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Finding and working with a conlanger

Posted in Just for Writers, Language, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept

WerewolfThe Chained Adept includes four nations with different cultures and languages, in a full fantasy world (in other words, not just Earth under some other guise).

I may have a shallow linguistics background in a dozen languages (and I do), but that's just not enough to provide suitable linguistic depth for my world.  While full-world fantasies are often content to let many conventional earthly things appear unchanged, such as the air we breathe, the horses we ride, the sun in the sky, and the tasty beer, that is more in the nature of not having to explain absolutely every noun in a story to your readers. Those things are thought of as transparent, part of the background against which you set the actual story with its exotic cultures.

That carefully-crafted exotic flavor sours quickly if your characters are named Sam and Susie, or if their language and cultural artifacts are internally inconsistent, or indistinguishable from the usage of their enemies in another country.

Yet Another Fantasy NAme Generator - one of the better ones, actually.
Yet Another Fantasy NAme Generator – one of the better ones, actually.

We've all read fantasies where the author just threw in a few names from an RPG name generator and called it a day, but I know too much about real languages to stomach that approach and, besides, why stop at personal names? Why not include special terms for the exotic elements of the different cultures, using the appropriate languages, just as we refer to Japanese sushi, or French je ne sais quoi, or Sanskrit karma, all of which describe a cultural item in the native language? Why not make sure all the names in the landscape really are plausibly from the appropriate languages, possibly reflecting a history of border shifting or older populations?

Unless you model your cultures on real-world languages fairly closely, it's easy to find yourself out of your depth in linguistic plausibility.

J R R Tolkien is the great exception. As a professional philologist, he was well-qualified to construct his various dialects of Elvish and the other languages with which he amused himself (and us). I love the feel of depth that Tolkien's worlds contain, and I know enough to understand how his languages work to help achieve that, but I can't do it myself, at least not well enough.

lcs_sealSo I went looking for someone who can.

You can read at length here about how people who create CONstructed LANGuages (Conlangers) are organized and how they view partnership opportunities.

This article reports on how it all worked out.

Requirements and Audition

I put together a Requirements Doc which was an overview of the fantasy world, the four cultures, and what I was looking for. It included estimated counts for personal names and placenames, and suggestive flavors for the conlangs (e.g., “vaguely Arabic”). I made it clear what the deadlines were, how much flexibility I had about that (lots), and what I did NOT need, such as visible fonts, extensive dialogue, and so forth.

I also described the form of the contract, credits in the published book, and approximate pricing. Since this was the first book in a series, I explained that while most of the work would be done for book 1, there would be an ongoing relationship (probably) for the life of the series (however long that would be), and explained how that would be contracted and paid for. (Contact me for an example of the Requirements Doc.)

I then contacted the jobs board of the Language Creation Society, and gave them a ten-day deadline for replies. I received a dozen or so well-qualified applicants who sent me  a variety of heterogeneous materials and asked for clarifications. (Oops, I should have been clearer about what they needed to provide.) So, I answered all the questions, narrowed it down to eight clear candidates and set a second request within the ten-day period.

Job-InterviewMy book was already 3/4 done at this point, so I sent them a list of the existing placeholder personal names and placenames for each of the four cultures. None of the names had to survive their conlang work, but they had at least all passed my “right feel” test in the first place, and their replacements needed to be similar in feel. This was a very subjective test but, I felt, a necessary one to see if my conlang partner shared enough of an aesthetic sensibility with me to make it possible to work together for the same results.

My specific requirement for the selected group was: for these cultures, using my existing placeholder names as an aesthetic guide, please provide three or four male and female names for each culture. Since they might provide names that would not be quite possible in the conlangs they had not yet written, I assured them I wouldn't hold them to the choices once it got that far. This was strictly to gauge compatibility of aesthetics.

I ended up with a winner, and near second place. Please welcome Damátir Ando (pen name).

