Concerning languages

Taiver: This place smells. Ellius: huh??

One element of worldbuilding I love is conlangs, or constructed languages. I really admire those who create full-fledged languages for their worlds, and I try to at the very minimum come up with sound-sets for my names, if not a little more than that.

I’m no linguist, and I mostly just go on gut (or is that ear?) instinct, trying to make sure things really sound like they’re from the same language. I’ve read stories where you get something like Bob and Drzzel supposedly from the same language. And while I won’t rail against a logical apostrophe, there’s too many times where I wonder what exactly the author wanted from that apostrophe. Was it supposed to be a glottal stop? A contraction of two words? A missing letter due to some sort of mutation (er, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kind, but this sort of thing)? Or did they just think it looked cool?

Knowledge-wise, I tend to be crow-like, just picking up little tidbits here and there. I’m like this with languages, too. I learned a smattering of Sindarin from JRR Tolkien, a tiny bit of Finnish from a childhood friend, a little Welsh from another friend, know some French and Chinese due to my background, and a little Turkish and Russian just because I thought they sounded pretty. I don’t think I know even enough to be dangerous, but it’s fun to incorporate the little things I have learned to make my languages not just randomized English. That said, I sometimes worry that people won’t know how to pronounce something. They’ll run into a strange combination of letters and maybe they’ll even think I just did that to look cool.

I’ve really had to wrestle a lot with conlang issues in my new novel. In Empire there’s not one but four proto-conlangs behind the scenes. The main character’s primary language is just done as English, but the initial setting is a huge trade and travel hub, so there are many, many languages that can be spoken there. In addition the action references three other countries with three different languages. So I’m faced with a few problems:

– When characters speak in a tongue that is not the main one–how best to provide a translation.
– When characters speak for an extended time in another language–how best to handle that.
– How to indicate pronunciation, or if it’s better to just abandon that entirely
– How to avoid confusion with many different sounding placenames and character names, to avoid what one of my writing group described eloquently as “blah blah went to the spring of blah with his blah blah mc BLAHBLABLAH” (This is tricky because different kinds of readers have different tolerances)

For now, I’ve dealt with the first point by having the translation soon after; the main character speaks several languages, and though he’s not effortlessly fluent, he can translate them in his head. Eg.

Anli gripped the dagger at her hip. “Sū àb kĕlé?” she demanded–what’s wrong with him?— forgetting silence in her suspicion.

or

With no space to draw his weapons, Taiver seized on words. “Wait! We’re friends. Er– Cu duris ert felis suinla Kosmir. … No? Nerudhan, then? Kedh dann er faihrût èsoinlat Kosmir.” He executed the closest thing to a bow he could manage in the space, ducking his head, and hoped that he had said something to the effect of “Kosmir sends his greetings.”

But then I came to a situation where three characters have a conversation in the main character’s mother tongue (about four exchanges), which he understands but with a little effort, and it seemed like a LOT to translate over and over. I wasn’t sure how it ought to be handled. Would it be better to show the first line in that language and translate the rest? Or translate everything and just say it’s in that other language? Or render it all in that language and have the character translate by his thoughts and reactions? When does it go from enriching the world to just plain being obscure?

For now I’ve abandoned indicating the pronunciation. I find it disruptive when there’s an exchange like, “NEE-man?” he said, frowning. “NAY-man,” she corrected him. Once is okay, I suppose, but it just feels like the author telling us how to read the word.

And on the last problem, I think I’ll just have to deal with on revisions, after some beta readers have had a stab at it.

How about you? Do you conlang? How little or much do you do? What challenges have you faced, and how do you tackle them? If you do have your own conlangs, share a little with me! I adore them, and would love to hear yours!

(Oh, and PS, happy year of the Dragon!)

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13 Comments

  1. I’ve done a little of this – primarily just single words and names, not actual grammar or sentence structure. I keep thinking I should actually spend some good time on this, since I have at least three conlangs that I could actually construct in my series.

    Reply
    • Yeah, I’m not eager for anyone to deconstruct one of my conlangs in depth. Most of them use fairly simple grammar/sentence structure, usually a variation of one of the languages I half-know like Chinese or French. I really do think it’s a great thing to at least think about when naming, be it people or places, so they at least sound consistent, but that’s just me. It is something I enjoy, though!

      Reply
  2. If you’re going to have multiple conlangs, you MUST have a glossary–and I’d advise a tutorial for pronunciation and gender differentiation, if necessary, as well. I’m slowly devising a language for my fantasy world, and that need became clear as soon as I got beyond using single words that were easily “translated” by context.

    We also provided one for Rie Rose’s THE LUCKLESS PRINCE, which uses an elven language.

    I say this despite being a person who hates having to jump from narrative to back-of-book or wherever. I also think there are a lot of people tossing in apostrophes without realizing they actually mean something in phonetics. LOL

    Reply
    • I’d love to have a language appendix including translation and pronunciation guide. That’s a great idea, thank you! I am such an appendix nerd. That was at least 10% (if not more) of my love of Tolkien.

      That said, I’m highly reluctant to have that be the only way a person understands what’s going on! If that’s the case, I’d rather render in English and have the character note that it’s another language–which is less than ideal too. For now, I’m trying to only have the languages appear when absolutely necessary–to distinguish a character as a certain nationality, to add confusion because the main POV character is confused, for untranslatable words. Like anything, I suppose, garnish instead of disruption! I guess the only way I can find out if it’s working or not is to bounce it off a variety of beta readers ;).

      I also think there are a lot of people tossing in apostrophes without realizing they actually mean something in phonetics.

