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Tolkien’s World Has 14 Languages: Conlanging For the Rest of Us

J’aime les langues. Jeg elsker språk. Eu amo as línguas.

In other words: I’m a colossal language nerd. In my “reference library,” alongside random books on warfare, sailing, birds of prey, and more esoteric things (including stuff not related to the current project, like a history of Paris and a couple books on the Manhattan Project), I have 20+ random books with titles like Teach Yourself Afrikaans and Languages of the Hill Tribes [of Southeast Asia]. The latest additions to this collection, gathered this past Friday, include two grammars (on Welsh and Scots Gaelic), a phrasebook on the languages of Central Asia (including Uygher, Kazakh and Pashto), and a dictionary for Tolkien’s fourteen different Middle-earth languages.

This isn’t a new interest for me. I have clear memories of sitting in my living room with a notebook when I was maybe 8 years old, bugging my mom for French words (my family’s heritage language, and the only one besides English that I can speak, read and write with fair skill). When I was in middle school, my family got the Encarta encyclopedia on DVD, and I spent hours running through its little mini-phrasebook interface which offered numbers and basic pleasantries in probably 60 different languages (this is how I learned that asante sana means “thank you” in Swahili). In college, my RPG group took advantage of our school’s high enrollment of international students to collect a dozen different translations of a meme that came out of a D&D session: “Feel the divine wrath of my badger!” (now available in Turkish, Mandarin and Swahili, among other things…) And when I moved to Berkeley and enrolled at Cal, I took a course in introductory Norwegian just because it was available, because I was at a large university that had options besides the six or seven major world languages offered at my college.

Well… and because it was the language I’d decided one of my space opera protagonists spoke at home.

Because that’s the other place where my language nerdery comes out; even in stories set in the real world, my characters are rarely monolingual. The space opera setting has Norwegian- and French-speaking characters who play major roles; in the story that the Manhattan Project books were collected for, the main characters are from Brazil and the UAE (the reason that Portuguese is the other language with which I can pretend some familiarity, because I went through a course and a half of Pimsleur Portuguese lessons the summer I was obsessed with that particular setting). And in my current project… well, that’s a fantasy world, isn’t it? A whole other kettle of fish. A whole pile of languages undiscovered.

When I started working seriously on this book (who am I kidding: books. Long series), one of my worldbuilding goals was to design the protagonist’s language. It seemed like it’d be a useful thing to have on hand – after all, whether you believe the argument that language shapes how people think about the world or not, it seemed like it’d be a handy tool for parsing and expanding on the culture of the place I was trying to get to know better (for instance, I suspect that they might have more words for colors than English does, because color’s pretty tightly tied to the magic system and different shades of the same color can have very distinctive connotations). So I leapt in. I read some awesome websites on conlanging (constructed language building, for the uninitiated); I bought a book on linguistics, and one on phonetics, and one for field linguists looking to catalog a new language (which basically lays out the elements that you’d be looking for, which is handy for me). I started thinking about the etymology of words and how that might connect to the history of the setting. I pondered the ways that the eccentricities of the world might shape its language and its people’s way of thinking about stuff.

The project’s still ongoing, and I’m making (slow) progress with it: I’ve got phonetic rules, and some basic vocabulary, and am approaching the bare bones of grammar. But I’m also running up against the complications of using conlanging in your own fiction.

First off: it seems that in most of the fiction where conlanging works best – in the Avatar movie, in the Game of Thrones TV show, even in Tolkien and Star Trek – it’s as a garnish. It’s not the language of the main characters that gets all the attention; no one spends their time learning Hobbit or wondering what language the people of the Federation are speaking. The protagonists speak English; the weird outsiders speak something else. All fine… except if your protagonist’s language is the one you want to show off.

For better or worse, I’m writing this book in English, and I’m already taking some risks by writing in a “country” dialect (my protagonist uses “ain’t,” and the occasional double negative, and says things like “I reckon”). That severely limits the amount of invented-language wordplay I feel comfortable putting in on top. For instance, my protagonist’s native languages (yes, there are two of them) have multiple words for second-person address, like most languages in the real world; but since English doesn’t, if I wanted to express this on the page, it’d require adding either some clumsy attention-getting language to the dialogue (like resurrecting thee and thou, which were the English equivalents of tu or du back in the day) or way too much meta-commentary. “She was using the informal you with me: she must feel more comfortable than I’d thought.” Blech.

My second problem: a profusion of languages. This is probably more of a problem for me in this setting than it would be in others, because there are a LOT of cultures running around… but the fact is, I know a fair bit about how languages work. I know that in non-literate societies (which this one is, for the most part) dialects can shift pretty dramatically across fairly small geographic spaces. Which means that when my protagonist meets someone from a hundred miles away, the way the other person speaks is apt to be very different, if not completely unintelligible. And then there are things like class distinctions – how does one indicate the use of “ain’t” versus “isn’t” versus “is not” in the two main languages I’m playing with – and slang, and and ad infinitum.

