As a kid I played Star Fox Adventures on the GameCube and in the disc’s box was the manual containing much of the background lore amongst the usual tips and tricks found there. One page spelled out the key to deciphering the fictional language used in the game. A→I, B→K, C→T as written for the entire English alphabet.
As a ten or something year old, I was disappointed with the lack of effort.
Now with ten or something years as a writer I envy that cowardice.
Making a convincing fictional language makes as much sense as walking a tightrope with the webs of your toes. It takes about five levels of digging to get to where the act stops being ridiculous and you realize how magical it is.
Tolkien (he was always going to be mentioned in discussion of this topic) was a master hand establishing multiple practical languages for his fictional worlds. He was and may perhaps forever (meaning until I’m long gone) be the highest mark to reach for. A man who could speak multiple languages himself. A man who breathed the air of his worlds.
I can’t speak multiple languages (much for lack of trying and partly for not developing those synapses as a child.) Nor do I suspect I’ll create a practical fictional language and hope to accomplish much else in the same decade.
What I can advise on is how to dress a world with a fictional language like spring onion.
The real examples from our own world will dispel much of the magic in cool sounding names. Most of the time practicality holds sway. For instance, Mississippi, carrying dual importance with the Mississippi River and the state in the USA.
Rough translation from the original Native American dialects: “The Big River.”
This makes complete sense if you’ve ever looked at the Mississippi on a map and thought of how important it must’ve been to the geographic boarders of the native tribes and their trading routes. It’s also comedic that many centuries later there’s a landmass named The Big River and a river called The The Big River River.
If you’re going to make up a language, start with the thought process that those peoples who created the language did so with the intent on communicating information in an easily recognizable way. The language wasn’t created to have a cool bounciness or whimsical air to it.
It’s a common tactic in writing and a recurring convention in language to give something quite significant a simple name which highlights its importance. You’d think there could be many large rivers in the USA but when someone points out The Big River – really emphasizing it – it takes on greater significance via the comparison.
You can see something similar in the Kaiserschlacht at the end of WW1. It goes by many names including the Kaiser’s Battle as previously mentioned and is often all rolled into The German 1918 Spring Offensive. Because of how bled the German population was at this point in the war it was referred to by the commanders as The Last Card. Even stacked against all the rest of the battles on the western front (including the Somme and Verdun), it’s sometimes referred to by the German soldiers as The Big Battle in France. As if the largest battles ever to be fought in world history up to that point (and in the case of Verdun the longest) were mere opening acts.
If the audience watches the protagonist climb mountain after harrowing mountain, sees him brush with death multiple times and scale back down scarred and hardened by his experiences, and then looks to an impossibly tall mountain in shock the audience will feel the shock too. If the protagonist then asks a local what they call that mountain and they say, “The big mountain” it puts into perspective the challenge and danger looming over the protagonist.
Rarely if ever is a name ever meaningful on its own. Sometimes they can be fun to say like Mississippi or Mitsubishi, yet – in a vacuum – names such as Johnsfield, Jacobston, Jonestown are all fairly derivative. Guy’s last name and an abbreviation of a township or landscape. It’s only when you prescribe real world events that one of these causes your spine to ice over.
And if you are creating your own world and you want these place names to have the same level of impact you could subscribe significant events to go along with them. Tawsno—The battle on the plains interrupted by the Gods throwing the moon back and forth in front of the sun. Quatatlampi—The volcano which will erupt at the crowning of a great king.
Broken Neck Ridge—That sheer cliff there in the distance. You see the entire plateau rises that dusty red shade… My grandparents all told me it was painted with the blood of goats that slipped off. Supposedly it was created to be an open challenge from Mother Earth Herself. Those who scale the cliff will look out from its peak and be given a kingship over all the land they see. The blood of those who fail feed Mother Earth and let her grow those beautiful iuli blossoms on the face there. We call it Broken Neck Ridge because when I was eleven my cousin Sachni made all of us children watch him climb the sheer face. He got eight feet up before making a show of his efforts. It didn’t last long. When the dust settled, we saw his neck had twisted fully backwards. His eyes were focused far off, like he knew what was about to happen but didn’t believe he was approaching that hard ground… Please my sweet grandchild, don’t let me find you the fool who tried to climb Broken Neck Ridge.
