USING INVENTED LANGUAGE IN SPECULATIVE FICTION

by Luc Reid, www.lucreid.com

This article is meant as a quick survey of some techniques for using invented language in speculative fiction. Its intention is to help you enhance the use of invented language in stories by:

Clearly it's possible to go to any lengths in terms of language usage in speculative fiction, from inventing names for characters and places without any particular rules, to creating multiple languages, each with its own grammar, vocabulary, phonology, spelling, concepts, idioms, and writing system (think J.R.R. Tolkien).

 

WHY NOT JUST MAKE IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG?

This is a popular solution, but it has some drawbacks. First, words and names are likely to be phonetically inconsistent: That is, the sounds and spelling of the words won’t display the consistency and "otherness" of a different language.  This is a hindrance to believability for some readers.

Second, it's very easy to fall into the trap of using strange-sounding names that you've heard elsewhere without realizing it, or using derivative names. Some readers will notice the inadvertent borrowing, and the connection can be distracting and detract from the sense of your writing as original work.

Third, having some rules about how you make up words can help make those words easier to read and/or pronounce.

Fourth, creating some rules to your language can help enhance your milieu-building experience and lend new twists to your story.

 

PHONOLOGY

Phonology refers to the sounds used in a language. Keep in mind that one letter doesn't always mean one sound. Think about the difference in the sound of the letter 'a' in the words "father", "bat", and "make". That's three separate sounds (linguists: I'm counting the dipthong as one sound, don't get picky). One of the problems here is that English, unlike most languages, is very irregular in its spelling. Since your invented language probably isn't even written in our alphabet anyway, I'd like to suggest that you use perfectly regular spelling: That is, the same letters should always make the same sound.

There's an exception, unfortunately: You may feel the need to make letter combinations. For example, your 's' might always sound like 's' except when it's part of an 'sh'. Fortunately, if you stick to spelling conventions that are fairly familiar to English-speaking people, people will tend to "get" the difference naturally.

What about sounds that aren't in English? In real life, your language might contain sounds like the 'ch' in Scots Gaelic, German, and Yiddish: that sound like someone trying to get phlegm (<-- notice the spelling of this word. Not regular! If you're inventing English, please spell it "flem" or no one will ever figure out how to say it correctly) or the ö common to languages like Hungarian, German, Swedish, etc. (sounds a little like the 'u' in "put", although imagine you have peanut butter in your mouth when you're saying it). The problem with this is, most English-speaking readers will think that "vögöch" is pronounced "VO-gock".

Interestingly, this isn't too much of a problem. If you keep your words fairly simple, you'll have most of the readers mispronouncing your words, and the language geeks (like me) pronouncing them more or less correctly -- but it won't particularly affect the reading experience of that first group. In the mean time, using special characters such as ö, é, œ, ç, etc. -- as long as they're versions of normal letters! -- lends a "foreignness" to your language even to people who will pronounce the letters as though there were no special marks (technically "diacritics") on them.

But don't expect the average reader to be able to remember that there's a difference between "vögöch", the ritual act of tickling fish, and "voggocs", meaning death by self-immolation.

So maybe you should include a pronunciation key, then? OK, if it's a novel, and the language is important, and you have a doting publisher, go ahead -- just realize that many readers will probably ignore it and some may be actively turned off by it. I promise to look at it if I happen to buy your book, though.

But back to phonology: To start out your language, begin by picking your sounds. I've provided a list of sounds you could make use of, along with some options for representing each. Please represent each sound only one way! Note that a few (ts, x) are combinations of phonemes, but this doesn't prevent you from using them as though they were a single sound. Choose a modest number of both vowels and consonants -- too few will make your words too easy to confuse with one another; too many will make your words less likely to sound like they're from the same language, or may make it difficult to believe that the language exists. You may want to limit the number of special characters you use, since too many of them together begin to look silly. Keep in mind that letter combinations (like oe) are more likely to be confusing than single characters.

