Klingon, Dothraki, Na’vi, Sindarin. These are fictional but fully fleshed-out languages, also known as conlangs (constructed languages). There are many others as well, created for practical or artistic use.
Conlanging is not just for fantasy writers or professional linguists; it can be a fascinating pastime for anyone with a passion for linguistics, creative writing, or language in general. Get ready to explore the world of conlangs, including how you can construct a new language of your own and how this process can affect your understanding of linguistics and the creative writing process.
So, how do you even conlang?
Creating an entire language from scratch sounds rather daunting, right? Well, like any art form or hobby, there are many ways to construct a language. Most conlangers (including myself) would suggest starting with general concepts and then getting more specific later. Here is a general outline you can follow:
- Make up a bunch of words that sound good to you.
- Look at the sounds you generally like to use and establish a phonology (the library of sounds you’ve chosen to use in your conlang).
- Determine how you want nouns and verbs to work (noun cases, verb tenses, etc.).
- Now that your conlang is a little more established, make up more words to expand your conlang’s vocabulary.
- Determine syntax (the more specific grammar rules such as word order, voice, etc.).
- If desired, determine how your conlang will be written (using an existing or invented alphabet/writing system).
A conlang can be as detailed as you like, so the possibilities are too vast for a single article. There are many resources for conlanging. You can check out these conlang resources from the Language Creation Society, or this YouTube channel from David J. Peterson, who is best known for creating the language of Dothraki for the TV series, Game of Thrones.
How to create a new language may not matter as much to you as why. So, what can the average writer gain from conlanging?
How can conlanging deepen your understanding of linguistics?
If you want to invent a new language, you’ll find it helps to understand how existing languages work and how they have developed. If you want a conlang to have a more foreign sound, it would be best to study the distinguishing features of languages spoken in places unfamiliar to you. Maybe you like the way a language uses certain sounds or grammar structures and want to make a conlang with some of those features. This can lead to a fun research project about the languages and linguistic terms.
For my first conlang, Tɛkɾɪd (written with IPA symbols for simplicity), I emphasized structures and sounds I liked from French, Russian, Navajo, and Balinese. I am not even close to fluent in any of these languages, but I knew a little bit about how they work and how they sound. To look a little deeper into these languages, I researched the phonemes (sounds) in these languages and emphasized the sounds I liked in my conlang. Here are some of those sounds and their use in an example sentence.
Russian phonemes: [ɾ, j, k, g, v]
Navajo phonemes: [tɬ, ʔ]
Balinese phonemes: [b, p, t, d, ə]
Dɑn gɔ-sːkəju bɪtɬm tɬɔlɪm kɪtɬ, bɪtɬm tɬɪngiə gɛ-tɛkɾə mɑtɬɑ.
“With (the) stars I fly (future tense), my new home (to) see.”
“I will fly with the stars, my new home to see.”
I also looked at how French conjugates its verbs (the word for “fly” has a first person suffix, “-ɪm”). I used these features, as well as some found in English, to come up with new concepts for Tɛkɾɪd.
How can conlanging enhance the creative writing process?
Perhaps you want to create a conlang for your next great fantasy novel. In that case, you may have a good idea of the people and the cultures in your story. But conlanging can be a creative exercise in itself, even if you don’t have fictional speakers for it. J.R.R. Tolkien explained, regarding the inspiration behind his work in his famous novels, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 165)
If the races and cultures of Middle-earth as we (fantasy nerds) know them developed first through the creation of the languages, then conlanging can help you at the beginning or later stages of writing, enriching an existing story or providing inspiration for a new one.
My first conlang was created as part of a college linguistics class, and I started with no concrete idea for my conlang’s hypothetical speakers. I was truly starting from scratch. The details of this culture developed step by step as I put words and grammar structures together and started to think about why people would speak a certain way. I eventually settled on a futuristic setting, designing a new solar system to give more context for the language.
Those who speak Tɛkɾɪd are settling a new planet, establishing an optimistic and community-minded culture. One way I show this inclusive culture in my conlang is by having the name of the language, Tɛkɾɪd, mean “we” or “us.” Also, a similar word in my conlang, “Tɛkɾə,” is the word for “home,” and that is also the name of the community’s new home planet.
Maybe I’ll write a story or run a Dungeons & Dragons game in this setting. . . .
Constructing a new language is a great way to stretch the creative and linguistic parts of our brains. If nothing else, you could add it to your list of personal unique facts that can be shared at a party or in a get-to-know-you game.