Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Liana Brooks, Creating Alien Languages
Liana THUMBED something that I'm a bit sensitive about as a fantasy (as in the kind with aliens from distant galaxies) writer.
One of my projects (GLADIITOR) in particular needs a little help in this area. And that is something I've been meaning to look into as soon as I've managed to clear out a little extra time.
When you create a strange new civilization, it isn't enough to make them look a little different and give them strange new abilities. You also have to figure out the clothing details, their food, their religious habits, their idea of fun and games, and yes - their languages.
Liana brought up Tolkien - and we all know the strange old guy spent 12 years writing his series, including setting aside a little extra time to write a language for his elves. Yes, this came easy for him because he was a linguist. But that doesn't mean that language-challenged (according to Obama, that's most Americans) writers have no hope of doing the same thing.
Currently I have Spanish, French, Armenian, Japanese, and Polish dictionaries I can flip through and find words that look close to what I want. I can also go online and find word lists for any language I want.
Grammar isn't so important as finding words that are close to the type of culture I'm aiming for.
If you use a gaelic type word, then people are going to have a Merlin/Guinevere/Wort mental images in their head complete with wailing bagpipes as you have your characters interact.
If you use a norse type word, then people are going to be thinking Vikings and the mighty bearded gods of the north. :]
Next step is just playing around with the word so it is less noticable as X language. You don't want your language-knowledgable reader to be sitting there and thinking that X character just greeted Y character by saying something like "Toilet Footstool Sing."
If you are very detailed orientated (as Tolkien obviously was), you can also write up little grammar rules. Like how words change when addressed to a woman vs a man, or how words change when spoken by a child vs by an adult. You could even go into the possessive, plural, singular - and so forth rules... if you wanted. <- Keep in mind that too much linguistic gymnastics could lose your reader.
Then the other thing -
I'm not going to be using too many 'foreign' words in my novels. But I will need a spattering of words, especially if some characters are to be believably foreign (as in alien). I just want to make sure the words have the same sound to them. Like I don't want to mix Spanish and Polish words for the same race/planet.
Good ideas -
1. Keep a list of every word you use, complete with a 'definition'
2. Don't worry about foreign words in first draft, you can always do a search/replace later if you want.
3. Write names/words in CAPS if you plan to go back later and change them.
4. Research foreign civilizations, particularly the unusual ones. <- Everyone uses the Irish/Norse influences in their work. Because Tolkien did. Same thing with Japan/China (Joss Whedon). But there is no rule you can't research other new civiliations and their mythologies and traditions for inspiration.