All of which means that if I wanted to do the job right, I should be coming up with two or three different versions of my major languages… to say nothing of the dozen-odd other languages who’ll have representatives joining the story in the next book or two. I’m certainly going to take a stab at it, if only to come up with the different ways in which those languages’ speakers mangle the common trade language – because, after all, your mother language affects your mispronunciations, and its rules influence what kinds of grammatical mistakes you’re apt to make. But I suspect that in the end, my language rules aren’t going to be nearly as complicated as I’d like – because as I read in one of the few “writing books” I’ve actually hung onto through the years, in the end, the story has to come first.

After all, I’m guessing that most of my readers aren’t the type to collect random language dictionaries; I’m guessing that for most of them, patience for learning the grammar and vocabulary of my setting’s languages will be in short supply. And heck, even Tolkien put most of his language play into appendices.

Still and all… I’ll probably keep picking at this conlanging stuff. Because it makes me happy to know what my characters “really” sound like. Because that way I’ll be able to pick out the right details in my protagonist’s speech for the snooty town folk to sneer at, and I’ll know what kind of grammatical mistakes the crazy warriors from the north make when they’re trying to speak to the locals. And who knows? Maybe in twenty years someone will be coming to me wanting to make a dictionary of my books’ languages, too.

Awesome conlanging/language nerdery resources:

  • The Language Construction Kit: Also available as a book (which I’ve got). Probably the place to start.
  • The Language Creation Society: Has some awesome resources for aspiring conlangers, also forums and such.
  • Online Etymology Dictionary: Lets you look up the linguistic origins of words. “Blue” comes from the Old French for pale; “deer” was the Old English word for animal (and “hound” for dog; “dog” meant a big powerful dog like a mastiff); words’ meanings shift over time, and if you’re making sister languages that evolved from the same parent, like Spanish and French from Latin, the “children” might have cognate words that mean different things. Like embarazada and embarrassée (hint: only one of these means “embarrassed”).
  • Economist Language Blog: A spot where the language nerds at The Economist reflect on the weirdness of the world’s spoken and written languages. The comments are just as interesting to read as the original articles — recently, they’ve talked about what language/dialect people text in, how early babies can recognize the grammar of their native languages, and how many followers the Pope’s various multilingual Twitter feeds have.
  • Books:
    • Describing morphosyntax: the one about how to catalog a new language. Pretty technical but also VERY useful…
    • A Practical Introduction to Phonetics: shows you how to make pretty much any sound the human mouth can make; useful to avoid simply recreating English phonetics. Entertaining to carry on public transit with you 😉
    • I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears: A book of idiom, from several major languages around the world. Because that’ll be different in other languages, too (the title is Russian for “I’m not pulling your leg”).
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17 Comments

  1. My brain just melted. I find this stuff pretty interesting, and it’s definitely welcome in any fiction I read – I get into it – but I have absolutely no skill at it. If I allowed that to become a component of anything I wrote, I’d be afraid that it’d become a huge focus of the text, and/or that I’d do it really poorly.

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    • Honestly, I think worldbuilding taking over the text is a risk whenever you’re bringing something into your book that you are obsessed with in some other aspect of your life 😉 C’mon, now, if one of your characters went to a place where there was live music being played, I suspect there’d be a little part of you that’d want to know how the music sounded, wouldn’t there?

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  2. Yay, linguistics and conlanging! I’m so much more familiar with conlanging for imagined worlds, but I recently read a book on invented languages that almost entirely ignored those and focused on people who wanted to create languages for the real world – often dreaming of a universal language.

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    • I’ve seen some of those books, too — and just encountered one on RadioLab recently (http://www.radiolab.org/2012/dec/17/man-became-bliss/). The problem with “real-world” invented languages, of course, is that as soon as they get into the hands of people they start acting like real languages, shifting and changing and no-longer-universalizing… I mean, heck, English has been doing that for a LONG time now. It’s a neat idea, but I think it might have to wait until the whole of humanity is trapped on a space ark together and reduced to a few tens of thousands of people… at that point, maybe we’re all speaking the same language and going to stay that way…

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  3. Ha, awesome. Are you me? Every time I declare I’m about to start learning a new language, my partner rolls his eyes and asks when I’m going to finish learning the others.

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    • Hey, it’s totally legitimate to have different levels of fluency in different languages… heck, that’s actually relatively common in multilingual places, where people might be fluent in one or two, basic-conversational in one or two more and know snippets of a handful of others. I’d count myself as fairly proficient in French and able to order a cup of coffee in Norwegian or Portuguese, and then I’ve picked up random phrases here and there (a good friend from college is Turkish, so from a visit to her house I can say “hello,” “thank you,” and various curse words; I stayed with a Xhosa family in South Africa for a few months, and learned “hello,” “thank you” and random other words like “apple”. And the list goes on…)

      I’d say keep the new languages coming! If nothing else, it’s brain exercise… 🙂

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      • I couldn’t agree more! I speak passable French, am capable of swearing (but nothing else) in Italian, and so on… My project for this year is Spanish, inspired by a trip to Costa Rica. Collecting new words is always fun 🙂

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  4. When will we be able to read your first novel in Esperanto?

