Fantasy Language Invention: Tips to Help You Get Started
Author of the Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, was very likely the first person who was actually qualified to invent languages with his degrees in Languages and Literature. Today, he has undoubtedly influenced new generation language inventors like David Petterson, the linguist who invented Dothraki and High Valyrian for HBO’s Game of Thrones. But he isn’t alone. There’s Marc Okrand, the inventor of Klingon for Star Trek, and Paul Frommer for James Cameron’s Avatar language, the Na’vi.
Despite being enchanting, fantasy language invention not only baffled readers but also critics like Robert Reilly who exclaimed in 1963: “No one ever exposed the nerves and fibres of his being in order to make up a language; it is not only insane but unnecessary.” But that’s where he was completely wrong because today, we see a renewed interest in fictional languages which are now par for the course in fantasy literature. These three simple tips can help get you started.
In elementary school Tolkien allegedly created, with the help of his friends, Animalic (a code) and Nevbosh (a model language) which was mainly a mixture of heavily distorted English, French, and Latin words. In his Lord of the Rings, Sindarin was inspired by Welsh, and Quenya was based on Finnish. Fictional languages become more believable when rooted in something that has been heard before. That is why linguists and authors often draw inspiration from real languages in order to invent something new.
Explore other languages. If possible, learn or at least study how their grammar and syntax are constructed. Getting used to new sounds and new ways of arranging words is one good way to develop a believable language for your fantasy world.
Mind the Structure
You may think you’re done after bundling together some words and perhaps an alphabet. But without creating a proper grammar, it’s likely that you’ve just created one of the most elaborate piece for cryptography. Your audience expects fictional languages to sound real, with natural-sounding vocabulary and an authentic flow and syntax. In other words, they must be communicatively functional. Remember that a language is a system that can be used to convey many ideas, and that which needs more than one speaker.
Be Coherent and Consistent
When Tolkien created the Elvish, he eventually generated the two artificial languages, generating phonetic structure, writing systems, and grammar. According to Tolkien, Elvish was intended to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure though not in detail; and it needed to be specially pleasant. The former was not difficult to achieve, but the latter was, since individuals’ personal predilections vary widely.
But no matter how difficult, the sounds of invented names and words should both be aesthetically pleasing and fit the nature of the people who speak them. For example, the phonetic make-up of Klingon befits its militaristic speakers, and of course, Emilia Clarke who took speaking Valyrian and Dothraki to a whole new level. Who else would address the Unsullied for the first time in Valyrian, turns to the slave master, says Dracarys to Drogon in a Valyrian accent naturally?
The purpose of the language is not ideological, as it is more of a hobby, but the language ceases to exist once the creator loses interest (Robert Isenberg, Artificial Languages). Nothing can ever make every word you create believable than the passion and joy you put into your language. Be the master of the world you are creating and enjoy it.