And just like that a too on the nose dangerous name becomes a launching platform for backstory, lore, and an impetus for the protagonist to cross the threshold along with the stakes of their adventure.
As mentioned a bit ago, place names and indeed many words gain new meaning when combined together. It could be as simple as Jefferson City. With this we can assume the city was founded by the son of a man named Jeffery who named it after himself. Or some pioneers could have seen deer in a field. Or the Mexicans saw a few meadows and named the area The Meadows aka Las Vegas.
The opportunity for the writer here is to make reoccurring naming motifs such as taking the suffix burg and redubbing it tu. Then the writer can use Tonatu, Orangutu, Vahleywatu and combine them with established prefixes or words similar enough to a known language.
Or the main character could be taken captive by a native named Kota and be transferred to Kotatu (the name being the tip off that the captor is in fact the ruler, or a member of the ruling family, of the town they’re heading to.)
In this way the audience can piece out the separate components of the word the same way they attempt to better understand their own.
Furthermore, language is informed by the people who create it (or adapt it) and they are in turn shaped by the land around them. If you’re going to world build then you might as well start from the ground up.
Nomadic desert dwelling people will likely have several names for sand and sandstorms and have non-fixed association of place names (home becoming camp and where they make camp being described by the direction from the nearest memorable landmark i.e. East of Red Cliffs.) They could also carry a great reverence and a respect bordering on fear for how the shifting lands can benefit or destroy them. The them Golden Horizon could have a secondary meaning as Death’s Beckon.
It’s contrived to point out how many words the Innuits have for snow but if you’d lived in winter conditions year-round then you’d make up that many variations just to save time if nothing else.
Imagine every day having this conversation:
“How’s the weather today?”
“Well it’s snowing again.”
“Can we still go seal hunting?”
“Well it’s that type of snow that’s heavy and wet and melts fast on your face and not very conducive for maneuvering over long distances as it tends to swallow our sleds and push up a massive pile of the stuff over their noses even in areas of little snowfall. Additionally, seals find it hard to move in this snow so they stay far and clear in the waters. So no, I don’t think we can hunt for seals.”
Now, if the culture had a highly specific definition of the type of snow falling (which could be shown earlier in the narration describing the difficulties the character has moving through the snow) then the answer to “How’s the weather?” could be as little as a single word.
I’m reading some Joseph Conrad at the minute and even the English of 120 years ago needs a spot of translation every now and again. This is only frustrating when Conrad goes off on the technical names for the different parts of a ship. I can parcel out foremast being the mast at the front of the ship but things like trim the yards, lazarette, davits, abaft, forepeak scuttle, forecastle, oakum, stanchions, thwart, painter, windlass, companion, gimbals, binnacle, spars—I’m only stopping here because the fact that the depressing spellcheck refuses to redline any of these, revealing how limited my word variance is.
I know Conrad wasn’t attempting to create a new language with these words but it feels like one to me. If you get hyper-specific with your descriptive fictional words and don’t intend on explaining them (in an interesting and concise way, much less at all) then all you’ll create is an entry for your glossary at the back of the book. This academic study methodology to understanding a fictional world is less engaging than the English tests schoolchildren take to show they’ve read past the Spark Notes for their assigned books. Like Heart of Darkness for instance.
The goal should be for the reader to think, ‘Oh, I didn’t know a drum fill was like a mini-solo to break up the beat,’ and come away with a positive impression of the subject matter.
Fictional languages are a splendid addition to a story but they aren’t the story in and of themselves (if you can write that story point me towards it.) They exist to immerse the reader in the world you create and flipping back and forth to a very modern looking index, glossary, or key detracts from this end. The reader should be able to deduce the meaning of your fictional words from the contexts characters use them in. They should be able to glance a couple sentences back or read a couple forward and be able to decipher in an organic way what your prose or characters mean with their words.
It seems almost too basic a concept to waste breath on but when you shoot for Tolkien’s moon-face you tend to lose sight of the ground that holds you up.
Think of it in real life: If you can’t understand what someone’s saying and they won’t stop to explain themselves, then you’ll stop listening.