VOWELS
a, ah - 'a' in 'father'
a, á, ã, ä - 'a' in 'bat'
a, ei, ai, ay, ey - 'a' in 'fate'
e, ä, eh, ae - 'e' in 'bet'
i, e, ee - the first 'e' in 'complete'
o, oh, ó - 'o' in 'hole'
o - 'o' in 'pocket'
u, ú, oo - 'u' in 'duke'
u, uh - 'u' in 'but'
ö, oe - as per German 'mögen', sort of like 'u' in 'put'
ü, ue - as per German 'würde' (make an 'oo' sound with your lips pursed)
i, ih, y - 'i' in 'kitten'

CONSONANTS
b - b in 'boy'
k, c, kh, q - k in 'koala'
d - d in 'dog'
f, ph - f in 'fish'
g, gh - g in 'got'
g, j - g in 'George'
h, j - h in 'hello'
l - l in 'lot'
m - m in 'minute'
n - n in 'nail'
ñ, ny - like ñ in 'piñata'
p - p in 'peanut'
q, qw, qu - qu in 'quota'
r, rh - r in 'rail'
rr - rolled r, as in Spanish 'arroz' (sort of a motor sound)
s, ç, ss - s in 'some'
t - t in 'time'
v - v in 'vitamin'
w, wh - w in 'wail'
x, ks, cs - x in 'box'
ts, tz - ts in 'cats'
y, yh, ll - y in 'you'
z - z in 'zoo'
zh, j - like g in 'montage' (French j, as in 'je')
sh, sch - sh in 'shoot'
th, dh - th in 'them'
th - th in 'throw' (notice, a different sound)
ch - ch in 'chimney'
ch, kh - German, Scottish, Yiddish (etc.) phlegm-clearing sound

Of course there are many sounds I haven't included, like the Hungarian long ö, the !x used in the !Xhosa language, or the glottal stop used in the Cockney dialect of English ("got a lot of bottles" = "guh!aluh!abuh!ulls").  Consult a linguistics text, Web site, or language geek if you really, really need more ideas (although the stranger they are, the fewer people will be able to actually pronounce them).

I've also included only the more obvious spellings -- again, the stranger the spellings, the less likely anyone is to be able to pronounce it.

Of course all of this completely ignores sounds that humans don't usually use in speech, like the ululating wail sound you might use for an intelligent amphibian species on a far-flung planet, but there's no point in even putting these into our alphabet, which wasn't designed for such stress and might break apart entirely, creating a vacuum in the linguistic universe that would suck all of the words out of all the books ever written and compact them to a super-dense material that would warp gravity and destroy life as we know it, and then where would we be?

Some tips on choosing phonemes (ok, "sounds") for your language:

Once you've chosen your phonemes, write them down as a list the way you intend to use them in your writing, along with pronunciations for any that are unusual (for your reference).

 

CAN I MAKE A WORD YET?

Well, OK. Here are some tips:

 

WRITING SYSTEMS

In the vast majority of situations, these won't be any help except for your own amusement, but if you need one, here are some handy facts to help you invent yours:

  1. Writing systems are usually one of three types: each character represents a sound (that's a simplification, but in essence that's what our alphabet is); each character represents a syllable (e.g. Japanese katakana); or each character represents a word (Chinese ideograms, hieroglyphics). Additional characters are usually added for numerals. Alphabets are newer and much simpler.
  2. Most writing systems originated as a symbol-per-word system. The syllable and sound systems tended to evolve out of those systems.
  3. Most writing systems originated as a means for a small group of scribe-types to keep some kind of accounts, for example temple donations or trade.  Earlier languages will therefore have a much easier time of expressing the concept of “ox” than that of “indignation”.
  4. Alphabets and syllabaries (writing systems that use one character per syllable) tend to be easy to write, whereas symbol-per-word systems need not be as easy
  5. Cultures usually either adapt writing systems they're exposed to, or occasionally invent their own when exposed to another culture’s language. Cultures that have a lot of involvement with one another will tend to have similar writing systems.  It’s fairly unlikely for multiple societies to develop writing independently.
  6. Depending on the culture, writing might be ink-on-paper/papyrus/parchment (parchment is made of animal skin), marks in clay, marks in stone, etc.
  7. Some earlier alphabets didn't have symbols for all sounds: For instance, Phoenician/Canaanite and early Hebrew (which were related to one another) had symbols only for consonants.