The Four Rules of Using Fake Words

If your story takes place in another world, none of your characters are really speaking English. They aren’t telling stories or recording history in English; they’re doing it in the language you invented for them. An English language book describing their journey is clearly an anachronism. Why not write your novel in their language instead?

Because you would be breaking these four rules, that’s why.

The First Rule of Using Fake Words

Avoid Using Fake Words

It’s fun to invent a language and special terms for your characters to use, and it would be a pity to leave those inventions out of your stories. In fact, there are some good reasons to include them:

  • Avoiding Anachronisms: The last thing you want is for a reader to stop and blink after your character mentions a “meter” or a “second.” It might be better to use fake words instead.
  • Setting the Atmosphere: Your world isn’t Earth, and if you use nothing but Earth words, your reader might never know. You can remind them that the story they’re reading isn’t just any old story by using unique words.

But there are also some pitfalls:

  • Confusing Readers: Earth readers aren’t too bright; they only understand Earth languages. The more fake words you use, the harder it will be for them to understand your sentences, much less appreciate the story those sentences are building.
  • Sounding Ridiculous: Making good words is hard. Unless they’re just right, they won’t feel natural, and your readers will laugh. If you’re writing a comedy, then great! Otherwise, fake words can wreak havoc on the mood you’ve toiled over.

Notice something about these pros and cons? The pros are little molehills you can step up on. The cons are bottomless pits that can erase your story from the bestseller lists. When in doubt, don’t risk it – use a real word.

The Second Rule of Using Fake Words

Use Fake Words for Fake Things

There may not be English words for the things in your world. If the inhabitants have a strange companion animal that’s green and six-legged, it’s fair to invent a word to call it by.

Remember those blue horses from Avatar? Exactly. Remember those blue horses from Avatar? Exactly.

But let’s be real. If your companion animal barks, wags its tail, and herds green sheep, then it’s not fake; it’s a dog. You can give it wings and purple polka dots if you want, but as long as it does what a dog does, a dog it is. Or at least a hound, mongrel, or canine. If you try to pass a dog off as something else, your audience will know, and they’ll think you’re putting on airs.

On the other hand, if your animal scales the walls to lick dust off the top shelf, just calling it a “dog” would be misleading. Once it violates reader expectations by sticking to the ceiling, they might question everything else you’ve established.

If you prioritize substance over style, you’ll know when something is unique enough to require a new term. Put thought into making your world different, then communicate how it works as clearly as you can.

The Third Rule of Using Fake Words

Use Real Words for Your Fake Words

You have a fake thing or concept, and you need a new term to represent it. But don’t go to town just yet; you still shouldn’t make your term from scratch. Instead, reuse and recombine English words. Doing so comes with a host of advantages:

  • Context: Your choice of English words will offer hints about your term’s meaning. With these hints, your readers are less likely to become frustrated and confused.
  • Pronunciation: Your readers will know how English words are pronounced, so they will also know how to pronounce your new term. They won’t get distracted or irritated by words they can’t sound out.
  • Seriousness: If you don’t create your own words, you don’t risk breaking the mood with something that sounds silly.

As an example, let’s look at two words from the world of Harry Potter:

  • Muggle: A muggle is a person without magic. The word itself offers no hint as to its meaning. It requires more explanation, and readers must remember that explanation without a clue from the term itself. It also sounds silly.
  • Mudblood: “Mudblood” is an offensive term for someone who has magic, but is descended from a muggle. It’s derived from two English words; together, readers can extrapolate that it’s an insult based on lineage. It sounds more natural than muggle.

In this case, the Potterverse is intentionally silly, and muggle is used so often that it’s easy to remember. But in most works, terms like “mudblood” are a much better choice than terms like “muggle.”

You should also use a real word if the thing you are describing is not fake, but the English word for it sounds anachronistic. To replace the word “minute,” use another word like “moment,” not a fake word like “minae.” Don’t be afraid to stretch the meaning of existing words. You’re writing about a new culture, and different cultures use the same words in different ways .

The Final Rule of Using Fake Words

Use Fake Words to Confuse Your Protagonist

When do you get to pull out those wonderful languages you’ve invented for your world? Their biggest problem is that your audience doesn’t know what they mean, but that’s okay – if your hero doesn’t either. Another reason “muggle” works for Rowling is that Harry doesn’t understand it at the start of the books. It doesn’t break believability when he asks Hagrid what the term means, enabling readers to learn it with him. As long as your audience is in the same boat as your protagonist, it will be easy to avoid confusion.

That also means if your viewpoint character understands your invented language or slang at the start of the your story, it should be written in English, even if it isn’t in her native tongue. For instance, you shouldn’t do this:

“Mia ta dudem si hum,” the newcomer asked, seeking assistance.

Instead, you’d do this:

“We need immediate assistance,” the newcomer said in Jarlish.

