Should We Create a Language? - The Art of World Building
Jun 172021

We often benefit from questioning what goal we hope to achieve with our world building. This is true of inventing languages. Clarifying our motivation will help determine the degree to which we do this, if at all.

One reason to invent a language is vanity—we have a language all our own. This is arguably a poor excuse. Having a successful writing career or writing a bestseller will impress more people, if we care about such things. Time spent on our writing/gaming craft (or how to promote our work) is probably wiser.

Creating a naming language, discussed later in this chapter, is among the better reasons to craft a language as, at a minimum, it prevents every location or character in our world from having similar names. That said, if we look at a map of Earth, many names are similar across countries. One reason is the influence of Greek and Latin, which influenced not only English, but French and Spanish. We can therefore use a similar naming style in different sovereign powers.

A good reason to invent languages is that we may have different species in our setting and they sometimes greet others in their own language before switching to a common tongue. They might mutter under their breath in their language, or talk openly to members of their own species, thinking bystanders won’t understand. It can be good, and natural, to show (italics) these words. The other option is to tell, such as narrating, “They exchanged words in their own tongue right in front of the humans, not realizing that some of them knew enough to understand.” However, storytellers tend to not show greetings, etc., after initially showing some because they don’t advance a story; people who are often together may not bother greeting each other at all anyway; when was the last time you really greeted your friends or family in more than the most cursory fashion?

Creating the feel of another world is another reason to create a language, which lends credibility to the idea that this place is real. After all, it’s even got its own language (or several). This also makes us seem serious about our work. However, there are many other ways to do both, with a better return on our time investment.

We may feel that a language is expected, but that depends on medium. Book audiences don’t necessarily expect one whereas gaming, TV, and film probably do; a studio is likely to hire an expert for this. People may understand that this is a significant time investment for an author, but a studio has tons of people working on a project and money, too. Many authors just throw in phrases invented on the fly and which do not originate from a working language. This can give the impression that we’ve made a language when we haven’t. For some of us, this is enough.

But if our work is ever turned into a film, etc., much more language will be needed. Are we prepared to supply all of the phrases and train actors? Can we even do so? Because if we invented the language, no one can do it for us. And if we just made up junk phrases that don’t work, it can cost us respect among real conlangers. Most of us don’t have the luxury of worrying about this (our stories are unlikely to be optioned for film, etc.), but it’s something to consider. If a conlanger is hired to take over what we’ve done, they may have a hard time creating a complete language because our work is unusable.

We should also think about how often we’ll use the world. If it’s for one book, we could spend more time inventing the language than writing the book. By contrast, if this is the only or most in-depth world we’re going to create, one that we intend to use for decades, then the time or money investment is much more worth it.


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