Sep 02

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Creating Alien and Fantasy Languages

Creating languages has always been a source of joy.  I don’t know when it started, perhaps in 7th grade.  Being forced to endure the infinite ennui of Ohio history class, I resorted to the dictionary insert in my binder that had the Greek, Russian, and Hebrew alphabets on the back page.  That is when I learned them.  Having some exposure to foreign languages is really quite cool when you’re watching certain movies.  In the Israeli film Boy Takes Girl, I read “שָׁלוֹם” on a T-shirt, in The World is Not Enough, “реактор” and other Russian submarine markings, and in, I think, For Your Eyes Only , “εκκλησία.”.  It really adds something, at least for me.

When you’re writing something set in Russia, you might have to pick up some Russian.  But when your story takes place on a fictional planet 10,000 light-years away, you’re on your own.

Good language development can add to believability on several fronts.  It establishes the existence of world that has a history and functioning dynamics.  It can add color and reveal much about the characters using it.  It can help your plot.  For A Hierarchy of Gods, I have fairly well developed the language Trarsani (Trarsanzik in Trarsani).  By just pondering on the language in context of this very blog, I stumbled upon a beautiful scene that never would have existed if my structuring of pronoun usage hadn’t been what it was.  It’s a great scene, so thank  you pronouns!

This is a good place for an anecdote.   Near the end of that novel, Nekalee says, “Doorit fei-ka dilai ta-Trarsanzik.”  Well, she does now.  I originally wrote it po-Trarsanzik, which is wrong.  The po- particle does exist, but it applies to verbs to indicate simple past tense.  The correct particle is ta-, which indicates the instrumental case.  Why I find this funny is that in Russian, there is a po-, which indicates instrumental case.  In other words, po is Russian for Trarsani na. It may not be hilarious to anyone but me that I confused the two languages and used a word from one in the other.

But enough of that.  Let’s take a look at some questions you should ask yourself when rolling your own language.

1. What sounds can your beings actually make?

There is more possibility here that you might think.  Being a language geek, I can make probably 20 consonantal sounds that you’ve never heard if you’re from an English-speaking country, and I still have human mouth parts.  Suppose I didn’t have human mouth parts, or a mouth as you know them at all?

One of my alien species are called Oo-Awns by humans because they only sound they make is “oo-aw.”  What most humans don’t understand is that there are subtle differences in total qualities, which is where the information lies.  We just can’t discriminate them.  And who says they even have to use sounds?  Odors?  Mouth feeler movement?  Telepathy?  I think they’ve all been used.

Most creature in science fiction and fantasy lie somewhere between these extremes.  I have another species that we write I!poxi.  We use that exclamation mark because we don’t have a letter for a sound made by popping your beak together.  Conversely, though, The I!noxi can’t do the “Rubber baby buggy bumpers” tongue-twister.

Discrimination of sounds make a difference.  English notes a difference between the sibilants s and sh.  In Korean they’re the same, just pronounced differently according to the following vowel.  Devanagari recognizes three: श, ष, and स, and they’re all single characters.  The scary part?  I can say at least two more.  You can’t just substitute Roman letters; you have to consider how your aliens or faeries think of sounds.

2. How do they put sentences together?

Assuming they even have sentences, of course.

You can’t just don’t just substitute words any more than you can letters.  If you do, you don’t have a new language; you have a code.  Folk tales say that when the Dutch colonized parts of what is now Pennsylvania, they tried to switch to English by just replacing words.  This lead to curious sentences like “Throw your dad down the stairs his hat” and “Close the gate wide open.”

It’s not about the words, it’s about the meaning.

Your refrigerator running and your nose running are two entirely different things.  If you tried to translate them into German by switching words, you might get “Mein Kühlschrank läuft” and “Meine Nase läuft.”  Any German would hear these and picture them both having grown legs and now sprinting down the street!

