Episode 28: Learn How to Create Languages
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a language, including whether we should, what’s involved, how to hire someone, and more.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Why authors get less mileage from an invented language than screenwriters
- Whether inventing one is worth the time and energy
- How to evaluate your motives for doing it
- What you’d be responsible for providing to audio book narrators and actors
- What books you can use to dive deep into language invention
- How to hire a conlanger to do it for you, how much they cost, and what you’ll get
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Episode 28 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-eight. Today’s topic is how to create languages. This includes whether we should, what’s involved, how to hire someone, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter eight from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
The Responsibility Caveat
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So, I have a confession to make. I am not going to teach you how to create a language, either in this episode or if you were to buy Cultures and Beyond. There are several reasons for this, and one of them is that I have not created a language myself, and the reason for that is that I looked into it, and read several books I’m going to talk about in a minute, and I concluded that this was not something for me. One reason for that decision is that it’s very time consuming and it’s a complicated subject. This is also one of the few world building tasks that you can hire someone else to do for you. There are also, literally, books on how to do this, so there’s no way I’m going to teach you in a 30-minute podcast episode, or even the chapter of one book, when there are literally entire books on this subject — and those books are written by experts who have repeatedly created languages.
Naturally, this begs the question, well, what am I going to teach you? We’re going to take a look at whether or not we should build a language. We need to understand what we are going to miss if we don’t do this. The way I would break it down is that these books I’m going to mention can teach you how to do it. I’m going to talk about whether you should, how to go about that, and make up your mind — and whether or not you should hire someone, and how to go about that. Basically, I’m going to focus on the world building ramifications of doing this.
A constructed language is also known as a conlang, and those who create them are called conlangers. This is a relatively small field of people who do this. This small field of people, they’re the ones who are going to realize that you have done a poor job of creating a language if you don’t follow a lot of the things that they do when they’re creating one.
One of the considerations we should be aware of is that if we write a fictional story and we would like an audiobook done of that, we have one of two options if we have used a fictional language. Either we are going to have to speak that language ourselves, or the narrator that we hire is going to have to do that and we are going to be the person responsible for teaching them how to say everything. This is certainly something to keep in mind.
There is another alternative there, and that would be to simply translate everything into English, for example, if the rest of the book is in English, and not have them try to speak the foreign language. The side effects would be depriving the audiobook audience of the language. This would technically make the audiobook be slightly different from the printed or e-book. However, if we can’t figure out how to do this, or we can’t hire someone who is able to accurately say the language, this might be our only option.
On that note, the narrator we hire will have to be told that this is part of the job because some of them may not be willing to do this. This could also limit the number of narrators available to us. What if we really want someone to narrate a book and they are not willing to do this? I would say that this is how you solve that problem. It’s also possible that these narrators might charge more for having to do this, depending on how much of that fictional language you have in your work.
If we’re not doing an audiobook and we are an author, then this fictional language is mostly a visual display in our book. On the other hand, in audiobooks and TV and film, someone can actually say this language. Most authors would be fortunate if they have enough success that their book is being turned into one of these, and this raises another issue. If we are the one who invented the language and we’re the one who’s going to have to instruct the actors on what to say — and there might be far more lines that need to be said — this could quickly get out of hand if we aren’t prepared for it. And our ability to hire someone else to make more of these translations is going to be limited because we’re the only ones who really understand the language, so we’re the only ones who can do that work. But maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll be able to hire a conlanger to take over the language and do it for us, but they may also have serious problems with what we have done if we have not followed what might be called protocols for how to create a fictional language. In other words, they might find the task of doing this harder because we have made errors that stand in their way.
