One of the greatest challenges – and joys – of writing fantasy is coming up with the language for the world. Because fantasy almost always requires extensive worldbuilding (or else it wouldn’t be fantasy, right?), it often requires special words, especially for those concepts unique to that place, people or society.
This kind of special language can enrich a world and help create the sense of escape for the reader. Conversely, too much of it can present a barrier. I think we’ve all picked up THAT book, where the first page had so many weird or unfamiliar terms that we simply gave up and put it down again. Not what the writer wants to have happen!
This comes of the writer going a little cray cray on this. I blame this on three things:
1) Making up a language is part of the godlike power of being a writer and it can be intoxicating
2) The writer gets to be too close to her world and forgets what a newbie to it will experience – and that there will be a learning curve
3) Forgetting that language (and worldbuilding, in general) is part of the backstory, which means you can’t dump too much of it in the first few pages.
So my tips for creating a fantasy language are related to those three pitfalls.
1. Don’t go overboard
Yes the godlike power is intoxicating, but the “foreign” words should be treated as a spice. A strong one, like cayenne or super-hot curry. A little bit goes a long way and too much can absolutely ruin an otherwise delicious meal.
For my Twelve Kingdoms series, my publisher (the awesome folks at Kensington Books) created a style sheet that lists, among other things, “Proper Names, Place-Names, Foreign Words/Phrases.” That makes it easy for me to visit just how much I made up. For the record, the guide for THE TALON OF THE HAWK has 127 listed. Of these, 76 are words or terms I made up for this world. (The list also includes stuff like “whom,” as in don’t use it because the author doesn’t like it and phrases like “off-balance,” to set the style that we use a hyphen in those cases.) The 76 terms include ones like “floofy,” which I totally believe is a word but others think I made up. So be it.
Of those, 28 are place names. You pretty much can’t get around foreign terms for places in fantasy. I can’t go around calling one of the Twelve Kingdoms “New Mexico” or some such. But there are ways to make them simpler. See #2.
Another 33 are terms I’ve assembled from plain English, but put them together in a different way to denote another frame of reference. Stuff like “bladework,” “Common Tongue,” or “mossback.”
That leaves only 15 words I literally made up. The names of my goddesses, the word “Tala,” and the various terms my Dasnarian (made-up word) mercenary uses when he can’t think of a good translation (deyrr), when he’s emotional (cvan) or because it’s a proper name (Vervaldr).
See? A pretty lightly used spice.
2. Keep it simple
I mentioned above that you can’t get around having foreign place names. But what you CAN do is assemble them from plain language (The Twelve Kingdoms) or couple a strange word with a familiar one (Castle Ordnung) or create a place name that creates an image (Windroven). The other thing I did – partly for fun, partly for homage and partly to ground the names – was use names from this world in a different way. Thus I have the Kingdom of Branli, named for a friend of mine, and Lake Sullivan, named for my author assistant’s alter ego. I also draw on foreign languages in this world, especially Romance languages, because they’re connected to English and feel more familiar. For example, “Ordnung” is a German word meaning order or discipline.
Even my most foreign words are generally drawn from existing languages. ”Annfwnn” is Welsh for paradise. The Dasnarian words are all ones I bastardized from Norse, with approximately the same meanings. There are very few words I made up whole-hog. Tala is one. Elcinea is another. If they pop into my head like that, I use them.
3. Edit those first pages heavily
Finally, eliminate the problem of too-much, too-fast in the same way you trim all backstory from those first few pages: edit ruthlessly. The first page of THE MARK OF THE TALA has three “new” terms for the reader to process – Ordnung, Windroven and Odfell’s Pass. THE TEARS OF THE ROSE has two – Windroven again and Avonlidgh. THE TALON OF THE HAWK has two also – Ordnung and High King Uorsin. Almost all of these are place names, which helps to establish that we are entering an alternate world.
Weave those new words and phrases in gradually enough and the reader shouldn’t even notice. Just as we learn to speak as children through conversation, we learn the language of a book and world gradually through context.
So, I sometimes get asked where some of my words come from, what they mean and how to pronounce them. I’ll lead that off by telling you Annfwnn is “onnafen.” Any others you want to know?