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Category: Language

Words and history

Posted in Fantasy, Language, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept


There's one thing a writer of fiction learns early — don't knock a reader out of your story because of words that mean what you want, but that the character would never have used.

If you're writing a work of contemporary fiction, that usually means matching your dialogue to your characters. The impoverished nine-year-old is not likely to use gold-plated words, except perhaps as a comic gesture.

For non-contemporary fiction, the bigger problem is anachronism. When you remember that “khaki” comes out of British imperial rule in India, you are well-advised to avoid it as a descriptive term in a book on the Crusades, or in a fantasy world where neither Britain nor India have ever existed.

When I read books, I find the worst offenders are phrases based on technology that the author forgot is modern, or at least, too modern for the context. “He's never learned to put on the brakes”, “He's just blowing off steam”, “He's a real live wire, isn't he?” — these are a slap in the reader's face in the wrong context.

Languages for Sale – Part 3

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

This is the third of three posts on how to improve the use of languages in constructed worlds.  Part 1, an introduction of the topic for authors, is here. Part 2, an exploration for conlangers (the folks who invent CONstructed LANGuages) of what authors need is here. This final part is addressed to authors of fantasy and science fiction who might want to work with conlangers.

And if you want to see how this all worked out for my individual project, that report is here.

Why should my world building include language specialists?

A convincing world has history and context. It has artifacts from various cultures, some of the names of which came with the objects. It has transient fashions in names, and rulers or gods may be named differently from peasants. It may have non-human characters who don't use human phonemes to communicate.

Language also has history and context. It changes. It reflects the influence of other cultures. It memorializes conquest and trade. Each culture may have its own dialects and languages, possibly several. Characters from different cultures have different fluency in the default language (the one the book is written in).

Even if set in the future of our own quotidian world, the fashion in names will have changed, cultures will continue to mingle in unpredictable ways, new brands and technologies will come into existence and need names, and alien beings may make an appearance.

All of these things need names and convincing snippits of language to convey the appearance of a well-rounded historically-grounded plausibly realistic world.

Why can't I do it myself?

I can fake expertise (to some degree) in geology, biology, ecology, forensics, combat, medicine, physics, etc. And language. So can you. The question is: can we convince everyone?

Languages for Sale – Part 2

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

LanguagesForSale-TeleguThis is the second of three posts on how to improve the use of languages in constructed worlds.  Part 1, an introduction of the topic for authors, is here. This part is addressed to folks who invent CONstructed LANGuages: conlangers. The third part of the series, which provides guidance for authors working with conlangers, is here.

IPA-PanicSo, you're a linguist and you like to build languages or even entire language families developing over time. Maybe you'll get lucky, and your language will make it into a hit movie or game or TV series — wouldn't it be nice to turn pro and make a little money at it?

Well, I can't help you with winning the lottery for high-visibility media. On the other hand, just about every movie, game, or TV series that uses a constructed language started life in one or more books. And that's what we're going to talk about here, primarily for the fantasy and science fiction genres.

I'm a writer of fantasy and science fiction, and I happen to have an amateur linguistics background, primarily in the form of dead languages: Egyptian hieroglyph, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old English, Middle High German, Middle Welsh — you get the idea. I know a little bit about the subject from the linguistics perspective, and quite a lot from the author perspective.

I'm going to take a stab at describing a potential market for conlangers (inventors of CONstructed LANGuages) and propose some ways of finding work there. The third part of this series takes the authors' perspective on working with conlangers.

I will be defining some basic concepts for conlangers and painting with a broad brush in the interests of keeping the length of this post within some sort of reasonable limit.

Languages for Sale – Part 1

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language


This is the first of three posts on how to improve the use of languages in constructed worlds. Part 2, directed to the constructed language community, is here, and part 3, guidance for authors in working with conlangers, is here.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction have many world-building responsibilities. We have to create and populate worlds, landscapes, ecologies, technologies, cultures, history, and all the myriad of things that go with that. Whether our story is set in the near future, in a galaxy far, far away, or in a place that could never exist, our stories are immersed in a background that must seem rich, plausible, and historically deep — like the real world we live in.

World-building at the tectonic plate level
World-building at the tectonic plate level

Many of us play at amateur world-building with maps we hope are not geologically ridiculous, with alien ecologies we hope make some sort of evolutionary sense, and with interactions between cultures that we trust convey some of the flavor of a fictional reality. We look up a few bits of knowledge, here and there, and get a boost from a friend who can critique starship engines re: physics.  All of this is done to make us seem like plausible experts for the purposes of our stories, so that we don't create inanities that pull the readers out of the story (at the very least) and so that we can convey a sense of depth and inevitability and interconnectedness for our story world (at the best).

One of those important threads is language. Most of us are not, unfortunately, historical linguists. In fantasy and science fiction, creating the verisimilitude of cultural depth is a large and fundamental requirement, and most of us are not qualified to fake the linguistic part of that.

We've all read fantasies where the personal names are ridiculous, mixtures of syllables from RPG name generators and ordinary everyday names, with implausible apostrophes and incoherent spellings. These are the equivalent, for some readers, of the lousy book covers we all wince at. Even readers who don't quite understand what the problem is can sense something wrong. And when we start to supply place names, artifacts, and other bits of other languages, the opportunities for maladroit handling just increase. We're not (alas) Tolkien who created entire language families before ever writing the world that used them.

The good news: there are people who do this for fun and profit. The art is called “conlang” (CONstructed LANGuage), and the practitioners are conlangers.