Language creation guide part 1: Sound
Creating a realistic language is an incredibly time consuming and enormous task. There's a huge amount of detail that goes into any language and in order to create a decent fictional language you'll likely have to cover the vast majority of them. It's not something you'll do in a weekend, at least if you do it well. It's something that'll take weeks or even months if you're really ambitious.
Some might think simply translating all words in the dictionary into your own language is enough to create a new language. While this isn't completely false, it doesn't create a language which is really original. You still use the same grammatical structures, the same words, the same amount of words and pretty much every other aspect of that language.
In this guide I'll delve into many of the aspects of our languages and how you can use those to create your own language. I won't be covering everything, there's simply far too much to cover and you'd probably have to study linguistics to cover it all, but this guide will still be enormous and expansive enough to create a good and original fictional language.
I will make references to existing fictional languages, like Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya and Dothraki, as well as plenty of real languages, this will hopefully not only illustrate what it takes to create a language, but also provide you with sources of inspiration.
Who will speak your language?
Before we even begin creating a language it's important to take note of who the language is actually meant for. Whoever it is will heavily influence many other aspects of your language, ranging from the sounds and symbols of the alphabet to the vocabulary and grammatical structures.
Even if you don't have any specific purpose for your language, other than the enjoyment of creating it, you still want to have some foundations as the basis of your language. This'll help make sure your language stays consistent.
Sounds and phonetics
Right, time for the first step. In order to create a language you'll first need to decide what sounds you want in your language. We'll start of with the consonants.
There's a huge variety of possible consonant sounds we can produce as humans. In theory you could create far more for an alien species with a different biology, but we're going to stick to the humanly possible, this way whoever comes across your language will at least be able to try to pronounce your language.
We pronounce consonants by blocking the airflow from our lungs a certain amount at a specific point. We do this using our tongue, teeth, throat and lips, either on their own or in combination. For example, we use ours lips to pronounce 'b' and 'p', we use our lips and teeth for 'f' and 'v' and we use our tongue and teeth for 's' and 'z'.
Wikipedia has a great table with many of the possible consonants including audio files with pronunciations (based on the Latin alphabet) to let you listen to how those sound, you can find it right here.
This page is incredibly helpful when trying to decide which sounds you want in your language. The symbols representing each sound might be a little confusing, but you can ignore those and simply write down the sound in a way that helps you remember what the sound is.
Note that you don't need to cover all of the possible sounds and it's best not to, languages rarely cover the majority of sounds. The more sounds you add the more complex your language will likely be, but if you add too many it could become an unrealistic mess.
Now it's time to pick the sounds of vowels we want in our language. Vowels are pronounced by placing our tongue in certain positions and opening our mouths a specific amount. You can easily feel this for yourself by saying various vowels out loud.
Fortunately Wikipedia has a table with audio files for vowels as well, right here.
But just like you don't want to cover all consonant sounds you also don't want to cover all vowel sounds. Once you listen to the vowel audio files on Wikipedia you'll quickly discover English misses plenty of sounds and so does pretty much every language in the world.
As I mentioned earlier it's best to stick to sounds we as humans can produce when creating your own language, but for some species you might still wish to make it sound alien. However, this does not mean you need inhuman sounds. A great example of an alien sounding language is Klingon, so let's take a look at how the creator, Marc Okrand, made it sound alien.
Klingon was created by breaking as many 'rules' as possible in terms of how human languages are generally constructed. We'll focus on some aspects later in this guide, but for now we'll stick to the sound rules.
Many languages have 'sound pairs'. If there's an 's', there's probably a 'z' too. The same goes for 'd' and 't', 'v' and 'f' and so on. Klingon broke this convention. There is a v, but no f. There's a d and a t, but they're not similar to each other like the English 'd' and 't', they're pronounced with different placements of the tongue.
So the same can be done for your language in order to make it sound more alien. At the same time it also helps making it more guttural or melodic by taking out specific sounds.
Another way of making it sound alien is by using multiple versions of a sound. For example, the 'r' is pronounced in many different ways in various languages, like the difference between the American, English and Spanish r's. By using all three in the same language it could change to an alien sounding language. But as always, don't overdo it by adding too much.
