Published on September 14th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen1
Building Your Own World – Language & Names (part 1)
When building your own fantasy or fictional world it is important that the names you use for your characters and your locations fit the world that you have built. It’s tough balancing act between creating words that are new and exciting and ones that just look like a pile of letters and diacritics. Today we’ll go over some basic language construction to help you to make character and location names that are consistent and believable for your fantasy world.
There are plenty of places to look at for inspiration for your constructed language (or “conlang”), from real world languages to other constructed languages. Tolkien was inspired by Finnish and Welsh when he made his two main elf languages. Conlangs are are typically distinguished by whether or not they are intended to be used as an auxiliary language (auxlang) like Esperanto, or if they will be used in a fictional environment like Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin. You could also create a futuristic language that is a “creole” of different real world languages in a unique mixture.
You could always use real world names from languages/cultures that inspire the cultures in your world, but that comes with a couple of problems- especially if you’re not intimately familiar with that language’s culture. Real world names come with real world associations, and sometimes those associations are not ones you want to make with the character/place you’re naming.
On one end, you could end up with a character who has a name that’s the equivalent of “Bob” and really sticks out because of its ordinary nature- especially if you’re writing a fantasy world. On the other end of that spectrum you could give someone a name that’s inappropriate- which could have a number of different implications you’d want to avoid.
So when you need to get some fantasy names, and you want them to sound “real” or “authentic”, how do you do that? What is the first step of making a language?
The first step in making a conlang is to pick out which sounds you are going to use for your language. Phonology is the study of sounds in language, and understanding some of the basics of phonology will help you to intelligently build your language. When describing sounds you can divide them into two main types- consonants and vowels.
Consonants are sounds made by obstructing the passage of air through your throat or mouth and passing air through either during the obstruction or right afterwards. Consonants are categorized in two ways: by the place of articulation, and the manner of articulation– that is, where the sound is made, and how. Place of articulation is listed in the x-axis, along the top. From left to right it starts at the lips (labial) and descends back to the throat (glottal). Manner of articulation is listed down the y-axis, along the left side. If you’re unsure of the sounds made by the International Phonetic Alphabet, try out this audio version of the chart and see what similarities the sounds have with each other.
Vowels are the roots of syllables, and are voiced sounds. Vowel sounds are largely determined by position of the tongue: if the tongue is raised or lowered (closed/open), and how far towards the front/back of the mouth it is. The chart above is basically a map of the mouth, and shows you how to position your tongue in order to produce the vowel sound. If you’re having trouble with that, try listening to the sounds on this audio version of the chart.
In English we have about 25-27 consonant sounds, depending if you count the not-much-used glottal stop or the voiceless velar fricative (the ‘h’ in “uh-oh”, and the Scottish ‘ch’ in “Loch Ness”, respectively). We have more consonant sounds than we have consonants, because sometimes we use combinations of letters to make sounds, and sometimes letters pull double duty.
The letter “l”, for instance, sounds different at the start of a word (love, letters, live, like, lemons) than in the middle or end of a word (well, swollen, table). The two pronunciations never occur outside of their designated spaces, so most native English speakers never even notice they make two different sounds using that letter. Try using the end-of-word “l” at the start of a word- it’s almost like a “g”!
As for vowels, while we may have only 5-6 vowel letters (“y” being the tricky one, as it’s also a consonant in some contexts), in English we have a ridiculous amount of vowel sounds that we produce from those letters. In American English we have around 10 vowel sounds with about 12 dipthongs, or ways to combine those vowel sounds together (like the “oi” in “choice”).
When choosing which sounds will exist in your language, try to make sounds that your intended audience will be able to use. If your end goal is a game product, and you are writing the game book in English, it’s probably best not to use sounds that people who speak English will have a hard time making. You can fudge that a little bit (we’ll talk about this more in Orthography, below) but for the most part, if you can’t say it, skip it.
As a general rule, glottal/uvular sounds, as well as stops and fricatives, and “back” vowels will make a language sound harsh (“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul…” the inscription on the One Ring, in the “tongue of Mordor”) to English speakers’ ears.
To get a lighter effect you can stick to more nasal consonants, more vowel-like consonants (like “l” and “r”) and “front” vowels. This produces a more flowing language (“Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatarni, utúlie’n aurë!” an excerpt of Tolkien’s Quenya conlang).
Orthography is the process and rules for writing in your language. You could just use Roman characters to write your language, or Cyrillic, or Hangul. Most people reading this article will choose to use some set of roman characters to present their language, but even then there is some work to be done in transferring your sounds from IPA notation to romanized transcription. (For our purposes here I’ll refer to IPA pronunciation in /slashes/ and the letter form itself in “quotes”).
Let’s say you have the sounds /k/ and /s/ in your language- seems pretty normal, and you can give each one its corresponding letter. Now what about “c”? There’s no real reason it needs to represent /k/ or /s/ depending on the vowel that follows it. Why don’t we make “c” represent the sound /tS/, which is normally written “ch” in English- or we could make /tS/ be written “cc” like it is in “cappuccino”. If your language treats /l/ and /L/ differently than English does, you may need to find a new way to represent one of those sounds. You could double the letters so that /l/ is “l” and /L/ is “ll” or you could add a modifying letter to make /L/ be written “lh”.
If you want to stay true to roman letters for the most part, but don’t want to use letter combinations, there are always diacritical marks. These are like the tilde (~) above “ñ” in Spanish, but many languages use them quite liberally. Czech has 27 letters if you count the base letter forms, and 42 if you include the diacritic variants. This is nothing compared to the 247 combinations you can get with Tamil, but let’s start out small. The rules are really up to you in how you want to represent the written form of your conlang, and how complicated you want the letter forms to be.
Optionally, you may want to determine a custom way for your characters to transcribe their words. If you are making this language to be used in board games, RPGs or novels, this may not be something you wish to pursue, as most of the time your readers will be looking at Roman characters like the ones we’re using now. That said, if you are thinking of producing art or calligraphy in your conlang, it might still be a worthwhile venture. Though he rarely used it in printed material, Tolkien did invent a writing system for elvish and dwarvish that was included in the appendices of the Lord of the Rings.
Next Time on World Building
Next time we’ll take a more in-depth look at orthography, and explain potential writing systems. We’ll also go over building a lexicon (a library of words) and a grammar (rules for the way words can be put together). The goal here is to keep the grammar simple- just enough that we can name some characters, factions and locations.
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All images and charts are sourced from Wikipedia, specifically the article describing the International Phonetic Alphabet and its related sub-topics.