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“Hello”, “goodbye”, “cheers”, “I love you”, “the deities bless you” and “I’ll rip your heart out”

January 30, 2012

During my writing adventure in November (NaNoWriMo), I encountered peoples of a world that was set so far into the future from our point of view that language ought to have evolved. But how to incorporate that into a novel – if at all?

Some of my dictionaries for non-fictional languages.

Like me, you have probably come across books with peoples with languages other than the one spoken by the main characters or different from the one in which the book is written  (at least if you ever read fantasy, sci fi or anything like it). I’m not talking about real languages here. I mean Klingon, Quenya and so on. Fictional languages. There are quite a few made up languages in literature, films and computer games.
Now, some of them are so complex that you can learn them like other non-fictional constructed languages such as Esperanto. I find it impressive and extremely interesting from a linguistic point of view that writers (Tolkien probably being the most well-known example) have had the commitment to devise whole languages in order to incorporate them into their literary works.
But it is far from every writer who has the ability or drive to make up a whole language. – And far from every writer who would find it necessary to create a whole one one just to have a couple of characters say hello each other in chapter five.

I think a common solution is to make up a few phrases and greetings, whatever fits into the context of the story and leave it at that. The title of this post, of course, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to those. Some may argue that including anything in a fictional language really just shifts the focus from the story to an annoyance with not immediately understanding what people in it are saying. In my opinion, it can be done very well, but is a delicate balance. It can come across as too postulatory if the writer is not careful.

In my latest NaNoWriMo, I had a few characters from our time and space (let’s call it A to make this a little easier) undertaking a journey in a world set very far into the future (world B) along with someone from a completely different world (world C) and a local guide from world B. Technically, there is no reason for the person from world C to be able to speak English, but I had a semi-legitimate reason for him doing it. And technically, one would think that English in world B would have evolved quite a lot from how it looks and sounds today. – But I was not going to invent a whole language, and I was afraid of having the character slip into a “native-speak” stereotype with a number of set phrases.
My solution was to pretend that language had not evolved too much. I did give the character from world B a few distinguishing expressions and idioms, but none that were used in every second chapter. More importantly, I picked a little at the grammar in the speech pattern of him (such as simplifying things or eradicating the progressive form) and decided to spell a few words differently, indicating that his pronunciation varied from that of the others (mostly with words that would have lost their original meaning). I hope that it works in a subtle and natural way.

Have you ever had to decide whether to invent a language or a few phrases of one? Do you like fictional languages in books, or do you find them annoying? (Or are you just wondering what on Earth “retskrivnings- & betydningsordbog” means?)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 10:10 pm

    Yes, the word for what you’re talking about is “conlang” – constructed language. And there are more people than you might guess in the world who do that, myself included. Try looking at the website of the Language Creation Society – . Its president is David Peterson, who created the Dothraki language for the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.”
    You can find books that go way overboard and include long passages of constructed language perfectly worked out with grammar and vocabulary, and you can find others that only do what you said and simply make up some out-of-context words for the characters to use or to describe the characters. My book “Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder” falls in that latter category while my soon-to-be published “The Termite Queen” utilizes two complete conlangs but not in a way that keeps you from enjoying the story.
    As for the evolution of language, that can be a problem. In “The Termite Queen,” which is laid in the 30th century, I knew English should have evolved into quite a different animal, but (1) I don’t feel qualified to extrapolate what it would be like; and (2) nobody would be able to read the book if I did. So all I did was change some spellings, use folk etymology at times (Arizona becomes Aridzone), and particularly fiddle with place names to suggest that this is the future. You might try reading Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker.” That’s the only story I’m familiar with that really successfully created a future version of English.


    • January 31, 2012 10:06 am

      Thank you for the comment and the useful info/link! 🙂 Very interesting.
      I haven’t watched the TV series, so I didn’t know that J.R.R. Martin’s language had gone “live” so to speak.
      It sounds like we have much the same strategy when it comes to future English.


  2. January 30, 2012 11:46 pm

    I’ve been creating the language for the main alien race in my work in progress a bit at a time as I go along, but keeping track of the words I create and also the grammatical construction and so forth. I only have one main(ish) character who’s a native speaker though and he/she is fluent in human speech (rendered in more or less modern English by translation convention) so only sometimes lapses into his/her native tongue occasionally, usually in times of stress or distraction.

    Deciding when to have that character switch languages is partially dependent on narrative convenience, but also partly modeled on the example of my grandparents, who speak English as a second language and will sometimes switch language in the middle of a sentence especially if tired or annoyed etc. I’ve had to extrapolate a bit as I’ve never witnessed them in the middle of a fire fight or various other circumstances the character experiences, but I hope the result is more natural than that everything in English apart from a few simple words the reader will likely recognize anyway thing.


