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 invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. He wrote the most epic novel of all time just so he had a place to use those languages.
If that's you, read no further. You're fine.
Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English
philology. 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.
So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years
determining morphology, grammar, and syntax? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most world-building: steal from real life, then obscure my 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
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
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. That's why we obscure the source. Two ways I do that: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing
phrase and (2) mix it with some other language.
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
Tolkien to invent Quenya. 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.
Anyway, now you know my secret. Go forth and make cool-sounding languages.
(remixed from an older post)