Language is how we communicate, an inextricable part of our everyday lives, and an important consideration when creating a fantasy world. In today’s Playing God post, I explore the significance of language, how to shape vernacular and new phrases, and give a sneak peak at the language in my own fantasy WIP!! →
👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion | 🔮 Magic | 🌍 Geography | 🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy
Language is the method of human communication, and an inextricable part of our everyday lives. It can be spoken or signed, written or sung, but regardless of the form it takes, language is what we use to connect with each other over time and space, and is an essential consideration that must be made when world-building for a fantasy WIP. Here’s why:
Language is highly dynamic and changes over time. The way we speak can also say something about the relative formality of the situation we find ourselves in. To add depth and realism to the world in which a fantasy story is set, its creator must therefore think about what kind of language the characters use, and whether it’s dependent upon time and/or place. This is true regardless of whether, by “language”, we mean the everyday vernacular or the tongue itself.
Culture and language are also closely linked, and fantasy worlds with carefully developed culture feel far more rich and authentic than those which don’t. Different cultural groups often speak different languages, or use language in different ways through their unique cultural practices. It is therefore important to consider how each character’s culture shapes their language and vice versa. Perhaps this also affects the way they communicate with each other!
In our world, many parts of our vernacular (i.e. everyday language) has been influenced by very specific things unique to this specific world. You must therefore consider whether it is appropriate to use such terms and phrases in your world’s vernacular. For example, you can’t have your characters exclaiming “Oh my god!” if there is no god, write phrases such as “all hell broke loose” if there is no hell, or explain the concept of a Trojan horse if there is no Troy. What vernacular does your world have?
👤 Names of languages
It kind of goes without saying…but it’s worth saying anyway: unless you’re writing low fantasy set in some variant of “our world”, then your characters don’t speak English. Perhaps everyone does speak the same language—and there are valid reasons for why that might be—but said language is not likely to have the same name as those in our world. It is up to you to decide whether you give the tongue your characters speak an explicit name, but it’s worth considering!
Vernacular is the language used in everyday life by the general population in a particular society or place. I think of it as the “local lingo”, the words and phrases we use that people from elsewhere might not understand. It thus makes sense that, when it comes to a creating fantasy world, there are a whole lot of words and phrases we may have to reconsider!
✨ Unique words & phrases
One of the great things about writing fantasy is that you get to make up so many new concepts! However, much about the world we experience spills over into our language, so it’s vital you consider any language-related consequences of things you change. For example, if the sun is called by a name and never referred to as “the sun”, you can’t then use terms like “sunlight” or “sunny day”. Look at it as an opportunity to explore words and phrases unique to your world!
By exclamations, I mean those words—very often blasphemous in nature—that sometimes slip out when we are frustrated or angry or scared. These may or may not also be considered curse words (see below), but regardless, having a think about what words your characters might use in such situations is important. After all, they can’t say “damn it”, “for heaven’s sake” or “god save me” if there is no concept of damnation, heaven, or god etc.
🤬 Insults & curse words
It’s pretty much a universal truth that when we swear or insult someone, we use language that is considered offensive or debasing. When developing the language(s) for a fantasy world, it is essential that you therefore take into account what your characters—or at least their society—considers offensive or debasing. It may be valid to use the same swear words as we do in “our world”, but you may choose to do differently. Just ensure that anything you make up can be given the same kind of emphasis as terms we’re familiar with!
🔁 Terms from other languages
For those of us writing in English, we need to be aware of a variety of terms English has taken directly from other languages, and therefore may need to avoid. Take déjà vu, for example: we all know what it is, but it is actually a French term meaning “already seen”…and can look strange cropping up in a world where French doesn’t exist. Rendezvous, is another example. There are a handful of such terms around that are always worth having a second thought about!
Many of us fantasy writers choose to partially-develop a new language to go with our fantasy world. This can vary from a handful of words or short phrases (e.g. Shades of Magic), to fully-fleshed out languages (e.g. Lord of the Rings). You do NOT need to be linguist or philologist to do this, but here are a few key things you should consider if you decide to go down this route.
👥 Names & groupings
If there are multiple languages in your world—even if you aren’t actually structuring them all—then it is important to think about what they are called and how they might be grouped together. Language groups are often connected to history and/or geography (e.g. the Romance languages), so that might be a good place to start. Depending on how far you are developing each language, you should also consider whether their name is consistent with the tongue itself.
💭 Extent to which it’s “made-up”
A lot of people who chose to develop a language for their fantasy world base it on a language in our world. It’s extremely difficult to create a language from scratch (believe me, I’ve tried!), so those that already exist provide a useful starting point. There’s no reason why you can’t take words and phrases from multiple different languages, either, so long as they sound consistent. The extent to which your language is “made-up” is completely your decision!
✅ Grammatical rules
If and when you graduate from single words and short phrases to longer phrases and sentences, you need to start considering grammar. Anyone who has ever learned a second language will have some appreciation for the necessity of conjugating verbs correctly etc, but if you’re struggling there are plenty of resources online. Grammar doesn’t have to complex, but it does have to make sense, or else your language won’t flow the way you want it to!
📝 Written vs spoken form
Finally, to really round out your world’s language(s), you ought to consider the differences and similarities between the written and spoken forms. Are you going to use an existing alphabet and spell out the words phonetically? Or is the language written in some other glyph-type format? How will you show this difference in the pages of the actual story? Again, it is up to you how far you take this, but it’s something that should be determined when world-building!
I have had a LOT of fun creating and developing language aspects for my WIP fantasy series Graceborn. It’s certainly been one of the most challenging parts of world-building, and it’s also continually evolving as I get to know my characters and their world better through the drafting process. Here are some of the key points to note about the language to date:
Unique words & phrases: There are a few! For example, a month is called a “lunation” and a fortnight a “half-lune”, pretty much just because I liked the words. There is also no concept of a curse—as in, an evil spell—so when I want to use the adjective “cursed”, I instead use terms like “tainted” or “Shadow-touched”, which are consistent with world-building.
Exclamations: Again, there are plenty, because my characters love to exclaim. Some of the common ones include “Maker’s Grace!”, “Heroes save me!”, “stars above!”, and “for the love of Grace!”. It can be hard to appreciate made-up terms like these out of context, but I’ve received positive feedback from betas so far!
Insults & curse words: These were fun but tricky to make, because I decided not to use traditional swear words. Not because I’m averse to them (I actually swear quite a lot myself), but because it didn’t feel true to the world. Instead, for example, I’ve used phrases like “get severed” when the character means “get f***ed”!!
Names and groups: The First Tongue was, obviously, the very first language ever spoken, followed by the Ancient Tongue. When Corraidhin was occupied, High Corraidh developed, and this evolved into four Old Languages (Lomric, Gardian, Kerala and Old Mykenei) as people spread west. Eventually, a creole tongue called Abharan was adopted as the universal language.
Created language: The main language I have actually constructed for this world is the Ancient Tongue. Single words and some short phrases are loosely based on the transcription of our world’s Georgian language (from Google Translate, haha!), but I’ve made up my own grammar. I haven’t created its written form, and am not really sure I need to.
Written vs spoken form: With the exception of the First Tongue (which cannot be written), all my world’s languages have a written form. The Ancient Tongue is written in glyphs, but the rest are written in letter-form using the same alphabet that emerged with High Corraidh.