Using Your Conlang Without Ruining Your Story

Octavia Blake from the 100 sits before a fire.

In The 100, Octavia gains the title of "Skairipa," which means "death from above."

Years back, I wrote some rules for using fake words. Some people grumbled that it banned writers from using conlangs (constructed languages) altogether, and that’s not far from the truth. The bottom line is that your conlang won’t give your audience the same joy it gives you. In many cases, sticking your fake language in your story is like subjecting them to a pop-up advertisement. They’re just trying to read or listen* to your story, and your ad is in the way.

Even so, I do think it’s possible to include your conlang without sabotaging your story. If done carefully, it will make the worldbuilding feel more immersive. Give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll show you how to do it.

Don’t Show Off Your Conlang; Teach It

The biggest problem with fake words is that they don’t mean anything to your audience. You might as well take a permanent marker and black them out like your novel has been censored. No one wants to read a bunch of redacted words or listen to a bunch of bleeps. Given that, the solution is simple: make your gibberish mean something. Once your audience genuinely learns a word, they have no reason to be annoyed by it.

Don’t get carried away, though. Your audience didn’t sign up for a language course; they signed up to be entertained. They don’t want to do any work. To be successful, you have to make learning so easy they don’t realize they’re doing it.

That means lowering the bar. Instead of speaking fluent Elvish, how about they learn twenty words instead? By the end of your novel series, they might even string a sentence together! That may not seem like much, but to your audience, twenty words will matter. Those words will stick with them after your story has ended.

To give you examples of carefully teaching words, I’ll use the TV series The 100. The show takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, and many of the characters speak a language called Trigedasleng. While The 100 is told in a visual medium,* the language is carefully taught in a manner very similar to best practices for a written or auditory work (aside from the spelling, which viewers are mostly unaware of). For those interested in seeing Trigedasleng in action, the show is currently available on Netflix.

Make Your Conlang Easy to Learn

The craft of creating languages would be a book in itself, and I wouldn’t know how to write it. But there are some common mistakes that make it harder for storytellers to include their conlang in a constructive way.

  • Too complex. The longer your words are, the harder it will be for your audience to remember them. You can’t make every word short, but in general they should be simple and streamlined.
  • Too unreadable. Your audience will have an easier time with words they can pronounce. What they can pronounce largely depends on the languages they already know, but sticking “tzck’hn” in the middle of a word won’t help.
  • Too samey. It’s natural to want your Elven language to be soft,* but that often comes at the cost of making the words too much alike. To learn your language, your audience must be able to tell words apart with no effort. In a written work, that means different starting letters and different overall shape. In an auditory work, that means different vowel sounds, emphasis, and syllable counts.

Avoiding these pitfalls has the side benefit of making your language more realistic. Real languages are practical for the people who use them, and it turns out that humans have similar associations between meanings and sounds. If the word is soft or harsh in English, it’s probably soft or harsh in other languages too.

Aside from mistakes, you can also make your language easier to learn by making it related to the real one your audience knows. A future setting could have a language that evolved from the current one. A secret underworld could have enough exposure to above-grounders that it borrowed some words along the way.

In The 100, Trigedasleng contains words that sound like English. The word “tri,” pronounced “tree,” means “forest.” The word “Skairipa” is clearly an adaptation of “sky reaper.” If it had been created for a written medium, it might have been spelled “skireepa” to make that clearer.

Use an Ignorant Viewpoint Character

The worst thing you can do to your conlang is use a viewpoint character that already knows it. The entire purpose of a viewpoint character is to let the audience experience the story as they do. If the viewpoint character knows a language, the audience should instantly understand it, without learning. That means the viewpoint character’s tongue has to be expressed in the audience’s own language.

If you do anything else, at best it’ll come off as a contrivance. You’re back at sticking pop-up ads in your story, and worse, you’re creating distance between the viewpoint character and the audience. That can ruin their immersion and reduce their investment in your story.

An ignorant viewpoint character will do just the opposite. Now your viewpoint character is just as confused by your fake words as the audience is. Even better, your viewpoint character can ask someone what a word means or think hard about whether they’ve heard that word before. With an ignorant viewpoint character, you’ll have lots of ways to teach words to your audience without it feeling awkward.

