Making up languages

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Words and the Lonely Writer, part 5 – Made Up Languages.

So, just like the occasional foreign phrase or foreign construction in English to give your book foreign flavor, save your made up language for occasional sentences, or constructions that follow the structure of that language. Remember that unless the meaning of the made up language is completely explained in the following or preceding text, people will stop and be annoyed.

Oh, and use it for naming conventions, if your world is that kind. That always goes over well, as people catch on to the pattern.  Other than the use of apostrophes — they make the Baby Jesus cry — Anne McCaffrey did that wonderfully in the dragon world.

Mostly I just invent names! But I absolutely played around with inventing languages when I was a kid. (Doesn’t everybody?) And I absolutely did play around with apostrophes in exactly the most cliched manner possible, probably. 

Now, of course, I kind of play around with accent marks because you can do that with Word, especially if you teach yourself to just use keyboard shortcuts to put an umlaut over a u or a downstroke over an i or whatever. After Winter of Ice and Iron, I can type with accent marks almost as fast as I can type without, though it’s a little harder to type certain accent marks now that I don’t use my left ring finger for typing. (You may not have heard about this because I don’t think I considered it important enough to mention here, but I made a real good try at snipping the tip of that finger off with gardening shears a few months ago. I will say that having stitches removed from the tip of your finger is dramatically more ouchy than I expected, but teaching myself not to type with that finger was really very easy; it literally took just minutes to teach myself to hit the s, w, and z with the middle finger of that hand.)

Anyway, moving on!

I have, as you know, two WIP that are essentially finished. They’re in completely, totally different worlds and they have quite different naming systems. I’ll call them OWIP (Obsessive WIP) and OWIP (Original WIP — oh, wait. Okay, how about FWIP (First WIP). 

No, that looks stupid, because of course it does, because names are important and words are important. I’ll actually give you the completely pointless working titles:

Tuyo is the working title of the obsessive WIP because it’s an important word in the first chapter. Lahn is the working title of the first WIP because it’s the name of one of the two protagonists, though at this point not the opening protagonist because I gave this book a different opening chapter featuring the other protagonist during the course of revisions.

I have actually met writers who insist that they are unable to work on a project until they have a real title for it. Plainly that is not me. I have also met writers who can fill in character names with xxx or Bob or something until eventually, at the end, they actually name the characters. That’s not me either. I find both of those phenomena indescribably weird.

Names in Tuyo: most, maybe all of the names of the one language, taksu, end in -o or -a, but some feminine names end in -g. They’re mostly two or three syllables long, with a very simple consonant-vowel-consonent-vowel pattern. The names from the other language, darau, end in -n or -a or -au or -s; feminine names often end in -i. The words are often slightly more complicated and have more diphthongs. 

And why? Because of the first names I gave characters in this book. The pov protagonist is Ryo and his people are called the Ugaro. The other protagonist is Aras and his people are called the Lau. All I was trying to do was think of names I haven’t used before, that don’t sound too much like the names of characters in other books, and those names happened to come into my head. Thus we see that the first names that occur to you may set up important rules for their whole languages, because something has to and you’ve got these first names to set the pattern.

Names in Lahn:  Here the pattern was set in a completely different way: I simply based the sounds of the names on Vietnamese. Lots of -nh and -hn endings. Lots of vowels and double vowels. Not so many -ng endings because those can sound odd to the American ear, but lots of accent marks because those just look neat. The other main character is Vích, which I got from the Vietnamese name Bích, because obviously the latter is impossible for American readers unless the character is actually Vietnamese, but a “V” works fine. Oh, this site here says that for a girl named Bích, “life seems to be a long, peaceful river, and she emanates calm and gentleness.” Wow, that is absolutely not at all the case for my character Vích, so good thing I changed the letter. Lots of place names that are two words, like Duon Vu.

Other things a writer has to work out in order to deal with language in a secondary world: titles. You all helped a good deal with titles in Tuyo by talking to me about military titles (remember this post?) This was an issue here: made-up words vs normal American military titles vs some other option. I actually wound up going with Ellen’s suggestion, which involved familiar words implying function. Thanks, Ellen! I am happier with the titles now than I was with a mix of made-up words and American titles, so, though I’m not completely sure I won’t change some titles again, I greatly appreciate your suggestion.

I started reading Lahn from the top this morning to get back into that one, by the way. I got through nine chapters and found myself liking the story quite a bit, always a good sign. This part is all pretty well finished, or should be; I know I need to remind myself of various story elements I was putting in as I revised, because pretty soon I will get to the part where I’m still doing serious revision. Don’t want to let any important balls drop. For example, when I was writing the first draft, I didn’t know who the real antagonist was; I figured that out very close to the end. Now that I know who the antagonist is, I’m inserting hints about that person much earlier in the story and setting up the fundamental problem. It’ll all look smooth and effortless by the time you all see it, I trust, but I wrote this one in out-of-order chunks over a pretty long period, so it naturally has more ragged edges than Tuyo, which was written in one rapid whooosh.

In case you’re interested, my agent refers to Tuyo as “intense” and Lahn as “elegant.” I’m willing to take both of those as one-word descriptors!

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5 thoughts on “Making up languages”

  1. I used to come up character profiles when I was still in high school. With really weird names. There’s something about the act of naming that’s so appealing.

    I’m looking forward to reading both your WIPs. They sound like a lot of fun.

  2. I call my novels by the name of the main character until I get the title.

    And sometimes it takes a while to shift. . . .

    But what’s really annoying is when you START with the title and write the story to fit it and realize in the end that the title does not work.

  3. Squee! Mary Catelli-I recently went on a binge of your writing. It is up there with Willis’ Doomsday Book for giving a feel of the Middle Ages. Just wonderful, wonderful stories.

  4. Mary, pretty sure that has never happened to me, even on the (rare) occasions when I’ve actually put a title on a WIP.

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