This is the sixth post in my worldbuilding series. If you’ve missed the earlier parts, you can find them here. If you’re already up to speed, then let’s get started!
Great worldbuilding is necessarily informed by real-world knowledge. If you are a keen amateur meteorologist — or a professional, come to that — then your understanding of the weather patterns of your fictional world will be far more complex and consistent than, for example, mine would be. If you are an experienced geologist, then the physical landscape of your world will be particularly lovingly constructed. This natural connection leads us to one of the perils of worldbuilding, at least in terms of storytelling: sometimes, we don’t when enough is enough.
It’s true that worldbuilding can be a pleasurable activity in and of itself. When we’re thinking about storytelling, however, we need to remember that every detail we include in our worldbuilding that doesn’t directly serve our story is, in effect, a wasted effort. Of course, we fill in details that speak to the broader consistency and color of the world, but those exert influence over the story only indirectly.
(We should remember, too, that there’s nothing wrong per se with wasted effort. Creativity brings its own rewards.)
I mention this because few peripheral subjects will divert the worldbuilder more often than language. Tolkien, as is well-documented, began writing in service of his linguistic interests; the writers of Star Trek created an entire Klingon language that had to be revised by the time they reached the sixth movie because it couldn’t accurately accomodate a Shakespeare quotation. It all makes a lot of sense; writers love words, and playing with a fictional language removes all the constraints of the real world. Worldbuilding language, for most writers, is fun.
For me, worldbuilding language has always been rather daunting. I’m enough of a geek that I want my fictional languages to be consistent right down to the roots, but the amount of time that it would take to formulate a complete grammar system and lexicon is somewhat beyond my reach. Therefore, I’ve distilled a few simple steps that allow the formulation of interesting and complete languages without requiring years of devotion.
The key to unlocking distinctive fictional languages can be found in phonemic sets. A phoneme is a sound that appears as part of a language; when combined, phonemes build morphemes and words. The reason that phonemes are so interesting is that every language has it’s own distinct phonemic set. For example, I am Scottish; in Scotland, we have two phonemes which don’t appear in standard English — ch as in “loch” or the Scots word “dreich”, and a trilled r in words such as “brilliant” and “true”. Non-Scots can make the same sounds, of course, but they are not a part of their learned linguistic palette. Consider, for example, the soft Spanish j in words like “jamás” or “mujer”; it’s a sound that English-speaking people who learn Spanish as adults find difficult at first, because it isn’t used in standard English. For a more unusual example, think of the four distinct “click” phonemes of the KhoeKhoegowab language of Namibia.
These phonemic sets — the phonemes which are used by a particular language, and the frequency with which they occur — are what give different languages their different sounds. Does a language sound hard-edged and precise? Expect a lot of hard consonants (c as in “cat” or “car”, but not “city”; g as in “goat” or “garden”, but not “giraffe”) and a limited number of vowel sounds. Does your language sound soft and flowing? Expect soft consonants and varied vowel sounds, often combined into dipthongs. Every language has a unique fingerprint.
Consider the word “story”. In Spanish, it is “historia”, and features soft consonants and prominent final dipthong. In German, it is “Geschichte”, and features hard consonants, flat vowels and the [x] or Scottish ch phoneme not found in standard English. In Japanese, it is “monogatari”, with crisp consonants, flat vowel sounds, and consonant/vowel alternation. The point is that none of those words could be seamlessly transplanted into another language without seeming wildly out of place. Consider the sentence, “My father told me a story”. In German, it is, “Mein Vater erzählte mir eine Geschichte”. Replace “Geschichte” with “monogatari” and it’s clear to see that something isn’t right.
Therefore, the most important thing that you can do when you’re creating a fictional language is to think about the phonemic set that ou are going to use. Is the Scottish [x] phoneme going to be used? What about the KhoeKhoegowab [!] or [#] phonemes? Think about how you want the language to sound, and go forward from there; find a similar a real-world language, deconstruct its most common sounds, and begin to build a set.
