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I want to make a particular language that adapts to the story. And the language has to have x and y and e characteristics for example.

Is there a protocol to follow on the process of making a language for the sake of a story? (I don't talk about making a complete language with grammar and alphabet[okay maybe alphabet]) But on a simple way to make it believable.

I'm not sure if the question is clear, if not please comment so I can improve it.

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This is on-topic here because it is about writing (I think), but you will get the real experts on the linguistics part at Linguistics.SE, although their FAQ does not contain an on- or off-topic list yet, so I'm not sure at what level of expertise they require their questions. –  justkt Nov 3 '11 at 15:17
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Linguistics SE? ::swoons:: –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 3 '11 at 16:24
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This would be off-topic at Linguistics.SE. However, it would be on-topic for the forthcoming Conlang.SE. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 3 '11 at 18:32
    
@JSBᾶngs - Why off-topic at Linguistics? (I'm not questioning you, but I'm curious.) –  Neil Fein Nov 6 '11 at 17:29
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@NeilFein It's off topic in Linguistics because claims about imaginary languages aren't scientific claims anymore than claims about the FTL engines on the Star Trek Enterprise are about physics. [But in both cases there is overlap! There is hard sci-fi and conlangs do use linguistics to make better conlangs] –  MatthewMartin Nov 30 '11 at 23:00
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6 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

How much of this language are you going to use? Single words? Phrases? Sentences? Paragraphs?

If it's just a few words or phrases, make up a few, be consistent in their usage, and call it a day.

If you're carrying on entire dialogues in this tongue, I would first recommend "Don't overdo it." For the purposes of your question (and I Am Not A Linguist, so take this cum grano salis):

Write your dialogue in English (or whatever the language of the book is) so you know what words you need.

Vocabulary:

  • Create some stems. These are the core bits which you build the word from. Taking Romance languages as an example, amo(r)- for love, mang- for eat, blanc- for white, petr- for stone.
  • Create some prefixes and suffixes.
  • Combine those to create words.
  • How does the sound of the language reflect the speakers? (Papa Tolkien was the master of this. The Elves' speech was liquid and trilling, with Ls and Ss, because they were beautiful and serene, but the Dwarves spoke in harsh guttural sounds because they were a harsh people.)
  • Are there diminutives? ("Little" something) A word or phrase you tack on to a name to indicate formality, informality, family, familiarity, ownership, affection?

If you want to be thorough, you will have to think about some grammar.

  • Does the verb come right after the subject (Romance languages) or at the end (Russian)?
  • Does the verb conjugate (so word order is important) or decline (words can be in any order)?
  • Does the verb ending change with time (present tense, past, future), with number, with gender (Hebrew)?
  • Think about word forms (the noun vs. the adjective form of the same word: book vs. bookish)
  • Articles (a, an, the)
  • Contractions (dropped or elided letters). Don't throw in apostrophes to be decorative; they should mean something. In English the apostrophe means letters were dropped. (the possessive 's is attributed to the archaic phrasing "John his book → John's book")

Dialect:

  • Do characters from different classes or different geographical locations have different variants on the same essential word?

An example in practice:

In Mercedes Lackey's Valedmar universe, there's the root language of Kaleda'in, which has two major branches, Tayledras and Shin'a'in. The word for "love" or "beloved" is ke'chara in Kaleda'in, ke'a'char in Shin'a'in, and ashke in Tayledras. The word for "gay" translates as "one whose lover is like the self," and the phrase is shay'a'chern. A gay person refers to his/her spouse as shay'kreth'ashke. You can see the cha(r)- stem moving around and changing from hard to soft sounds in that sequence.

ETA more examples from the same writer:

Tayledras, in its own language, means "Hawkbrothers."
In Shin'a'in, the same word is "Tale'edras," inverted to be "Brothers of Hawks."
Another Shin'a'in clan is called "Tale'sedrin," which is "Children of the Hawk."

Shin'a'in terms for their horses are "dester'edre" (wind-born siblings) and "jel'sutho'edrin" (ever-younger clanschildren).
I seem to recall "jel'enedre" means "younger sibling."
A Shin'a'in term for two people who have sworn blood-sisterhood is "she'enedre." (and there's the she- stem for "same" from shay'kreth'ashke of Tayledras)

Shin'a'in itself means "people of the Plains."
The plains in question are called "Dorisha Shin'a," the "Plains of Sacrifice."