    • January 31, 2012 10:12 am

      I really like your point about switching languages. Using it like you describe here will probably give the story a very realistic and natural feel. I imagine that your characters may also slip into their second language if the subject is something they have learnt about in the second language (that’s how it is for me, at least – there simply are topics I’m more comfortable with discussing in English).
      Thank you for the comment! 🙂


  3. January 31, 2012 1:22 am

    A few months ago, after reading Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” I re-wrote (again) my NaNo from 2010. My novel is set on Earth (mostly in Texas) in the year 2045. I decided the language would’ve evolved by then. Nothing too drastic, and some of the characters, who are clinging to the old ways, still speak in 2010s American English. The futuristic language contains abbreviations as standard words, clipped grammar, and a few future-coined words. There’s also some unconventional (compared with present day) punctuation. My first potential beta reader said it was too unconventional for her sensibilities, and suggested I seek out a beta reader in the “bizarro” genre. So I did, found one who wanted to beta read my novel, and I sent it. That was a couple weeks ago. I haven’t heard anything back, and think maybe I won’t. So if you’re looking to swap beta readings, let me know. 🙂

    BTW I “accidentally” took an Esperanto class in college. The course was labeled “World Languages,” and indeed, the first semester was more or less about world languages. But the second semester was straight up Esperanto. Years later, I watched the move “Incubus” (Esperanto: Inkubo) and giggled. The dialogue was entirely in Esperanto, and it starred William Shatner. 🙂


    • January 31, 2012 10:19 am

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂
      I think your take on 2045 English sounds viable. Is it just the dialogue or is the narration making use of these things too?
      I’m curious, actually, but I’ve got a lot of reading on my plate, so I have a feeling it would take me forever to get my rear in gear. Perhaps we could swap first chapters or something like that?
      That sounds like an interesting course. I really enjoy getting to know new languages (and have half a mind to learn Esperanto someday … someday …) Oh, and I’ve seen part of Inkubo! I giggled too. XD


      • January 31, 2012 4:57 pm

        My novel is stream-of-conscious plus dialogue, so it’s all in “futuristic” language. But I’d say it’s as readable as Heinlein’s Moon book- perhaps a bit jarring at first, but after a few pages, you get the hang of it.

        And yes, I hadn’t planned to send a beta reader more than the first few scenes of my novel. But I don’t want to add to your overflowing work pile, so I’ll hold off on the first chapter swap for now. If you get a break down the road, and want to swap first chapters, my email address in on my blog. 🙂


        • February 11, 2012 11:53 am

          It does sound interesting. – And like a good idea to swap first scenes or chapters. I’ll hold on to that email address. 🙂


  4. Maggie permalink
    January 31, 2012 2:30 am

    I find languages in books fascinating, but I don’t think I could ever make up an entirely new language for anything I write. I prefer my characters to speak good old English. 🙂


    • January 31, 2012 10:22 am

      It certainly must be a lot of work, and unless it really adds something to a story, there isn’t much of a reason to invent a whole language.
      Thanks for the comment! 🙂


  5. January 31, 2012 2:49 am

    In my fantasy novel, I’ve had to invent a few phrases to cast spells, and I’ve had a few hauflin’s speak short sentences in their native tongue, but nothing to complex. I didn’t want to burden readers with trying to figure out what was said. To get around this, I give away the meanings of the phrases by having another character think or say something. For example, after a phrase is said, I might have the other character think, “Why did he tell that woman to find him a sword?” The reader instantly knows what was spoken in the strange language.

    Another way, I inject unique language is by using words uncommon to the every day person or words that have fallen out of fashion. For example, a character may call a child a bairn or say operas instead of binoculars or say someone is getting a ‘foss’ in the butt instead of a kick.

    English dictionaries containing the lost language of another culture (Scottish, Newfoundland, etc) are great for finding such words.

    When a book uses a made-up language without giving readers the information to decipher, it annoys me. I feel detached from the story. I often skip over it which might mean I’m missing something important. If the words are gobledygoop and are impossible to pronounce -jlkimeyolkia – than it tells me the writer is an amateur. Perhaps somewhere in the universe this word exists, but for English readers it makes no sense. Readers will skip over such words.


    • January 31, 2012 10:31 am

      The idea of letting the other characters reflect on what was said. That way the reader isn’t in the dark (unless you want them to be).
      And I agree with you on the impossible-to-pronounce words. It seems horribly random (and reminds me of a story I wrote in my early teens …) unless it’s clear that there is something gramatically/linguistically consequent about it. Russian doesn’t look anything like English, but that isn’t an excuse to name a main character K’nfgtr-lik’adfgh, because it doesn’t look Russian or real in any other way.
      I have a fling with old/lost words, too, but that is in a historical context. I like it, but I really hope not to go overboard and make the characters seem like caricatures.
      Thank you for the comment!


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