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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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is a fantasy world built around Tolkien’s actual obsession: constructed languages. Tolkien wrote an entire series to explain the world behind languages he’d already invented.
He was that big of a nerd. And, it turns out, so am I.
The Non-Compliant Space series is, among other things, a setting for my own conlang obsessions. There are currently about four languages in the series in various states of construction, but by far the most well-developed (and most commonly used in the books) is Niralanes.
Book two in the series, Nahara, comes out soon from Autonomous Press. It contains entire scenes in which one or more characters speak Niralanes. Since all translations are approximate, here’s a primer on deciphering those sentences, if that’s your gig.
The basic unit of meaning in Niralanes is the verb. Nearly all words in Niralanes derive from a “root” verb form or can be traced back to a (now archaic) verb form. Verbs are identifiable primarily by their lack of any grammatical ending, or by the –ya (imperative) ending. They may also operate as proper names.
Other parts of speech may be identified with the following endings:
-es adverb or adjective; “in the manner of”
–ie proper noun (titles)
–ya proper noun (names)
-pa noun (things, ideas)
-ron noun (places, events)
Sentences in Niralanes typically appear in subject-object-verb (SOV) order, although in some cases the object precedes the subject for emphasis (similar to the “passive voice” in Earth Standard). Endings that serve grammatical functions include:
-eya indirect object/object of the preposition
-ve plural (mass)
-vo plural (discrete; things that can be owned)
-ai subject. When no verb follows, -ai functions as a copula.
No contractions are made when adding endings to a word. For instance, if a word ends in a, -ai is added directly, without omitting either a.
Ina doripa an.
She (the) book writes.
She (is) (a) writer.
Ina doripavo an.
She (the) book writes.
Emphasis on indirect objects is indicated by their placement in the sentence; the closer they appear to the subject, the greater the emphasis.
Ina doripa iaeya mai.
She (the) book to you-all gave. (She gave the book to you all.)
Ina iaeya doripa mai.
She to you-all (the) book gave. (To you all, she gave the book.)
Pronouns in Niralanes differ somewhat from those in Alash Kan or Earth Standard. Many speakers of these languages, feeling themselves unable to communicate without certain pronouns, have been known to insert Alash Kan pronouns. This is not recommended unless you know where Aristotle may stuff his triangle. Proper Niralanes pronouns include:
Inae 3d person plural
Ina 3d person singular polite
Ilik 3d person inferior
Ia 2d person plural
Issh 1st person plural mass
Ila 1st person plural discrete
Ihi 1st and 2nd person singular (used only when referring to kiiste)
Between Niralan speakers, pronouns are often omitted altogether. Speakers from the same kiiste will rarely use either the first or second person at all. Speakers/listeners from differing kiistes will often use ila for both speaker and listener to indicate agreement with one another and ia to indicate disagreement. Three or more kiiste in conversation will use issh to indicate agreement and ila to indicate disagreement. Offworld Niralan colonists nearly always use ila when speaking to, of or about Niralans born on Nirala.
Niralanes has no first person singular comparable to the Earth Standard I or second person singular comparable to the Earth Standard you. Many Niralans who have learned Earth Standard have learned to deploy these pronouns in contexts that sound native to an Earth Standard speaker. It should not, however, be assumed that because a Niralan uses I, she has the same internal experience of singularity as a human. The speaker has merely adopted a convention to make the Earth Standard listener more comfortable.
A non-Niralan speaker should never use issh or ihi.
Ina has a subtle sense of politeness when used to refer to a Niralan elder and a not-so-subtle sense of denigration when used to refer to any non-Niralan. In the latter context, ina serves as both 2nd and 3rd person singular. It is still not as degrading as ilik, which is a generalized 3rd person inferior when describing Niralans and 3d person plural when used to describe non-Niralans. Ilik functions similarly to the Earth Standard pronoun it.
Several nouns in Niralanes are irregular. Handle these with care. They invariably indicate a person, place, object, or idea of significant cultural importance.
Niralanes (lit. “in a Niralan manner”) is one of only two Niralan languages physically pronounceable by humans. It’s also the most commonly-spoken language on Nirala.
Niralanes is transliterated into English at a ratio of one sound per letter. Stress is placed on the penultimate syllable of the word.
Earth Standard speakers in particular are reminded that each syllable is pronounced separately. Repeating vowels are each pronounced individually and should be counted as separate syllables or parts of syllables.
kiiste name; person; front
ki-i-ste (3 syllables)
kiisteie “proper name”
ki-i-ste-i-e (5 syllables)
Many humans control the elision of repeating vowels by inserting a slight stop or pause between them. This stop or pause is transliterated with an apostrophe: ’. Certain words in Niralanes also incorporate the stop as a feature of pronunciation, usually to indicate negation. Since the human vocal apparatus cannot articulate the difference in sound between these two types of stops in practice, it’s best not to worry too much about which is which.
Pronunciation of each transliterated sound is as follows:
a as in father or optics
i as in pita or messy
o as in rotate or bowl
e as in mess or negative
E is the most difficult vowel for most Earth Standard speakers. Take care not to slide into the diphthong ay or the schwa in unstressed syllables. When in doubt, simply push air through the open teeth without vocalizing, similar to a cat who is protesting a late dinner. Similarly, take care not to let a slide into the diphthong ay or to shorten the o (it should never sound like a).