Once you have your ignorant character, make sure they have a good reason to learn new words. They might need to fit in with the locals, communicate with a barely known race, or decipher some plot-important text.

In Season 1 of The 100, the main cast all speak English like the audience. They’ve been isolated since the apocalypse, but to survive they have to migrate elsewhere. They end up in the territory of a group that speaks primarily Trigedasleng. Those people call themselves Trikru (pronounced “tree crew”). Some members of Trikru know English, allowing the story to move forward without stopping for a language lesson. Even so, understanding Trikru and their culture is vital for the survival of the protagonists.

Choose the Right Words to Teach

Depending on what you choose to teach, you can raise or lower the learning barrier for your audience. Foremost, choose to teach words for things they don’t already have words for. Your audience will have to learn a word for it anyway, so you’re just making that word part of your conlang. Generally, words they’d have to learn anyway come in two categories:

  • Proper nouns. The names of people, places, and groups will already require learning. Unfortunately, while names can have other meanings besides the person or thing they represent, teaching those meanings won’t be as easy as it is for other words. I’ll go into that more later.
  • Fake things. Anything in your world that has no real-world equivalent is a great candidate. By “no equivalent,” I mean it has meaningful differences from anything that’s real. If you can get away with using a real word without also offering an explanation, it’s not fake.

After that, choose words or short phrases that are repeated in very specific contexts, without variation. Greetings and prayers are usually the best for this. If your characters always part with the same phrase, it’ll be clear they’re saying goodbye. If they say the same words before they eat, your audience will guess it’s a blessing. These types of words and phrases also feel pretty natural in conlang. Rituals are often spoken reverently in a religious tongue; greetings are more a matter of habit than communication.

You can also teach some words for things your audience already knows, but it will both raise the bar for learning and risk feeling contrived to the audience. Why call something by a fake word when you can use the real one? Choosing words of strong cultural significance or importance to the characters will help with this problem.

The 100 chooses to incorporate tribe names, a couple honorary titles, and a few culturally important phrases. Trigedasleng speakers say goodbye to the recently deceased with “yu gonplei ste odon,” which means “your fight is over.”

Make Your Words Stick

To avoid making your story into a classroom while still teaching effectively, you have to go very slowly.

  1. Give them a tiny tidbit.
  2. Make sure the tidbit’s context helps your audience understand the meaning.
  3. If the meaning still isn’t clear, say what it means outright with some dialogue or thoughts.
  4. Use it again soon.

That last part is important – everything you teach to your audience during your story is there on a “use it or lose it” basis. The more often you’ll use your fake words, the easier they are to teach.

This is also why it’s trickier to teach the meaning of names in your story. They may be used a lot, but when they are, their deeper meanings won’t be apparent. The best way to counter this is to make sure the meanings feel significant to the characters or plot. In The 100, the character Octavia gets the previously mentioned title “Skairipa,” which means “death from above.” Calling a protagonist “death from above” is pretty striking. It’s defined in the show several times and then used consistently.

Give yourself a teaching boost by letting the things you teach overlap. Maybe one character’s name means “frozen waters” and another’s means “falling waters.” Repeating words in different phrases, or using common prefixes and suffixes in different words, will help your audience learn. Trigedasleng uses a lot of repeating components; just look at these words: Azgeda, Trigedasleng, Trikru, Skaikru, Skairipa. You might even know what Skaikru means, though I haven’t told you.

Each story can only take so much explanation before it becomes slow and confusing. If you want to include something that requires lots of explanation, simplify wherever you can.

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  1. Skull Bearer

    I quite like how Watership Down used it, with a few words explained in footnotes, until we’re confident enough in Lapine that when Bigwig starts swearing at General Woundwort, we understand every word.

  2. Cay Reet

    My pet peeve is not so much people inventing words or languages … as long as it fits with the story and things are understandable, I’m game. My pet peeve is people using another real language, clearly through Google translate or something like that, and produce sentences which nobody who speaks that language would ever say.

    I’ve been reading quite some pulp recently (especially new pulp) and with the customary 1930s and 1940s setting, you get a lot of German villains (which I don’t mind) who are sometimes speaking German. Now, German happens to be my native language and half of those Nazis would have been killed by their own underlings for butcherting the German language three sentences into their first appearance.