Phonotactics are the rules of syllable structure. They determine whether one consonant or vowel can come after the other, whether they can be paired together and so on. For example, in English there has to be a 'u' after a 'q'. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are all in words which originate from a different language.
Having said that, languages have exceptions in pretty much everything, especially English, so exceptions like this may be an important addition to your language as well.
Two examples of English phonotactic restrictions are:
- Every syllable requires a nucleus (a vowel in the middle of the syllable)
- No long consonants (no consonant is pronounced for a longer period of time)
English has 14 restrictions in total, some languages have more, others have less. Delving deeper into those rules will require a more technical vocabulary so I decided against adding those in this guide, but they may be worth investigating on your own if you want a detailed language.
But in essence the rules will determine what sounds a word can end in, what it can begin with and with what sounds it can be combined. So if you wish to keep it simple, simply take the list of sounds you have and write down which can be combined with which, which ones can be at the end of a word, which can be at the beginning and, optionally, the exceptions to those rules.
Stress, tone and pitch
Stress, pitch and tone each affect the way sounds are pronounced. Stress is the strength you put on a specific syllable and it could affect the meaning of a word, like in the following example: "I present you a present.".
Some languages have a predictable stress system, others have an unpredictable system, like English. Some languages even have a primary and a secondary stress. The secondary stress isn't pronounced as strongly as the primary, but still more strongly than those which aren't stressed at all.
Some languages use tone instead. Examples of these are Vietnamese, Cantonese and Chinese. Chinese has 4 tones, Vietnamese has 6. An often used example of Chinese tones is the syllable 'ma', which in the 4 tones of Chinese gives: 'ma' (mother), 'má' (hemp), 'mà' (curse) and 'mâ' (horse).
Note that using tones is really tricky if you don't already speak a language which uses tones, so take that into consideration before choosing to use tones in your language.
Some languages use neither stress nor tone, they use pitch instead. An example of such a language is Japanese in which syllables can be either low or high pitched, like the words 'sushi' and 'sashimi'. 'Su' in sushi is low pitched and the 'shi' is high pitched. The 'sa' in sashimi is low pitched and the 'shi' and 'mi' are high pitched. Changing the pitch from high to low could result in a different meaning.
You'll have to decide which system you'll want to use and how you want to use it. You could use accents to indicate stress, tone and pitch, like the different 'ma' examples of Chinese tones, or you could make it depend on positions, length or on context and pronunciation, like the 'present' example.
Now that we've figured out all the sounds we want in our language and how they can change depending on their pairing and on the stress, tone or pitch of it, it's time to create an alphabet to represent those sounds.
An alphabet can be pretty much any set of symbols, that's all up to you, but there are a few things you'll have to consider before translating each and every sound into a symbol.
Not every sound will require its own symbol, some sounds may occur only when 2 or more symbols are combined, like 'ch' or 'th'. Of course you can still do so for some of the sounds, like the 'x' in English.
The letter C
'C' can sound like a 'k' and an 's', so the c might seem like an unneeded symbol. The reason we have a c has to do with its history. I won't delve into that history other than saying the c was once used for the sound of g. This historical oddity may not be something you'd want to add to your language, or maybe it's exactly what you want.
Accents and apostrophes
It's possible to distinguish different sounds by using accents on them, like differentiating 'é' and 'è', but this isn't necessary. Many languages are perfectly fine without it, including English, they simply change the sounds depending on the combinations with other symbols. For example, notice the differences between the single vowels in the following words: apple, army, be, end, ice, kiss, rock, brown, rude and push. The same happens with some of the vowel combinations: leave, bread, steak, die, field, tough, group and about.
Whether you use accents or not will be up to you, but if you do use them make sure the rules are consistent.
Try to refrain from using apostrophes though, they tend to make a language look a little amateurish and they can make your language difficult to read if you use too many of them.
Apostrophes are also more useful for grammatical structures, in which not only do they look more natural, they also look better from an aesthetic point of view. But not every language uses apostrophes, so don't feel like you have to add them.
Symbols for words
If you want to get really creative you could always create a system similar to Japanese or Chinese, systems which have thousands of symbols which each represent a word or sound and when combined form different words.
If you're looking for more inspiration why not delve into the alphabets we use or used around the world. Some of the symbol sets used today look a lot like some of the symbol sets used in works of fiction.