Constructed Languages like Elvish and Klingon are a vital part of much speculative fiction. But you needn’t be a linguist like Tolkein or Okrand to incorporate distinct fictional languages into your storyworld. You can use what we know about real-world languages to give the impression your characters are speaking different languages, even if your whole book is in a single language.
Back in 2014, I taught these principles at the Realm Makers conference in a talk called “Unventing Language.” I’ve since given that talk at several other conferences. In the hopes of teaching more writers these useful techniques, I’ve published a brief paper that’s now available on Kindle for only 99¢: Unventing Language: Using Real Languages to Inspire Fictional Ones*. A paperback is also available.
Inventing complete vocabularies and grammar for a ConLang is beyond the scope of this paper. What this little booklet does cover is how to un-vent a language (not a typo!) by mixing and matching elements of real languages to give each “language” in your story a distinct sound and feel.
Okay, so if “unvent” isn’t a typo, what is it? It’s a word coined by Elizabeth Zimmerman, one of the great knitwear designers of the 20th century, to describe her process of taking the knitting techniques she knew and combining them in new ways. She never felt she was “inventing” anything new, but only that she was “unventing.”
Topics include techniques best-selling writers have used in their work, how culture shapes language and vocabulary, and pitfalls to avoid when representing foreign languages in your manuscript. Although this research was originally done to support my own writing of science fiction and fantasy novels, the paper also contains techniques that can be used by writers in any genre of fiction (and also narrative nonfiction) that features international characters and settings.
* Amazon affiliate link. If you buy with this link, I pick up a few cents commission.
If this article was useful to you, please consider dropping a tip in my Ko-Fi jar.