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