Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#1
Here on our lovely Royal Road it’s no secret that we love isekais. We like stories about people going to other worlds, learning new things, and doing cool stuff.

So why does everyone speak English??

Most of the time it isn’t brought up at all. If it is, it’s generally handwaved as some sort of magic that either makes the protagonist understand the new language perfectly, or else simply hear everything as English. I have no issue with these explanations, especially since I happen to read English and not whatever language the locals are presumably speaking.

However, allow me to draw your attention to the fact that there are over seven thousand spoken languages on Planet Earth. Twenty-three of those are spoken by over half of humanity. And according to Google, all those languages came from give or take fifty proto-languages, which in turn came from who the hell knows where. There aren’t many written records from before 7000BCE, for some odd reason.

My point being, having only one language in your world is laughably unrealistic. Especially when your world contains not only different races, but different species. Sure, a group of goblins might learn Not-English to speak to your protagonist and other humans, but why would they speak that language among themselves? Especially if they’re discussing eating your protagonist or something. Or if your protagonist catches an enemy goblin and is interrogating it about the location of a macguffin, it would probably switch into its native language to beg for mercy.

But let’s say your character will never come into contact with anyone from a different race or culture than the one they’re dropped in. Should be good, right?

Not quite. Languages have different words for different things. I know your opinion of my IQ just dropped, but there really isn’t a good way to put that. In Spanish (for example) there is a word for someone’s spouse’s sibling’s spouse. Concuñado. If you shove that word into Google Translate, it will give you brother-in-law. But if you cut off the “con” and just type in cuñado, it will still give you brother-in-law. Because Google Translate doesn’t deal with nuances like that. Conversely, in Spanish there isn’t a word for the term “flash flood”. Granted, there are words for “flash” and for “flood”, but the term as we understand it in English simply doesn’t exist. I found that out one day when a flash flood took out a trout farm near where I live, and my neighbor was having the hardest time describing a flood that was, like, there but gone in a flash!

My point on that being, in a new world (especially one with a system), there will be words and terms for things we’ve never experienced. Like, maybe there’s a word for when your HP goes down to one. Maybe there’s a term for someone who recently got a subclass. Or maybe there’s this type of muffin made with bacon bits in it, that goblins will do literally anything for, and so the name of the muffin becomes a catch-all phrase for someone who will do literally anything to get something.

So, clearly I’m advocating for everyone to make a conlang or twelve for their world, right? NOPE! Having to remember a list of weird words and phrases that are used liberally in a story is annoying! Everything you write should have a purpose. That includes the languages you use. So if you make a language and stuff all those cool new words into your story just cuz it’s super cool, you’ll be making your story as a whole worse.

Let’s say you make a list of month names, because month names have a very specific history. I mean, if the Roman Emperor Agustus hadn’t named a month after himself, and if Rome hadn’t invaded what would become England and introduced Latin, we wouldn’t have a month named August! But, thing is, given that English is an amalgamation of like six different languages, a lot of words are like that. If your protagonist Sarah has a beef taco in her pajamas, guess what, “Sarah”, “beef”, “taco” and “pajamas” all have distinct origins from distinct countries and cultures, and their individual arrivals in the English language are interesting in their own right. So the whole “my world didn’t have the Roman Empire, so I’m not using month names” is, to me, completely idiotic.

So should you use the English month names? Not necessarily. Maybe you have a pantheon of gods, go ahead and name months after them. Or use some variation on eighth-month. Or maybe you can get away with never naming months in the first place.

