Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Making Up Languages in Writing

J.R.R. Tolkein did it. He loved making up languages, creating (among other ones in less depth) two different Elvish tongues, Qenya and Sindarin, for his books set in Middle Earth.

Ash nazg thrakatul√Ľk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. My daughters used to run around chanting this when they were young, especially after I found the actual One Ring online with those very words inscribed on them in Elvish writing. It made for a great Christmas present(s)! Translated, the words mean: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

In the 1990s, I included some Hindi phrases in a YA book I was writing set in alternate-India. It was great fun researching. One of the fascinating things I learned was that for Hindi, the tongue is placed differently for sounds like “t” and “d.” It’s more of a “dental” tongue placement; where English-spreaking people usually say these consonants with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth (alveolar ridge), Hindi speakers say them with the tongue touching just behind their teeth. Cool!

My new YA novel, my WIP (work-in-progress) is a fairy tale retelling. The main character does not speak the language of humans; she calls it “human-speak.” Of course, from her viewpoint, she speaks the English words that I’m writing in the narrative and usual dialogue, so when I had her attempt to communicate with a human, I decided to invent a language that would be “human-speak.” Such fun! For the base of my ideas for these words, I blended bits of French, Spanish, and Latin together to come up with a unique language all its own.

The caution with using real languages as well as made-up ones is not to overdo it. Readers may not be as entranced at your authentic or invented words as you are. Use them sparingly, like salt—for flavor, rather than heavily saturated. This is similar to using dialect or presenting people from other cultures or geographic areas or educations (dropping the g’s at the end of words, for instance): it’s very easy to overwhelm the page and the reader. I realized this when I got a little weary inventing more and more words. I decided my reader would be tired of it as I was getting; I had to go back and pare some usages down. Flavor, not saturation.

Have you ever made up a language in a short story or novel you’ve written?
Have you ever included a foreign language in your manuscripts? Spanish, French, etc?
Have you memorized the Elvish inscription/chant for The One Ring?
JK Rowling carefully based her magical chants in Harry Potter on Latin. Do you know some wand commands from the books—what is the forbidden spell that kills others?



  1. I've never tried to come up with a whole new language. The most I've done is steal a word from a known language other than English, or used dialect. Using it sparingly is definitely the key.

  2. I never came up with a new language, but I did create spells and words from a new world. I had to write them on index cards to keep them all straight.

  3. I have an epic fantasy I made up words for. Not many, but hopefully enough for flavor as you said.

  4. This is interesting. I've never made up my own language for a story, although my kids and I have a few of our own customized words we made up when they were young. "Flavor, not saturation" - I love that, and agree completely. I've read books with, in my opinion, too much dialect and whatnot. I understand the general point of using it, but it's overuse gets tiring and hard to follow. Thanks for sharing, Carol. Have a great weekend! :)

  5. Some of my drawer manuscripts have foreign language words, but I don't think back then I used them in a convincing way.

  6. I haven't done this yet. I've changed words for worldbuilding, but that's about it. I'm amazed by anyone who can do this!

  7. LOL. I had this whole HUGE fantasy writing stage, so YES, I've created a few languages--even figured out the script. (That was the best part.) I'm with you that they have to be used sparingly, and I love how it bends the mind to think about the phonetics of different languages. Seriously, why do we have a c & k say the same thing, or a c & s?

  8. Actually, it's because of Tolkien that I shy away from inventing my own languages and look warily at those of others -- it has to be done as perfectly as he did or I don't want to waste time on it! :-)


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