Anyone who knows me knows that I love languages. I have a great appreciation for them but a very small brain and while I speak a little bit of a handful of them, I confess I’m only fluent in English. But honestly, that might not even be true. Language is my favorite part of creating fantasy worlds. Let’s start this one with a short rant.
Punch the Common Tongue in the Face
The “common tongue” appears in fantasy novels as that language that everyone speaks. Everyone. Where did they learn it? Who created it? What defines it as the common language of all people, even when the two nations might be on opposite sides of the world and never interact? I don’t know but I’ve always hated it. I am NOT talking about a lingua franca which is a common language developed between native speakers whose languages are different. Consider them like languages of trade or what might develop on a border but like say if one develops between Escan and the Kells in my setting, it probably wouldn’t be so common that someone in Slovy (very far away) would know it. Lingua francas are very valid though. Would love to see more of them. Absolutely fuck the common tongue.
What Language You Speak
Languages are very important. Beyond…y’know…being the way we communicate with each other. It also dictates how and even where we might stand in society. It’ll give clues as to where we’re from and given that some words exist in languages but not in others, it’ll also influence how we relate to the world around us. I juggle a lot of languages in my setting and mentioning languages or how many your character may speak can say a lot about them. It can even clue into the current state of the world.
A thing I think about almost every time I write a scene is “what language are my characters speaking?” When I have a lot of characters from several different countries and I can say for sure “oh they’re speaking Escan” it says a lot more about the setting than one would think. or not
Like. Alright. Everyone in the room is speaking Escan but only one person is a native speaker. Why? Well, Escan is an Empire, it’s taken over a lot of land, they’ve set up a lot of schools and such for the sole purpose of having their language become dominant. Because of Escan’s prominence as a worldly power, their language then became synonymous throughout the world as being “educated” or high-class some a group of people who aren’t from there might speak it because it’s more respected. Mentioning what language my characters are speaking is such a small detail but it adds to the world’s development. Your characters aren’t speaking the language you’re typing in. They’re speaking their own. (I mean…unless your story takes place in the real world then I guess…disregard this).
Some nations had court languages. Languages that were not native to the country itself but was considered pompous enough to only be spoken by rich folk and it’s a detail I love to steal. Or think about what came first. The language or the country? Do certain languages have other implications rather than being just a form of communication? (i.e languages used only for holy texts). Are there dead languages? Ones really hard to learn? What do characters do when presented with someone who does not speak the same language as them? Would they expect them to be able to? Does anyone flex how many languages they can speak?
I personally love having multilingual characters at least to live through them and also because there’s a lot of world building you can get away with by just…adding it to the conversation. Which brings me to a point I want to mention but that’s better left to my next fancy header.
How You Speak
This means dialects, accents, word choice, you name it. This stuff all seems so obvious in the real world. I’m from New England. I speak differently than my mom who lives in Georgia. These are things we all notice and talk about now but sometimes gets overlooked in writing.
I mentioned court languages above. Let’s go back to the Escana Empire. Let’s take a look at the capital city of Graza and our main character, Prince Argus.
Argus has lived in Graza is whole life. His native language is Escan. In one scene he meets another Escana citizen who grew up in a different town, is not a member of the nobility/royal class and she says she can hardly understand him despite speaking the same language.
This is because the people who rule the empire are want to sound a certain way. They like to spell their words a certain way. They even speak and pronounce some of their words a way that’s not common in the rest of the country. Their accents are obviously different. Now. Is it a hugely important detail? Probably not but knowing that people in Graza speak the same language differently than the people in the middle of nowhere adds something to my setting. It gives the defined rules of “everyone speaks the same language I made up” more breathing room and it makes it feel like there’s this rich history behind these decisions that brought Argus to speaking his native language in a different way than this character speaks her’s.
Characters should speak differently. Not just in dialogue but it could help you write dialogue that grounds them more in their setting if you know certain intentions and choices behind their word choice. The detail I wanted to mention was in a scene where a character had to translate something she noted the way people who speak Geg (another precious fictional language) refer to themselves in a way that seems arrogant to others because it’s pronounced and spelled a similar way that they’d refer to their monarch. But you’d only see someone from the upper classes do this. Someone who works in a shop and owns like 2 pairs of shoes would not do this. Or maybe they would if they were particularly feeling themselves that day.
The way we speak our languages can be a great factor to show the specifics of a setting. It gives an air of variety to something you never actually have to show (can you write out your language’s alphabet and write full sentences of it? Sure but you don’t have to). And even so much as mentioning what languages character choose to speak might say a lot about them and the world they live in and could also just continue to have an impact on your world. Going back to Geg, there’s two forms of it. Lowlander Geg and Highlander Geg. Highlander Geg actually sounds a lot more like a language that isn’t Geg at all and it actually upsets a lot of the people who speak Lowlander Geg. Or How Escan is very close to another language, which shares similarities to yet another language and Argus translates to the second language first whenever he needs to write or speak in the third.
How I Create Languages
A lot of people seem to find this daunting. When I tell people there’s at least 12 in my setting they act as if I’ve done something impressive. I haven’t.
So. I want to create a language. Usually, I have an idea of what I want it to sound like and what I want to base it off of first. I have a few things I can string together to create the rest of the language, and by that I mean a few other names and words I’ll end up sprinkling into the story (and the rare full sentence) to give it a sense of realness.
It’s important of course to keep these inspirations consistent unless the language has since developed outside influences or if no word in the base language exists for the word that’s being borrowed. I don’t dive too deep in the history of the language’s creation but there are distinct sounds I usually keep in mind. What sounds or spelling variations are common? What came first? Written or spoken? How has their language influenced the culture? (Do they have certain sayings, a focus on its written form, etc)