Building a Language

I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd, undoubtedly a product of growing up semi-bilingual. When I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be a professional traveler, riding around on airplanes and speaking languages for people (I would later learn that was called being an interpreter, but I totally thought I had made up that job all by myself). As I grew older, I became increasingly frustrated with English’s lack of words to describe a concept I could hold in my head but not name (hello, Schadenfreude). So, I made up my own language.

It started out as something to entertain me- what words would I smash together to make up this idea I was trying communicate (see: Pinkie Pie’s “nervoucited”- when you are both nervous and excited about an upcoming event) but eventually it grew into something more. I started thinking about the culture that would have made this language – what words would they need an why? How was their language shaped by their beliefs and interactions? Why would a shapeshifter have a word for gender when such a concept was not fixed? If you could be male, female or neither, and still be you, why have a word for it at all? So they didn’t. But magic was important to them, and much like there being 17billion Inuit words for snow, different modes of magic making got different names.

Most of this fell away in college when I stopped writing, but I’m resurrecting it for Asylum, and learning some interesting things as I transcribe my notes, such as:

  • Apparently I knew what I was doing. As I unlock new words in my head, they fit in with words I had forgotten, such as “sh” meaning through and “sha” meaning woman- a smash up of “through” and “self” (represented as “a”), ya know, like birth. My self passed through her.
  • I also apparently have favorite letters, and not favorite letters. So far, I have no words starting with B, F, G, Q or T-Z, but I have nearly a dozen each for K, I and R, including the very important kism for Fate/weave, il’li for Balance/mate and ramn for dance.
  • It is incredibly difficult for me to “undo” some words in my head. My “thank you” (o’bene) which I thought I’d come up with all on my own was probably first kicking around in my subconscious as the ha’Shmla “o’hena”, which I didn’t remember seeing in the Keisha’ra, but there it was. I also can’t seem to kick “bien/bon” as “good” or “mal” as bad.
  • I have some pretty lofty ideas for how society should view the world. For example, referencing someone in the present is very rude, because it denies them their eternal existence in the grand scheme of things. So the present tense modifier is very ugly and sits poorly in the mouth and completely destroys the flow of an otherwise very musical language.

It’s been great fun, and greatly frustrating to try and sort this all out, but in the end I think it will be worth it. We have some ideas that just don’t translate over to the English without being a messy compound word, like “sister/cousin” to denote someone of your generation- the actual blood relation is irrelevant. Your sister/cousin may be a full blood relative, or no relation at all, but still someone you grew up with in the village nest. Instead of over-explaining the concept in text and disrupting everything, we’ll simply make an appendix with key words and use them in text instead. It’ll slow the reader down, at first, but that’s good. We want them to re-think the concept, not just gloss over the idea. The sister/cousin idea isn’t as important, but some of the other concepts are, and I like the idea of the foreign word acting as a literary speed bump.

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4 thoughts on “Building a Language

  1. Building a language sounds like a lot of work. It’s amazing how some authors have actually done this for their story worlds. I mean…just look at what Tolkien did, yikes!!

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    • There are surprisingly many who do it, though not many that take it to the level he did. But there are simply some concepts we need new words for, and after a while, it gets kind of addicting. 🙂

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