LESSON Fantasy Worldbuilding — Languages and Language Barriers

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Malkuthe Highwind, Oct 4, 2016.

  1. Fantasy Worldbuilding - Languages and Language Barriers


    Do not be alarmed by the massive red triangle with an exclamation point within. This guide should not, if you are an upstanding citizen of Iwaku, hurt you.

    In any case, I would like to preface this guide with a simple disclaimer. While the concepts outlined here may very well apply in other genres, the information is provided predominantly with the assumptions that one: you are developing a world that involves the supernatural(deities, magic, or otherwise); and that two: you are developing for a Fantasy setting.

    If, however, you are developing for any other genre, do not fret. This information still applies, however, it is incomplete. That is alright, though, as workshops like this one are intended to be stepping stones and not specific guides pointing to how to do worldbuilding right. There is no single "right" way to do worldbuilding, so feel free to use the concepts shown here and adapt them to your own worlds.

    With that in mind, please, do not hesitate to proceed with the workshop.

    Why Do I Even Need to Think About This for My World?As I expanded upon in my Calendars and Time Systems workshop, little details like this help to flesh out a world and make it feel alive--if done well, that is. If you're going to mangle the creation of a language and put absolutely no thought into it, you might as well just spew jumbled letters onto the page each time that you want to use your "language." A proper language has structure, has metric, has tonality, and more importantly, has consistency. A well-made language--relatively speaking--can bring a world to life with grand colours and such nonsense. A language that was poorly made and is little more than random syllables the author thought would look good on paper... well, that just makes the world look contrived.

    "But Malku," you might be asking, "if we're worldbuilding for a roleplay, what do I care about this? My players won't bother learning my language or even asking me about it if they want to use it!" To that, I say, poppycock! Just because your players/readers won't really get invested too much in your language is no excuse to make a ruddy one. Worldbuilding is all about creating a world that feels alive and much like in the real world, language is an intrinsic part of that. So what if players won't use it? If you can find a way to make it so that they have to learn a little bit about it so that they'll have some idea what's coming next in the plot, go for it! Integrate your language into your roleplay in such a way that it looks organic and your players will follow.
    Constructing a LanguageThe creation of artificial languages is known as "conlanging" from the term "conlang" which is a portmanteau of "constructed" and "language." Now I'm hardly an expert on the matter, but if you are building a world for a roleplay, you hardly have to be. I do, however, know a few things that are vital to the creation of a language that, while probably one that cannot be used fluently by a speaker, is cohesive enough that it enhances a fantasy world.

    Before we begin, however, I highly suggest that you take a look at the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, because it is what will help you transcribe the pronunciation of words in your language the best. Furthermore, it is a very important resource when starting out with the creation of languages because in order to create a cohesive language, the first thing that you have to decide are its phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest unit of the language, each with an associated sound, each serving to differentiate one word from another.

    Examples of phonemes are "p," "b," "d," and "t," which respectively differentiate "pad," "pat," "bad," and "bat." There are two types of phonemes: consonants and vowels, however, you'll find that the consonants and vowels in terms of phonemes are different from the consonants and vowels that the average person knows. For example, "a, e, i, o and u" are not vowels. While /æ/, as in pad; /ε/, as in bed; /ɪ/, as in tin; /ɔ/, as in thought; and /ʌ/, as in gun, are.

    Give some thought to what phonemes you will include in your language, and don't just throw them all in there because it's fun. The fewer phonemes you have, the easier it will be to build a cohesive language. After you've decided on your phonemes, you can start on your diphthongs, which are basically strings of two vowel sounds put together. Decide which diphthongs are legal and which are illegal in your language and you will have a solid phonological base for it.

    Once this is done, you have to decide how syllables are formed in your language. For example, every syllable in your language might have to follow the rule Consonant + Vowel or (CV). Maybe you want them all to be of the form (VCV). In any case, decide on your syllable structure and you'll save yourself a lot of time in coming up with words later on.

    From here, you decide on rules about how words are to be built. Can they begin with vowels? Can they end with consonants? Are there some syllables that must absolutely come one after the other? Are there any syllables that cannot be in the same word together?

    Once you have word construction down, it is time to lay down the rules of compounding. Does your language do compound words such as German's 'Rhabarberbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbarbärbel' or are words strictly units in their own right that cannot be strung together?

    From here, you can then move on to building your rules of grammar and syntax. A good place to start would be the order of words. Where do your adjectives come? Before or after the word that they describe. When creating verb phrases, do you go Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) Or do you go Verb-Subject-Object (VSO). Once you've done this, you are good to go and probably have enough information that you'll be able to think up a phrase or sentence in your language when necessary.