So, these are some of the factors to consider. One of the books that I alluded to earlier is called The Art of Language Invention. It’s by David J. Peterson who invented Dothraki for Game of Thrones, and I believe some languages for Star Trek and other series. Then there’s The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. I have read both of those books, but what I have not read is a third one, also by Mark, called Advanced Language Construction. Naturally, your reaction to reading these could be different from mine, but what I picked up from these was that this is way more involved than I thought it was, and it’s something that I just decided I’m not going to do. At times, it seems accessible, and at other times it just seems like I’m getting in way over my head. Sometimes we have to asks ourselves, “Do I really want a language created or do I want to be the one who creates it? And if I want to be the one who creates it, how badly do I want to do this?” Because once you read a book like this, you may reach the conclusion, as I did, that it’s just something that’s a little too involved for you.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m being very negative about this because, again, your reaction could be very different from mine. If you really want to create a language, I would highly recommend checking out these books, and maybe some of the others that are available, and seeing if you can get your feet wet on this.
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Should We Create a Language?
Let’s take a deeper look at the question of whether or not we should create a language. One way to help determine this is to examine our motives for doing so.
One of those motives would be vanity. Maybe we just like the idea of having invented a language, so it would stroke our ego. This is arguably a poor reason for doing this. One reason is that there are other ways to satisfy our ego, such as being a successful writer, or maybe writing a bestseller if something like that matters to us. And, certainly, something like that is going to impress more people, if we care about impressing others besides just ourselves.
So, if I tell someone that I’m a bestselling author, that’s probably going to get a better reaction than telling them that I created a language, which might make them think that I’m just a geek, which could be true, but that doesn’t mean I need to go around advertising that. One point here is that time spent on our writing craft, or even learning how to successfully promote our work, might be much better spent than creating a language. There are so many things that are competing for our time as world builders and storytellers.
A better reason for creating a language is to create something called a naming language. This would allow us to come up with more coherent or consistent names for both people and places. We can also avoid having names that sound too much like Earth. But I will make one observation about this. If we look at a map of Earth, many names are pretty similar across countries. One reason for this is the influence of English, but Spanish and French are similar. I think these are all called romance languages, if I’m not mistaken. But what this means is that they have some common ancestry to them. What does that mean for us? Well, we could have a bunch of different kingdoms on the same continent, or even across continents, that have similar naming conventions. When we look at a map of England versus France, we sometimes think that the names are specific to that country, but that’s partly because we live here and we have heard of these names before.
For example, York might seem like it’s very much an English word, but that’s because we know that. There’s really no reason why the word York can’t come from France. So, part of what this means is that we can get away with similar naming conventions across kingdoms.
Another good reason to create a language is to create the feel of another world. Certainly in a medium where people are speaking that language, that immediately gets across the idea that this is not Earth. However, if we are lucky enough to have our world being featured in something other than an audiobook, it’s likely that the TV show or the film has hired someone to go ahead and create this language. On that note, someone was hired by the producers at HBO for Game of Thrones, namely David J. Peterson, to create Dothraki even though George R.R. Martin had created a certain number of words in his books. Martin had not created an entire language. My point here is that even if we want a language to be created, someone else might end up doing that, depending on what medium we are working in.
If our world has its own language, that certainly gets across the idea that it’s another place, but there are many other ways to do this, and ones that are not nearly as time consuming. We might also feel that a language is expected, and, therefore, we need to create one. There’s obviously a difference between a need and a want. Again, in film, TV and certainly gaming, it may be expected, but book audiences don’t really expect one. We’re not surprised when we see one, but we’re not expecting one. I would say that authors shouldn’t feel compelled to create a language based on audience expectations that, arguably, don’t really exist.
Authors sometimes will throw in a few words here and there just to give the impression without going too far with this. And that’s fine, except that we can sometimes do this enough times within a book that we’ve created a number of words that don’t really make sense if someone who understands language, especially conlangers, looks at that. But then, that raises the question, do we really care that much what a small group of people thinks about the job we’ve done creating a language? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. There’s a big difference between a few dozen people criticizing us and a million people criticizing us. Even if those few dozen criticize us to those one million, most of those one million are going to hear that criticism and say, “What’s the big deal? We don’t really care.”
