Thursday, October 31, 2013

Worldbuilding: Shortcuts for Language Building

When it comes to worldbuilding, especially fantasy worldbuilding, constructing a language is the sort of thing you sometimes feel you ought to do, especially since Tolkien set the standard by not only building several languages, but their historical evolution.

That's hardcore linguist stuff, and you shouldn't go there unless you've got love for it. 

And let's face it, the bulk of the constructed language stuff only exists for small percentage of purists in your audience. 

But, let's say you wanted to have that hint of the larger language-- just that hint of verisimilitude, so when you drop an "othered" word in your manuscript it doesn't feel like you threw a handful of Alpha-Bits on your desk to get your word. 

So, the easiest way to accomplish this is not to worry too much about grammar and vocabulary.  If you don't need to construct complete sentences on a regular basis in your manuscript, there's no need for it.  But what you can do, without too much work, is figure out what the building blocks of the words are, and use that to create a sense that the language has a consistent framework. 

One way is to familiarize yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a simple, codified way to express about every sound the human mouth can make.   You don't have to memorize or master it (I certainly haven't), but get a sense of it. 

From there, you can figure out what phonemes and morphemes can exist in the language.  You don't need to come up with an alphabet, or even if the language is alphabetic (like English and Romance languages), syllabic (like Japanese) or logographic (like Chinese).  You just need to know what sounds are allowed. 

Now, devise a consistent way to express these allowed sounds.  In a way, this is creating the alphabet, but specifically you're creating the transliteration of your language, using the symbols you can readily type.  (You could just use the IPA, but that might frustrate readers.)   But it's important to make it consistent.  English can be a maddening language in that sense: "straight", "wait', "weight" and "late" all rhyme, but express the same vowel sound four different ways.  This can also minimize your own confusion when you go to make a new word.

This will also prevent you from making typical "fantasy language" errors-- namely, throwing in accent marks or apostrophes or excessive use of the letters "æ"or "y" to make it seems like a Fantasy Language word.  I'm not saying you can't use accent marks or apostrophes or the letters "æ"or "y", but if you create a clear set of transliteration rules, then they won't come off as random.  They'll be a consistent feature of the words of that language.

And that will make it feel more real, without having to invent the whole thing.


A. Lockwood said...

A few other tidbits:

-If you have an unvoiced consonant, you will probably also have its voiced counterpart and vice versa. (Eg if you have a "t" sound, you'll almost certainly have a "d" sound.)

-Sometimes vowels do interesting things to the preceding consonant. The "ee" sound ("i" in the IPA) is notorious for this. For example, in Japanese, "i" changes "s" to "sh." When this happens you often don't have the mutated sound without that vowel (ie no "sh" without "i"). You can add some internal consistency that way as well.

-If I remember correctly, compared to many other languages, English has a whole lot of vowel sounds. I think there are languages that have plenty more, but a lot of languages only have a small handful.

I'm sure there are plenty of other things I could add, but those are what came to me first :)

Darrell Pursiful said...

The Swadesh list (of which there are a few variations) is a great tool to build a very basic vocabulary as well as playing around with the sound changes in related languages or dialects.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

From what I understand, English has 23-26 vowel sounds, depending on who you ask. Spanish, to contrast, has five. And, as I pointed out, English has complicated and contradictory ways to express those vowel sounds.