Creating languages and words is one of the most fun parts of writing fantasy. Careful, though! Incomprehensible gobbledygook can really put off readers, especially younger readers, but properly used, exotic names and fragments of other languages can really add to the rich and convincing texture of your book’s world. Here’s some tips based on my own experience.
1. Don’t just pluck names and languages out of the air.
Is you world, say, based on Norse, English, Celtic, Ancient Greek, Indian, Arabic, Japanese myth and folklore? Don’t do violence to the story’s origins. Language is more than communication: it expresses a people’s soul. This also goes for Otherworlders: for instance, when I was creating names and bits of language for the korrigans, fairy-like beings found in Breton folklore, for my novel, ‘In Hollow Lands’, I used Breton itself for them, but a chopped-up, strangely inverted Breton, which expresses the Otherworlders’ strange nature, whereas the human characters used real Breton.
2. Invest in a wide range of dictionaries and grammar books.
Even if you don’t know a language, you can get to know it at least partly through such reference books, enough certainly for such fragments as you might find in a novel. (Of course if you literally want to do a Tolkien and completely invent a new language, get thee hence to a university and enrol in a full course of whatever language you’re interested in cannibalising!)
3. Invest in a good ‘meaning of names’ book and/or bookmark good baby-name Internet sites.
In traditional societies, people thought carefully about the symbolic meanings of a baby’s name; in modern societies, names can become totally detached from their meanings, sometimes to absurd lengths: there are people who call their children names like Drakkar (after an aftershave!) or Lexus(after a car!)The ‘individualistic’ approach too has led to some truly bizarre spellings of names, some of which could go straight into a fantasy novel of the comic kind. You don’t have to be totally symbolic about names; you can be subtle in your approach. But do try to choose names that fit in with your setting, or you can really jar your reader into disbelief.
4. There are easy tricks you can use to create a feeling of richness and strangeness.
When I was creating the language used in Jayangan, the Java-like setting of my novel, ‘Snow, Fire, Sword’, I used tricks like using phonetics rather than actual spelling. For example, ‘becak’ , a rickshaw, became ‘betchar’ which is how you actually pronounce it. I also looked at the different languages that had had an influence in Java—not only Bahasa Indonesian, but Javanese, Malay, Arabic, and Indian languages—to create other things, such as for instance, the names of the different religious groups in Jayangan. ‘Mujisal’, the majority religion, based on the Muslim faith, was created out of bits of the Arabic words for ‘man’, ‘war’, and ‘peace’. ‘Nashranee’ , based on the Christian faith, was created from the fact that many Indonesians call Christians ‘Nazarenes’; while ‘Dharbudsu’, which combines the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, was created from Indian and Javanese bases, combining ‘dharma’ (good, or the right path), ‘Buddha’ and ‘susilo’(wisdom).
5. Don’t be afraid to use English, too!
Sometimes, it can be more effective to use English terms—for instance, instead of exotic names for the holy books of the various Jayangan religions, I created English titles: so, the Mujisals have the Book of Light, the Nashranees the Book of Love, the Dharbudsus the Book of Life. And in my Thomas Trew series for younger readers, I used words and concepts from British folklore to give a sense of the Hidden World. But that’s not all–I even used unusual sources, such as British road signs and place names. The sky’s the limit, really!
Image by Dryad.