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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Creating an Alien Language

Nearly seven thousand languages are spoken on planet Earth. The number more than triples if you consider all the variations for regional dialect, age-dependent slang, and the growing variations of language spawned on the web.

Now multiply that by the number of planets in any given science fiction novel.

That's a lot of languages for you to create to make your manuscript authentic. The good news is you probably don't need to go that far.

J.R.R Tolkein did create languages for his works (two complete that I can name), but he was also a professional linguist and could build languages off of other languages he already knew.

You are going to write (probably) in English. A majority of your text should be in the native language of the reader, let's say 96%. The other four percent will be italicized words, new terms, relevant slang, and common phrases the reader will learn by the end of the book.

Italicized Words: The rule of thumb is that any word in a foreign language gets italics so the reader doesn't dive for their dictionary. Names of characters are exempt from this rule. So are words that are commonly used. For example, the word crepe is French, we're very familiar with crepes in America (or at least in my house) and so I wouldn't italicize the word in the phrase, "We ate crepes for breakfast." Crepes is a proper noun.

And any grammarian with a better rule is free to chime in their opinion in the comments box.
New Terms: Raise your hand if you know what a plasma cannon is. Jedi, anyone? How about a Klingon? New terms are phrases that are commonly used in your world and are part of the everyday language. They don't usually need italics because they are common. They should be unique to your universe if possible.

Relevant Slang: I have an entire rant about why a character can't use the word (checks to see if MeeMaw Brooks is following this blog - no? Good.) "hell" if there is no religious background in the book. Most of western swear words are considered coarse or objectionable because of religious taboos.

When you choose emphatic words, curse words, or slang for your world make sure you use words that are relevant.

"shards, shells, by the egg, by the First Egg" - Used by Anne McCaffery in the Dragon riders of Pern series. Dragons are the center of the culture and it shows in the language

"flame, burn that, red hot" - Used by Christopher Stasheff in the novel We Open on Venus where the locals live in fear of fire.

There are others. Most series introduce their own slang. It helps a book stand out in your memory.

Common Phrases: Like the new terms, Comm Phrases are something that's regularly heard. Words of power to open a magic box, a command phrase in an "old" language, a formalized greeting that's part of the culture all fall under this heading. You should probably italicize these words and if your fans don't use this as a greeting at the convention ten years from now the phrase wasn't catchy enough.

So... How do you make your language relevant?

1. Design Ahead - Have a clear idea in your head what the language will sound like. If there are accents, mention them. They add flavor to the manuscript.

2. Use Sparingly - I have read books in languages I wasn't born speaking. I can do it, but I imagine it's hard to query a novel written in High Bucklandish With Attached Buck to English Dictionary. Do yourself a favor, and try to write most of the novel in a language your readers know.

3. Get Creative - Don't just change the accents and throw in italicized gibberish, change the sentence structure. Maybe your alien talks like Yoda, or speaks only in parables. Or maybe that's how your humans sound. Only you know so have fun with it.

4. Torture Your Character - Do you lack tension? Throw in a language barrier. It's a fun way to abuse your main character and sow dischord and confusion..

Suggestions? I'd love to hear them! Share your thoughts in the comments box.


  1. Nice post, Liana<:

    What I do is just use the language I want in the first draft - because it lets me focus on other things. Then I just do a find/replace whenever I want to replace words.

    Somebody I know BOLDS words and names that she plans to change later on during revisions. <- I can see this working out great, especially since there's a chance of forgetting to search for one word or other.

  2. Catherine: My crit partner does [insertcoolnamehere] on her first drafts so she can focus on writing and not making names or terms fit the world. :o) Thanks for sharing.

  3. Excellent thoughts!

    When I'm designing my faux language for a world, what I focus on it common dipthongs (multiple vowels) and blended consonants that will be "typical" for that group of speakers. Then I decide how to pluralize and how to indicate clan or family ties via names.

    So in one world I have teh ending 'anin' for plurals, common and mostly unique sound the blend of jh to make a djza sound; and the frequent use of 'ai' in names, usually at the end.

    This gives the clan an identity via sound.

    so that's my process, anyhow.

  4. Written- I've tried to do that too with varying degrees of success. Let me know how it goes. :o)