Even if your hero doesn’t know this other language, in most cases it is less awkward to write “the newcomer said something in Jarlish” than to write dialogue with Jarlish words. If you spell the words out, you’ll be giving meaningless text unusual emphasis. That’s appropriate only when the specific words have significance to the protagonist. Perhaps the he is trying to learn them, or maybe they are an inscription on the One Ring. In these cases, the unknown words are a mystery the hero must solve. Spelling them out allows your audience to experience that mystery for themselves.

While you’re slinging those fake words around, remember the other big problem with them: they can look ridiculous. This rule won’t protect you from that. Don’t use apostrophes, unpronounceable letter combinations, or other tricks to add novelty to your languages. They should be simple and believable.

Just because you should avoid writing words in other languages, doesn’t mean you should pretend that everyone actually speaks English. Unless your world employs an elaborate justification for a universal tongue or no one goes far from home, your characters will need to overcome language barriers. Your task is to ensure that when they do, your audience isn’t frustrated along with them.

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  1. Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

    Very nice– this is a great explanation.
    ‘prioritize substance over style’
    ‘audience confusion is ok if the hero is confused, too’

  2. Hunter_Wolf

    I understand why you said that using a made-up language to write dialog gives meaningless words too much emphasis but i think there is one important benefit to it.

    Personally i think it adds to the atmosphere of the story in general, in novels and comics there is no sound like other media, so writing the alien/strange language some people or creatures use in the story exactly as they are said gives the reader the feeling they are there hearing those same strange mysterious words with the charaters of the story, i think it’s more atmospheric and immersive that way, sure you risk sounding too silly or distracting the reader by making up and using too many fake words but if some attention and consistency were used when doing it this can pay off positively.

  3. Bess Marvin

    Good points in the article. But personally I loved when Gail Carson Levine interjected nonsense words and phrases throughout Ella Enchanted for each different species’ language. In addition to world building, it was to emphasize that Ella had a knack for learning languages. While the gnomish and the ogreese were usually accompanied by translations, the language of the giants was not – but it was fun to try and pronounce with all its “awooga”s and honks. Ayorthian also had an accompanying accent when its native speakers switched to the common tongue, but it wasn’t written with the accent’s phonetics in the text. I’m not sure what to analyze about all of this, except that in certain stories inventing words and putting them on the page can feel right.

  4. Brigitta M.

    I remember a book (or rather a trilogy) where an astronaut was stranded on Mars (written when Mars was the “go to” for sf space travellers) and he meets some Martians who start out speaking their language. It was all spelled out and it’s the case of “as the protagonist learns, so does the reader.”

    I really wish I could remember the name of the series because it sparked not just an interest in science fiction, but a love of language learning as I became somewhat fluent in “Martian” (it wasn’t called that in the book, but again, it’s been so long since I read it) and would teach my family the language as I went along. I sense that they weren’t as thrilled in learning as I was in teaching it though. Ah well…

  5. April Taylor

    Great informative article! Thanks!

  6. Adam

    So, in other words: don’t use anything fake words the protagonist already familiar with, unless it composed by real words. Which means you pretty much prohibited from anything that separates your world from Earth.

    That’s pretty much limits everything to Earth and doesn’t really allows anything distinctive. An alien race probably has a fake word name which may or may not silly, but it is essential to hear it, instead of keep referring to them as the catdoghorsebug looking people. Same goes for spells, especially if the fiction is very centered around that.

    Something may sound silly first, until the audience gets used to it. Its funny when wizards in Harry Potter waving wooden sticks and chanting spells, but after a while we get used to it and we won’t chuckle when a character is unarmed and the baddie points the wooden stick at his chest.

  7. Amniote

    Would a fake word with unpronoucible syllables be OK if the species that made the language could pronouce it? (So, a word that sounds like bones scraping together, from a language made by placoderm people)

    • Chris Winkle

      In a written work you would simply narrate how the placoderm people said something that sounds like bones scraping together. Spelling out the fake word wouldn’t make sense because human letters can’t spell words that sound like bones, and readers can’t read words that represent bone scrapes. On the other hand, your description of what it sounds like is quite interesting, and that will enrich your story.

  8. Varina

    Excellent article! Good points.
    CJ Cherryh is an excellent example here. In her Chanur series there are multiple races; she uses phrases in conversation where the characters are not expected to understand. But the masterful way she handles each race’s dialogue by manipulating syntax, and a pidgeon lingua franca is beyond awesome! One could do worse than checking her out. Best examples are her Chanur series, as mentioned, and the Downer race in Diwnbelow Station.

  9. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    “But let’s be real. If your companion animal barks, wags its tail, and herds green sheep, then it’s not fake; it’s a dog.”

    This can give good comedy in situations where the MC is from Earth and sees an “alien” dog.

    MC: Oh hey, you have dogs here!

    Elf: That is not a dog, it is a [ridculous animal name]. Very different.

    MC: *throws stick* *dog chases* Yep, it’s a dog.

    • SunlessNick

      “Species flerken. Threat level high.”

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