    Do note, however, that this is incredibly bare-bones and shouldn't be used to build a proper conlang. If you want to learn more of that, the following are great resources:
    The Narrative Applications of LanguageToo often, we see in Fantasy novels, probably for ease of storytelling, that languages among cultures are largely homogenous. In Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, for example, despite there being multiple races on the continent, the Dwarves, Humans, Urgals, Elves, and Dragons, there seems to be very little in terms of language differences both between races and within races. The humans of one corner of the continent seem to perfectly understand the humans of another side of the continent.

    Now, this is prevalent enough in Fantasy that it's become part of the typical suspension of disbelief, but it's not very realistic. I, for example, come from the Philippines. It's a country with a total land area a third of Manitoba's. The thing is, back there, I can drive an hour in any direction and find people speaking a completely different dialect than I do and have some trouble communicating, even if there is a lingua franca (Filipino), in the country. The Philippines alone has 13 indigenous languages with more than 1 million people speaking each and hundreds of dialects besides. The very notion that a fantasy world could be so linguistically homogenous is patently absurd.

    Consider this: a group of adventurers all from a particular city and its surrounding towns journey to another city that, until the construction of a large stonework bridge fairly recently, was extremely difficult to get to. These two cities are from entirely different kingdoms, which are virtually isolated from each other by geography. Would you think that these two cities use the same language? Fantasy would have you believe that yes, they do, but the fact of the matter is that realistically, they wouldn't. For one, they belong to different kingdoms and as we know from our own world, both presently and in the annals of history, different sovereign nations can have vastly different official languages.

    Now of course, it was only difficult and inconvenient to get to the other city prior to the construction of the large stonework bridge, so merchants and entrepreneurs would have been able to make it back and forth, albeit at some cost. There is nothing that can stop the determination to turn a profit, after all. This immediately establishes that there are a few people in each city that have learned the language of the other city, if not fluently, at least to a functional extent. Therein lies what makes language barriers interesting for the writer. Because it is unlikely that the party of adventurers knows the language of the other city, their need for a translator presents a prime opportunity for drama. Their translator could either screw them out of money, get them involved in something they would rather not be, or, worse comes to worst, either get them thrown out or arrested on grounds that the group cannot understand.

    This also affects the way that the group does business with speakers of a language not their own. The mere fact that they do not speak the local language immediately marks them as strangers, people from another land. Often, the assumption is that people from elsewhere probably have a bit of cash on them because it takes money to travel. Without an awareness of the local language or without anyone to protect them, the group becomes vulnerable to merchants and the sort marking goods up for them without their knowledge.

    Language barriers also affect attitudes of the general populace toward the group. As mentioned above, the fact that they do not speak the language immediately marks them as foreigners. In some regions, this might be the indication that they should be shown hospitality. In others, this might mean that they should be run out. In others still, this might mean that they're oblivious and can't fight back and therefore are ripe for the picking for thieves, pickpockets and other such ne'er-do-wells.

    Consider too, the broader ramifications of language barriers. Between two nations that use a diplomatic ambassador, it is really the ambassador that possesses the power. This is exacerbated when the leaders of each nation cannot understand each other. In such a case, the ambassador that knows how to speak both languages can easily manipulate both sides into a situation that benefits him the most.

    On an even broader scale than that, language barriers can come into play when we talk about two warring sovereign nations. When this is the case, talks of any sort become minefields and misinterpretations, especially when meaning is lost in translation, can cause things to go wildly out of hand regardless of intentions. Looking closer at war, miscommunication due to language barriers between people on the same side who natively speak different languages or dialects can be devastating and lead to routing if not outright slaughter.

    Language barriers also have an impact on scientific advancement. Although this applies to fantasy worlds a bit further along in their history, the existence of language barriers may hamper the collaboration of scientists and scholars from different nations. A substance known as one thing in one place might be known as a different thing in a different place. This will be one of the driving forces for the creation of a shared vocabulary for science.
    There's a pretty simple rule of thumb that you can follow when deciding whether or not two regions will have different languages, or different dialects. If your two regions are geographically isolated from one another, be it by mountain ranges, unnavigable forests, or expanses of water, it is highly likely that they will develop different languages, even if these languages come from a common predecessor.

    Going back to the example that I used earlier, the Philippines, we have so many languages and dialects because we are an archipelago. Pretty much every region of the country developed independently from one another until the colonization of the country by Spain. As a result of the geographic separation between the 7000+ islands of the Philippines, many places developed their own languages and dialects.

    Distance also plays a factor in whether or not a region will have a different language (which is less likely if there are no geographic boundaries) or a different dialect (more likely). A good rule of thumb is that anywhere more than two weeks to a month away on horseback is likely to have a different dialect. Not so different that language is not understandable, but different nonetheless. This difference grows with distance, so the further a place is from another, the more different its language or dialect will sound.

