From Tolkien’s Elvish to Marc Okrand’s Klingon to David J. Peterson’s Dothraki – nothing convinces a Fantasy reader or viewer more that they are dealing with a completely new world than characters in the book or film suddenly talking in a completely different language. It gives you that feeling of depth and authenticity, of a substantial culture with its own laws, own rites, own gods.
What exactly is Conlanging?
The word ‘conlang’ is short for ‘constructed languages’, meaning languages that – as opposed to natural languages like German, Chinese, Zulu, or Aramaic – haven’t been developed and formed by a group of people over centuries, but were invented by generally one single person over the course of a few months or years.
Why Conlanging differs from coming up with complicated looking names
In many books I have read or leafed through the ‘problem’ of a new, alien language in Fantasy literature is often approached in a way where the author just smashes random, hardly used letters together, until the word (often place names or first names, sometimes also names of artifacts) looks so strange it vaguely reminds you of a keyboard smash: ‘Krbygtdhhszt’.
Another, popular method of defamiliarizing names is the use of diacritics randomly placed on every possible vowel without any purpose other than making the word look ‘fancy’ or ‘fantastically’. Then we get things like ‘Kûzītàlĕ’ or ‘Ëmítælý’. I should do that to my name as well: ‘Élêòņõrē’. Immediately looks way more exciting, doesn’t it?
Some of you now will (rightfully) argue that Tolkien uses diacritics in his languages all the time. Just think of Anduríl, Aragorn’s famous sword. There’s a diacritics on the u. Or Khazard-Dûm, the underground city of the dwarves. Again, there’s a diacritic. In both cases, however, these diacritics function as markers for a long vowel. That we have two different markers for the same purposes is because these words come from two different languages. That is in no way comparable to the over-the-top usage of diacritics without any function apart from making a word look ‘cool’. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about this, but I for one notice if someone has actually thought about what words or word fragments mean (and you don’t even need to invent an entire language complete with grammar and all to do that!), or just randomly placed diacritics on sounds and letter combinations that aren’t common in European languages.
How to invent your own language
You don’t need a complete grammar of your own conlang on your bookshelf in order to be a conlanger. Everyone with a basic understanding of the culture or cultures of their world can make something out of it. E.g. I want to name a city, in which a tribe of war-mongering dwarves has been dwelling for centuries. That this name has to sound different to a settlement full of wise wizards is pretty obvious.
So, I’m going to call my dwarf city Kuzkar, because to my Tolkien primed eyes and ears this comes closest to looking and sounding like something dwarfish, and my wizard town will be called Ashmut, not based on anything, simply because I like the sound.
Now, I could say for instance that the dwarves call their city something like ‘dwarf city’. Pretty boring, pretty uncreative, but maybe my dwarves are just like that, boring and uncreative. Fighting wars and battles all the time probably doesn’t give you a lot of time for the beautiful and creative things in life. I’m just going to say that kuz means ‘dwarf’ and kar means ‘city, dwelling, settlement’. So, now I have two words with which I can equip the entire dwarven realm. The dwelling of the wizards could be called Radukar (radu = ‘wizard’), a town full of humans perhaps Mezkar (mez = ‘human’), one with Elves Dorkar (dor = ‘elf’).
Then, a dwarven-made sword could be called kuzbis with bis meaning ‘sword’. Now my dwarves not only have the necessary words for things like ‘dwarf sword (= dwarven-made)’, but also ‘wizard sword’, ‘man sword’, and ‘elf sword’. And there’s no stopping now: Say, I have a dwarven-made sword from the dwarven city, I’m going to call it kuzbarkuzbis, meaning ‘dwarf city dwarf sword’. It’s not that difficult, eh?
With wizards, things look a bit different. Instead of saying the ash in Ashmut means ‘wizard’ and mut means ‘city, dwelling, settlement’, I decide that my wizards name things a bit more creatively than my dwarves. In my story, the wizarding settlement Ashmut might have been built upon the ruins of an old city that functioned as a haven for the exiled and the prosecuted and thus gained the name Ashmut, meaning ‘hope’. Now, I have a pretty word which doesn’t help a lot in the development of other place names. Additionally, the word is quite possibly a few hundred years old, it’s probably obsolete by now and therefore no longer in use … you see, the whole thing turns out to be much more complicated than expected.
So I need to continue inventing: Dwarves might be known to the wizards as ‘the Fighting Ones’ and are called Yeshoram. I now say that yeshor means ‘war, fight’, and the suffixed am does something to the noun that it becomes ‘The Fighting Ones’. What exactly it is that am does, I’m not going to specify, I’ll just leave that to the resident language nerds. I’m just going to continue and say that the wizards call themselves ‘The Banished Ones’, because they live on the ruins of a former safe haven for banished people. They just think a little more complicated and creative than the dwarves, we already noticed that. The word for ‘banishment’ will be alashur, and combined with the suffix am we now have Alashuram, meaning ‘The Banished Ones’. So, now this am can be suffixed to everything that denotes a people, a line of work, a social status. Men for instance are called Tehalam, ‘The Feeling Ones’ (you can ponder over whatever deeper meaning this might have), and elves are called Caytaram, ‘The Long-living Ones’.
And if one of my characters, a wizard, whispers to another character, a dwarf: ‘This is Meren, he is one of the Caytaram’, the dwarf replies, confused: ‘A what?’, to which the wizards says: ‘One of the long-living folk’. Now, the dwarf understands and noddingly replies: ‘I see, a Dorkar!’.
Linguistics: An essential tool
Of course, those are only examples of a language base. I can now create one or two words to name places and artifacts, but I’m still a long way from creating whole sentences. Most of the time, this is enough – you don’t have to pull a Tolkien to give things meaningful names.
Sometimes, however, you want to do exactly that and would like to write the occasional poem in that language, or just have your characters talk more than a few fragmented words.
I know from personal experience: You need fundamental knowledge in the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax, and language typology, as well as patience, resilience, and a lot of creativity. A bachelor degree in linguistics or something comparable, is obviously the best way to go, but that shouldn’t keep anyone who loves (constructed) languages from at least trying. My own conlanging beginnings weren’t exactly the bees knees either, but I had so much fun I even ended up studying linguistics.