Sunday, June 2, 2013

Creating Fantasy Languages

One of the most interesting aspects of fantasy works is the fact that they take place in worlds of their own, with the potential for entirely new life-forms, cultures, and languages. A few fantasy authors have capitalized on this unique opportunity by going so far as to create their own language(s) to populate their fantasy world. Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien stands as an eminent example of such a practice.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to examine first of all whether it’s worthwhile to create a language/languages for your world, and second of all provide you with some resources in case you are interested in creating languages. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

  • Languages provide depth: There’s nothing that proclaims the hard work and seriousness of your story than a language. Adding a unique fantasy language adds an immediate dose of credibility to your story that your readers may enjoy.
  • Languages add believability to characters and settings: Languages can be invaluable tools for developing various unique civilizations and cultures in your story. Also, individual characters may be better described and recognized based on the language(s) that they speak.
  • Languages can be fun to create: This one’s pretty self-explanatory—languages are a fun break from the grind of churning out a rough draft or meticulously editing your manuscript. Just don’t get so caught up in languages that you neglect the story itself!
  • Languages are important biblically: The account of the tower of Babel tells of a time in which everyone spoke one language and “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Gen 11:6) Recognizing the power of language, God created different languages, causing people to be scattered and divided throughout the earth. In short, languages have power biblically. Don’t underestimate this power in your story!

  • Languages are time-consuming to create: It takes a lot of effort and time to come up with a unique language, especially if you use a distinct alphabet. Tolkien himself began the work of creating his elvish languages in his teen years, and the project was still in progress in his forties. Be aware that this isn’t a project to take lightly!
  • Languages don’t advance the plot and rarely help to create better characters: While languages do have some role in the story as part of the setting, they are not usually instrumental to the progress of the plot itself. They also don’t usually add to the believability of characters, since other elements—such as their likes, their dislikes, and their interests—are more essential to readers’ knowledge of characters. So don’t let languages become too much of a priority.
  • Languages require explanation and can distract from the overall story: Let’s be honest here—foreign languages slow the action down. They should be used sparingly, if at all. Be sure to weigh the benefit of adding depth to the cost of slowing down the story before you insert any languages into the story!

With that analysis behind us, let me point you to some resources in case you would be interested in creating languages.

The Language Construction Kit: a very helpful resource for those trying to create an artificial language. You can use the resources in as much or as little depth as you wish.

Language Creation Society: if you’re really serious about creating a language, they have some helpful resources on their website. Be warned—it’s not for the faint of heart!

Discussion Thread on Creating Phonetic Systems: You may have heard me mention the HolyWorlds forums once or twice on this blog. That’s because they contain many, many helpful discussions on topics relevant to Christian fantasy writers—including this particular easy-to-understand guide to creating languages and phonetic systems.

Article on How Language Affects Behavior: this article by Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky highlights examples of how the language you speak affects how you see the world and how you behave. Although it’s not directly related to creating languages, it is very fascinating to skim if you have a few minutes to spare.

And that brings us to the end of today’s post. Now it’s your turn: have you ever tried inventing a language? How did it go? Any advice on how to include languages in your fantasy story?


  1. I am working on three languages right now; although two of them are developed enough to write some poetry and such, in my novel I use them mainly for names because I don't think that readers would appreciate conlang poetry. When I translate titles, I try to use more natural English equivalents: For instance, the title of the highest ruler, freannor, literally means 'master of those summoned', but I translate it 'warlord' because he is responsible for mustering the army.

    I am curious now -- you don't mention whether you have any conlangs.

    By the way, about the last article, I gather that the idea that language determines or even strongly influences thought patterns (commonly called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though, I believe, Sapir and Whorf weren't behind it) has very much fallen out of favour nowadays.

    1. That sounds like you've really developed your languages! I'm quite impressed. While I agree that we don't want to burden our readers with conlang poetry, it's still quite satisfying to see the depth of effort an author has put into their work when they do develop languages for it!

      Do I have conlangs? Short answer, not really. I do have a few bits and pieces (name systems, snatches of poetry, rules of what consonants and vowels can be used) for one of my stories, but I don't have a fully developed language system. It's more of a create-as-needed language!

      As for the article, it is actually working from a different premise as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although my explanation above doesn't really go into the depth the article does. Anyway, the article in question is cutting-edge Stanford research from 2009, making it a recent example of current thought in the scientific community. As with much science, it's more hypothesis than theory, but it's worth a look if you're interested in the science of languages!

  2. Oh this brings back memories. I have tried to make a language. It...didn't go well. I made words up on the spot and they definitely didn't add anything to the story I was trying to tell. I think that people who can create languages and use them effectively in stories are amazing. I'm just not one of those people.

    1. I agree with you totally here! I'm not an amazing language-creator, either...I'm more of a bits-and-pieces person. And I agree, they often don't add anything much to a story. Yet, as you mentioned, I deeply admire and respect authors who seamlessly weave languages into their writing!

  3. That is an interesting post, Sienna :D. I've always loved the languages spoken in the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien's genius in creating such beautiful, and real languages, the elvish and dwarvish, etc. Definitely he did not create it on a whim, but it took a lifetime!

    By the way, it is my blog, Fullness of Joy's 2nd Blog birthday this week, and in celebrating I am hosting a blog party to thank all my readers, celebrate those two years, have fun together with tags and also challenge each other to be more committed in challenging and uplifting one another as sisters in Christ and writers too through what we write and comment on in our blogs :D. I hope you can join, especially since you follow my blog, I'd love it if you can join in the tags:

    God bless!

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Joy! I agree, Tolkien's dedication always amazes me.

      Happy birthday to your blog!! That's amazing that you've persevered two years. Congratulations! Also, I'm terribly sorry that I didn't see your comment in time to join in the celebration. I can only plead the busyness brought about by two cross-continental moves! Anyway, excuses aside, that's wonderful that your blog could celebrate its second birthday!!


Please remember to post graciously, whether or not you agree with the post.

Proverbs 15:1
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."