Pricing and Contracts

The LCS provided some guidance for partial language construction prices, into which my requirements fell. This was $150/conlang. You can refer to my long 3-part article for why I think that, unlike cover artists, conlang costs should be thought of as a per-series cost rather than a per-book cost, but it's still a steep price for a buyer who does this for the first time (but not unreasonable for the work needed, mind you).

The conlanger and I agreed on a structure for a contract based on something I use for cover artists, with a main contract (very simple) and an attachment for each project. We agreed that this project would then be an attachment to the main contract, and there would be two things to pay for. The first would be for the basic design of the four required conlangs to the depth outlined, and the provision of the quantity of names demonstrated in the document used for the final selection test. We agreed that would be 220 words. For that, I paid half up front and half at the end, for an arbitrary deadline which we agreed to between us.

The second thing to pay for would be additional words. We ended up with buckets of 50 words for $50, each bucket paid in full when first triggered, and if only partially used, able to be carried forward to the next book in the series. So, this project was really for the entire series, not just the first book, and we would keep adding buckets as needed. (Contact me for an example of the Contract with identifying information removed. Remember, I am NOT a lawyer and this is NOT legal advice.)


One of the absolute and unexpected joys of the process was co-designing the background cultures. I had worked out some of the cultural background, but not at the level and specificity needed when we started putting linguistic terms together.

anth-lingI gave the conlanger a very free rein to go wild (within my initial guidance) in filling in needed areas. For example, I knew my Rasesni culture (defined initially as “vaguely Afghan”) would be a many-gods religious theocracy, but my conlang partner had to get into the nitty-gritty of deciding that priests would tend to take god-specific names, and how that would work, and the persistence of older forms of the religious language, and so forth and so on.

There were very many fruitful collaborations like this. The conlanger would propose some cultural details necessary for onomastics, and I would push back or clarify if I disagreed or if it created a specific issue (or I would change what I had written to accommodate a better idea). By the end, I was telling him how counting in couples worked for foxhounds, and he was defining naming systems where the word used for “half a couple” was also used metaphorically as “leftover” for an intercalendary month that had to be occasionally inserted to justify a lunar calendar.

This was terrific. It was worth the cost alone. Everything in the book (and series) will be far richer because of this, beyond just the conlang words themselves.

Working together

We found that our best communication method was via email with Dropbox used for document sharing. I kept all the old working documents in a separate folder in case we ever needed to look back (I never did), and shared all my world-map materials, too.

Three working documents evolved out of the process:

  • Cultural Background (provided by me, an overview of the world that changed as fresh ideas appeared)
  • Languages (provided by the conlanger, an overview of languages: varieties, phonology, grammar, culture from a linguistic perspective)
  • Delivery Requirements (provided by me and updated by both of us, a spreadsheet with counters ticking off every word provided)

The intent of the Languages document was to provide enough language outline information that, if necessary, a different conlanger could continue with the work if the original conlanger became unavailable for some later book in the series.

Working together
Working together

The Delivery Requirements spreadsheet had a cover tab and a separate tab for each language. The cover consolidated all the word counts, so it was easy to see when we hit the first 220 words, and when each bucket spilled over into the next. This made it easy for both parties to see what was owed and what had been paid.

Within each language page, there were sections for personal names, placenames, objects, honorifics, and so forth, with columns for my original placeholder word (if any), the new word, some clue about etymology if available, a pronunciation guide (for my name indices in the books), and a comment column for each of us.

We were separated by three time zones, so we would mostly just comment on each other's Cultural Background and Languages documents and update the version numbers. For the Delivery Requirements, we had to use an ad hoc checkout concept to keep from overwriting each other as we updated the docs and their version numbers. Moving forward, we are relying on the comments columns and color to alert each other to questions/answers and outstanding items.

Persistence for the long term

No matter how well a relationship is doing, it's important to provide for any contingency. Things change, and life is unpredictable.

How long will this series go on?
How long will this series go on?

