The Beginner’s Guide to Creating A Universe Part 1: Language

While attending college, one of my professors gave the class an assignment and provided us with an exhaustive form for worldbuilding that we had to fill out in its entirety to get top marks. I won’t be sharing that with you here, because first: I’m sure it was proprietary in some way, and second: it was called the MEGA SUPREME WORLD BUILDING PLANNING SHEET for a reason. Instead, I’m going to share with you the 10 aspects of worldbuilding that I’ve found most impactful.

A lot of them will overlap and connect with one another in meaningful ways. If that starts to happen to you, good. That’s the sign of a well-crafted story environment. The environment informs the people, the people create the events, the events affect the environment, and so on and so forth. This can be tedious work, but it will make the rest of the work that much better.

I actually intended for this to be a 10 point listicle, like a real blogger instead of an essayist, but then I went on about just the first point—language—for more pages than I intended. So, good news, it’s now a series. Enjoy.

Number 10: Language

Created languages I actually assign basically no value, but I want to talk about it because, sometimes, writers get discouraged from writing their stories because they want to make a unique and canny race of non-humans with their own complete language, but don’t know how. Their carefully constructed fantasy of success just won’t be complete without people coming up to them at Comic-Con dressed in full costume and yattering on the language the author themselves never really became fluent in, so they chase that dragon to no effect. Tolkien was an inventive man and worked very hard to construct more than one functioning language for The Lord of The Rings, but you know what else Tolkien was? A professor of languages at Oxford.

Sorry but, statistically speaking, you’re probably not a professor of languages at Oxford.

But that’s okay. Do you know why? Because most of Tolkien’s fan-base doesn’t fully appreciate the functionality of Elvish anyway. It’s a lot of work for very little effect, and the same could be achieved by just having your colorful non-human speak a little authentic sounding gibberish every once in a while, and it will add the flavor that you’re looking for. BUT! If you include gibberish, do make it sound authentic. Lending this gibberish a pattern, possibly influenced by a real (preferably dead) language, will give it some authenticity. Ever notice that the spells recited in Harry Potter have a bit of a familiar ring to them, even though you’ve never heard them before? Yeah.

You know what else giving all of your amazingly diverse races’ unique languages also gets you? Hassles. This happens in Dungeons and Dragons all the time (yeah, guess what, that shadowy, nebulous admin who runs the site that offers free writer education, editing, and encouragement is a bit of a nerd.) “Your party arrives at the first Orc stronghold on the frontier of the Orc nation. A sturdy orc stands atop the battlements of their primitive fortification. When he sees you, he levels a hooked polearm at your party and—anyone in your party know orcish? No? Well, then he levels the polearm at you and shouts at you in orcish.”

Now the party has to muddy their way through a game of “Lost in Translation.” In the writing game, this is called “padding.” The scenario might make for an amusing little vignette, but you don’t want it to last very long and you definitely don’t want it to happen again. So, why bother? I say, just let everyone speak in the common tongue, that is, the language the book is printed in. Your audience doesn’t speak your new language, and there’s not a whole lot of xenomorphic dialogue that can’t be executed perfectly well with the line, “The two orc guards chattered to each other in their unusual, snarling tongue.”

Now, here’s where language does have a place in world building and prose. Again, it comes down to authenticity. Imagine that you’re a German writer writing a piece of historical fiction for a German audience, but your story takes place in New York city during The Great Depression. Your book can be in German and the character’s dialogue can be written in German for the sake of the reader, right? The reader understands that the characters would actually be speaking in the dialect of American English, but translated to German, at least they get to understand the plot. All the characters can speak in German and not ruin the authenticity for the reader. What would ruin it for the reader, however, is if some wise-cracking bootlegger suddenly said, “That’s rad.” “Rad” (as an abbreviation of “Radical”) didn’t rise in popularity as an exclamation until sometime during the 80’s, decades after The Great Depression.

Language isn’t just how people say things, it also says things about people.

You’ve probably heard that Inuit people have dozens of words to describe snow. This is sort of true and sort of not, but the truism illustrates my point. Snow is a big part of Inuit life, so they have many incredibly specific words to describe snow in its varying states. This may be a be a better example: How many words do Americans have for money? What does it mean when an Irishman says you’re “acting the maggot?” How weird would it sound if an old Irishman asked his grandson if he was “screwing around” instead? Ever have someone with a high fade haircut call you a “blue falcon?” Imagine a character in Britain describing how delicious some “chips” taste, and then imagine the collective cringe of a whole nation of people who just realized a clueless American wrote the book they’re reading as the character crunches on some crispy Pringles.

That’s where language becomes important in world building, not with invented languages, but with the authenticity of character dialect. When writing dialogue for your characters, make sure they say things that speak to their character and belong in your setting. If writing fantasy, catalog your made-up terms and think about how the disparate peoples’ cultures inform their language.

When building the language for your story, consider:

  • Period specific idiosyncrasies
  • Culture specific idiosyncrasies
  • Mannerisms
  • Norms
  • Terms

Remember, language in world building isn’t just about what people say when they talk, but what the way they talk says about them. They are shaped by their past experiences as individuals, their shared experiences as a culture, and the land they grew up in. Taking this into consideration will make for fully realized characters whose backstory the reader, viewer, or player, will be able to feel.

Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.

And I started a Twitter! Follow @proseopiate for announcements about posts and contests. Maybe we can develop our own community. Spread the word so we can have more contestants and greater diversity of submissions.

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