By its nature, speculative fiction takes us to strange new worlds, and with strange new worlds comes the potential for strange new languages. This probably brings to mind Tolkien’s Elvish languages or Marc Okrand’s Klingon. These are such rich, lifelike languages that they give an additional level of depth to those cultures. Most of us, though, aren’t scholars and linguists like Tolkien and Okrand. Don’t worry. You don’t need to be to add some linguistic depth to your worldbuilding. Creating a relatively simple naming language can do the trick.
What’s a Naming Language?
A naming language is a basic constructed language (conlang) with limited vocabulary and grammar. Naming languages are used primarily for naming places and characters. A solid, well developed naming language could also be used for phrases. A naming language could develop into a full conlang eventually, but only a few steps are needed to get naming.
1. Pick Your Sounds
Decide on what sounds you want to include in your language. You could use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) here, but it’s not necessary. You could choose your sounds based on and described by English, but it’ll be harder to make it interesting and different. For the middle road, you need to know that linguists define consonants by two characteristics: place of articulation and manner of articulation (mostly characterized by the degree of closure of the lips). This creates a grid.
English has gaps in the grid, so choosing sounds that fill those gaps and deleting sounds to create new gaps is a great way to make it so your naming language doesn’t sound like English.
Vowels can also be organized in a basic grid, defined by height (of the tongue in the mouth) and frontness (the tongue’s position front to back). More layers of vowel distinctions include the shape of the lips (o vs. e) and the length (long or short in English).
2. Build a Lexicon
In real languages, place names tend to be descriptive and people’s names mean something, or at least did at one time. Thus, a good place to start your lexicon is with geographical terms, like river and mountain, and common nouns, like tree and bird. Then add to your vocabulary some associated modifiers. Basic adjectives are great — you can put together names like rocky mountain or tall tree. You could also add some verbs and adverbs to get singing river or silly bird. As you continue with your worldbuilding or storytelling, add new words to your lexicon. Just remember to be consistent with the sounds you chose earlier.
3. Write a Grammar
For a naming language, you won’t need much grammar. You probably won’t need rules for complicated sentence structure or multiple vowel tenses. Even for names, though, you’ll want to determine some basics. In English, adjectives come before nouns they modify, so we have the Great Lakes — but in Spanish, it’s reversed, thus the Rio Grande. Plurals and capitalization are also likely to come up in naming, so create a rule for how to handle those situations.
You may find you need to make additional grammar decisions as you build your naming language, like whether to use compound words or not. As you do with your lexicon, keep track of whatever grammar rules you invent so you can stay consistent.
Try to think through the implications of rules as well, since grammar can get complicated over otherwise simple ideas. In English, plurals are simple when you just add an s to the end, but get difficult when combined with words that already end in s.
4. Choose a Writing System
This step is not necessary in all cases. If you are looking for a language that sounds different, you’ll have one by the end of step three. At this point you can do everything (map labels, names, phrases) with an English alphabet translation. The result will be like English maps or guidebooks of foreign places. But if you also want it to look different, you can go a step further and create a simple writing system too. There are three basic writing systems:
- Alphabets use letters, typically less than 50, to represent sounds.
- Syllabaries use symbols to represent syllables, and typically need about 100.
- Logographies use characters to represent words, and typically require hundreds.
Within each are different varieties and subsets, and natural languages can use a combination of elements. After you decide what system will work best for you, you can choose or create the characters to fit. For ease and clarity, it’s a good idea to make each character unique. In natural languages, cultures tend to add distinguishing features to characters that are too similar.
Tips, Tricks and Other Things to Consider
- There are a lot of interesting spoken and written languages here on earth. Studying some of them, at least a little, can help keep your naming language from behaving too much like any single one. They are also a wonderful source of inspiration.
- Keep it pronounceable. Words that are too different can act like breaks in the flow of a story as the reader stops and tries to figure it out. Try for a balance between the unfamiliar and the cumbersome.
- Clichés are found in conlangs, too. There’s dozens of conlangs with an overdose of dashes and apostrophes, or an evil speech impediment that causes villains to only speak in harsh consonants.
- Are you developing a naming language for an alien race? Think about how the shape of the mouth could affect the sounds in your language. There are also possibilities other than spoken language for communication between aliens.
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