    That doesn’t mean people can’t speak another language, of course, but if you don’t speak it and you know your audience isn’t likely to do so, either, I’d suggest not trying to put in sentences in that language. Either claim the POV character can’t understand what is said or deliver the sentences in the language you use for your whole story and point out the person was actually speaking whatever language you’ve chosen. I have nothing against peppering a sentence with a few words in another language, as long as they’re easy to understand in context or translated somewhere.

    What I also hate is when people try to put an accent or dialect in written language. It makes it horribly hard for everyone not familiar with it (and especially for people who are reading a text in a language that’s not their native one) to understand it. It’s also something pulp (old and new) are sometimes guilty of.

    Rant over.

    • Chris Winkle

      I can see how that would be infuriating.

      I don’t think writers should be using other languages any more than they would use a conlang – for the same reasons. If the readers aren’t supposed to understand it, don’t write it out, just say the Nazi spoke some German. If they are supposed to understand it, write it in the same language the book is written in, maybe in italics, and just mention it was spoken in German.

      Written accents not only make dialogue hard to read, they can come off as really racist, too.

      • Alice

        This isn’t exactly the same thing, but would you say that using little-known English words should be avoided too?
        For instance, if I put a ‘gallimaufry’ or ‘macrosmatic’ in my story would that be considered on par with using a conlag or other language and should therefore follow the same rules you’ve described? And if so, where would you say the line is? ‘Vehemence,’ for example, is a fairly well-known word as far as I know but there are probably a number of people who don’t know it.

        • Cay Reet

          I don’t mind little-known words, as long as you get an explanation or you can guess their meaning from the context. If you feel you need to use very specific words, perhaps even words for little-known objects, feelings, or suchlike, you might consider explaining them somewhere or putting them in a clear context where the reader doesn’t have to stop to look them up.

          Same if you want to use a word from a specific accent for plot reasons (like the last thing the murder victim whispers before dying, so the detective has to find out what it means). Make it possible to understand what it means or make finding out what it means part of the plot.

          • Kenneth Mackay

            There’s one of August Derleth’s ‘Solar Pons’ detective stories where the villain has written his accomplice a note, telling him to “stolch about his pinguid pightle”. The police are (of course) baffled, believing it to be some sort of code, but Solar Pons is able to tell them that it’s simply made up of obscure English words, and what it means.

        • Chris Winkle

          Like Cay said, I’d be careful with them, but they aren’t as bad. For one thing, writers are unlikely to put down an entire sentence in them, which is what happens with conlangs and foreign languages. For another thing, they will be easier to read and pronounce, since they are in the reader’s language. However, your books will be more popular if you keep the vocabulary low, the average reader doesn’t have as high a reading level as the average writer. For some writers, using a higher vocabulary is worth being less accessible, it’s up to you.

          • Raillery

            Alice brought up the exact idea I jumped to while reading this article: the question of whether the techniques for introducing a conlang would work for high-vocabulary native words. For example, take a random one like ‘raillery’ and give it the conlang treatment.

            In most writing, it seems like authors just drop a single high-vocabulary word on occasion (often without adequate context to guess the meaning), the readers either know it or skip past it, and that word is never used again. People like myself might take note and look it up later, but even I’m not going to pause long enough to crack open a dictionary.

            I feel like the conlang treatment could prove successful, but a conlang is significantly more exotic and perhaps more alluring, whereas higher native vocabulary is too recognizable (even if the meaning is unknown) and considered by many to be repulsively snobbish. I also feel like teaching a conlang is welcome, whereas teaching high vocabulary in a similar manner would come off as patronizing. People don’t like being given the feeling that they don’t know their own language.

            Thoughts? Contemplations?

  3. Mike

    Elantris did this well. You can never figure out exactly what those few words meant, but they were so clear by context that you didn’t even pay attention to them after a while.

  4. Sneaky_Commenter

    this is very good advice.

    it is just too bad I suck at naming things.

  5. JohnD

    I would disagree with pretty much everything you’ve written here. A Clockwork Orange managed to make conlang work perfectly without employing any of those tricks, as did The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Riders Of The Purple Wage.

