Conlangs in Sci-Fi: A Short Tutorial

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So, you’ve decided that the characters (alien or not) in your Sci-Fi novel need their own, unique language. Great! Created languages, often called conlangs, short for constructed languages, can give your story cultural depth that will keep reader’s attention, but where do you start? Do you simply begin writing? Do you just jumble words you know? The answer to both questions is no. Developing a believable conlang is a multi-step process. Much like writing a novel, it takes time.

Here’s a list of things to do before you begin constructing your language.

  • Read novels where conlangs are used: Here’s a brief list to get you started.

    1. Native Tongue by Suzette Elgin (language creation by human women inside a future patriarchal society which sees females as both fragile and childlike)

    2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (diplomat sent to another world for negotiations—cultural and linguistic barriers galore)

    3. The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance (creation of a new language to change a society’s passive nature)

    4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (Yes, it’s Fantasy, but Tolkien knew what he was doing)

There are, of course, countless others, and I’m not purposefully leaving them out. This short list is to give an overview, a smattering of the possibilities.

  • Understand the principles of language:

    1. Take a basic linguistics course (gag, I know, unless you’re into that sort of torture. I thought I was until I took the course. I’m over the need these days, but I did glean some valuable information along with a B+ I worked very hard to earn)

    2. Understand English grammar (which, BTW, is very similar to German grammar. To understand a language outside your own is to understand the possible differences.

    3. Learn to speak another language (You can’t create another language if you have no concept of how other languages are constructed)

  • Read on the history of language to understand how it develops:

    1. How language came to be

    2. The purposes of language

    3. How languages change over time

  • Understand and utilize the ideas of semantics, syntax, denotation, and connotation: just look up their meaning and see how if might apply to your writing. Meanings change. Language changes. Knowing it happens means it will happen in your writing as well.

This is a hearty, if not disheartening list to conquer, but don’t walk away shaking your head. Educating yourself in a general linguistic sense is a good start, and you don’t have to conquer the list to gain a better understanding. Do a bit of reading and apply what you’ve learned to your own writing, beginning with some linguistic basics.

  • Why are you creating this language?

    1. To enrich your story?

    2. To contrast one society against another?

    3. To create unique cultures?

    4. To deepen your characters as individuals?

  • How far are you developing this language?

    1. Just for names and places? (most definitely)

    2. For key words and phrases? (yes, this is always a nice touch)

    3. For native speakers to use between themselves? (good for short conversations when non-speakers are listening and the speakers don’t care if they understand)

    4. To write short poem or song in the language (again, nice, if it’s not too long)

    5. To write an entire work in the language (please, don’t ever do this)

  • How will the biology, culture, and environment aid or hinder your species’ language? For example:

    1. a water species’ language will have to carry through, well, water

    2. a species without a human-type mouth will have difficulty making the same sounds we do

    3. clicks, whistles, scents, vibrations, and gestures are forms of language too— make use of them

Okay, so here’s where I tell you not to fret. Please don’t walk away and say creating a conlang is too much work, because it’s not. But every language needs principles to begin with so here are a few more tips.

  • Know your species’ biology and how it influences their language. For example: In Surrogate, the Takla (a water-reliant species) are divided into two groups—Aboves and Belows. Aboves, of course, live above water and have developed to reflect this— among other features, their voices have a deeper, more human tone called Low Takla, because sound carries better through the air. Conversely, Belows have developed to remain underwater, so their voices are pitched (High Takla) to pierce the water. They also use a variety of hand gestures to communicate.

  • Let your species refer to locations in their world in their native tongue: I know this sounds intuitive, but some writers change place names by the language of the character speaking. I made this mistake in naming the Takla sub-worlds Above and Below. It makes things easy for the reader, but, in hindsight, it isn’t very realistic.

  • Your species’ cultures should reflect in their sayings: I’m going back to Surrogate and the Takla again for my example. The Takla have a phrase, an oath they use to express a sense of hopelessness. May ohn toive— take me tides. One of my other species in the novel, the Cycalk (who will have a significant presence in the series’ second novel, Hunted) have their own unique oath which reflects their predatory nature: Sntcha blan sa— not for blood.