But whenever you use a conlang word, it should be immediately obvious to the reader why you chose to use a non-English word.

~~~

Now that you’ve decided what words and phrases need to exist in a fancy language of your own making, how do you make a conlang?

(Well, you could always pay someone on Fiverr to make one *cough*)

One route is, don’t. Find some language on Google Translate like Icelandic that has a relatively few number of people speaking it, and use that. It’s the laziest way to go, and runs the risk of someone who does speak Icelandic reading your story and finding the grammar hilarious. Altho to me that would be a bonus.

Another cheat way is, type it out in English, then use a caesar cypher (or shift cypher) to make it look all weird. Basically, it’s the same words, but spelled a couple letters off. This has the added bonus of, if you forget what you wrote, it’s easy to translate back. As an added added bonus, your readers might figure out what you’re using, and translate it in the comments.

Getting into serious conlang-making territory, the easiest way would be to find a language on Earth that you think sounds like what your language should sound like, search for it on wikipedia, and transfer all the weird squiggle letters it tells you makes up the phonetics of that language into vulgarlang. Then have vulgarlang generate you a new language. Sure, you might come up with some words that are real words in the Earth language, but realistically that’s going to be a risk no matter what you do. The English Language only has twenty-six letters, after all.

Or, lastly, you could spend months figuring out the origins of your language, the history of the people using it, and everything about the language, carefully building each sound and word from scratch, until you have a full dictionary and set of grammar rules unlike anything seen on Earth. It would be glorious. And by that time, you’ll have completely forgotten what the original plot of your story was supposed to be, so your new language would be completely useless. But beautiful.

Here’s a youtube playlist in case you want to go that route. It includes how to do those fancy alphabet things.

~~~

So yeah, there you go. All my opinions on conlangs. I happen to know (thanks to various arguments on Discord) that my opinions are not universal, so feel free to add your own in the comments. But if you were thinking about making a conlang, or if you weren’t sure if you needed one or not, I hope this helped!

Have fun writing!

~Sadie

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#2
Wow. Someone else also wondered the same! I always wondered why no one ever questioned how people of a different world understand the protagonist since they didn't always saw they had an automatic translator. And even if they did, how come they have a translator? Does everyone from a different world have it? Do the natives know? How do they react? And is the old language kept? And if it is, then do the languages survive with some words adapted into the new world language over the process of new people arriving in the world? I actually address this in my story because I got somewhat bothered by it in isekais, but it's rather difficult to do without any holes/have a sound theory for it. And then that brings to question about what words in written form are understood by the reader as well as the natives, especially if there is no direct translation for the meaning. You can't overwhelm the reader with fictional words of the fantasy world, but having some helps with immersion/believability. Anyway, thank you for this post! I might fiddle around with the links you gave since I make up new words based on root meanings of other languages based on phonetics I (arbitrarily? haha) desire.

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#3
For anyone wondering, a "conlang" is a constructed, invented, or fictional language. The context makes it apparent, but the definition may still be helpful.

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My world has, I think, ten languages so far, across the two continents they've explored. And sometimes those languages don't correspond exactly--such as a word in one language that doesn't translate well in another, a word whose meaning has changed over time, or a word where one PoV character thinks of the native word in their scenes while another PoV character thinks of the translation of that word in their own scenes.

However, I limit the occurrences of non-English words in both the narrative and the dialogue, sprinkling in just enough for flavor. There are a few important elven words used across the entire story, to go along with two elven PoV characters. In another language, the names are vaguely modified-Russian names, and there are two or three Russian words sprinkled in, written out phonetically in English, but only used when a minor character is trying to translate them to another language. In another language, there are some names and words from ancient Greek, written out phonetically in English, but again, just enough to sprinkle in a bit of flavor.

The other seven languages don't have any specific words in use, other than contributing some names that sound similar to names from India or old English.

It would just be too much to include words from all ten languages. The story is complicated enough without adding to the readers' cognitive load by making them translate the text to figure out what's going on. So I provide some flavor, and I keep a list of which languages each character knows, to verify whether they're able to understand any particular conversation, but otherwise, I try not to make it too complicated. The goal is to tell the story, after all.

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#4
Quote:One route is, don’t. Find some language on Google Translate like Icelandic that has a relatively few number of people speaking it, and use that. It’s the laziest way to go, and runs the risk of someone who does speak Icelandic reading your story and finding the grammar hilarious. Altho to me that would be a bonus.
Yes, PLEASE DONT DO THIS. It's extremely lazy, and when I see it, my immersion hits a wall and I roll my eyes. I can't count the number of times I've seen Elves speak French and Dwarves speak German. And yes, a huge part of your audience will understand some of these foreign languages, if not all, which makes it weird: do you write as if it's unreadable? What about the readers copy-pasting it into google translate? That is so much work for those readers, it's tedious, but some will feel like they have to do it. And also, unless you know these languages, the sentences will be filled with nonsense, further destroying the immersion of these readers. But yes, if you're doing this, it's best to go for a super-rare language. NOT a well-known one. Make the reader believe it's a ConLan, even if it's real.