But languages vary in far more than just how meaning is assigned to words.   We are familiar with the old subject-verb-object arrangement.  Other languages, such as Hindi, Japanese, and Korean, switch that around to subject-object-verb.  And then there is Yoda-ish, with its object-subject-verb arrangement, which might be unique in the universe.  Just kidding.  I’m sure it’s on Earth somewhere.

Another way in which Hindi and Japanese differ from English is that they use post-positions instead of prepositions.  There is an anime called Kodomo no Jikan.  That title  transliterates to “Child (Children) of Time.”  But the of  targets child, not time, so we would have to turn it around to “Time of Child (Children).”  The official English title is something like Child’s Time.  The same variations apply to modifiers.  You probably know that Romance languages usually put adjectives after the noun instead of before as we do; it’s Rio Grande, not Big River.

Think about what their concept of a word is.  At one end of the spectrum are synthetic languages like Chinese that use a large number of simple words to build up meaning, and at the other are agglutinative languages like Turkish and Hungarian that build up huge words with complex meaning within them.  Check the derivation of muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine.

But let’s not stop here.   If you’re used to writing science fiction, then you’re used to reaching out far when it comes to plots.  You can do that with language, too.  Let’s take a look at a couple of mine for examples.

Kyattonix, the global language of Kyatton, doesn’t use the same subject-verb methodology as do most of the languages on Earth.  It’s more of a state-descriptive language.  For you web developers out there, it’s the difference between JavaScript and CSS.  Naturally, that can lead to some translation problems.  “Oi ee koyesh doyett” can mean, “I’m home,” “I’m reporting in,” or “Gee, I missed you.”  The Kyattoni have no problem picking out the meaning, but imagine what poor Erik has to go through!

Trarsani is the most developed of my alien languages, and is a good example of how much creativity you can put into grammar.  At some point, Nekalee tells Lesley that she broke her arm.  I wrote that as, “Tooree na/ta-fei kree-zalutai’t.”  Now when we say, “I broke my arm,” what we really mean is, “The impact broke my arm, but it was my doing.”  To transliterate the Trarsani here would  be something like “Arm of-me/using-me is-become-the-result-of-doing-completed-action-‘break’.”  That one was tough to translate literally.  I used ‘is-become’ instead of ‘has-become’ on purpose, to approximate the aortist tense that English doesn’t really have.  It’s all sort of twisted, but hey, Nekalee isn’t human.

Probably my most extreme language that has any sort of development is Korishak.  It’s perfect in the sense that there can be no ambiguities.  You know how in English you can hear “purple people eater” and not be sure if it is something purple that eats people or something that eats purple people?  We put in hyphens to help clarify things, but we have other messes, too.  Not so Korishak.  It’s related to predicate calculus and functional programming.  “Kill the purple people eater”, if it is the eater that is purple, would break down as:

command(I, kill(you, attribute(purple, actor-object(eat(null), people))))

If the people are purple:

command(I, kill(you, actor-object(eat(null), attribute(purple, people))))

“Egad!”, you respond.  “Say what?”  Exactly.  Don’t be upset.  There might be a handful of humans that could ever get proficient in thinking that way.  You know, like Einstein and Feynman.  Even so, I believe it’s not quite logical enough, and still might hack it some more.  But the Korishini can handle it.  One of the chapter introductions describes them as having twice our intelligence, five times our strength and a billion times our sexuality.

3. How do they write things down?

Of course, they might not have invented a writing system yet, and they might have given theirs up a million years ago, but it’s probably reasonable to assume that all species will have one at some point in their history.  So they need an alphabet, don’t they?  Not necessarily; there are alternatives.  The Roman, the Hebrew, the Cyrillic, the Devanagari, the Arabic, are all alphabets.  Even Korean is an alphabet, though the letters are organized into blocks that make them look rather like Chinese to the parochial westerner.

