Last time, we talked about languages and developing them, but this week, we’re going to briefly go over some factors to consider. Building languages is complex, so it’s important to break it down and go part by part. How far you go with it obviously depends, as we said last time, on what you want and need out of this exercise. Some people may just decide they need a few common sounds and aren’t concerned about an entire working vocabulary. Others will choose to go all out. Regardless, there are some factors you should consider when building the language.
First off, you should consider readability. Your reader is going to be seeing names and, in many cases, at least some words from the language you’re building. If you create a name like Aldafhjfd or some other such strange combination, people will have trouble processing it. Granted, even in real life, we’ve got names or words that we don’t know exactly how to pronounce, especially if we’re looking at a language like Gaelic or Welsh and don’t know the pronunciation rules. We’re likely to get it wrong. But we can still process it. We can still assign some method of pronunciation to the word, even if it might be wrong.
As writers, we expect that when we create our names or use unusual names from other cultures in real life, we’re going to have some subset of readers who may get close but a much larger subset that won’t get even close. So, our goal isn’t to worry about whether or not they can pronounce it properly.
Chances are that most of you wouldn’t know how to pronounce the name Leorithdhil, but you could probably come up with something that made sense to you, and you’d be content with it for the duration of the novel if need be. It doesn’t matter to me that you can’t pronounce it right. It does matter to me that you don’t trip up on the name or the word every time you see it. If you’re stopping to try to wrap your head around the sound of a word or name whenever you come across it, I’ve failed because those couple of seconds (or minutes, if you’re like me and try out every possible pronunciation method trying to figure it out) are seconds you can choose to stop reading because you’re no longer involved in the story.
I don’t want you all to stop reading, and you don’t want your readers to do so either. So, before you do anything else, readability and ease of access for the readers should be at the top of your list of concerns.
SImplifying to Keep Your Sanity
Guys, let’s just be honest here. Building a language is hard. If you’re trying to build it from grammar rules up, it may make you want to tear your hair out, no matter how happy you are with the end result. I should know because I’ve done this. I still have stuff I’m tweaking with the language I’ve been building, but much of the grammatical side is already in place because I love grammar, syntax rules, and language in general. (If you couldn’t tell…) In spite of my love for those things, there were times when I sat and stared at the page in despair because I couldn’t figure out how to handle a problem that had arisen with the rules I’d created or with the way something fit together.
No matter what, you’ll have those moments if you do any extensive language building, just as you will with extensive world-building in general. However, you don’t have to dissolve yourself into a mushy mess that can’t think or function. Simplification is allowed. You’re not trying to create a language people in real life would be able to use for every situation. Even Tolkien didn’t do that, though he did give his fans a highly-developed, impressively functional language with more vocabulary than most language constructions have. Despite that, he still didn’t give them the amount of vocabulary necessary for every day conversation.
So, don’t feel you have to either. Create what you need first, then worry about adding to it as you feel like it, not worrying about or stressing out over it. Once you’ve developed what you need, the rest is icing on the cake. It isn’t necessary and shouldn’t be something that makes you want to bang your head into a brick wall repeatedly.
Simplification comes in quite a few forms. You could choose to remove letters from the alphabet, as we discussed last time, you could borrow grammar rules from other languages in real life, you could borrow sounds from languages around you, or you could even decide to limit yourself to creating words only as you need them. Whatever form of simplification you choose, do implement some simplification method(s). It will keep you sane!
How Much is too much
The last area of consideration I’ll cover is more of a question than anything. How much is too much? You need to figure this out before you start building, particularly if you’re going to use the simplification method of building only what you need. Knowing how much is going to be too much for your novel is really important. It keeps you from overloading your story and your reader with the overabundance of building you’ve done in this area.
Every story is going to be different in its requirements and what you can and cannot get away with. Every audience will have different expectations of you as an author and of the area of language building in particular. Know what those requirements, restrictions, and expectations are. If you don’t know them, you’re highly likely to disappoint your readers with too much or, in some cases, too little.
Once you know what your story and its audience require, limit yourself. Don’t go to the extreme of too much. Include what you know will be tolerable and enjoyable for your readers.
If you want to build beyond that, then collect it somewhere for your reference and for the reference of enthusiastic fans if you have them. There may be some fans who really want to learn more about this world you’ve built and the languages in it, but don’t write the book for those fans because they won’t be the majority. If you pander to them, you’re going to drive away your main audience: readers who just want a good story in your genre. Instead, make the further resources on the world and its culture, languages, and more available to those super-fans who really want to dig into it, but make it available outside the story. A glossary and further resources for readers section on your website is one good way to do this.
In the end, when language building, you have a lot of technicalities to consider. But those technicalities need to be framed properly with an understanding of your audience and their needs. Go with what your audience needs to access and enjoy your story. Leave the rest in notebooks for your own personal enjoyment or reference.