Making Up Fantasy Languages

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 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. 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)


Steve MC said...

Sarama tak for sharing such cool tips.

Matthew MacNish said...

You realize you're giving away important trade secrets for free, right?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Matt - Adam is cool that way. :)

Rena said...

Amazingly, this is EXACTLY what I already do. I admit to being a little floored at having my own process described to me, but there it is, Zeitgeist.

And of course, I use this process because I've tried the Tolkien way... that's a little, um, daunting.

Michelle said...

I'll have to remember this if I ever need foreign words in my MS. I already use a similar process for naming my characters by using a baby naming site where I can filter results by name origin and the letter I want it to start with.

Sarah Ahiers said...

ooh i'm so glad that i'm not the only one who borrows from other languages and then tweaks them. I haven't though of combining with a second language, though, and that's genius

Mel Chesley said...

Funny, I think lots of fantasy authors do this very thing. I know I do. I'll obscure my sources, but I combine two language bases and mash them until I have something workable as well as believable. Great post!

linda said...

Ooh, cool! I've been thinking about how I'd handle my fantasy language, too. But instead of Google translating words, I'm planning on working off of languages I already know and make changes to the sounds/spellings/syllables used -- that way I can stick to a set of consistent sounds and mix-and-match for names in addition to vocabulary.

But yeah, it's not that hard, so there's no excuse to mangle an identifiable existing language and then say "well it's fantasy so it's ok."

Unknown said...

I'd always just used a straight foreign language, one that sounded about right for the people. I thought it would be cool for people to actually figure out what was being said if they wanted to. I imagined that if it were ever translated into whatever language I was using, that bit could be in English. :P

Anonymous said...

You can also crib from foreign cultures, like the Japanese, which has a military style ranking system attached to names, so that everyone in a room realizes who is the superior and who is the inferior just by listening in. Yet the culture itself isn't military per say, so can be applied to tribes, technological cultures, etc.

Westerners, meaning most English speakers, do not go around doing this, unless they live in a feudal society. So the very society's customs itself, is the alien part, not just the language.

Much as a civilian would find the military's acronyms and culture, very alien and strange (even when everyone speaks the same dialect), so the same would apply with language matrixes using social differences.