Thursday, October 20, 2011

Worldbuilding: Constructed languages

I have to be honest, this is an area of Worldbuilding that I don't have the patience for.  I mean that on a personal level; I don't have the patience to do it.  I think it's really cool when done well.  But that's not going to be me, unfortunately. 

I say unfortunately, because on some level, I wish I did have that kind of patience.  I think, when it is done correctly, it adds an incredible amount of flavor and character to one's world.  I have some sense of linguistics and the rules one should follow to make a new language. My main character in Crown of Druthal (now trunked) was a linguist. And, after all, I am married to a polyglot. But even though I can totally get lost in mapmaking or history writing, trying to crack the spine of a new language can't keep my attention. 

 I do try and at least work out the broad brushstrokes of a culture's language, though.  If they use alphabetic characters or pictographs.  How sentences are structured.  Words that represent unique or key cultural ideas. 

(And I remain a big believer that one should never make up words when a perfectly good word already exists.)

I do like coming up with cultural quirks that are expressed through language and grammar. I came up with all sorts of craziness for the Poasian language.  Verb conjugation diesn't just have first, second and third person, singular and plural.  Second person is split into three different categories, dependent upon the relative social rank of the speaker and the person being spoken to.  Third person is also split the same way, with an additional split depending on if the person is present or not.  (Which creates a marvelous way for a high-ranked Poasian to dress down an underling-- instead of speaking to him using second-person-inferior, they could use third-person-inferior-absent.  In essence saying, "I think so little of you I will pretend you aren't even in the room." just by using a different conjugation of the verb.)

But the actual nuts and bolts of vocabulary?  Can't do it.  I have tons of respect for those who can do it.  
Anyone out there know any good constructed languages work?  I'd love to check it out.


Michael Caton said...

Sorry for the long comment but this is an area that always interested me too. Near as I can tell, there are 3 reasons to make up languages for a story:

1. Because they reinforce something you want to convey about characters or the societies you've built. (Your theme in this series of posts.)

2. To ask heavy-duty cognitive philosophy type questions. Very dry, limited audience.

3. Because they're cool for their own sake.

I have to admit falling for #3 because I get a kick out of the alternative historical ones, i.e. what if pockets of Celtic language remained in Central Europe after the Romans and Germans? What if the Moors had gotten as far as the North Sea, what would German sound like? But based on actual history or not, I have to confess I don't see what purpose a fully elaborated conlang serves within a work of fiction that's not principally about the conlang itself as in #2. For #1, #3, or even if you're thinking of it in extra-textual marketing terms and you want your fans to have in-group vocabulary to identify each other with, you don't need to make up the whole language. You can make up a few words, know the basic grammar as it pertains to the story (as you do above), and then drop some hints, and it still feels real. If I ever finish my own damn novel (and since I'm taking the year off it's probably now or never) I've actually thought of outsourcing it by recruiting conlang enthusiasts on the intarwebz - here are the parameters, get back to me in 3 months, I'll give full credit to your work in the finished novel - but it wouldn't break my heart not to have the fully-fleshed language.

(Confession, whether or not it's true, I've always liked the story that Tolkien's world-building was really just a reaction to his sunk-cost of having made up parallel Welshoid and Finnoid languages, so he started making up hobbits and elves to speak them.)

If it's the vocabulary that gives you fits, and I agree that's the most boring part of this game (the grammar and morphosyntax are fun! rules!) then you could pretty easily automate a random vocabulary generator based on the sounds your language allows and in what combinations. You could even do it in Excel. If you want to get really fancy you could use Markov chains, which can reproduce large portions of real-world languages.

Also, the funny thing about fictional languages is that they're usually not as exotic as we think they are. Case in point, not to pick on your language for its multiple second persons (most Indo-European languages already have two, East Asian languages usually have 3 or more), but there are a number of languages here in the real world, in fact right here in North America (e.g. Inuit and Navajo) with *fourth* person. It's not that Navajos can talk into another dimension or something, it's basically a workaround convention for a normally inactive object being the subject of a sentence (otherwise action couldn't originate from them and make sense). Also blowing up people's heads: many languages require every sentence to have a direct object but not a subject. That one's not even that rare. So, if you're making up a language, go really nuts. A language with no verbs! (Alright, Gregory Benford already did that.) Or a language that's all verbs, like Borges in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (although he only sort of did because he didn't actually make up the language.) Or a language with no set parts of speech and every utterance just a list. Or the opposite of that, a language that is entirely self-referential prepositions and conjunctions. But you see the problem with this, a really original language idea ends up being so weird and hard to understand that it takes center stage and unless that's what the story is about I think it's best to put a few foreign-sounding words in italics and just make a general impression on the reader.

Qapla'! -MC

Anonymous said...

(And I remain a big believer that one should never make up words when a perfectly good word already exists.)

There's a difference, though, in offering us an untranslated foreign word and offering us a new "English" word. In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, "Caf" is the word used instead of "coffee", but it's not meant to be an untranslated bit of "basic", since for all intents and purposes "basic" in the Republic and Empire is "late 20th Century American English". That kind of shit is annoying - all the moreso when you also have un-futzed words like "hot chocolate" being used in the same space.

But raktajino as the Klingon word for a coffee-like drink that may or may not be used by Federation basic/English speakers interchangeably with words like "java" or "brew"? I'm down with that.

dbonfitto said...

Before you go making up a language, you've got to figure out if it's important to the story.

Consider the POV of the storyteller before you spend time on language construction.

If the narrative voice doesn't speak the language, you don't need to accurately depict the language:
"Marshall said something in Spanish about beer or bathrooms, but I plugged him with my .45 anyway."
"The blue alien gurgled and clicked like a stomach full of beer and pop rocks, but I plugged him with my .45 anyway."

If you're working from third person omniscient, you can be the universal translator:
"'You left your beer in the bathroom,' Marshall said in Spanish to the angry flatfoot."
"'Please don't plug me with your .45,' the precognitive Azurite gurgled in his native tongue."

Alternately, just swiftly kill off characters that make additional languages necessary.

dbonfitto said...

Better idea:

Just steal all of your new words randomly from CAPTCHA lists!

"'Wicspe hyflat,' the alien whispered in Marshall's left ear. Yeah, he knew this was about to turn into slashfic."

A. Lockwood said...

I'm having some fun with language right now for a book. The story is requiring me to come up with at least some sense of what a blend of Old Norse and 18th century British English might sound like.

A. Gunter said...

I just found your site and I am tickled because I went through this same problem.

Tip: Create a code, create a cheat sheet, and go from there. Plus, as the other commentators have stated, only use it directly if the language is that important.

Kendra Mareva said...

Some great advice in here! This is something I've been struggling with A LOT. After reading everyone's comments I think I'm leaning more and more towards the "only using it if it's important to the story," idea, and in my case, it isn't. Phew!