I’ve done some work with synthetic languages for use in my fiction.
J. R. R. Tolkien made that popular with his various varieties of Elvish, Dwarvish, Black Speech, and other languages in his Middle Earth stories. Other writers hint at synthetic languages with select words and phrases, sometimes including a glossary in their stories showing what those words and phrases actually mean. A few actually build something approximating a complete language, with grammar and vocabulary.
It’s this latter that I’m going to talk about here, using examples from some of my own writing (forthcoming works).
Languages, at least spoken languages, are made up of sounds. This may seem trivial, but the choice of what sounds are, and are not, used within a language determines to a great extent how the language sounds. Consider two of the languages constructed by Tolkien.
- When a syllable starts with two consonants, the first consonant must be a full stop (p, b, k, or g in this language). The second consonant must be an “approximate” (w, r, l, or y).
- When a trailing consonant in one syllable is followed by a leading syllable in a second, the second syllable’s leading consonant moves to the mouth position of the first and if it’s a stop it opens to a fricative (p becomes f, and so on).
This gives me the tools now to build words. As an aid, I did some programming in Excel to create a list of all the possible syllables, assign a numerical value to them based on the frequency I’d assigned for the sounds they contain, and then sort them so I have a large table with the syllables using more frequent sounds at the top and the less frequent at the bottom. When building common words, I can pick from the top of the list, less common words from farther down. And so my vocabulary reflects the linguistic sound I determined in setting up the sound system.
It makes more than just words to make a language. It also takes grammar and syntax. And this is where a lot of people who create synthetic languages for use in fiction fall down. Here, having studied formal grammar is quite helpful. When I was in the Air Force, before being assigned to foreign language school the Air Force put me through an intense, six week, English grammar course. The purpose of the course was not to ensure we used “good grammar”. That wasn’t how the course was structured. It was so that when we encountered “dative case” or “subjunctive mood” or “perfect tense” in the _foreign_ language class, we’d know what it meant.
For Old Aeriochi, I used a fairly common pattern: inflected language with loose word order. Tense and mood were determined by suffixes on the verb. Roll that nouns play in a sentence (declension) was determined by suffixes on the noun. This is a good system to use for synthetic languages because it’s easy to define. It’s also easy to expand. For instance English has “Imperative” for verbs. In Old Aeriochi” there are “strong imperative” and “weak imperative”. (The difference is illustrated in that the weak imperative is used in a spell to help someone sleep despite pain from injuries while the strong imperative is used to send an opponent into slumberland in the middle of a fight and make sure they stay that way despite all that’s going on around them.)
For the Oruk language I used in another forthcoming piece, I used an abbreviated version of the above process. I didn’t need as much language (Old Aeriochi was written for a series where I anticipate using it quite a bit, the Oruk language was written for a single short although I may re-use it at a different time.) I simply went “by ear” in selecting sounds and creating syllables and words. For syntax I made it a word order language. The word order is defined as follows:
[Interrogative particle] Verb [verb modifiers][te direct object[object modifiers]][subject [subject modifiers]]
That’s a very simple pattern but then I don’t need much for this story. The interrogative particle is a short “word” that indicates that the sentence is a question. “Te” indicates that the noun that follows is a direct object. If I need more for future stories (no reason I can’t use the same language elsewhere), I can expand on it.
And that’s the basics. It’s a pretty involved process, but even simple languages are pretty complex. To make the language more real you should have multiple types of verbs and nouns that follow related but slightly different rules, and a few irregulars that follow rules all their own.
So, do you need a language for your stories? Now you have at least a basic primer on one way to create one.