Trarsani language exampleAnd then there is Japanese, with three writing systems.  Hiragana and Katakana are both syllabaries, where a single character represents an entire syllable.  So is Cherokee; see here.  Japan’s third writing system is Kanji, based on Chinese characters, but beware!  There are two ways to read them, either by meaning (which isn’t always the same as Chinese) or by sound.  Don’t get them mixed up.  Chinese writing, as you probably know, is based on ideograms, where each character represents an idea.  When I was in Korea, they were still stubbornly using Chinese characters in newspapers, which meant I pretty much couldn’t read them at all.

My languages are usually either alphabets or syllabaries.  Trarsanzik is sort of like Devanagari in that it uses some number of blends, and sort of like Hebrew for foreigners in that it expresses vowel sounds with annotations underneath.  Most read left-to-right, but Kyatonnix reads right-to-left like Hebrew and Arabic, and Korishak reads top-to-bottom like Chinese used to much of the time.  There is a variation of Kyattonix that uses a graphical representation, which makes it a little easier for humans to translate, but I haven’t developed that very well.

Korishak has neither an alphabet, a syllabary, nor an ideographology.  I’ll have to take liberties with definitions and call it a phonemology.  There is a root stroke to indicate where in the mouth it is pronounced (labial, dental, palatial, etc.), a mark to indicate if it a fricative, a plosive, and so forth, and another to indicate if it is voiced or not.  They can properly write down sounds that don’t even occur in their language.  It’s been claimed the the Devanagari alphabet is as good as a tape recorder, but that claim was made by someone who had never heard of Korishak.  For more phonetics fun, look here.

One has to wonder, however, about the writing systems with languages that don’t have any sounds at all.  How would you write down telepathy?  Even on Earth, there is writing that doesn’t necessarily have a fixed phonetic equivalent.  And we’ve been there.  There is a small set of Chinese characters that I understand whether they appear in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, or Japanese, and with no idea at all what the sounds might be.

4. How does language reflect experience?

You’ve heard the legend of how the Inuit people have a bazillion words for snow.  Linguists are still arguing over that; it all depends on what you call a word.  The Sami language is charged with having 1000 words for reindeer.  A culture living in the jungle may recognize 20 different meanings of green, one living in the desert might just lump it into blue.  Languages express real-world experiences, and then turn around and shape how we interpret the world.

What about a culture in a fantasy that relies every day on magic?  Do you really think that they would have only one word for it?  This is something that I feel Rowling missed out on.  I can’t really believe that witches and wizards would simply call everything “magic” except when they’re in class and it’s “divination” or “transfiguration” or whatever.  Most English speaking people know magic and sorcery.  If you have a writer’s vocabulary, you might even know necromancy, thaumaturgy, and possibly even theurgy.  But what word would you use for magic used when you’re half asleep and accidentally use the wrong incantation?  See what I mean?

The Korishini have 104 words meaning, very roughly, orgasm, and no two are synonyms.

Bear in mind that as humans use language to express concepts, there might be aliens who have different concepts.  The Korishini have no real comprehension of hatred or anger.  Those emotions don’t exist for them and so have no words that relate to them.  They do know joy and sadness, and definitely passion.  But they also have ikki.  Being the human writer who created them, I myself only distantly comprehend what it is, and I certainly can’t explain it in a few dozen paragraphs.  But it shows up frequently as a suffix in their language.  Korisha is their planet, korishikki is untranslatable.

As a final example of how culture and psychology affect language, let’s go back to the Trarsani.  They are one of many races that take mating a whole lot more seriously than humans do.  The pronoun fei means I or we, and the pronoun pree means this person.  They have no gendered pronouns.  They can be made plural (pronouns are the only place they have plural forms) by adding a short t sound to the front: t’fei (we) t’pree (these people), etc.  But there is a special pronoun fee.  It means, sort of, we or us, but is only used by couples referring to themselves.  Note well that it is a singular pronoun.