I mostly raise this point because we sometimes do things because we’re afraid of being disapproved of. It’s only a small group of people that are going to do that in this subject. In other words, I’m trying to give you several excuses here not to go ahead with this if you decide that those excuses are valid. And, again, I don’t mean to sound like I’m just being negative about the whole thing.
Another factor here is to consider how often we are going to use the world. I’ve talked before about creating a world that we can use for our entire career, in which case it may make sense to go ahead and invent a language because we’re going to have many opportunities to use it. On the other hand, if we’re inventing a language for a short story, that may not be a good use of time because we’re going to use so little of it. In fact, we could spend more time inventing the language than writing the story. That’s the kind of scenario where we might want to just throw out some made up jargon and not really worry about if it sounds like a real language to those who know better. Between these is something like a novel where it’s a standalone and we’re not going to revisit that book and that language again.
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Let’s take a minute to consider the medium. We’ve already touched a little bit on the difference between books, audiobooks, TV and film. Anytime the language is actually going to be spoken, this is pretty good because we can hear inflection and tone despite not understanding what someone is saying. The gestures and person’s expression can also help us pick up on the meaning. This is one reason why having a language in a visual medium is very useful. The gestures and expressions are obviously going to be missing from an audiobook, but certainly the tone and inflection will still be there. However, none of that is apparent in the written word.
This suggests that we will get less mileage from a fictional language in a book, unless it’s being read. This means that the time investment is a little bit less worth it. In all mediums, we sometimes have another character translating for the other characters who also don’t understand that language any more than the audience does. And then there’s the subtitles option in any visual medium. That said, subtitles can be kind of tedious, and if you’ve ever watched an entire foreign language film with subtitles, you know this to be true. This is one reason why we sometimes see a character start off speaking a fictional language, and then after maybe a minute or so, they switch over to speaking English. There is sometimes this implication that the universal translator that you see in science fiction has somehow been turned on via the TV, as if it’s now being translated for us.
Of course, what’s really happening, and the reason they’re doing this, is that it’s not only easier for the actors, but for the audience to not deal with this fictional language. Once again, this suggests it’s not going to be used as much. One advantage to subtitles is that at least at the same time that the words are being spoken, the words are being shown on screen. By contrast, in a book, you’re going to have to put the words in there twice, potentially, once in the fictional language and then once in English so that the audience can understand it. Either that, or you’ll have a character sum up what has just been said. The point I’m making is that the word count will go up slightly, but this is not something that’s really going to impact our work. I’m assuming you’re not going to have literally half of the book in a fictional language.
Something else to consider for authors is that if the audience has to stop and try to make sense of what we’ve written, well, they may just stop doing this and skip over all of our invented language. In which case, what was the point of inventing it? Some people enjoy trying to sound it out, but I personally don’t. Anytime I see fictional words, I pretty much skip right over them. If it’s one or two, like the word dothraki, then no. But if it’s an entire paragraph or several sentences, I really have no idea what this means. Aside from the visuals of it giving me a sense of it being eloquent or harsh, it doesn’t really mean anything to me and I’m not picking up much from seeing this.
Another potential issue here is that we typically don’t want to push the audience away and pull them out of our story, and looking at a fictional language and spending, let’s say, five minutes trying to parse out a sentence just to see how it might sound, even though we don’t understand what it is, that is definitely pulling somebody out of our story. For that reason, I would suggest keeping the use of fictional languages down to one or two sentences at a time.
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Options for Inventing and Using Languages
Let’s consider our options when it comes to the use of constructed languages.
The first option is that we can ignore this subject altogether. That means if our book is written in English, every last word of that manuscript is in English. We make no attempt, at all, of doing a fictional language, or even throwing in the occasional word that’s made up from one of those languages. We may allude to other languages or state that they exist, and do something like say, “He said hello in his language before switching to common.” Some of our readers will object to that, but many of them won’t. In science fiction, the universal translator basically eliminates this option altogether. Well, it can.
