Language Considerations


Conlangs are arguably best suited to being spoken because we can hear inflection and tone despite not understanding it. Gestures and expressions help us infer meaning. Sometimes a character translates for other characters and us. Subtitles render these a moot point but can be tedious for the audience if it goes on for too long; this is one why some scenes start with actors speaking a conlang before switching to English, as if a universal translator has been switched on via the camera. That device helps characters and audiences bypass the impractical nature of invented languages. And of course, if we’re working in TV or film, someone else may be tasked with this project, another reason we don’t have to worry about it as much.

Readers have none of these to help them. Authors must repeat the sentences, doubling the word count of the sample, though it’s doubtful we’d do this enough to significantly impact manuscript length. Sometimes we’ll have a character sum up what’s been said. If the audience is like me, they just skip over the conlang rather than trying to sound it out or understand any of it, since they’re unlikely to succeed. This makes our effort a waste of time. Something else to consider is that pausing to examine the conlang will pull readers out of our story. We should avoid this. The main takeaway a reader will get is a general sense of the tone, such as guttural versus elegant. A conlang allows us to show this rather than tell. This can be an important way to characterize a race/species or society, more than just the speaker.

Our Options

We have several options for inventing a language.

First, we can ignore the subject altogether. This means that a book written in English has every last word in English. At best, we allude to other languages by narrating something like, “He said hello in his language before switching to Common.” For authors, a minority of readers will object, but many won’t even notice. For other industries, especially in SF, the universal translator idea spares us complaints.

A second option is to not invent a language but just make up words and phrases as we go along. This is what many world builders do. The only real downside is that any linguist or conlanger can tell we’re doing this, but this minority understands how complicated inventing languages is and, while disappointed, likely understands our avoidance. How important is their opinion to you? Will you feel ashamed when they call you out, assuming they do (they won’t)?

A third option is to create a language to one degree or another, such as a naming language. If we do this, it’s recommended that we read more than one book on the art and invest ourselves in it. If we don’t do it well, we’re only pretending to do better than options one and two. This is only for those who:

  • Are not intimidated by the books noted at this chapter’s start
  • Really want to do this
  • Have the time, and
  • Possibly intend to use the setting and therefore the language for a long time

The fourth option is to hire someone. Those with money to spare, or who are already profiting from their career, should seriously consider this, especially as a first foray into constructed languages. After all, we will have one of our own that we can learn how to use, and this may help us if we later invent one ourselves.