Making Up Words (Without Sounding Like a Dork)

On Wednesday, we talked about using foreign languages in fiction without (a) sounding like a dork or (b) confusing/boring the reader. The bottom line was:
  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.
Today I want to talk about a related fantasy topic: making up your own language.

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy was a language nut. He invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. If this is you, you probably don't need to read the rest of this post. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. Most of us speak only one or two languages with any kind of fluency. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up; it's obvious that they are (made-up, that is).

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining phonology, grammar, or how the presence of two palatal fricative dates back to the Second Age when the Atpians still had two tongues? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most of my ideas: steal from real life, then obscure your sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc.).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point and scoff. So it's time to obscure. Two ways I typically obscure source languages are: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language. I'll do both.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took to invent Quenya, I'll tell you that. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go. Besides which, that would tempt me to break the rules I set forth at the top of this post; they still apply even to made up languages.

So now you know my secret. Now go forth and make cool-sounding languages. Sarama tak.


fairyhedgehog said...

This is brilliant advice. I would never have thought of using real world languages as a resource in this way and I'm sure I'll use this idea.

I love your writing style, too. You make writing interesting blog posts look easy!

Word verification words can be handy to save too. Today's is pensu

Adam Heine said...

Ha! Thanks, fairyhedgehog. I blame practice and (in this case) writing what I know.

And you're right. Word verification can be a great place for made-up words!

Matthew Delman said...

In SON OF MAGIC I took real-world languages and simply inverted the words.

i.e. "gracias" would become "saicrag" or, if I wanted to anagram it, it would become "cisagra."

You get the same fantasy flavor by doing much less work. I like your method better though ... sounds more logical than mine.

Adam Heine said...

Back-words and anagrams are decent enough ways to obscure your source. I think they're a little more easily discovered, though, and you get sometimes-unpronounceable words.

It's all cost-benefit, I guess. How much work you want to do vs. how realistic your language is.

Myrna Foster said...

Thank you. I can use this.

Hepius said...

I used Romanian for many of my creature names. Romanian is a Latin family language, so many of the words give some sense of familiarity to English readers. For example the Romanian word for elf is "spiridus". I use the spiridus as the "spirit people" of my novel.

I also employed a vowel shift for the language of the commoners in the feudal Kingdom of Salador. By shifting the vowels by one, it made the words different, but still readable. As my protagonist became more familiar with the language of the commoners I dropped the vowel shift--she started "hearing" the words as if they were normal words.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Sarama tak! This is a fab post, and I'm totally bookmarking it. I keep dabbling with languages in my stories, but I'm a rank amateur. So, this is me, learning from a pro. :)

P.s. Then again, I could just use word ver.

worver: hermoli - either anti-social pasta or a band of hermits?

Anonymous said...

P.S. takk is thank you in norwegian & icelandic. Barb again