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Thanks for your answer Lauren!! Maybe you have more examples to illustrate this? –  Joze Nov 5 '11 at 23:37
    
I added more examples from Lackey. You could try The Peoples of Middle-Earth, which is the last of the slush volumes which Christopher Tolkien published of his father's work. There's a lengthy chapter on Tolkien's many invented languages. I can't think of another author offhand besides those two. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 6 '11 at 0:27
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Really good examples Lauren!! I will buy the book if I can find it, sounds like a great reference resource. –  Joze Nov 7 '11 at 11:59
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Languages don't actually need to have prefixes and suffixes---morphemes can all be in separate words. Tense, aspect, number, etc. can be shown with separate-word modifiers. –  compman Apr 13 '12 at 14:59
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Beyond vocabulary and grammar there is also idioms and common phrases and metaphors that have more extensive or different meanings than a literal translation would imply. E.g., "the eyes of each honest to the other became"--a literal translation of a poem fragment--means roughly "they fell in love" (eyes associated with certain emotions linked more to the mind/will/soul; cf. heart with certain more bodily passions), so opening (making honest) eyes may be used in this romantic sense even in plain speech. Similarly "sour grapes" assumes a literary/cultural context (from Aesop). –  Paul A. Clayton Sep 7 '13 at 17:13
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If you want to establish a language with a foreign touch in your story, the "cheapest" way to do it, is using an already existing one as reference.

I did something similar. I invented a language for using magic. I took Latin as base and transformed the words, so that they were not directly recognizable as Latin, but still give the reader the touch of an existing, developed language.

For example you want to use the word "river" in your new language. In Latin it's "fluvius". Change that to "flovus" or "phlotus" and you have your new word. Just play a little bit with an existing language.

For the alphabet you can have a look at the old glyphs shown in history books. Replace every letter of the English alphabet with one of your own glyphs you have derived from the historical ones and you have your own language plus alphabet.

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As has been said, it is easiest to adapt an existing language. There are many synthetic languages that you can use, depending on your need and audience. If you were writing a historical romance, for instance, use of the Klingon language from Star Trek would most likely be unknown to your readers, so it would seem to be something new. On the other hand, it would also lack many of the 'romantic' ideals you'd probably need.

Like colloquial speech, be careful to avoid tripping up your readers. If you write in such a deep Southern slang that the reader has to stop reading your story, read aloud the words, listen to what is being said, JUST to understand what the character is saying, then you've probably lost a reader. I might do that a few times, mostly with character names, but after a few times stopping to figure out a foreign word, I'll put the book down.

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The resource that most conlangers point to is the venerable Language Construction Kit. It's quite extensive. It mostly concerns the linguistic aspects of making your language, but it does address some of the issues about making your conlang believable.

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I created my own language for a game, and I've come to learn a lot from it. I am no expert on linguistics, and my tips are a bit random/rambling, but maybe they might help.

Here's some of what I would suggest:

  • Try to create something with only a few basic rules, so it is easy for you to remember. Readers will not like noticing that your fictional language seems inconsistent.
  • Try to reuse syllables within your language in a way that indicates conjugation and a kind of "history" to the language.
  • Unless you are writing by hand, make use of the Latin alphabet :), especially if that is your native alphabet.
  • Only use what you need in dialogue and when writing phrases/sentences in your fictional language. Overdoing it can lead to confusion for both you and your audience.
    • Every language has a history - so if you are going to use a fictional one, ensure that the "speakers" of your language have a good story (even if you don't use it in your main story) to draw from. A good way to do this is to write down a side story somewhere, so you can draw on it when working on your fictitious language.
    • Some languages are "harsher" or "more coarse" than others. For example, I've found Portuguese to be less "soft" than Spanish (I could be wrong :D!). It helps, when creating your own language, to keep this in mind with relation to the civilization, secret society, or who ever - uses your language. For example, a race of friendly aliens who never knew warfare are unlikely to use "harsh" tones and "hard" consonants like p and d often, but more likely to use something "soft" like "ah" and "oh".

Over all - be creative, but don't overwork yourself. Use words or parts of words from other languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tend to be very useful to me). Many languages have multiple ways of saying the same thing, or different related words for the same subject. For example, Greek has many words for "love". You can try to use this concept when creating your own language.


I know my answer was a bit... "all over the place", and probably not a professional/scholarly answer - but I hope it helps :)!

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This is a tremendous online resource/tutorial on inventing languages: http://www.zompist.com/kit.html

There's also ConLang: http://conlang.wikia.com/wiki/Create_a_Language

But the best advice would be to buy a copy of Holly Lisle's 'Create A Language Clinic': http://shop.hollylisle.com/index.php?crn=1&rn=367&action=show_detail

I have a copy and it's really good - like most of her stuff.

Hope that helps

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