Writing Reflections: The Role of Fictional Languages


I have always been fascinated by language. The way certain verbal sounds grouped together can have a universally understood meaning within a society is intriguing to me. Even as a kid I would spend time creating my own words, and occasionally “secret codes” that could only be translated by those possessing the key. Oftentimes, such codes were employed as an effective method of passing notes in class with my friends, which could not be interpreted by unwanted eyes. *Ahem.* I’m not condoning such practices of course, but alas, I admit I did not always put such efforts and talents to their best use in my youth.

By the time I was in high school, I listened to a lot of music sung in foreign languages–Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and probably others (even some fictional languages). The problem was I’m the type of person who, when I hear a song I like, I *HAVE* to sing along. It is not an option for me. I am very much a “participatory” listener.

Anyway, given that I don’t speak any of the aforementioned languages, it was kind of difficult to sing along. Undeterred, I’d look up the lyrics and learn them by heart just so I could sing them whenever I felt like it. I quickly became interested in these languages as a result. I began looking up the translation of each word in a song, and studying the grammatical rules of the language in question. For me, it wasn’t enough to just “sing the words.” I wanted to know what they actually meant. I wanted to know how each individual word related to the rest of a phrase, and how their grammar and sentence structure worked.

OK, so I am a *slight* geek, in case you haven’t figured that out by now. And I realize most people probably don’t get as excited by this subject as I do. Yet the spoken word still plays an important part in society and influences how we communicate, think, and view the world around us. It is one means through which we humans express ourselves.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on the subject–in particular, fictional languages and the role they play in literature. I am a writer, after all. Not to mention an avid reader since the age of, like, 3. And in my favorite genre, fantasy, constructed languages (aka fictional/invented languages) tend to crop up frequently.

Believe it or not, I spend a lot of time contemplating this subject. 😉 Even so, I by no means claim to be a linguistics expert. The following ideas are purely from my own musings with little data to back them up. So take what I say for what it is–the opinions of an amateur linguistics enthusiast.

With the disclaimer thus out of the way, let us trek on into the exciting world of language and boldly go where some of us have never gone before!

*cue Star Trek theme song*


 

  1. The spoken word connects people together. It has the power to communicate ideas in a way that other human beings can recognize and understand. What’s more, language is often influenced by the culture and experiences of a civilization, and is always evolving and changing.

Language can thus offer insight into a people’s history, traditions and way of thinking.

For example, I study Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) in my free time, just for fun. Hey–I told you I’m a geek. During one study session, I learned that the Irish name for the city Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath. I thought this odd, since most Irish place names are Anglicized versions of the Gaelic names (in other words, “easier” English versions, which are thus similar to the originals). This name was not similar in the slightest. After some digging, I learned that “Dubhlinn” was originally a Viking settlement on the coast of Ireland. The Irish, for whatever reason, retained their own name for the city instead. I like to think that, being none too pleased with the presence of invaders, the Irish resisted any way they could. Even by the simple, stubborn refusal to accept a place name. I don’t have any proof to back that up, but it makes for a good story anyway.

Thus, the Irish language gave me insight into a culture’s history which I did not previously possess.

This power of insight can also work for fictional languages. The language gives clues about the corresponding culture, even if the reader doesn’t understand what is being said or give it a second thought. Intuitively, our brains can draw conclusions from the patterns and sounds a fictional race uses to communicate. Consider the harsh, guttural tongue of the Klingons in Star Trek, opposed to the melodious, soft speech of Tolkien’s Elves. In each case, the language reveals (without actually telling you) certain characteristics of the speakers.

ireland license plate

2. While it is possible to create a fantasy/sci-fi story without the use of constructed languages, the addition of such certainly adds a depth and richness–and even a certain authenticity, if you will, to a fictional world.

That being said, the amount of linguistic development required for a story depends on its scope, atmosphere and style. There’s no one way to approach it. In the end, I think it is up to the author, who knows their own world best, to decide how much fictional language should be included in the story.

For instance, in a “high fantasy” world (think Tolkien) filled with mythological creatures and cultures, expansive realms and in-depth histories, well-developed languages fit right in given the amount of fiction and detail already present. On the other hand, if a story is more “modern” in feel, or clearly set in the real world, constructed languages might feel out-of-place and awkward, depending on the situation of course.

There are exceptions to the “norms,” and context has to be taken into account. Even so, there are still some general pros and cons to both approaches that can be considered.

In the case of the first approach (fully-developed languages), it offers more insight into the cultures in the story (as previously discussed), creates a more realistic and interesting world, and gives more depth to its characters, places and history. However, too much inclusion of invented languages can bog a story down and even confuse or irritate readers, causing them to lose interest.