It is in my interest to want to use this conlanger for the length of the entire series. Of course, who knows how long that will be and how many books will be involved? The Languages doc above is a way of easing a different conlanger into the job if for some reason my conlanger is no longer available for new work.

It is in the interest of my conlanger to want to receive credit (on my copyright pages) and to be involved for follow-on work. If by some miracle one of my books were to become a movie and needed spoken dialogue and examples of writing systems, naturally he would want to be part of that opportunity, as much as possible.

Each of us wants to be able to provide references or referrals for the other, and part of that is being able to talk about the work without restriction.

Lessons learned

gold-starI'm still learning, but here are some observations.

Requirements documents for the audition

I hadn't clearly thought through just what exactly I needed to request when I first posted the job requirements. I told them what the job needed, but not what I needed from them as a response. I should have been more specific about that.

Permanent documents and who does what

The three permanent documents above are essential, in my opinion. I also think the creative freedom I encouraged my conlang partner to take at the anthropological level supplied a ten-fold benefit to my own world-building.


No question about it — I got carried away with the world-building aspects and (to some degree) so did my conlang partner, but I have to take the hit. If I asked for words that I don't end up using, that's my fault and no one else's.

This was my first foray into working with a conlang partner and I expected there to be a significant learning curve and a certain amount of inefficiency in my requests.  The learning curve was all good, from my perspective — I think I was very fortunate in my partner. The inefficiency of over-requesting words was something I now know how to address moving forward.

Dialogue specialties

So much of the flavor of conlangs, for me, is in the little dialogue tics, especially the honorifics and diminutives that are part of everyday speech. I never seem to have enough of these, and they are very useful for characterization, too.

Explaining writer specialties

Don't forget that conlangers are not fiction writers. I needed to explain why it's helpful to have name choices with a wide variety of initial letters, to make it easier for readers to keep names straight, or why I couldn't really use both a male and female version of the same name, any more than I would want to have both Robert and Roberta in the same novel.

I will definitely do this again

I have another full-world fantasy in the wings and I plan to go the same route again for that, with the same conlang partner, if possible.

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  1. THAT was fascinating. I don’t, alas, write fantasy, but most of the people who’ve written about writing it seem to do it themselves – and get stuck in the process. And mostly create ONE universe.

    A conlanger. What a noun. And what a creative way to get what you need – tapping into people who already exist.

    I can see the professionalism sticking out all over, without it getting out of hand as far as cost – and it would definitely help getting series of books written faster.

    Even I, writing realistic mainstream fiction, have to create names for characters, and had to work hard to get a congruent set of them. And have had to add the Irish side to the main male character just right. The last thing I need is someone telling me ‘he would never say that.’

    Good post.

    October 10, 2016
  2. Here’s a usage example, for the dwelling used for the nomadic Zannib culture. The culture was modeled on a sort of faux-Mongolian, and they used felt-wrapped circular yurts, as befit a nomadic people.

    The conlang for this culture is a sort of faux-Arabic to suggest nomadic people. (I couldn’t use a faux-Mongolian — English readers wouldn’t pick up those cues). So readers were primed to think of nomads and herds of animals and similar things.

    The word “yurt” however isn’t culturally neutral the way “tent’ is and I didn’t want readers pulled out of the story thinking of real Mongolians. So that was a word that needed a conlang version (kazr, pl. kazrab) to make it a cultural item for the Zannib, in a linguistic form compatible with the faux-Arabic of their language.

    October 10, 2016
    • SO much to think about, but it makes a huge difference.

      I love Dune because of how well Herbert handles language concerns – again, with the Arabic feel to his words and nouns, so appropriate for a desert planet.

      It is an incredible amount of extra work – your solution is one I wouldn’t have thought of, paying someone to create these for you in buckets – and yet it makes such sense.

      I stick to real life and the recent past – but still have to ask myself questions about whether such and such a phone system was available in 2005, etc.

      Attention to detail is what makes good writers.

      October 13, 2016

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