  6. uschi

    I have to admit that I really dislike the use of conlangs – because it usually sounds so, so forced and unnatural. Actually this is one of the things I most dislike about Game of Thrones (the show, I haven’t read the books) – when Danerys talks to someone in old Valyrian (or, you know, holds a speech, which seems to be like 70% of her screen time) it sounds NOTHING like a real language. It is so overly pronounced and no natural language could survive in that form for even a few years before people start speaking more sloppily, shortening words, and “smoothing” it out.

    As for an example where I loved the insertion of conlang, the episodes in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas set in the future have some great examples of how our current language may evolve. In one episode, the narrator uses a slang filled with weirdly twisted, hardly recognizable words, and for the first few dozen pages you have a hard time figuring out what is happening. Then, without any real explanation, you gain a sense of what is being said. It is wonderfully subtle. Though that is probably very hard to pull off – the advice in your article concerning a viewpoint character is very helpful, and easier to follow.

  7. Eleri

    Also, being an adept *writer*, doesn’t make you an adept *linguist*. You can be an amazing weaver of words, but conlanging involves knowing how the threads you weave with are sheared and cleaned and spun. Putting a bunch of non-English sounding words together for your book is not the same as making a conlang.

    Creating a really good conlang requires as much effort and detail as really solid worldbuilding does. And if you want that much detail in a conlang for your book, why not hire someone who already knows how to to that? That’s part of why the Language Creation Society exists.

    Tangentally, I find Uschi’s comment about GoT languages not sounding natural to be pretty hilarious, given how a) amazingly detailed David Peterson is and b) just exactly how *surreal* some natural languages sound.

  8. Alice

    This might be an odd question, but how would I go about naming towns and cities in my world without using my conlang and without sounding European?

    What I mean is, I’m writing a story set in a place based off Nepal, but using English names makes the towns sound like they belong in a medieval Europe setting. Names like Juniper Creek and Star Fall (not specifically, but along those lines). The only way I can find to avoid that is to use a conlang, but I want to avoid that too.

    Is there something I can try, or do you think this isn’t as much of a problem as I think it is?

    • Chris Winkle

      Why don’t you want to use your conlang for place names? That’s one of the things they are best for.

      You can just make up names that don’t mean anything, similar to what people typically do to name their heroes in fantasy settings. However, you’ll want make sure they sound like they came from the same culture, and then pretty soon, you have the beginnings of a conlang.

      You could also try looking at translations of place names from other cultures into English. It’s possible that the right English word combinations wouldn’t sound European just because that’s not how Europeans typically name their places.

      • Alice

        I’m surprised. I thought made up names would just create confusion since it’s extra strain on the memory. If you think they’re okay to use, then I’ll bring the conlang versions of the names back in. Also, I like the idea of translating existing place names for inspiration. I’m going to enjoy doing that.

        A few more questions:
        Do you think I should use conlang for all place names for consistency or would a combination of made-up names and English names be okay?

        For instance, could I have one place called Juniper Creek and another called Lani Win, or should I stick to one or the other?

        And is it okay to have, for example, Tehita Hill or Bagasog Mount or should both parts of the words be from the same language?

        Thank you for the help

        • Cay Reet

          Actually, the main problem with conlang is when people make up words for objects which also exist in our world. A table is a table, no matter where, so inventing a word for it is just confusing the reader. And if it barks and helps with hunting and herding animals, call it a dog. Words for whatever doesn’t exist in our world, be it cities or something else, is perfectly okay.

        • Chris Winkle

          Cay Reet clarified the usage for made up words really well. You are right that using conlang words for your place names will put a little more cognitive load on the reader. However, if your story isn’t overly complicated, it probably isn’t too much because they have to learn names anyway. However, if readers of your story have expressed confusion about a lot of things, you might consider sticking to English words. More on that here:

          I think your suggestion of names like “Bagasog Mount” is a good one – makes it feel like another culture will still making it easier to understand and more memorable.

          I wouldn’t name some places with conlang words and some with English unless you have an in-world reason. For instance, I have one world where I do that because the main character’s culture is represented with English, and another culture was represented with a conlang. Place names use the language of the culture that named them.

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