Conlang, And Using What You Have

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I am no stranger to constructed languages. I’ve read Tolkien, and Orwell, and others too numerous to list. The first novel I ever finished had two complex tongues that needed to be channeled and described–to me, making a language was something you did when you were writing epic fantasy, just because. (No, don’t ask about that book. Really, don’t.) It even has to happen in other genres, sometimes. Lit-fic, YA, suspense, you name it, making up a language is something writers can’t seem to stay away from. We deal with words and grammars all day, it’s our job and our fascination to express. Some are built more carefully than others, some are inserted as jokes or puns, others are to illustrate a principle. Sometimes a conlang is a procrastination trick for a writer–I’ve met several who sink so much time into inventing a fictional tongue they don’t have time for little things like craft or plot or learning punctuation.

The above rather-rambling paragraph is brought to you, dear Reader, by this New Yorker article. (Hat tip to Particle P, who sent it to me.) It started a chain of thought in my head having to do with language–when to construct a tongue, as a writer, and when not to. (I seriously recommend you go and read it, the moment when they realize exactly where they are is PRICELESS.)

When do I construct a language? Mostly when the characters tell me they’re speaking one I can’t think in. The process of construction isn’t very conscious for me, it tends to be rather organic. There is the language hellbreed speak in the Kismet series, which Jill only describes the sound of; there’s a demon tongue (full of k’s and z’s because, well, nobody would take a strictly vowel-speaking demon seriously, would they?) in the Valentine series; Steelflower of course has several tongues from the flowery, case-specific, punning tongue of Kaia’s homeland to the tonal song of Hain and the rolling horse-warrior-conquerors-turned soft-overlords of Rikyat Ammerdahl’s people, with its many loan-words from the conquered. And of course the almost-French of the Hedgewitch books, which I do not apologize for, because it was a loving homage to my high-school French teacher who, one day, got a soft misty look in her eyes when she spoke to us about how a language was a living thing. Each of these grew specifically out of the story; there’s never a point where I outright decided “hey, I’m going to make a tongue up!” Generally it’s the characters telling me about the peccadilloes and fiddles of their particular language. I’m certain I make horrendous mistakes in translation, but oh well.

The point, for me, is never in setting out to construct a language, and I don’t think it ever will be. I’m no Tolkien, and linguistics fascinates me but its theory can only go so far before my eyes glaze over. What I love, what really lights me up, is simply this:

How can I take the language I already have and make it work?

It’s one thing to start from scratch and build a language to your needs. It’s another thing to take an existing tongue, with its messy democratic (or imperialist-repressive, if you find that strand in it) vitality and tickle it into accomplishing what you need. English is lovely for this, because it’s a thieving little language that steals from anywhere it can with utterly ruthless, pragmatic, and conscienceless abandon. Coining neologisms, playing games with structure inside a sentence or paragraph, sliding a hand up the skirt of conventional usage and gently squeezing–this is the stuff that makes me light up with glee.

Part of the mad joy of writing, for me, is having the rules internalized so I know better how (and when) to break them. The words and how they fit together are my playground, and the fun lies in doing a trick, climbing a rickety staircase, performing a dive that hasn’t ever been done before. My very favourite copyediting comment ever–I think it was in a Kismet book–said something to the effect of “this passage plays so many games with semantics, rhythm, sound, and meaning that I doubt a normal reader will ‘get’ it.”

My response was to gleefully stet. Mostly because the normal reader is waaaay smarter than me or any CE, but that’s (say it with me) another blog post. I don’t know if anyone will like the games I play in the thickets of words and usage and grammar; I don’t know that my little in-jokes or out-takes will be funny to anyone. But I do think that my sheer joy in playing may come through occasionally to the reader, and it is with that hope I keep at it.

Well, that and the hope of feeding my mortgage and kids. Still, the joy is nice.

What about you, fellow writer or dear Reader? What constructed language do you love? How do you build ’em? What do you think of them? (I’d add something in Klingon here, but I don’t think it would work…)

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I found many aspects of that article fascinating and agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that language shapes thinking (if not cultural identity). I’ll also agree that it *seems* a logical assumption that if language shapes thinking, then a language that forces precision of thought will in turn increase the quality and quantity of rational thinking. However, I’m extremely skeptical about it actually changing human thought patterns to a noticeable degree for the average person for a number of reasons. For myself, despite what a ‘Nerd, Geek, or Dork?’ Internet quiz seemed to assume about me, I’ve never had a lot… Read more »

Wolf Lahti
Wolf Lahti

What a timely post for me, as I am currently in the midst of building a language for one of my novels. (I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it is turning into a far more gargantuan task than I imagined.) I have no formal training in linguistics—no real background at all, really, except for a generic sprachgefühl (German for “a feel for language”)—so I quickly got in over my head. It’s an agglutinative (or fusional, I’m not sure of the distinction) tongue with noun cases rather than prepositions and no genitive case because of the culture’s view… Read more »