5. How developed is your world?

It is sad that languages are disappearing from Earth, but it is true.  As the world gets smaller, we are finding that so many aren’t really practical.   I read some advice to science fiction writers that said not to assume that everyone on a planet speaks some planetary language.  I don’t assume that, but let’s not be silly about it.  Do all Klingons speak Klingon?  Probably.  Do all Vulcans speak Vulcan?  Probably.  And 1000 years from now (maybe sooner) I expect all humans to be speaking English, Chinese, or a combination of the two as in Whedon’s brilliantly conceived Firefly universe.  By then, we’ll probably call it Human.

I can’t help but think that a highly advanced world is going to eventually converge to a single universal language.  Kyattonix was derived from a local language, Itanix, with some revisions.  On Kyatton, there are areas will people use an old local language among friends and families, but there is no one there who doesn’t speak Kyattonix.

At the other end of the spectrum is the primitive world where there may be a different language, or at least dialect, every 100 kilometers.  There are still hundreds of active languages in India, and they’re not primitive.  Think about how mountains and large bodies of water isolate both cultural groups and languages.  You can see it in Europe today; just pull up Google Earth.  Think about how languages might be related, and how they might evolve together.  Have a major conquest?  How will that affect language?  If you notice some similarities between Trarsani and Kyattonix, it’s because 70,000 years ago they were best buds.

6. How do they do names?

Although one doesn’t see it too clearly in our culture, as we tend to pick names based on how we like the sound, most of them started out with meaning, and in some places, the meaning of names is still important.  A lot of Christians choose baby names based on what they mean.  One of my all-time favorite names, Astrid, means either “divine strength” or “beautiful goddess,” depending on the etymological path you prefer, but you already know you can look these up online.  And of course you all know who Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist are.

Korishini names all mean some variant of “love.”  The Trarsani name Nekalee means “flower,” specifically, sub-canopy tree flowers, and I didn’t work out what Ritee means.  And as the Trarsani have no disparate sex roles, males’ names also mean something of beauty.  Kyattoni names, well, that’s opening a can of worms.  One character’s name is formally “Triknikanthy,” but “Triknikanthy,” “Trik,” “Kanth,” and “Kanthy” all have different societal connotations.  You may provoke outrage by using the wrong one.

I’ve said nothing about family names; none of the above three species use them.  To the Korishini, the idea of family doesn’t extend much beyond a mated pair and their children still living with them.  Family has a great deal of meaning to the Trarsani and Kyattoni, and in the latter case more than you can imagine, but neither of them have the societal divisions for it to make sense to apply any family or clan tags to their  names.

How do you suppose telepathic beings would do names?

7. Should different races have different languages?

I bring this up for a reason.  When I wrote The Lastchild, which was finished for 20 years before I published it, I followed the pattern set by Tolkien of giving elves and dwarves their own languages.  Tolkien was a linguist, you see, so making up languages was probably a bigger attraction for him than it is for me.  But after the fact, I asked myself, “Why?”

Elves and dwarves have been in an amicable relationship for at least 5000 years.  Don’t you think that they would have, at the very least, adopted some common words and maybe even shifted their writing systems toward some common ground?  Probably.  But I’m not going to go back and rewrite it now.  It doesn’t come up that much anyway.

But this connects back to the claim that not everyone on a planet should speak the same language.  Conversely, people on different planets might not speak different languages.  You have to take a look at history and see how things would have evolved.


Handwritten TrarsaniSo, the alien script in the image above?  Yes, I can read it.  Lesley says it in A Hierarchy of Gods, and when I get around to publishing the book, you can figure out what it means.  That’s the printed form, of course.  Handwritten looks different. In fact, shortly after finishing this post, my new digitizer tablet arrived, and I was eager to try it out.  That is is some handwritten Trarsani to the right.  Yes, I can still read it, but frankly my Trarsani penmanship sucks.  Maybe after I learn to use the tablet better, it will improve.

What are your thoughts on alien and fantasy languages?  Have you created one of your own?  If so, I’d be delighted to hear about it.  Why don’t you share a little of it with us?





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