Friday, March 30, 2012

World Building Series: Language Construction -- Part I

Hello Readers :)

I decided to do yet another post within my World Building Series, this time focusing on language construction.  Being a lover of language, especially in Fantasy, I believe this is one of the many elements that sets the genre apart from the rest.

I mean... How exciting is it to open up a new book and find a glossary?!?  I love the challenge and the 'secret' invitation to get inside the head of the author.  How the author forms the language, how it is used by the characters, and how the author incorporates it into the book are all things that make for a stimulating read.  At least for me.

{Please leave a comment on this.  I want to get to know my readers, and not only their thoughts on my posts, but also their thoughts on this in particular.  Having created two different languages for my series The Chronicles of Aesiranyn, I want to also find out if my audience is as receptive of constructed languages as I am.}

I spent years trying to perfect my first language (Jeremiah can attest to this).  At first I got in my own way.  I was just creating words--with truly no fluidity or method of organization.  I even complicated things by trying to incorporate too much complexity into the language.  I was my own worse enemy.

I finally had a breakthrough when I realized I needed to simplify.  A lot.  It was overhaul time, but where to begin?  Sure, the words I created were wicked neat (as we say in New England) and evocative of their true meanings, but there was no cohesiveness to their styles or potential etymology.  I almost scrapped it completely, but I ran across something that changed my outlook on Tolkien's genius and fantasy languages altogether.

 Jeremiah and I took a sojourn to Lansing, Michigan one chilly winter's afternoon and our paths led us to a newly finished outdoor mall.  I can't recall if we went there specifically or happened to stumble upon it, but at any rate, they had one of the largest bookstores I had ever seen (I've seen much larger ones since, but this was a great find for us at the time).  While browsing the shelves, my eyes were drawn to the bright red binding and the title of the book pictured above: The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth by Ruth S. Noel.

The image is perhaps too small to read the block of text under the title, so I will oblige all of you with a transcription: A complete guide to all fourteen of the languages Tolkien invented.

Yes.  You read it correctly.  Fourteen!  I figured if it gives me even the slightest inclination as to how he did it with fourteen, then surely I should be able to create at least one!

I read that thing from cover to cover.  Twice.

And then I re-read it with a journal and pen to take notes on all the helpful information it contained.  It is in no way a reference guide to how Tolkien did it, but it contained enough clues for me to discern a pattern and methodology.  And with my journal now full of notes, hints, and questions for me to ask myself about my own language, I decided to jump in head first.

I also discovered something important.  Tolkien didn't create his languages from scratch, he had a little help.  I am not saying that Tolkien wasn't a genius because he didn't create his language from scratch--because he absolutely was one; I am saying that perhaps the fact that he decided to use an existing language for guidance proved his very genius.  Why not borrow parts of a language that already has all of the 'kinks' worked out?  It made perfect sense to me, so that's what I decided to do.

As Tolkien based his language upon Finnish (whether it was just one--or perhaps all fourteen--I am not certain), I, too, decided to structure [at least parts of] my language on an existing one.... well, many, actually.  Parts of my language are derived from Gaelic, parts from French, parts from Latin, parts from Finnish, parts from Hebrew (the list actually goes on, but I will spare you from its entirety).

Also, like Tolkien, I decided to use combination forms of words so that I could create better-formed proper nouns--names of characters and places and important things.  The name of my language itself is a perfect example, so let's take a closer look at that.

The word [pronounced TAY-AHN-GREE-EL] is formed from two combination forms to create a single word:  teang (from the word teangos, meaning tongue, or language) + riel (the word for silver)... which means that the word "Teangriel" actually means Silver Tongue.

All of my characters names, place names, and proper nouns are formed this way, the only difference is that the combination forms are usually separated by a "·" symbol--an unpronounced, but needed, separator.  The word Teangriel, of course is one exception and is formed irregularly... though at one point in my world's history, before it was dropped because the two parts of the word became one over time, it existed between the "G" and "R" of the word.

Here is an example of a regularly-formed proper noun :

Quin·riel [pronounced QUEEN-REE-EL] is formed from quin (from quielan, meaning holly) + riel (the word for silver).  You guessed it: the name means "Silver Holly" and is the name of the Tzandas (or, for the closest English term, Princess) of Aesiranyn.

Since this post is getting rather long, I will end it and continue where I left off in a future post.  Keep your eye out for it! :)

Until then,


  1. I love constructed languages--or even existing ones. I get a rush out of opening a book and finding a glossary! If an author has taken time to either construct a language for an imagined place or incorporate the real language of their setting, it tells me their research was thorough, and my experience of the book is going to be that much more authentic--almost like visiting that place myself.

    For example, I just read a book set in Berlin. The main characters lived on an American military base and spoke English at home and school, since they went to school on base. BUT, every time they went out into Berlin proper, they spoke German to shopkeepers. It made the story so authentic to me, made me feel like I was really there with them, because I knew that these characters, if they were real, would have had that experience. It's all very well to assume that people on an American military base speak English, but they would need at least a limited command of German in Berlin itself. Getting the dialect right is really important to me as a reader/writer too. It's quite possible that I'm a language snob, but I've had whole books ruined for me by British characters who spoke Australian English. It's part of why I've never written down more than basic outlines of the stories I have in my head that are set in various places in the UK--I want the story to be authentic, and the language to be authentic, and I fear that my Irish characters would come off sounding decidedly American.

    I think authors who don't include at least a few dropped words of the language of their setting short-change the setting and the reader. If the author owns the setting, they need to own the language as well. And if they don't, then the reader isn't going to buy into the story as much.

    Sorry...could go on for hours about this!

  2. Elizabeth,

    First off, thank you once again for your comment :) I get a huge smile on my face each time I see that a comment has been left, and an even bigger smile when I find out it's you. :)
    Secondly, don't apologize! You could say that I, too, am a bit of a language snob. I am glad to have found another amongst my readers and friends. At times I wondered if I was the only one. Having said what you did, I am even more excited for you to read my manuscript!

    Keep the Comments coming Elizabeth!

    And everyone else, too!


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