World Building: 3 Steps to Constructed Languages
What is a con-lang and why do some linguists hate them and others love them? I had no idea slang existed for what I wanted to do until I actually decided to start building an Elven language. What started as one become four varieties of Elven, also all the other racial languages on Vermillion. No, I don’t have all of them built yet. I’ve set myself an approximate pace of one language per book. Approximately. And eventually I’ll get to Old Elven, Ancient Elven, and all those other Middle, Old, and Ancient variants. Oh, and Dragons also have a language, though I’m not sure what the natives call it.
I digress. A con-lang is the shorthand for constructed language. Klingon, Esperanto, and Middle Earth Elven are a few common ones that come to mind. Now, I am not a linguist. Closest I ever came was taking a 301 linguistics course in which I realized I HATE the idea of attempting to apply hard science principles to soft science constructions like idioms. (Incidentally, I flunked out.)
So WHY would I bother trying to build a language, if I’m not a linguist? Well, the same reason I bought a science fiction guide to world building when I technically write fantasy. I wanted to. So welcome to my three main steps to language construction from a non-linguist.
Step 1: Understand the Framework
So, language is this funny thing that both acts as framework, and is constrained by it. First, it acts as a framework because every language has its own structure and rule set governing word use, placement, etc. Often, these rules are influenced a great deal by cultural marks and impressions. One great example is the difference between English and Japanese. Even without speaking much Japanese, I know enough about the structure of a Japanese sentence to know that, grammatically, it is possible to indicate social status simply by adding a syllable in the right place, not even an extra word. And you definitely don’t have to craft an entire extra sentence to “put someone in their place.”
It’s fascinating, really. There’s also the concept of color. It’s actually a psychological phenomenon that if you do not have a word for a given color, it’s actually harder for you to perceive or at least describe that color. Additionally, some languages have no tense equivalents for things like past tense or future tense.
Some languages don’t even have pronouns English would recognize.
So, the language presents a psychological framework, and yet the culture the language is used in also presents its own framework. I’ll use quite a simple example here. Two people with Ph.D.s in quantum sciences are deep in a discussion about a breakthrough in their field of study. A high school graduate interested in experimental psychology overhears them. All three individuals are native English speakers. Yet the high school graduate might understand snippets and half-sentences, because each branch of the sciences has its own unique jargon, which is in many ways a cultural use of language unique to the science in question.
So not only did I needed to understand the interplay between how language use affects our psychology and culture, and how psychology and culture affect our language. That’s Framework.
Step 2: Grammar As Groundwork
A funny thing happens when you first start trying to build a language. You take words from the language (or languages) you know, and try to make up words in the new language as literal, direct translations. This is known as re-coding. And I started re-coding English into Elven.
Well, a funny thing happens to creative writers. Eventually, our characters and places become very real to us. And my Elven characters started throwing Elven IDIOMS at me! Things that make absolutely ZERO sense translated literally! Like…if I can think of one off the top of my head, or at least the translation. Ah, yes!
Weaken their armor, sink the fangs in.
This is the closest literal translation to a Nexeus Elf saying that is the idiomatic equivalent to the English “divide and conquer.” It’s because idioms come from cultural use and other things. Most idioms make zero sense when literally translated into other languages. I was also faced with words that I had NO equivalent for. The Nexeus Elves have three different words that can be accurately translated as either marriage or civil union, yet each of those words denotes a very specific type of ceremonial promise. Æther Elves have only one word for every color past a certain level of darkness, and thus believe all those colors to be black.
So, when I realized that this re-coding thing wasn’t working, I started from the ground up. What sort of grammar structure could have one language branch off into something that holds little care for social standing and more concern for immediate survival, and another sister language so wrapped up in its own pomp and circumstance it would be next to impossible for someone not raised with it to understand every nuance of speech that could potentially be insulting?
Back to my English vs. Japanese example I found the Japanese grammatical structure. It’s served quite well as a framework.
Step 3: Syntax Specifics
This is getting long, but there’s one last step. Syntax, which is a word I might be using improperly, and I don’t care, because I need lunch. Correct me if you like, and I’ll fix it. 😉
Basically, vocabulary and phonemes, because you can’t figure out vocabulary without phonemes. Stop looking at me cross-eyed. Phonemes aren’t complicated. They’re just the tiny bits of sound that make up words. Each language has a basic set of phonemes they use, and some they don’t. It’s why people have accents in different languages. Sometimes we literally can’t hear certain sounds those other languages use.
So I had to figure out the basic phonemes Elves use, then start building the words they use, and that, friends, is a far too simplistic three steps to con-langs.