  • Let your species use their language when it would be natural for them to: between themselves, (which can be scene limiting, I know) when they don’t want or care if others understand. For example: my Cycalks (specifically the Cycalk group Clkya Sa) doesn’t care if humans understand them, because they don’t consider humans valuable outside of being a food source. Humans are quarry to them, dinner and nothing more, so why would they care if they understood? The hunter-prey code doesn’t allow for chit-chat outside of being a lure IMO.

Here are some very simple ideas for developing your language.

  • Start simple: create just a few words and a phrase or two

  • Make a few rules: This is where biology and culture come into play. My Cycalks (sorry, my own writing is ever on my mind these days) have jaws that hold double rows of teeth. Vowel sounds aren’t something they do well, (I’ll spare you linguistic complications that apply) so I’ve only given them two— a short A (ah) sound (like in amen) and a long E (like in tree) sound represented by the letter Y. You can see hear this in their names: Stra (Strah) and Yalntry  (Yahlntree– the first Y here is pronounced like in the word young— every rule needs at least one exception) and in short phrases like Myt Basa Tra (say–Meet Bahsah Trah), Fertile Forest, the Cycalk breeding grounds. The Cycalk language is consonant laden and guttural, because the Cycalk are large, war-mongering, instinct-driven predators. Their language reflects their society and vise-versa.

  • Dip into grammar. No, you don’t have to be a grammarian to do this or even an English teacher/major, (I was both of the latter, BTW) but you do need to understand that sentence structure varies by language. A classic example is the beloved Star Wars character, Yoda. His sentences ran with the object normally first followed by his subject and the verb (OSV construction) Strange to our ears, it is. That said, it’s been done, and you’ll look like a fool trying to recreate it, so keep it simple. Do something like put your adjectives behind your nouns (something like water blue or sky green and yellow) or drop your articles (a, an, the). My Cycalks don’t use articles or change word endings to designate gender (like many human languages do), but they do have an all-purpose term used for emphasis–sa. Placing sa behind the word sntcha, which means no, changes the meaning to stop (sntcha sa) and placing sa after ntch, meaning yes, changes the meaning (ntch sa) to very much. Interestingly enough, ntch ya sa means thank you.

  • Create words you can actually pronounce. Seriously, if you can’t say a word out loud with confidence, create a simpler one. This will save you if/when you do public readings.

  • Remember that language isn’t always oral: body language, clicks, whistles, scents… my insectoid Panpobal species uses binary in the form of clicks (on, off/ click, pause) with emphasis and detailed meaning taken from the Panpobal’s speed and chemical markers. Their sentences can be no more than six syllables with a maximum of four words. This isn’t a problem for me to get onto the page, because my protagonist understands them so we hear them speak through her.

  • Keep an organized glossary/dictionary: this will prove invaluable to both you and your reader. Keep it updated and in alphabetical order. Write your language’s rules in there too, if only for yourself.

  • Keep a list of place names for each world: this just makes sense.

  • Don’t bother creating your own alphabet: unless you plan on using it in illustrations or developing it to the level of Klingon. Otherwise, there’s little point. Your work will be published in an Earth language (English, French, German…) and not your created language. It’s a lot of work for little if any return.

So are conlangs good for Sci-Fi authors to use? You bet! They enrich a story, provide culture, and are crucial to believable alien world-building. My Surrogate series has five languages–makes life interesting, especially for me as an author.

Lastly, here are a few references for you—one of which I helped write.

Cheyne, Ria. Created Languages in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 35, No. 3 (Nov., 2008), pp. 386-403

G’Fellers, Jeanne and Theresa McGarry. “Language and Linguistics.” Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Volume 2: Entries. Greenwood Press. 2008. Pgs 194-6.

Osborn, Roberta. “Using Invented Languages in Your Novel.” Storm the Castle. 2010. Web.

Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, The Words Behind World-Building. Penguin Books. 2015.

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