Creating a language for your novel? Or maybe you’re conlanging – that’s creating a language – for your TTRPG game? Cam, linguistics specialist and creator of Vulgarlang Cam, takes us through how to get started!
If you’re jealous of Klingons and Dothraki, with their beautiful, deep languages – don’t fear! I’ve got a great step by step guide to creating a language for your world. Language forms a pretty huge part of a culture, so it stands to reason that your cultures should have their own way of speaking. These are conlangs (constructed languages).
I’m Cam from Vulgarlang, and we’re going to take you through some steps to make your own languages!
CREATING A LANGUAGE: SPELLING AND PRONUNCIATION
When creating conlangs, you’ll quickly realise English spelling is the worst invention ever.
Because English adopted an alphabet that was made for a totally different language (Latin), it has ended up with more irregular spellings than you can poke a spear at. As a result, you need to carefully clarify how each vowel is pronounced in your conlang. Even if you say “a is pronounced like in father”, well, I’m from Australia. If you’re from the US, you pronounce “father” differently from me.
This is why linguists and conlangers use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which uses dedicated symbols for each vowel and consonant in every language in the world. It can even account for different regional accents!
Your language can use any alphabet that you like (the Roman alphabet, Chinese characters, or your own custom-made alien script). But any good conlang should document how these letters are pronounced using IPA, before getting into the meat and potatoes of vocabulary or grammar.
Vulgarlang uses IPA for everything, so you’ll need to learn a little bit. Don’t try to learn it all! Just familiarise yourself with the IPA used in English, particularly in your regional accent. This guide is good for that. After that, you may want to add some more unusual sounds for flavour.
A word of advice though, don’t add too many unusual sounds! Less is more.
CREATING A LANGUAGE: THE VOCABULARY
The biggest trap beginner conlangers fall into is making every single word translate to a single English word. This doesn’t happen in real languages. 1:1 translations just aren’t possible sometimes.
Some random examples that come to my mind are: The Spanish word hoja means “leaf”, but it’s also the word used for a sheet of paper. And the word bomba means “bomb”, but can also be used to mean “balloon”. Some Languages use the same word for “hand” and “wrist”, or the same word for “beard” and “chin”.
On the other hand, a language might have two words for one English word. In Czech they say bratranec for a male cousin and sestřenice for a female cousin.
Lots of fun things can happen with pronouns. Malay has two words for “we” depending on whether the person you’re talking to is included: kita means “me and you” while kami means “me and them, but not you”. Meanwhile, Japanese has dozens of pronouns based on levels of formality (informal vs. formal vs. very formal) and the gender of the person being referred to. They even use different pronouns for “I” depending on gender.
If you want your conlang to feel real, it can’t just be English vocab with different words substituted in. Vulgarlang already does a lot of this stuff automatically when it’s building the dictionary, but you can come up with your own creative translation ideas too. Think outside the square/box/limit!
CREATING A LANGUAGE: GRAMMAR
Grammar is another area where you don’t want to copy English in every single way. Here are a few concepts to get you thinking.
If I tell you “the dog bit the man” you know who bit whom because of the order of the words. Flip the participants around and you have a news story.
But not all languages use word order the way English does. In some languages “the man bit the dog” is the actual order you would say to communicate that the dog bit the man! The doer of the verb comes after the verb. Alternatively, many languages will put the verb last “the dog the man bit” (Korean), or first “bit the man the dog” (Hebrew).
Playing with word order is a quick way to add some flavour to your conlang. You can move the articles to after the noun: “dog the bit man the”. Or move the adjectives: “the dog big bit the man fat”.
Some languages don’t even rely on word order, and instead use affixes. In Hungarian, the noun having the verb done to it gets an -t suffix. So, “dog bites man” would look something like: dog bites mant. But mant bites dog communicates the exact same thing, and so the language allows it! It only becomes a news story when man bites dogt.
English has affixes too! Past tense is typically formed by adding -ed to a verb: “I walk” vs “I walked”. In the future tense we use a separate word: “I will walk”. So, what do other languages do? Many strategies are possible.
Spanish uses suffixes for both past and future:
yo caminé – “I walked”
yo caminaré – “I will walk”
While Vietnamese uses different words for both:
tôi đã đi bộ – “I walked”
tôi sẽ đi bộ – “I will walk”
Many Asian languages don’t even have tense, and just use context to understand when something occurred.
You might have heard that languages like Spanish and French have different genders. Many English speakers really struggle with this concept. How exactly is a baguette feminine?
“Gender” in linguistics simply means that a noun follows a particular set of grammar rules, as opposed to another set. If a noun has no biological sex – such a baguette – its gender assignment is somewhat arbitrary. Language doesn’t always make sense!
In French, gender rules show up in a few places. The word “the” is le for masculine nouns and la for feminine nouns. And adjectives gain an -e on the end in the feminine form:
le petit appartement – “the small apartment”
la petite baguette – “the small baguette”
We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in language. It’s up to you how different from English you want your language to be. If you want to get more ideas for grammar head on over to VulgarLang and check out the kinds of grammar it creates. Another great resource is the Language Construction Kit, which has sections on Sounds and Grammar.
USING VULGARLANG TO CREATE A LANGUAGE
But if you’ve ever tried to sit down and construct a language (a “conlang”), you’ve probably realised that creating the right look and feel for words is hard. It’s also a mammoth task. You’ll need a few thousand words before you have enough vocab to have a fluid conversation. All that data needs to be tracked and documented.
VulgarLang is a website that helps you speed up this process. It generates a unique language for you, by selecting the sounds for language, formulating rules about how words are formed and making a 4000-word dictionary, along with grammatical rules, all in the click of a button. It also has a translator for each language, and the whole dictionary can be exported to World Anvil.
If you really need a language made fast for a campaign, Vulgarlang can do it all for you. You can use the information from this article to help you make it even more awesome. And finally, you can now import your whole language into a World Anvil language template, so you can reference it in your worldbuilding whenever you need to!
Author: Cam (Linguistx)
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