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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
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.
3. 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 .
4. 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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