create barriers or ties between characters. They can even be the cause of misunderstandings and wars.

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Another great example of the way that lack of understanding a different language led to dramatic results is The Sparrow and its sequel. –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 15:55
    
@justkt: good example, although the incident you're referring to made me rather ill. Which was the author's intent, I'm sure. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 '11 at 16:36
    
@Lauren - I have to admit that I hated the Sparrow despite admiring the author's exceptional skill. It was only when I read the beautiful resolution in the sequel that I was glad I'd read the two books. –  justkt Mar 7 '11 at 16:47
    
+1 for "not only sound different, but feel different." I think most authors probably invent words or language in their books for artistic license, to better paint a picture of their characters' race, ethnicity, or culture. –  JYelton Mar 7 '11 at 17:59
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This feature article from the NYTimes Magazine seems a propos: nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?_r=1 –  rianjs Mar 8 '11 at 18:11

It really depends on your story. Sometimes a conlang (constructed language) will look silly, but sometimes it's almost necessary.

For instance, I'm working on a story in which alternate dimensions are a very real thing, and Earth (which once was a great dimension to trade with for metal, something that's scarce in most other dimensions) has become an obscure topic since most of its mage traders died in a magical collapse. Since English, in these worlds, has achieved about the same status as, say, Latin and Greek have in ours: once prevalent, but now only spoken by a select few--in this case, scholars and mages.

With this setup, it would be ridiculous if there wasn't a language to write in its place occasionally. A few of my main cast speak it, so that's not so much a problem. But it would have been absurd if scholars and mages, the few among the many, were the only people they ran into or had to talk to.

Also, it gives something to the world. You can have a lot of fun with a conlang. Mine sounds kind of like German, and is very rhythmic: most of the words are three syllables, with the stress on the second. Can we say fun to read aloud?

It's a lot of work, though. You have to decide how far you want to go--if you just want enough for a few characters to speak occasionally, then just do that. Don't make a whole language if you don't need to.

If you decide you want to, make sure you've read Limyaael's stuff. There are some rookie mistakes that you want to avoid, because anyone who's ever taken a language class can spot them immediately.

http://www.livejournal.com/users/limyaael/459655.html http://www.livejournal.com/users/limyaael/460892.html http://www.livejournal.com/users/limyaael/462195.html http://www.livejournal.com/users/limyaael/463028.html

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In genre narrative (mostly), If invented languages are used to add flavour to the story, it is likely that the plot itself is needing a deep review and such languages are an easy escape to draw the reader attention out of the plot / character inherent weakness.

If it the use of invented languages stems from a genuine need of expression, clearly the above risk will not apply, even if the effort of building a coherent linguistic system (even if in short) is a further burden for the author.

An invented language could be totally coherent and with no need in explanation in other domains, i.e. poetry. or theatre.

For example, see grammelot technique in both ancient and modern plays:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammelot

Where sounds and meaning interact in a new but seamless way with the audience.

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Upvoted, as it adds a new element to the discussion. Thanks! –  iajrz Mar 21 '11 at 12:28

You should take the time to try to learn a new language in a class context. I say this because most decent language teachers will teach about the language's culture as well as the language. And this is because some constructs and words won't make sense unless you know the corresponding culture. The different levels of deference in Japanese verbs is a good example of this.

Now you will understand when I say that the best use of an invented language is to convey a cultural difference. You don't even need to use the language in your story; it can be enough just to talk about it. In my current novel, I'm using language barriers to help define a few different cultures. My main two protagonists know several languages, one of which is actually not even recognised as spoken words by the main antagonists who largely only speak another. :-)

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I'm averse to learning a different language in a class environment... what English I know I didn't learn in class, but by listening and imitating; English is not my first language, and as I see so many people failing to learn in class... well, you get me. And I get you too, only I hadn't thought of applying the thought to the context, the conflicts that a language barrier can put not only between our "hero(es)" and their "enemies" or someone they don't know, but among the heroes as well. –  iajrz Mar 8 '11 at 3:04

I would limit the use of invented languages as much as possible. I'm not saying this to play devil's advocate, but because I often find that exotic names and words distract from the story. In fact, I've written short stories in which all the characters had names like Brown (has brown eyes), Lightning (very fast with the sword), etc. This somehow keeps the image of these characters more clearly in my mind than if they were called Eldorick or Zarmagoth or whatever.

The same goes for creatures (e.g. "Soulstealers" has much more power than an invented name), towns (e.g. "Donkeytrot" lies one day's travel on donkey back from the capital), plants (think of the many plant names in the Harry Potter series) etc.

Finally, keep in mind that pulling off a fake language is not easy (Tolkien is one of the very, very few who succeeded). It's a huge investment that keeps you from your writing.

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I'm not quite with you on the generalizations (which names work is a very subjective thing). But +1 for the pulling-it-off-isn't-easy. Tolkien pulled it off because he was both extremely passionate about this part (it could be said that his world was built around the languages) and an expert on language and linguistics. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 9 '11 at 15:31
    
Thumbs up for giving an alternative to traditional 'inventing a character's name' we see so often when dealing with high fantasy. –  iajrz Mar 24 '11 at 13:37

I think the best answer is something called Suspension of Disbelief.

When your readers go through your book, especially if it’s a fantasy/sci-fi book, they know that the world you describe is not real. However, they "suspend" this disbelief in order to enjoy the book.

As a writer, you should do your best not to break that Suspension of Disbelief. You are to encourage it.

Incorporating alien languages (when appropriate) helps the reader keep his Suspension of Disbelief. What's more believable, an alien jumping in front of your protagonist yelling "Ktha'h Mortikah!! and blasting his plasma rifle, or an alien shouting "Die you human scum!!" while waving his plasma rifle?

As I see it, sporadic use of an alien language (when appropriate) can make the story more believable, and therefore more enjoyable.

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I would use a (very) few invented vocabulary words to indicate specific items which are unique to your created race, but put them in context so that the reader can quickly divine the meaning, or explain the meaning in narration.

The only reason to have lines of dialogue in an invented language is when a character from Group A meets a character from Group B, and B character doesn't speak Group A language. Keep the invented-language lines brief, and use them more to illustrate the language barrier than to hold a conversation.

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As to Tolkien, he was a linguist and his Elven language was like a linguistic toy or pet project which he wove into his mythology. I take this as the baseline for created languages. If you are a linguist then they can add a little linguistic spice to your work. I wouldn't make up a language because I wouldn't know how to go about it.

Even so many neuro-linguistics researchers say that we have an "instinct" for language, so if you tried to make one up then there's a chance it could end up being a perfectly valid language e.g. Klingon. But why you would want to remains beyond me.

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