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    • An Esperanto translation would be cool, but that would necessitate me actually finishing a draft of the thing first. 🙂 If I’m able to get it out there under the eyes of the world, I definitely see myself being one of those authors who has a shelf in my house dedicated to translations of my book… if only so that I can take them down and say “OK, let’s see how THIS translator rendered this phrase…” Maybe use my own work to increase my foreign-language vocabulary!

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  5. Brian hinn Havi

     /  March 11, 2013

    Yay languages, of course! =D

    Obviously we’ve talked about this recently, but I have some specific thoughts with regards to the points you brought up here. First off, you should read makingplaces.tumblr.com; curated and primarily written by Evan Dahm, who’s one of the best worldbuilders out there (he writes and draws comics in his own world, and I’m not sure how much you’d get out of them, but definitely recommendable at large). I don’t agree with every thought on there, but most of it’s really good.

    On your first point, getting to use your language in your book (which is nice. Right now I’m running a bit of a game and they’re in a city for which I’ve been conlanging, and I keep being tempted to try to use words and worse, accents and all (though for written stuff; I know I can’t do accents for shit, but then, written accents are worse!). I want to synthesize two things you said; that conlangs work best as a garnish, and w/ Matt there, that all worldbuilding runs the risk of overrunning your story. Broadly, ALL worldbuilding works to inform and enrich your story, and so all worldbuilding elements both operate best in the background and as garnish, you know? One thing Dahm says on that link above that I agree with is that when you’re writing a story, the story has to come first, so you should never let your worldbuilding get in the way, which ties into a bunch of other general writing advice.

    Still, I think there’s things you can do! Obviously you have proper nouns, place and people names, which can be a good source of immersion, but in my opinion, one of the best ways to work language in is where you find concepts that don’t have a direction translation in the real language you’re writing in (i.e. English). G. G. Kay does a pretty decent job of this, as I recall. To use your examples, you can easily use a more complex set of colors by introducing words for specific colors where there isn’t an English word. Maybe someone’s shirt is [i]vath[/i], that deep, deep blue of the sky on the clearest days. One might also look at sentence construction/dialect/accent, and start developing your ‘English Country’ into an in-world country, based off the idioms and whatnots. I think you’re doing that already, but how far you choose to take it is pretty flexible.

    With regards to languages and language families; I think you do have some lee-way in terms of how diverse you want your languages to get, A) because you’re writing a book, and B) because in the setting, at some subset of the population is VERY well traveled, and likewise a very large swath has a shared history. I’m thinking about the impact of the roman empire on language use over the ages during and after its time.

    All that said, this is somewhere where I like to take a page out of Tolkien’s book. One thing he did was to try to use what amounts to sort of… transposed dialects to give the reader a sense of the interconnectedness in his world. Thus, the hobbits speak plain or country English as the protagonists (which reminds me, I am going to quote you that “protagonists speak English; the weird outsiders speak something else”), but as you move further away, he bases dialects and such off of more divergent sources. I try to use this in my conlanging and stories, where for example I will use Gaelic family sounding stuff for one swath of countryside and as you get further away, switch to Norse sounds, or latin of something even further; that way you can tap into the cultural consciousness your readers already have.

    Well that was long and rambly! Anyways, good luck and keep working on the language! Maybe we can have some kind of pseudo conlanging date someday =P

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    • I think your ideas are good ones — and I’m definitely trying to apply the rule which I’ve now spent 10 unsuccessful minutes trying to find on Google, that if your character is riding a horse you should call it a horse and not an Itzblat, even if Itzblat is what it’s called in your character’s language. In other words, use indigenous words for things that don’t exist in the world your readers are living in. At the moment, I’m using a mix of made-up words (for things like weird creatures that have no parallel in the real world) and made-up compounds (for instance, there are 2 kinds of animals in the world — those that the readers would think of as “normal animals,” which I’m calling truebeasts, and those that aren’t like “normal animals,” which I’m calling oldbeasts).

      And I like the idea of tapping into real-world dialect differences to get a sense of the differences in in-world languages — although I think I’d be more likely to use the real world stuff as analogies rather than drawing on totally different language families (since most of the languages are going to be related). Thus the books on Welsh and Scots Gaelic that I mentioned in the original post 😉

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      • Brian hinn Havi

         /  March 11, 2013

        Calling a rabbit a smerp

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      • yes, that 🙂 though I know there’s a horse example as well… Alec tends to refer to it as “space cheese.” Exactly like normal cheese, except FROM SPACE!

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      • Brian hinn Havi

         /  March 11, 2013

        That’s called recycled… IN SPACE
        At least amongst tropers =P

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      • Brian hinn Havi

         /  March 11, 2013

        Space X is an inverse of calling a rabbit a smeerp, i.e. calling a smeerp a rabbit; Like if someone took a hideous dinosaur bird snail creature from another world a “space ostrich” or some bulbous alien guy “space fish” . Recycled in space is for when you take a normal thing and put it in space for added interest.

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  6. Thanks for posting this Hannah and for all the information. I love creating my alien languages (you know this already). I’m even trying to learn Klingon! Hopefully one day my fans will write/finish an entire Muterling/Qureeger/Esserkai dictionary so I won’t have to.

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