    Now, I know we've spent a lot of time talking about the differences between languages and language barriers, but I think that talking about how language barriers are overcome is just as important as talking about their effects. The biggest factor for language barriers falling away is time. The longer two regions have had to interact freely, the more people will be that know both languages, both by virtue of those who learn them to do business and the people who are brought up with both languages. As this happens, one language, usually the one perceived to be easier to learn, tends to be used more in every day conversation than the other, but the other does not really fade, often being used for literature or academic purposes.

    Another major factor in the collapse of language barriers is traffic between the two regions. The more people that move from one region to the other and vice-versa, the faster the language barrier collapses as more and more people will have to learn the other language for business or day-to-day purposes.

    Ultimately, there are four questions to ask when looking at the languages of two different regions: Are they geographically separated from one another? How far are they from one another? How long have they been in open and free contact with one another? And, finally, How freely do people move from one region to the other?

    If you keep these in mind, you should be able to have, if not a totally realistic set-up of language differences, something that approximates that. It might not matter to the average reader, but it will certainly help your world feel a lot more immersive.
    So there we are. That's the end of this workshop. What I'd like to know is how helpful you found it, and whether or not you think this is something you will use in your own worldbuilding.
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  2. I hate trying to understand languages so much (they actually fascinate me), I usually just have all my settings have a reason to have a primarily universal language, such as all being direct descendants from a single group of survivors. I even designed one fantasy setting to have these "Wind zones" that transferred memories from people who have ventured through it... while simultaneously allowing you to learn parts of the language associated with that memory, with distance not being a concern. Eons of using those zones made all languages converge together. The few that don't have contrivances to explain what you rightly say to be absurd ((People from entirely different continents having the same languages or automatically knowing each other's)) are all universal language because the entire setting only takes place on one city and its outlying settlements/fortifications.

    If given the opportunity, different languages would be amazing, though! But I always feel like I wouldn't do true languages any justice. I would just end up over-simplifying what should be complex. An "English/latin derivative" that isn't even more derivative than, say, Spanish is with English. Especially when making a sci-fi setting, it already takes a lot of time to focus on individual facts and mechanics when it also has low/med fantasy attributes. Languages, while great, only add to that.
    I also absolutely suck at learning languages IRL. I tried to take entry-level Spanish in High School. I had to study really hard to get a C. I took Physics at the same time. I barely studied and got a B.

    Anyway! You put a TON of effort into this, and with this guide if I ever felt like it I would feel a lot more comfortable making one! I already agreed/knew about all of the stuff you mentioned about why languages are great flavor, though. I'm in a roleplay with friends, and they use different languages too, for certain things. And it truly does add flavor... while simultaneously make things a bit confusing for newbies.
  3. @Xena Jade, this is definitely one for the more advanced GM's and players, but still, it adds an awful lot of goodness to the RP's. Personally, I'm doing pretty in-depth development on a multiverse of mine, and I've already largely come up with a particular language. :3.

    This is the typical formal greeting exchange in that language, known as Tretalleri:

    ~ Veýto vidmë Di'Lertanys fitë`re (May the Stranger Guide you)

    ~ Neda Veýto girë Di'Teýna fitë neto rissë`re (And may He guide you unto peace).
  4. (I don't think you meant this, but I wanted to mention it as it's on my mind)
    I wouldn't say an advanced GM/Player would inherently want to use a custom-made language. You said so yourself, there are certain settings that simply do not constitute the possibility of any benefit of creating languages. What's more, I would not say it is an overall indicative skill of key roleplaying capabilities to be able to create a language. The study of linguistics for the purpose of creating conlang is very specialized which does not directly relate to your capability to sustain a coherent plot, create 3-dimensional personalities, etc.

    Conlang does, however, have the capacity to improve the validity of concepts created by players and GMs alike. Thems are my thoughts on it.

    All that said above, it would be nice if I could create dialects for more ancient languages for one of my settings, hehe. But I'm all by myself and can only work on one thing at a time. I'm STILL editing and improving things I've already made. So you also need to keep in mind the distribution of resources you use in creating settings.
  5. @Xena Jade, oh, yes, I didn't mean that an advanced GM/Player would inherently want to use these things, just that by the very nature of its complexity, only an advanced GM/Player would even want to touch such a matter.

    That being said, having multiple languages in a setting can be reflected using just a single language, as long as you take care to point out that these two characters speak different languages and might not understand each other. This is easiest to accomplish in first person, of course, but it can also be done in third-person limited. It's a bit awkward in third-person omniscient, though.

    Regardless, you're perfectly correct in that linguistics, unless you're really into it, is, for lack of a better turn of phrase, a luxury in worldbuilding. Better to focus on cultures, geography, history and such than actually jump into creating a conlang.
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