When done right, the result can be a deep, captivating world steeped in history and  culture and lore.

The benefit of the second approach (less, or even no linguistic development), is that the risk of boring or confusing the reader is much lower. Particularly in today’s society, fast-paced, action-oriented storytelling is most often preferred to detailed description (much to my chagrin, but that’s beside the point). It also requires less time and effort on the writer’s side. Not everyone is a linguistic expert like Tolkien (or a geeky enthusiast like…some people :-P), but it is not a prerequisite to becoming a successful author.

Even so, this approach comes with its own setbacks. Too little development can render a constructed language (if it exists) useless, adding little to the scope of the story. And a lack of fictional language altogether, at least in a fantasy piece, might come across as lazy or unbelievable. Just to be clear, I’m talking about stories set in completely fictional worlds with little to no ties to ours. In such cases, readers usually expect to come across new cultures and, by extension, new languages.

Still, there are exceptions. It’s also important to keep in mind that language is only one aspect of world development. In the end, whichever end of the spectrum you end up on depends largely on the style, setting and context of the story. The key is to find just the right balance between a shallow, flat world with little to no development and a heavy, cumbersome and slow-paced story.

The right balance should be found to make the world within a story realistic and believable, while taking into consideration its context, style and setting.

middle earth map

3. What about the role of constructed languages in real life?

Constructed languages can actually affect real languages through their assimilation into everyday vocabulary.

Take, for instance, Harry Potter. Nowadays, the majority of people (even those who have never read the books or watched the movies) know the word “muggle,” and that it means a “non-magical person.” Despite its fictional origination, it has found its way into everyday usage (and even into some dictionaries).

The word “muggle” itself didn’t originate with Harry Potter. You can see other previous uses of the slang word in the link above. However, Rowling took the word and created her own meaning for it, making it relevant to the magical culture in her books. The term has, as a result, affected our culture at large. The same can be said for numerous other fictional words and/or languages. Think of “Hobbits” and “Orcs.” Think of the multiple texts, including Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” that have been translated into Klingon.

The internet plays no small part in the influence of fictional languages/terms.

In addition to serving as an unparalleled source of information for research and study, the internet also provides a unique setting for new words, phrases and idioms to spread and assimilate into everyday use all over the world, leading to invented terms becoming universally understood. This can now happen in a relatively short amount of time compared to the past.

Furthermore, it once again connects groups of people together—including those from different cultures and backgrounds who may have never met otherwise. The internet also creates a community where like-minded enthusiasts can meet to learn, teach and share information.

Such bleed over will certainly continue as long as constructed languages and enthusiasts exist.

muggles

4. So, how does an author go about creating a fictional language in the first place? I suppose it’s different for everyone. I could probably write an entire post just on my personal methods of language development. But I won’t go into that here. 😉

Certainly one’s own experience and knowledge will affect the language one creates. In that regard, one’s native language most likely will have the greatest deal of influence, because that is the system one is most familiar with. This knowledge can manifest itself in different ways. On the one hand, a writer might choose to employ those rules and methods that are most familiar and comfortable to them. On the other hand, a writer could choose to create a language with contrasting elements for the sake of experimentation.

Furthermore, one’s study of foreign languages can greatly broaden a writer’s insight and knowledge of linguistics. Understanding different grammatical rules, sentence structures, pronunciations, definitions, etc. adds to one’s toolbox, so to speak.

For example, I am a native English speaker. As such, English affects what I create, because that is how I think and what I am most familiar with. However, studying Spanish taught me the usefulness of verb conjugation. Studying Irish Gaelic taught me that not all languages share the same grammatical rules, or even the same thought processes, as English. Plus it sounds really cool. 😛

Both have influenced my own language construction, and others besides.


 

Thanks for sticking through to the end of my geeky babbling. GOLD STAR FOR YOU!!

What is your opinion on fictional languages? Do you love or hate them? Are you indifferent to them? Are there certain aspects that intrigue or excite you? Are there other elements or ideas I didn’t mention? Share your thoughts below! I love to hear from you. 🙂

Cheers, sláinte, adios, ciao, namarie, and farewell!

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11 thoughts on “Writing Reflections: The Role of Fictional Languages

  1. Oui!! I m also a bit of a linguistics geek myself. It totally originated with Tolkien, for me. I still love creating my own languages for my stories. As for secret codes, though I never used them for passing notes, I still used them all the time. Steganography and cryptology are stll passions of mine actually.

    Liked by 1 person

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