Thursday, December 20, 2012

Creating Languages

I’m a big podcast listener. One of my favorites, PRI’s TheWorld, is an international news program. One of the subjects they focus on from time to time is the state of languages around the world. Last week, they featured a story about languages created by fantasy authors.

Here's the whole story, if you're interested, and here is a link to the transcript. But you don't need to listen to it to follow the rest of my post.

Their main focus was Tolkien, of course. But they also presented interviews with Ursula LeGuin and China Miéville.

Here is my favorite quote from the interview, where the reporter is talking to China Miéville about a language he created for his novel Embassytown.

It’s a language that mimics language of the garden of Eden, where the word is the thing. In other words, there’s no difference between an apple, and the word for an apple.The Ariekei can’t lie.
“If they want to use figurative speech at all they have to construct a situation which they can then refer to,” says Miéville.“If you wanted say ‘oh I feel like an angry lion today’ you would have to get a lion and make it angry. Otherwise you couldn’t say it because it didn’t exist.”

Now THAT would make for some interesting arguments!

Though I’m fascinated and awed by the idea of creating my own languages, I can’t say the idea holds much appeal to me. It sounds to me like way too much work. I mean, I haven’t even grasped the nuances of pacing and character yet! I've so far failed at even coming up with good curse words or sayings unique to my fantasy worlds.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately about stages of writing. When I was a very beginning writer, the idea of research made me nervous. Research, to me, seemed like a hindrance to the process and the flow of the writing I was doing, something to get in the way with the task I love.

The fact that I was in graduate school at the time may have had something to do with that particular view on research.

But since then, I’ve come to think of research differently. It stopped being a hindrance and turned into a joy, a learning opportunity. I stopped regarding it as something I had to do to impress editors, and instead became something I wanted to do in order to delve deeper into these worlds boiling in the back of my mind. Now I have a long list of things I can’t wait to look up and learn about.

It gives me hope. Sometimes I chide myself for not doing everything perfectly the first time. But as I keep arguing, writing is a process, a skill. Perfection doesn’t come right away. It's a cumulative effort: the more I know, the more I want to learn.

So I’ll keep a hold of those links, just in case.

What worldbuilding or other intricate writing skill do you hope to someday achieve?


  1. I'm always fascinated by stories of kids thrown together who create their own intricate language out of thin air (I remember one where it was an international group of linguist parents who got their families together and just observed their kids language growth - cool!).

    Anyway, I wonder if one reason it's harder for me, at least, to create languages is that I'm too set in my own (kind of like it's harder to learn a language in High School).

    Languages in fiction, if they're done right, are awesome - but I'll admit, I think they're really hard to pull off. Not even going to try it yet, just like I'm not going to try adding poetry or song (just got back from watching The Hobbit and it's on my mind :)

    Great post!

  2. Yeah, I have no idea how to create a language. Language is really complicated. I kind of hope I never have to beyond a word here and there. But I like what you say about evolving as a writer. Maybe some day creating a language won't seem so daunting. :)

    Great post!!

  3. Nice post! I've downloaded the audio file to listen to; these kind of things really fascinate me. I'm creating my own language for my novel, and it's really fun! It adds authenticity, and makes the story more believable :)

  4. I remember when I was a kid I went to the zoo with a friend and we chattered the whole time using silly, madeup gibberish. We thought we were fooling everyone.

    Personally, I don't care if I never create a language. It would be fun to come up with some interesting dialects of English, some new idioms, something like that.

    But really, if I could improve my writing in any way, it would be figuring out how to write beautiful descriptive prose that is also exposition...You know what I mean when you've read some. But I can't do it.

  5. When I was in high school, my best friend and I created a code for passing notes. It consisted mostly of replacing the alphabet with the Greek alphabet, inventing a few of our own symbols to fill the gaps where Greek and English did not have an equivalent. When my Latin teacher cracked our code, we adopted the Japanese style of back to front. That kept us out of a LOT of trouble!

    Language has always fascinated me, and yes, I wrote a story where I created my own language for one race. It was convoluted and a huge waste of my time. I think you need a very good reason to create your own language for a story. In Tolkien's case, it fit seamlessly into his milieu. In my story, it just added a lot of work and had little value.

    It's something to aspire to, though. Not the ability to create a language, but the ability to research to a point that you could, if necessary. Great post Sabrina!

  6. I love sprinklings of new language, Scott Westerfield style, but I will never learn how to speak klingon, elvish, Chinese, or create a different language. I just know my own limitations.

    I love, however, the idea that maybe one day I'll figure out how to speak a new language of my own making. Huoi han gwi doikwit hshinjoziv se svgo bjok jhg ehr... fiy?


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