      I agree! Alas!!

      Reply
  3. I’ve just recently started to construct languages for my “world in progress”, and there are at least 3 main languages involved in the story I’m working on set in that world.
    I’ve been thinking of fixing the whole language conflict in the way that all characters speak the same language when together (conversations written in english so readers will understand), unless someone intentionally don’t want someone to understand what is being said, then it is written in that other language they are speaking.
    At this point I have no intention to provide any translations for those things said in other languages besides from maybe some hint of a meaning by the way the character acts or thinks.
    But I’ve read many books where there has been pages with sentences and their translations at the end of the book, and I think that is a lovely way to do it.

    Nice blog you have here by the way ^^

    Reply
    • Nodnod! I think that’s a good way to handle it. I think I’ve waffled a bit because the main character has semi-fluency in most languages, but I still want the reader to know the other character has switched languages. And he’s only semi-fluent, so sometimes he misspeaks or mistranslates. I’ve mixed having him just react/respond and trying to see if the reader understands that way, and providing the translation immediately after. I’m not sure which is more disruptive though. Eventually I’ve got to choose and be consistent! But that’s OK to leave for the revision phase, I think. I hope!

      I do love the idea of having the full phrase list and pronunciation guide at the end and think I’ll totally put that at the end of the book!

      Glad you enjoy the blog :)! Ooh, I love your gorgeous elfy header. Is that your art? I must check out your DA account! Good luck with your worldbuilding!

      Reply
      • Hi,
        I sincerely apologize to you because I am writing about my request on your blog.
        Hi,

        My name is Janko. I’m collecting numbers from various systems in different languages.
        Please you tell me if you’ll have numbers from your conlang(s) in future.
        Could you please send me numbers from 1 to 10 (as in English: 1 – one, 2 – two, 3 – three,… )?
        You can found information about my self and my work on:
        http://janko.gorenc.googlepages.com/home

        Thank you for your help!

        I wish you a lot of success at your work!

        Janko Gorenc
        my email: j_gorenc@yahoo.com

      • Oh dear! I’m so sorry I missed this comment. I haven’t worked on my conlang in a while, but I will look up that information for you if you’re still collecting it (sorry about that!) What an interesting project!

      • I’m sorry I never saw your comment! It is my art, not sure if you ever found my DA account but I could point you there if you still want … 😀

  4. I’ve been doing conlangs since I was little. I think the oldest ones I still have pieces of date from junior high or high school. Back when I could afford to attend science fiction conventions, I did panels on xenolinguistics including constructed languages. Much fun.

    I have posted examples from my desert language on my blog:
    http://ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com/tag/seshaa

    Also, I’m on the language development team for Torn World. We created Torn Tongue, a language family with three branches: Ancient, Northern, and Southern. We built a sound system, grammar, and vocabulary. Much of that has been posted on the Torn World blog under the “linguistics” tag:
    http://torn-world.livejournal.com/tag/linguistics
    Early posts:
    http://torn-world.livejournal.com/4464.html
    http://torn-world.livejournal.com/6044.html

    We still add Torn Tongue words occasionally when we find something new that we need. We wanted to have enough that we could use it in the stories as desired. One of the stories, “Storm Wrack,” makes extensive use of Torn Tongue pronouns:
    http://www.tornworld.net/storypageview.php?id=290

    Reply
    • I’m impressed–you’re an expert at this stuff! You have all my admiration.

      These links are really super cool! I will have to investigate further when I’m not here at work! Thank you so much for this! Happiness :). Your desert language is really lovely. Ooh, I always forget to play a bit with capitalization.

      In the first conlang I really did I wrote ridiculous stuff like poetry and prayers and even I think a brief story just to try out the vocabulary and make sure it sounded “real.” I also love doing dialects — Vess and Nerudhan in my current story are highly related, basically dialects of each other. I’m so fascinated by mutation between dialects, like Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese–where the similarities are and where they’re totally different. I’ve hodgepodge knowledge in both but I’d learned enough to begin to see where some of the shifts were, and that was just too cool.

      /end babble. Sorry, I’m just thrilled to chat conlangs with everyone!!

      Reply
  5. In the book Elizabeth Burton mentions (THE LUCKLESS PRINCE), I also tried to provide in context translations the first few times a word appears to set it in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to flip back and forth. As well as posting the glossary on my website so that people can read and look things up at the same time. 😉

    I was lucky enough to have a class in Science Fiction Languages that taught us a lot about construction and grammar. After that class, I went back and completely revised my original language concept. 🙂

    Language is very important and I applaud you doing four at once! Have you thought about maybe introducing a translator character to help smooth that discussion? Depending on the circumstances, that might be an option. It definitely would in a trade discussion earlier at the trading hub.

    Reply
    • Very cool–I’ll definitely have to check out The Luckless Prince! (Oh man, I seriously need to just pick an ereader and buy it….)

      Oh, I’m so envious of your class in SF Languages! I admit that upon close examination my languages are probably pretty terrible and weak. I’ve tried to learn more about conlanging online, but I’ve always understood language on a more instinctual rather than scientific level, so when I have to break it down I feel terribly uneducated.

      Since the main character can speak almost all four languages at least on a casual/can-find-the-bathroom level (OK, better than that, but not fully fluently) there’s only a few scenes where other characters have interpreted for him. The scene with the long exchange is one where I wish they weren’t trying to hide, because it actually *would* make sense for him to translate for the other character. Unfortunately, they are trying to go unnoticed, so he can’t really speak. Urk.

      Thank you so much for commenting! I’m so happy to hear from people who are into conlangs!

      Reply

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