How to write FANTASY LANGUAGES

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This chapter touches on high-fantasy, made-up, conlangs. Made up languages. It's not on how to create your own language, but how to write a story set in another world where a language(s) other than English will be used.

(Key point: I know not all of you write in English, and that's totally cool. While reading this chapter, please substitute "English" for whatever language you write in! I write in English, so I'll use that word, but this applies for any real-world language.)

When writing a fantasy world or any other than our own, the characters most likely will NOT be speaking English. They'll be talking in their own language, however, what we readers are reading on the pages is the translation of the story. A high fantasy book is a TRANSLATION OF A FANTASY LANGUAGE INTO ENGLISH.

Eragon, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Game of Thrones, take your pick. They're all translations into English because there's little chance English would've evolved in another world. Think of our world before English. There were tons of other languages, from which English eventually evolved. A ton of other languages also emerged too. Your fantasy world will not have the same languages as our reality Earth.

So when you're coming up with your own languages to fill that world, your pov character/narrator will relay the story in their own language, but we real world earthlings are just reading the English translation. There are a few considerations to take with this.

Sometimes your fantasy world will require a new word to describe something that doesn't exist in English. That's when it's appropriate to say that "other language" word within your narration/dialogue.

Let's look at Seraphina for an example. In that world, there exist dragons who can take human form. Those human forms are called saarantrai. There's no English word specifically for "human form of a dragon", which gives the author permission to make up her own and insert it into the (English translation of) her story.

Now, what if your fantasy world had a goat? Also assume the narrator speaks Language A, which isn't English, and the word for "goat" in Language A is "rietma". Is the author allowed to say: "The rietma trotted up to me."?

NO!

If an English word already exists for the thing you wish to name, USE THE ENGLISH WORD. Think about it. The story you're reading is an English translation of Language A (which is the native language of the narrator/pov character). The hypothetical translator isn't going to randomly decide he doesn't need to translate "rietma" into "goat". Everything that has a direct English translation should be written in English. If you're describing a concept that doesn't exist in English (saarantrai, muggles, gedwëy ignasia), you're free to use the "fantasy language" term for it since you physically can't write it in English.

Next situation, the pov character speaks multiple languages, but the main language he speaks is Language A. However, he meets a character from another country that speaks Language B. Our pov character can also speak Language B, and he does so while talking to this other dude. How can you as the author write a scene like this?

Of course, the pov character can understand what he himself is saying, no matter which language he's speaking in. One of the cleanest, easiest, and most understandable ways to let the reader know what the character is saying in Language B is to translate it into English for us, but tell us he's speaking in Language B.

For example:

"Hello, how are you?" he asked in Language B.

Next situation, what if the pov character is now listening to someone who speaks Language C, which he doesn't know? Then you'd spell out the actual conlang (made-up language) in that character's dialogue.

Example:

"Hello, how are you?" he asked.

She blinked and tilted her head. "Vieh ga canmi?"

So if it's a language the pov character/narrator doesn't know, then write it out in the made-up language.

Switching gears a little, what happens when your character talks in sign language? Do you as the author need to know sign language? You'll be happy to hear that NO YOU DON'T! Sign language is interesting to write because it uses hand and finger gestures rather than speech.

You have several choices of how you can convey that.

One way is that the narrator simply needs to say that the character is speaking with sign language or hand gestures. Feel free to describe the signs if you want, but it's not necessary.

For example:

"Hello, how are you?" she signed. (or other alternatives can be: she gestured, she said in sign language, etc.)

Another option is instead of quotation marks, you can bold or italicize the "dialogue" of the person using sign language. You also need to narrate that they're using hand gestures as in the previous point.

I personally advocate bolded text. Italics is universally understood to be direct, internal thoughts, so it definitely would get confusing to have your pov character speaking in italics. The reader may confuse that for an internal thought instead. My critique partner's story used italics, and it took me several chapters to realize the italics were sign language, not internal thoughts! So think how confusing the conversations sounded to me!

Bolded text doesn't have a specific meaning attached to it, so it would be clear to use it for dialogue conveyed through sign language. I also use bolded font for texts if my characters are texting each other. One mute character I have is living with people who don't know sign language, so she writes down what she wants to say, and in my story I bold that to make it clear it's being written, not spoken or thought. (That's also why I'd advise against quotation marks. The reader may think that dialogue is being spoken aloud rather than signed or written, and that'll seriously confuse them.)


So does all that make sense? I know these are confusing topics. Let me know where I can clarify!

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