Consonants in Niralanes are as follows:
m as in moon or many n as in never or no
v as in velvet or voiceless s as in slither or soundless (not as in prise)
j as in jewel or jocular y as in yet or yellow
d as in dog or daring t as in distend or pretend
p as in nip or spin k as in kick or flak
t, k and p are never aspirated, resulting in some confusion between d and t, k and t, and p and b (which does not appear in Niralanes) in early transliterations.
f as in fade, soft (not to be confused with v)
r as in rain or brave, but with the teeth bared slightly over the lips (rather than pursed) and the tongue somewhat flatter behind the front teeth.
l as in last or laminate, but with the tongue somewhat further back than in Earth Standard.
h either as in hot or as in French helás. The latter is transliterated (h) in some texts and ‘ in others. Do your best.
Niralan children learn Niralanes, along with several other languages, from birth. Niralanes therefore functions as a planetary lingua franca, similar to the adoption of Alash Kan or Earth Standard among their respective speakers. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that every Niralan you meet will speak it fluently.
It is not, however, reasonable to assume that every Niralan you meet will speak.
Wh- Questions, Numbers, and So On
Wh- questions, in Niralanes, are perhaps better thought of as Old- questions, “old-” being the prefix used to form them. Old- words can be placed anywhere in the sentence.
Oldie: whom, what
Oldron: when/whenever, where/wherever
Oldne: which/whichever, who/whose
Niralans count in base-6, which can make discussions involving Nirala-related numbers confusing for listeners accustomed to a base-10 system. The numbers themselves are not difficult to learn, however; they consist of a “d” sound before the four vowels, the imperative -ya, and the negative stop, respectively:
Numbers can be further adapted with the standard grammatical suffixes (see above). For instance, “second” can be constructed with “de” or 2, plus “-ne,” adjective.
ama: to “get your feet under you,” to anticipate, to be a person, to be old enough, to be ready, to chatter, to have energy but no clear purpose
anev: to discover, to err but it works out, to make a serendipitous mistake, to have the odds fall in your favor a statistically suspicious number of times for no reason
anha: to blame, to diminish, to cause pain, to injure, to punish, to sacrifice (someone else), to set back, to shame
dar: to argue, to clarify, to discern, to experiment, to explain, to know because you reasoned it out and can “show your work,” to prove, to be blunt, to test, to understand, to agree to something because you already figured out that was the solution
hodevri: to ache, to act against one’s will and at great personal cost, to be insignificant in the face of a greater end, to oppose, to sacrifice oneself, to suffer, to do what is necessary
ise: to act with purpose, to avenge, to confront, to do what is possible, to fight, to forge ahead
ji: to catch up, to detail, to fall behind, to follow, to know because you studied every aspect, to organize, to procrastinate, to systematize, to teach, to be unable to see the forest for the trees
koa: to attend upon, to care for, to heal, to hold space for (someone present), to invest in a person or cause, to listen mindfully, to shelter
ola: to elide, to elude with an intent to deceive, to erase, to forget, to know something no one else knows, to lie by omission, to have the memory of a past feeling but not the feeling itself
pi: to confuse, to deceive others, to efface, to elude because unknowable, to know by supernatural means, to lie intentionally or overtly, to question by asking the unanswerable, to trick, to wonder
rion: to conserve, to discipline, to do one’s duty, to obey, to reserve for future protection or use, to train
tae: to blaze a trail, to disobey, to inspire, to know because f*ck you that’s how, to lead, to progress, to run
vioka: to circle the wagons, to civilize, to congregate, to hunker down, to settle
Meaning and Content
Niralanes is the lingua franca of Nirala, a planet with a population of only a few thousand people – all of whom communicate emotional content via touch, rather than via behavior, as humans do. (“That’s an interesting hat,” said with a smile, means something different than when it’s said with a grimace. The facial expression is behavior.)
Words for emotional states are thus utterly absent from the language; the closest way to communicate emotions in Niralanes is by describing the physical sensations they produce. Even then, it’s dodgy. Are you “nervous,” or do you have a stomach ailment?
Because humans are used to word-based communication conveying emotional content, reading Niralanes can be difficult. Connotation doesn’t exist in this language. Instead, every word covers myriad related concepts. A speaker or writer might mean to evoke all those concepts at once, or only certain aspects.
Niralans know which is which through touch. Humans have to muddle along by holding all possible meanings of each word in their minds simultaneously.
My goal, in constructing Niralanes this way, was to create a language that forced neurotypical humans to experience language the way I experience language: as an interconnected web of meaning-making possibilities, affected not only by behavior but also by wholly interior mental states. For me, some of those are emotional, some are associative memory, and some are synesthesia, and there are no clear boundaries between those three categories.
Some people just want to read space adventures, which is why Nantais and Nahara offer translations where what has been said is relevant to the plot. But the translations are themselves artistic choices made by the author with the specific intent to drive English-only readers to one particular interpretation of the series’ events and meaning. The translations are not what the Niralanes content “means.” Nor are they always accurate depictions of the events of the story. To understand that, the reader has no choice but to experience language my way.