Creating a language from scratch can seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be! Conlanging is its own art form, but you can give your readers the illusion of depth without actually doing all the language creation work. Of course, you won’t be able to write full poems, but your readers will see the words, and they’ll believe that there’s more to it! These five tips will help you make your fantasy language appear as deep and real, even if you don’t want to dive into the advanced stuff just yet.
Real languages are diverse —a fantasy language can be crazy!
In the real world, most languages are spoken, and some of them can be written too. But you’ve probably heard of sign languages, used mainly in the Deaf community. Those are real languages that are not spoken and yet can communicate everything a spoken language can! A more obscure (but just as cool!) example is Silbo Gomero, a dialect of Spanish that is whistled. Yep, you heard that right —no words, just whistles!
Think about your fantasy species’ needs. If they live underwater, it’s unlikely that they have a spoken language. If they are two-headed creatures, they will probably have the ability to make two sounds at the same time. Maybe your elves have skin patterns that they can change at will! If so, can they do it fast enough to create a visual language? The possibilities are endless!
Never forget the culture
Languages are strongly influenced by the speakers’ culture. A great example of this is the Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson. They don’t actually use words in a fantasy language, it’s all written in English. But there’s a culture that lives in a place with no birds, so when they see a bird from another place, they always call it chicken. A majestic eagle is a chicken, the pirate’s pet parrot is also a chicken.
Maybe your culture has a strong sense of hierarchy. You can then change the words people use to greet each other or to ask for a favor. In English we already do that: opening a formal email with a hey there is probably not a good idea! But you can go beyond that. Maybe formality is not influenced by who you’re talking to, but rather by the moon phase, for example! You’re writing about another world, so don’t feel limited. You can go beyond what we do in our own world.
In the real world, a single language is extremely diverse. Look at all the different ways in which English is spoken in our world! Just as adding different cultures within a single species is a good idea, doing so with a language is great too. This will let your readers or players know immediately where someone is from. That innocent-looking human using words from the enemy kingdom’s language? Probably not so innocent!
Avoid the common trope of having a single language per species, and even a single language per country. Most countries in the real world have several languages, even if only a single one is officially recognized. The American continent has hundreds of languages from the various indigenous peoples, for example.
How NOT to become Tolkien
Don’t get me wrong, Tolkien was a great writer and a great worldbuilder, and we should all be inspired by his works! But if your goal is not building a language for the sake of it, don’t do it. You don’t need to create a vocabulary list and a complete grammar —that’s for a different kind of nerd. Our kind of nerd takes the language and uses it as a support.
However, if you want a basic vocabulary list, World Anvil has you covered! The dictionary feature in the Language article template is a great way to organize your fantasy language. Check it out!
Always keep in mind your setting’s foundation: its tone, its themes, and also your motivation. Ask yourself what you want to do with the setting, and how adding this language will help you achieve this need. This will give you a clearer path to a consistent and integrated language for your world! Speaking of integration…
Integrating your fantasy language in your novels and RPG campaigns
How far can you go in showing your brand-new language to your audience? Well, that depends on who you are creating the world for. Having a long dialog in a fantasy language can be jarring for a reader who’s not interested in conlangs. But having idioms, greetings, or names? This is much better —it helps immerse the reader without overwhelming them with weird words.
Another way to represent your language is to describe it, especially if it’s not a spoken language. When you describe your species of color-shifting aquatic elves, I can assure your players will think it’s very cool! Similarly, you don’t even need to include the language as-is, but rather, you could use a “literal translation”. Have someone speak with idioms that only make sense to their obscure culture. Or make your characters speak in a way that is completely normal for that world while sounding very exotic to the readers.
You might not want to go so far as to create a full language, but a naming language is already a great resource! Naming languages are a set of rules you come up to make sure that all names from a certain region sound consistent. For example, a rule could be “all names are short and end with the letters ka“. Pretty useful to come up with not-so-random names!
Did we miss any important tips? Let me know in the comments! If you’re feeling adventurous, check out our introduction to advanced language creation too.