(It’s also worth noting that a language’s phonology needn’t be based on individual sounds — sign language has a sophisticated phonology, for example, that isn’t verbal. That may be a little ambitious for our first foray into worldbuilding, but it’s something to keep in mind.)
So, where does that get us? Well, we have four major civilizations in our fictional world, and each needs to have its own root language. As mentioned in previous entries in this series, I don’t want each culture to be monolithic, so there will be a certain amount of regional variation, but I want all orcs to be able to understand all other orcs, all dwarves to understand all other dwarves, and so on.
Let’s begin with the elves. There’s something about the crisp complexity of Classical Latin that appeals a great deal. It’s not the usual elven language that we’ve seen since Tolkien, but there’s something about nine different versions of the word “the” that matches our precise, reserved aesthetes. Remember, the elves will not speak Latin, but elven will have some qualities in common with it: hard cs and gs, short vowels unless clearly marked, short trilled rs. Let’s say that the elves call themselves Carī Vatōral (kar-EE vat-ohrr-AL), or First Awoken. That fits our model rather well, has nice symmetry between the long vowel sounds… I think it will work, for now at least.
For the dwarves, I’m thinking something Nordic, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon. Old Norse would work as a root, particularly if I avoid its more unique characteristics. Hm… let’s say, then, that the dwarves call themselves Bruthrúm Thul (BROO-thrum THOOL), or Folk of the Warm Hearth. In fact, let’s suppose that the concept of bruthrúm, or warm hearth, is very important to the dwarves. That gives us an important insight into their character, and a hook upon which we can continue our worldbuilding next time.
The orcs are perhaps the most challenging, but that’s because I wan something specific, and I’m not sure which real-world culture would be a good starting point. Perhaps the polysynthetic languages of the Native Americans is as good a place as any, though the phonemic set should be different. Polysynthetic languages are composed of simple morphemes which build into complex word-sentence structures. For example, in Ojibwe, the word “baataanitaaanishinaabemong” is a combination of simple words which means “being able to speak Ojibwe”. I want that quality of long, discursive, contextual language for the nomadic orc tribes. At the simplest level, then, I want the orcs to think of themselves as Grona’anurgrona (GRON-ah-ahnoor-GRON-ah) or Tribe of Tribes. I’ve introduced the conceit that the orcs will use an apostrophe to split morphemes which end and begin with the same letter, to prevent confusion in long compound words.
And that leaves us with humans, and an important point. While we are focusing on a fantasy world and fictional languages, a certain amount of linguistic worldbuilding is necessary in even the most mundane of settings, even when we’re limiting ourselves to English. What is a polite greeting between two high-society debutantes in South Carolina? Do ranchers in Montana say “soda”, “pop” or “coke”? What’s a casual swear-word in Melbourne? We need to be rooted in the language of the place and time, or the rest of our worldbuilding won’t have any authenticity.
(Authenticity, remember, is distinct from realism. I don’t really care if Montanan ranchers say “soda”, but you maintain it’s “coke”. As long as your worldbuilding is consistent, and these characters speak with voices I feel to be true, the incidental details are less important. Reality, as we always say, is no defense for fiction.)
So, the human cultures of our fantasy world. Since the other races have unified languages, let’s give the humans one too — and just for kicks, let’s make it English. It’s not quite that easy, though — is this the English of King Arthur, of Shakespeare, of Dickens, of Elvis Presley? Fantasy authors generally go to a faux-medieval standard, or a simplified Standard English devoid of any historical quirks. I’m not terribly fond of either approach: the first usually reads as clumsy, and the latter as generic. We haven’t decided on the technological level of the human cultures yet either, so it isn’t as easy as drawing on a compatible period’s version of English. Right now, I’m thinking about an early 18th-century version, but I think we should stick a pin in this topic until we’ve spent some time developing the human cultures.
Next time, then, we’ll get back to our map, and start building the details of the restless, sea-faring human cultures.
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