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Over the course of several years, I’ve had more than a couple WIPs that take place in a made-up world, whether an alien planet, some alternate fantasy realm or something of the like. And on three different occasions that I can think of at the moment, I decided that those worlds or peoples deserved their own languages.
So I made them up. You know. For fun.
(I also thought it’d be fun to take Japanese as an elective in college because LANGUAGES, but I digress).
If you’re like me and decide at some point you’d like your made up world or culture to have a language of their own that you will actually put together, then you may be wondering where to start. And since I’ve had some experience with this, I figured I’d share some of my process:
- Decide how in-depth you want to get. Just because you’re making up a language for your book doesn’t mean you have to develop enough to become proficiently fluent—but it also doesn’t mean you can’t if that’s what you want to do. Generally, I like to work out very basic syntax, phrases and words that I’ll need for the book right up front, and then develop more as I write the book and need more words in context. Meanwhile, I have a very good friend who is basically a language master and works out conjugations and more advanced syntax and can put together whole sentences in her made up languages like nothing before I’ve had time to figure out “he” and “she.” So. Your mileage may vary.
- Decide what you want to model your language after. Do you want this language to flow like romance languages or sound more guttural and harsh like germanic languages? Will their language be made up of characters that represent phonetic syllables and/or ideograms (i.e.: many asian languages) or will it be about stringing letters together to make up sounds? Will they have the same sounds as your native language, or will they have more (or less) sounds? These are all questions you want to have some idea of an answer to before you even begin to attempt at creating words and sentences.
- Think about how your language will be written (if at all). I’ve found that learning how a language is written can be a hugenormous help in learning a language, and made up languages are no different. If the culture does indeed use written language, how is their alphabet structured? Will it be like the English Latin alphabet where every letter has a sound and you string letters together to make different sounds? Or will it be more like Japanese hiragana where every kana equates to a sound (i.e.: ka, ko, sa, se, etc.)? Or will it be more like Japanese kanji where the kanji can represent entire words in their own right? There isn’t a right or wrong option, but deciding this ahead of time can really help you develop the sound and structure of the language.
- Create a reference document. This is going to be your language bible. I like to use Excel because spreadsheets lend themselves really well to this kind of thing, but what format you do is really up to you. The important thing is that you put all of your made-up language-related notes in this document.
- Start with the basics. After I’ve figured out the sounds and alphabet and I’m ready to start creating words, I like to start with subjects and possessives (I, you, he, she, my, your, his, hers, etc.) At this point, there isn’t really a right or wrong—the thing to think about is to make sure that the words you create sound like they fit together. Spanish doesn’t sound like Japanese, and Korean doesn’t sound like English, and Dutch doesn’t sound like French for obvious reasons—they’re different languages with different sets of sounds and you need to make sure that the words you create sound like they belong in the same language. This often requires verbally sounding out gibberish, and your family members or roommates may look at you weird, but hey! You’re a writer. It’s okay.
- Take many language courses/study several languages. Over the course of many years, I’ve taken classes in Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese. I’ve also listened (and memorized) music in Korean, Romanian and Swedish. I can’t speak any of them perfectly (or even close to it, for most of them), but studying and paying attention to all of those languages has helped me so much when I’ve sat down and tried to create my own. Learning how different languages are put together, conjugated and created can go a long way in teaching you how to put together your own language, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Do you have any tips for language creation?
Thinking about making up a language for your WIP? Writer @Ava_Jae shares some tips on language creation. (Click to tweet)
Want to make up a language for your WIP but don't know where to start? @Ava_Jae shares some pointers. #writetip (Click to tweet)