I think the best option is to not bother with thinking of new words. Just saying: "Your axe is impressively big," John spoke in Dwarvish.

Or, you could mess up the grammar in the sentence, to show that the character doesn't speak the language well. Or, if they don't understand it well, you could say something like "The prince spoke and his entourage started snickering and smirking. My Tounganian wasn't what it used to be, but I was pretty sure I had caught the words "breasts" and "flatland" somewhere in there."

This above is roughly what Practical Guide to Evil does, and it does it amazingly in my opinion. It juggles many languages, and an MC who knows them to varying degrees. You can also describe the sound and "feel" of each of these languages, hoe fast they are, how they flow, weather they're soft or hard, etc. It's an additional layer of worldbuilding, without having to go all-out-Tolkien and invent a new language.

Another "lazy" option is to go one step further and reverse the words in some real language, or some other tricks like that. It will make the language look unrecognizable and fresh, but still be easy for you, the Author. I saw a story doing this recently with Demons invoking their powers in reverse-latin. It was still easy to recognize, however. But not very immersion-breaking, reverse-latin is a very "demonic" language by itself. And it can be fun reading it backwards and figuring out what it means. (It's only spell-names and power-invocations there. Not conversations)

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#5
Thanks for an interesting post! I have a very soft spot for this topic. I have so many stories I want to write about isekais and language. So many ways to make fun of it. So. Many. Ways.

That said though, it's quite possible that a world with a 'system' could be fairly close to mono-lingual, unlike Earth. The system could be using a single language, because whatever entity installed it spoke that language. If so, it might become something similar to what Hebrew is to different Jewish communities. They might be located on different sides of the planet, with not a word shared between their respective first language vocabularies. But they'd still have an interest in Hebrew because that's the language of the Torah. 

It'd be really interesting to see how languages would develop in a world like that. There'd always be an unchanging constant that everyone has access to, likely grounding most emerging languages in the systems language. Grammar rules may always remain somewhat close to the system language. At the same time, though, language is inseparable from culture and as a culture changes, the language has to reflect it, so everyone wouldn't just be able to understand each other completely effortlessly. Perhaps after millennia has passed, the system language would fill a role similar to Esperanto. A language that is pretty much only used as an international language, while each community have developed their own native ones. Or perhaps the system language eventually grow so archaic, despite being a constant influence, that it becomes some arcane language of the gods that most people cannot understand, and there's a priest class or something dedicated to helping everyone else understand and navigate their own user interface. 

Or perhaps it happened the other way around? A bunch of different cultures with different languages suddenly got united under a single system with a single alien language, and the race is on to try and decipher wtf it says so people can interpret their own skills to stave off the damnable system monster apocalypse? How'd already existing language change under that kind of influence?

Fun topic. 

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#6

IvyVeritas Wrote: For anyone wondering, a "conlang" is a constructed, invented, or fictional language. The context makes it apparent, but the definition may still be helpful.
Yeah I... forgot to add that in... heh...


IvyVeritas Wrote: My world has, I think, ten languages so far, across the two continents they've explored.
Ten?? I maxed out at seven, and two are sister languages lol

But yeah, mostly they're only used for location names and people names. I'm never going to have a full-on conversation in those languages.

Re: Sadie’s Guide on When and How to ConLang

#7
I like conlangs and have played with making some in the past.  I don't really fancy writing a communication-barrier story, but I do really like the idea of making an art book pretending to be an ancient illustrated religious book, with all the text being in a fantasy language for readers to collectively play at translating.  Came to the conclusion that I would need to study phonetics more before I could make something that really made sense.  Also it's a heck of a niche market, and I'm probably better off drawing video game sprites or fashion plates if I want any feedback from an audience.