Creating Languages for Science Fiction or Fantasy

Earlier this week, I did Ten Tips on Orson Scott Card’s wonderful book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I decided his advice on language needed its own post. OSC gives a great deal of helpful information on a topic I have seen done poorly numerous times. Here’s his list of language do’s and don’ts.

Language No-Nos:

1. If you’re not a linguist like Tolkien, don’t create an entire language because you’ll likely just embarrass yourself. A few words are generally sufficient.

2. Don’t make up words or phrases just to sound foreign. If mugubasala is bread, just say bread! Save new words for ideas and objects that you created that truly have no English equivalent.

3. If the human mouth can’t pronounce it, don’t use it. This goes for names, too.

4. Don’t throw in a word or phrase you created and then not translate it for the reader. This is highly irritating. It’s most common to immediately translate it, although you can delay the translation a little bit if it’s for a good reason.

Name tag for a badly named character

Language Tips:

1. Remember it might be more powerful to show differences in culture than in language. For example, instead of your standard greeting being the made up word, “Zurple,” OSC suggests, “God give me strength not to kill you for having seen my ugliness.” To which the appropriate reply might be, “God forgive me for not blinding myself at once after having beheld your glory.”

2. Use your made up language, jargon, or slang judiciously. It’s a lot more fun to create than it is for your reader to slog through. Most of the time, you’ll use just a few terms to imply a jargon or cant. This goes for all of you writing a character with a cockney accent, too. Don’t drive your readers crazy with language.

3. When writing about people of high station living in heroic times, a more formal, elevated level of diction is called for. Here’s a sentence OSC wrote three times to illustrate this point:

Too coarse:  He dragged her over by the fireplace and yelled for Crimond to go the doctor because Sevora was out cold.

Too over the top:  Gently he laid her on the pliant bearskin before the merrily dancing flames of the hearth, then send Crimond, his astonished and frantic dwarf, to fetch the cirurgeon (notice the ridiculous spelling).

The correct level of diction:  He laid her gently on the thick fur before the hearth, then sent his dwarf to fetch the surgeon.

4.  When dealing with profanity or vulgarity, once again, OSC challenges you to think creatively. He insists that simply making up a new curse word doesn’t work and cited a few examples. This was pre-Battlestar Galactica, though, and I don’t think anyone can argue with the success of “Frak.” Still, I liked his advice to once again think of this culturally. In the US, one of our big taboos is sex. What if an alien came from a very casual sex culture but on his planet keeping property that you withhold from general use is seen as terrible as we see adultry?  He’s going to get his face slapped by a lot of women, but he might be outraged at his date’s walk-in closets.

Up Next:  The Four Basic Story Models for Science Fiction and Fantasy, or, How to Finish the Story You Started.

3 thoughts on “Creating Languages for Science Fiction or Fantasy

  1. Lara you are so very right. I recently read a story where I struggled so much with the language that I gave up entirely, but when it is done right (my example King’s Dark Tower Series) the language becomes infectious, such as his use of ‘kenit’, etc.

  2. I’ve adopted “gorram” from Firefly into my personal vocabulary.

    One thing that helps, I think, is keeping track of root words. C. S. Lewis (another linguist) created “Old Solar” for his Space Trilogy and it uses the same syllables to mean the same things–for example Venus, Earth, and Mars in Old Solar are Peralandra, Thulcandra, and Malacandra. Also having a consistent formation for plurals and for verb tenses helps to make the language sound realistic.

    • Excellent point, Misha, and one that I might not have thought of. That just drives home to me, though, that I shouldn’t ever try to create an entire language. I would definitely be one of the authors that just embarrasses herself.

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