As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m a complete nerd when it comes to languages. I even invent my own languages for fun, a hobby known as “conlanging” (“conlang” is short for “constructed language”).
But not everyone finds fun in inventing a new language. Some folks just want to write science fiction or fantasy or related works involving made-up languages, without actually having to bother constructing an entire language. And if you’re only looking for a few names or scraps of dialogue, you probably don’t need to create an entire language.
Here’s how to fake a believable invented language without actually inventing a language.
Decide which sounds the language uses, and which letters you’ll use to express them.
Every human language can be broken down into a basic set of sounds, which are used in various ways to construct meaning. Linguists call these sound-chunks phonemes, and they’re what give every language its characteristic sound.
For your fake conlang, the first decision to make is which sounds you’ll use and what letters you’ll use to write those sounds.
Hooked on Phonics
If you haven’t thought about phonemes since elementary school and need a head start, try searching for “phonics list” or “English phonemes.” Lists like this one are plentiful, and they can start helping you think about how a language’s sounds break down by showing you how those sounds are broken down in English.
My own novels contain several faked conlangs in addition to the real ones. For the fake ones, I usually start by choosing which vowel sounds I want to appear in the language. Niralanes, my primary non-fake conlang, has four vowel sounds. American English has 14. French has 16. Fewer is usually easier when you’re trying to fake a conlang.
Then I decide if there are any consonants I don’t want to use. “C” almost never makes it into my conlangs, for instance, because its sounds can be addressed with either “s” or “k.” Also, decide which “sounds made by letter groups” are in or out. Does your conlang use “sh,” for instance? What about “ks,” as in “axe” or “talks”, or “ng” as in “reading”?
I find a list of vowels or consonants to avoid is just as helpful as a list of vowels and consonants to use. Niralanes, for instance, never uses u, b, ch, or ng. This list helps me make sure that words I’m inventing fit within the overall look of the language.
Why Johnny Can’t Write
Once you know what sounds you want, decide how you’re going to write them. For a fake conlang, I highly recommend following these two rules:
- One sound per letter or letter grouping. If “a” is pronounced like “father,” for instance, try writing the “a” in “cake” as “ay” (“cayke”).
- Stick close to the pronunciation used in the language the book is written in. Few things are more annoying than seeing a word like “annerd” and later reading that it’s pronounced “fishes.”
You certainly don’t have to create an entire writing system for a fake conlang, unless the entire writing system somehow relevant to the plot. You can describe writing in general design terms, like “spiky” or “rounded” or “flowing” and let your audience imagine it.
Reading is Fundamental
If you’re already lost or overwhelmed, it’s fine to borrow the sound and spelling system of the language you’re writing the book in. While actual conlangers will scoff at it, this kind of borrowing can save you and your readers a lot of grief, especially if you’re only trying to generate a few words or phrases. And if you were here to please actual conlangers, you’d be creating an actual invented language, not a fake one.
Are there any rules for particular words or word types, like place or person names?
An alien examining human languages would eventually start to notice certain patterns, especially in how we create names of places and people:
- Places in English-speaking countries often end with suffixes like “-burg,” -“ville,” and “-ton.” Examples: Vicksburg, Centerville, Bridgeton.
- Hebrew names often end in “-el” for men and “-ah” for women. Examples: Daniel, Samuel, Hannah, Leah.
- Japanese girls’ names often end in “-ko.” Examples: Mariko, Aiko, Naoko.
If all you need is names for places or people, save yourself a lot of grief: Invent a few prefixes or suffixes that indicate place and slap ’em onto other letter blobs that fit your sound/spelling scheme.
In my novels, for example, a bunch of Niralans have first names that end in “-ya.” Entire nation-states on the planet Viida have names that end in “Kan.” And so on.
Keep a vocabulary list.
As you invent words or names, write them down somewhere, along with what they mean. This will keep you from repeating them when you don’t intend to.
I keep my fake conlang vocabulary lists in a Google Sheet with two columns: The invented word in one and its meaning in English on the other. Sheets lets me sort by column, so I can have either one in alphabetical order depending on whether I’m looking up the English translation of a conlang word or the conlang translation of an English word.
Google it before you deployment.
Finally, run all your invented words and names through a search engine before you plug them into your final draft. Few things are more embarrassing than letting a book go to print, then waking up to 500 Twitter comments asking if you really meant to name your main character “Wet Goatpoop” or “I’ll Fight Your Mother” in some language you forgot existed.
If, after all this, you decide you’d really rather be a nerd who invents entire languages for fun:
- JOIN US. JOIN US. JOIN USSSSS- I mean, um, welcome to the club.
- I highly recommend Mark Rosenfelder’s books, including The Language Construction Kit, as well as Rosenfelder’s website (to which the link will take you).
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