Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Inventing Language.

You are not J. R. R. Tolkien, and that’s okay. You can still make up a language for you world anyway.

So, your characters don’t speak English (or your native language), and you want to show that in your writing. Can you make up a whole new language? Well, sure, if you’re a linguist, or a conlanger, or someone else with an interest in language.. Should you? For the most part, your audience won’t care.

I think it’s good to know how the language in your setting works. Language is important. But unless you’re JRR Tolkien, who wrote his stories essentially (at least at first) as a way to give the languages he invented a context and a history, every moment you spend creating a language is a moment you, well, aren’t writing.

Now, Eunice and I are both language nerds, so we know a huge amount about the language of the City in our Passionate Pantheon novels...much of which will never appear in the novels themselves.

For example, we know the language is tonal. We know the language started as a pidgin of several pan-Asian languages thousands of years ago. We know that in the time the novel is set, there are no extant Romance or Romance-derived languages left.

And Eunice invented a brilliant writing system for the language fo the City. It’s both phonetic and ideographic; the language has thousands of written symbols, each of which represents a word, and each of which also represents a sound. Since the number of ideographs is far larger than the number of phonemes, each spoken sound can be represented by one of hundreds of different ideographs.

So a piece of text can be read two ways: phonetically or ideographically, with the ideographs that are used to spell each word informing the meaning of the word.

That means you can write a piece of text ideographically, like Chinese. Or you can also write it phonetically, with any given word spelled in literally hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Eunice also invented a completely brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful system for teaching children to read and write: “story wheels.” These are short fables or parables, written phonetically in circles with each line of the fable written like the spokes of a wheel. Children play a game where they change the meaning of the story by changing the characters that spell each phonetic word, so the phonetic words retain the same meaning and pronunciation but the context changes.

Some information about the language does appear in the books, where it’s relevant. For example, the protagonist in the fifth book is fascinated by language, history, and anthropology, and that’s part of the book’s plot. (In one scene, she gets distracted on her way to a sex party by a conversation on anthropology, because who among us hasn’t had that experience, amirite?)

There’s a scene in the book where she plays a game with her childhood drone on the evening before she takes her first adult name, and loses her drone forever:

The drone accompanied her to her room, where it hovered silently as if it didn’t know what to say. She sat on the edge of the bed with her knees drawn up to her chest. At last it said, “Would you like to go to sleep?”

“No,” she said. “After tomorrow, I’ll still be able to see my parents, but I will never see you again. I would like to spend a last few moments with you.”

The drone bobbed up and down in a nod. “What would you like to do, little mouse?”

“I want—” She stopped herself from saying I want things to be different. I want this not to be the end. The unspoken words hung heavy between them. “I want to spend time with you.”

On an unseen signal from the drone, the lights dimmed. The projector in the drone’s nose glowed. A circle floated in the air in front of it, divided into sectors by glowing green lines, every sector filled with graceful calligraphy. She leaned forward. “I haven’t seen this one before.”

“It’s a new story I’ve been working on,” the drone said. “I call it The Stars that Sang.”

“Were you thinking of me when you wrote it?”

“Yes.” The drone dipped. “Do you want to play?”

“Yes!” She studied the wheel for a while, reading the flowing script over and over. “Okay. Fourth line, change the spelling of ‘space’ from ‘vast lonely deep despair’ to…um…” She frowned in thought. “‘Open heavenly wide distant.’”

“Mm, interesting,” the drone said. The floating wheel changed, the calligraphic characters rippling into new shapes. “I’m surprised you didn’t start with line two, ‘night.’”

She shook her head. “Too obvious.”

“Okay, now you’ve changed the sentiment of the opening, where do you go from here? You’ve taken away the emotional contrast between the opening and the closing.”

“Hang on, I’m not done yet!” She stuck her tongue out at the drone. “Line seven. Change the spelling of ‘silent’ from ‘calm peaceful waiting sunset together’ to ‘heart hangs awkward tense breathless.’”

The glyphs changed. The drone tilted sideways, considering the new story. “You’ve left the story the same but changed the meaning entirely.”

She rubbed her hands together. “I’m just getting started. Eighth quadrant. What if we change the spelling of ‘music’ from ‘sweet light joyous exultation soaring’ to ‘sweet sorrow regret past haunting’?”

They stayed up until well into the night, writing and rewriting the drone’s story, until by the time her eyes grew heavy it had changed in meaning many times even though the words remained essentially the same. Eventually, she crawled beneath the covers, still fully dressed. The drone pulled the covers over her with a set of long, jointed manipulators that unfolded from its body. “Sweet dreams, little mouse,” it said.

