Paul Frommer made Na’vi. Mark Okrand made Klingon. JRR Tolkien made Quenya, Sindarin, and many other languages.
Constructed languages have accompanied fictional cultures for years, and are pretty much a requirement in future writing. The reader’s attention to detail is such that they will register whether or not something is off linguistically just as they would ask how money, education, and farming works in whichever society they’re reading about. Generally, it’s a cosmetic appreciation. Spock’s name doesn’t fit among Klingons like Worf, Martok, Gorkon, and Koloth that are sharper and more aggressive. In Tolkien’s work, names like Khazad-dum, Lothlorien, and Rohan tell you they’re dwarven, elvish, and human just by their sound.
I’ve had to re-appreciate this over the last couple of weeks as I got ready to start my own sci-fi novel. I studied linguistics as an English major in college but hadn’t a real application for that knowledge until this project. I’m far from an experienced conlanger, but what I’ve come across might help you with your own worldbuilding.
State Thy Bidding
It’s important to have some sort of guiding principle in mind for your language before starting. Language is something we want to enhance the credibility of a make-believe world. Tolkien is one of those few writers who developed a language first and the fiction followed. Many who came after him are the opposite. Tolkien invented languages as a hobby and creative outlet, but a lot of the languages we hear in science fiction and fantasy are made under deadline with the goal of just sounding otherworldly. Paul Frommer had four years to do this with Avatar. Mark Okrand had to develop Klingon on the fly during Star Trek: The Search for Spock.
It Starts with Sounds
Humans can make a LOT of different sounds. People remark how their pets sometimes seem to be talking, and there’s been some research suggesting that dolphin sounds have a similarly intelligible pattern to human languages. But if dolphins, dogs, birds, and elephants have a language, it’s restricted to the sounds they can make. Chewbacca understands English, but he physically cannot speak it. Likewise, the aliens in my novel are a mix of insects and reptiles whose mouths have a limited range of flexibility, restricting what sounds they can make. Because I wanted them to have words that a human reader could pronounce, I narrowed this down the hard way by finding a table of all the vowels and consonants and speaking them aloud one at a time. Any sound that needed my mouth to move dynamically was scratched off. This gave me 24 to 27 options from an initial 140.
Sound isn’t enough unless you can assemble it together with intelligible grammar, a series of rules to compose phrases and sentences. Word order is the most basic king of grammar. English speakers know this as subject-verb-object (“I eat vegetables.”). That’s also found in French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and almost half of the languages in the world. Object-subject-verb is the rarest, most alien word order found mostly in the Amazon and spoken by Yoda (so he studied abroad in Brazil). For my aliens, I chose the unusual verb-subject-object (“Eat I vegetables.”). That’s found in a tenth of languages including Arabic, Hebrew, and Welsh.
The reason I chose verb-subject-object is because of the circular writing system I had in mind. It’s not the coffee stains you see in Arrival, but something more ornate. In college, I saw online someone created a writing system for medallions worn around the neck, and it’s stuck with me for years. Ancient Egyptians did something similar in writing royal names in cartouches. With that in mind, I decided that when the aliens wrote a sentence, it would start in the with information radiating outward. Verbs are central to sentences, so that ended up as the bullseye of my target, and then I arbitrarily decided to have subject information in the top half and object information in the bottom half.
That is a Terrible Vampire Name. Jerry?!
I enjoy the film Alien Nation but Mandy Patinkin’s name Sam Francisco always bugged me. We hear his real name once. It’s not easy to pronounce, but I wouldn’t want to be called Chewbacca for the sake of convenience. Many cultures have names reflecting lineage (patronymic, matronymic, and even paedonymic). In western society, a personal name usually consists of a given name and a last name or a surname. Sometimes a middle name is given as well to honor a relative or a close friend. Eastern countries like China and Korean have a family name followed by a generation name and a given name.
I’ve always thought this naming convention interesting, but I wanted a little something different for the aliens. Place of birth was the only thing I could think of to set them apart. In nature, ants care more about whether you’re from the same nest than the same species, and I’d already decided that their society used to place a lot of emphasis on geographical differences. For example, a name could be Smith’John’Dallas. I chose apostrophes as the separator because I thought it looked better than a hyphen and that it visually cemented all three parts into a mononym, hinting that a person is the sum of themselves, their family, and their city.
It’s Really a Tree
Going back to the sounds, I mentioned human speech has at least 140. If you open a dictionary in any language, that vocabulary comes from those sounds. That’s where this can get messy because you can spend a lot of time flipping through a dictionary and coming up with a fictional equivalent to all those words. And it’s why a guiding principle is so important. I don’t want to write a dictionary. I want to write a story that happens to have a group of creatures with their own culture and their own way of doing things. Brainstorming that culture made me realize they had a legislative body, a judicial system, a ruling class, and a social structure. So I started off making words to describe just that. This is their word for an emperor. This is the name for their constitution. These are numbers zero through ten.
There are two dozen words right now, and no reader wants to memorize them in order to read a novel. If the language has a human equivalent, use it. For example, the aliens have something called the Tsalech, which is a council of elders that advises the emperor. Instead of making the reader memorize that word, which isn’t my intention, an approximation would be to call it the Imperial Council, so I’ll just use that instead.
There are special cases where a word or phrase can add gravity and significance to its meaning. For example, my alien word for law is lakor, but their constitution is called the Harash Lakor meaning “the imperial law.” The US Constitution is capitalized, and similarly the Lakor isn’t just any law but THE law. There’s also a precedence in science fiction to give proper nouns to certain organizations, particularly spy groups thanks to Orwellian fears of Big Brother and historical secret police. The Nazis had the Gestapo. The Soviets had the KGB. The Romulans have the Tal Shiar.
Of course, no one is required to do this, and a fictional language won’t automatically make your story great. Neither will any other kind of worldbuilding. Too much time spent on it detracts from its usefulness and becomes procrastination.