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 to doing this is that any linguist or conlanger, that small group of people I was talking about, they are probably going to realize that what we’re doing doesn’t really make sense. They may roll their eyes at us, but do you know something? They know how hard it is to invent a language because they’ve done it themselves. So, they’re probably going to understand why we didn’t do it more seriously.
The third option is to create a language to one degree or another, such as the naming language I mentioned earlier. I would only recommend this if you really have the time, if it’s something that you really want to do, if reading those books I mentioned does not intimidate you into not doing it, and, possibly, if you intend to use the setting for a long time and would really benefit more often from the time spent inventing a language. If none of those are true, maybe it’s not a good idea to invent a language.
And then there’s the fourth option. We can hire someone to invent a language for us. This is a good option if you are already making money from your books, or if you happen to just have the money lying around. Another good thing about this is that you’ll have experience dealing with an invented language that was created for you. This means if you decide later to just do it yourself, you’ll already have some experience dealing with one.
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How to Hire Someone
So, how do we hire someone to invent a language for us? Well, as it turns out, there is a website by the Language Creation Society, and that website is https://conlang.org. There is literally an application you can fill out on this website. You would fill out what you need and by when you need it. Once LCS gets your application, potential conlangers will look at it and decide if they would like to work on your job. LCS recommends giving them about two to three months lead time before you actually need the language. One thing I will point out is that even when you are hiring someone, there are terms that you may need to understand in order to understand what you are getting from them. For example, the word “phonology” means “the sounds of the language.”
There are four basic options on their website. Option One is called a naming language. This includes the phonology,, it does not include any grammar, it will give you about two dozen names and it costs about $100 USD. For a comparison sake, as someone who has published multiple books in different genres, I can tell you that I have spent somewhere between maybe $300-600 for a book cover. Editing and proofreading each can cost somewhere between $200-400. And then there’s a ton of promotional expenses that could come up. There are plenty of people who have spent almost nothing on releasing a book, and then there are people who spent thousands. So, $100 is not really that much money.
Option Two is what’s known as a conlang sketch. This, again, includes the phonology. There’s not going to be any grammar, except for a few words. It’s going to have 50 lexical terms, which means vocabulary words, including names, and that will cost you about $200.
Option Three will, once again, include the phonology, it’ll have basic grammar this time, there will be 150 of the lexical terms, and then maybe 5 sample sentences. And that’s going to cost you about $400.
Then there’s Option Four. It, again, includes the phonology, this time a detailed grammar, 500 lexical terms, and about 20 sample sentences. And that one will set you back about $800. Note that these are the initial things that you get from them once they deliver what you have ordered. As you go ahead in your writing career, you are sometimes going to need translations from them, and you may have to pay a little bit extra to get that from them if you don’t do it yourself. LCS does not include pricing for that on the website, and, also, these rates are going to vary by the conlanger. But this should give you a pretty good overview of what the cost might be, and I would assume that any sentence or two that you need translated is not going to cost another $800, for example. It’s only going to probably be under $100. Now, I don’t know that for sure, but I would imagine so. It might be far less than $100.
How to Start
The final subject I’ll touch on is where to start with language invention. The first decision is whether we want to use a language, and for what, and how often. This will determine whether the time or money spent is worth it. We’ll also need to determine if we are comfortable with inventing phrases as we go along, and not really worrying about what anyone thinks or if we would like to have a more realistic language. One way to determine this is to go ahead and skim through or read those books I mentioned and see if this is something that intimidates you or if you feel encouraged and like you really want to get started. Some of those books are as little as $5 for the e-book, so that’s a small price to pay to get a sense of where you stand on this world building element.
The last note I would make is one that I mentioned before. This is one of the only world building elements that you can actually hire someone to do. The only other one that comes to mind is making maps. Consider what is the best use of your time and money.
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