“It still sucks,” she said.

“I know.”
But as for actually making the language? To the extent someone might speak or write it? Oh hell no.

Eunice and I are both language nerds (among other things), which means we have spent quite a lot of time thinking about and talking about the language spoken by residents of the City, but we didn’t even try to create the entire language.

Almost none of this is in the books, but we’ve created a 50-page background file about the world, which includes a fair bit about the language the characters speak. We know that:

  • The language started out as first a pidgin, then a creole of several pan-Asian languages, mashed together in the final tumultuous exodus from earth.
  • Somewhat unusually, the language that evolved from this pidgin remained tonal. (Most pidgins are atonal, even when they form at the intersection of tonal languages. This isn’t always true—Singlish is a counterexample—but it’s often true.)
  • The language was deliberately guided and shaped by the AIs on the generation ship (there’s no FTL in this universe).
  • It’s extremely complex, with multiple layers of connotation for every word.
  • The language has a writing system nothing like any existing language. It’s both ideographic and phonetic—there are thousands of ideographs, each of which represents a word, but each of which is also a phonetic character. You can write words phonetically using ideographs, and because the number of phonetic sounds is much smaller than the number of ideographs, words can be spelled in many different ways. For example, “water” has an ideograph, or it can be spelled phonetically with the ideographs for ‘deep-dark-dangerous,’ or it can be spelled phonetically with the ideographs for ‘calm-cool-refreshing.’ This means, among other things, a string of characters might represent a word and a sentence at the same time.
  • Because the writing system is so complex, children are taught to read and write with story wheels. A story wheel is a short, simple story written with each sentence drawn out along the spokes of a wheel. Children are asked to change the story by changing the ideographs that spell out words in the story: how does the meaning of the story change if you replace the word “water” spelled “deep dark dangerous” with the word “water” spelled “calm cool refreshing”?
  • The words in the language frequently contain vowel chains, and unlike Western languages, most or all the vowels are pronounced. The character Janaié, for example, pronounces her name “Jan-eye-AY,” not “Jan-EE” or “Jan-EYE.” Calaïas pronounces her name “kal-ay-EYE-ass.”
  • The language uses infixes and suffixes in place of articles or other semantic glue. There are formal and informal pronouns, and also group pronouns that vary depending on whether the speaker is or is not part of the group. Pronouns are sometimes, but not always, built into words as modifiers.

We have not developed a full-fledged language, and as neither of us is a conlanger, we’re unlikely ever to build the language of the City into something anyone can speak.

But we do have a sense of how the language works and what the language sounds like, and we’re building little snippets of it.

Only one tiny fragment of the language exists:

She stared at the night sky for a while, watching the stars twinkle beyond the shield. The larger moon glowed through wispy clouds just above the wall. After a time, she said, “Will you sing me a song?”

“Of course. What would you like to hear?”

“Sing me the song about the mouse in the moonlight.”

The drone floated higher. “As you wish.” Its voice changed, softening, becoming deeper as it sang.

Lahr Airiîthnē, na elerē, hauieira so vanawya elle
Lahr Airiîthnē, ye olowē, ramatriyá allanyo té hwell
Fandirhî håo on kyio noyinniara
Ran Apla, ye Apla, in méie jhonaíra
Lahr Airiîthnē, na elerē, vanasaya etra tun nos esserentiália

She closed her eyes as the song unfolded, pretending for just a moment that her naming ceremony was still off in some distant future, with endless days of play still stretching out before her. As the drone sang, she pictured the story wheel behind her eyes, the lines of the story arranged like spokes, each line both a word and a sentence.

The drone’s voice faded away at the end of the song. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “It’s not right,” she said.

“Right does not mean painless. This is necessary,” the drone said. “The little mouse has grown into a strong, beautiful person. I came to you to help guide you to this place. Now your path is entirely up to you. It’s time for you to step into yourself.”
We know enough about what the language sounds like, and the rules that are used to put words together, to do that much, but no way in hell are we ever going to create a whole language!

So the tl;dr: Yes, it’s helpful to know about the language, if the language affects your characters (which, if you do a deep enough dive into your society, it will).

It doesn’t matter if you base it on a real-world language or make it up from whole cloth. If you do want to invent words or phrases in a new language, it helps to have at least a cursory background in linguistics—Eunice and I have both done university-level coursework in linguistics—but it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary.

Does that mean you should invent an entire language? Probably not. If you do, be aware that this will take years, at least, possibly decades, and that’s all time you aren’t actually, you know, writing.