Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Three


I wish life was not so short… Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

[image description: Indo-European language tree. available via license: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.]

Famed fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien was a great inventor of languages, and while I don’t have his linguistic background, I’ve always been interested in languages myself, and in particular their roots and relationship to each other, which is after all the primary study of linguistics. When I was a child I invented a couple of languages of my own (or at least tried to) and also a number of alphabets, but there’s no reason you should go through all that trouble unless you really want to. George R. R. Martin came up with a few words and phrases of different sounding languages for A Song of Ice and Fire and then called it a day, explaining to his readers that he wasn’t a linguist like Tolkien, he was just a storyteller.

In fact, you don’t even have to bother inventing snippets of an alien tongue. Many fantasy writers don’t, and a lot of Gamemasters, including myself, don’t bother reproducing languages in their campaigns either; they just tell the player in their own common tongue what is being said (assuming the player character, or PC, knows the language in question). So if you have no knowledge of or interest in foreign languages there is no need for you to bother with inventing new languages for your fictional world. Perhaps everyone in your fantasy setting speaks a common tongue, either because they are all of the same ethnicity, or belong to a syncretic society like the Roman Empire, or simply due to the prevalence of a lingua franca or universal trade language which different nations, tribes, or clans use to communicate with each other, such as that known in D&D simply as “Common”.

But if you do want to invent a language or two (or even a few), the best way to start is by studying the earth’s existing languages and how they relate to each other. Tolkien himself used real-world languages as the basis for his own invented tongues, such as Finnish for Elvish and of course, the Mercian dialect of Old English for Rohirric. You might also want to try to learn some of his invented languages as well as those created by others, such as Esperanto and Klingon. There are online groups dedicated to the learning and practice of many of these fabricated languages which you might join in order to enhance your experience of such.

I find that reading about linguistics can get boring sometimes, or at least, hard for me to concentrate on. Luckily there are other ways to explore different languages and how they relate to each other, such as through videos like the one below. If you visit the YouTuber’s channel you will find many more like this, each dedicated to a different language, family of languages, or area of linguistic studies:

[Embedded YouTube Video: The Languages of Africa by NativLang]

One of the first things you’ll want to do if you decide to create your own language is to compile a dictionary or glossary. It can be as simple as an alphabetical list of your invented words next to their corresponding meanings in your native tongue, but I would also suggest alphabetising the words of your native tongue in a separate section next to their translations into the invented language. You’ll want to be able to not only look up the real-world word and get its fantasy world equivalent, but you’ll also want to be able to look up the invented word and immediately see what it means in your own native tongue. If you can create a searchable database, that would be ideal.

Inventing fictional systems of writing, on the other hand, is a far less daunting task than inventing a spoken (or even sign) language because, unless you’re going to create an ideographic one such as Hanzi, you have much fewer symbols to design. This is because alphabetic writing systems are used to represent phonetic sounds, of which there are a limited amount the human mouth can produce. Even if you don’t base your alphabet on any real-world example, as long as your letters are only meant to represent those sounds, you’re not going to require hundreds or thousands of symbols, such as you would need if they represented whole words or concepts. Most phonetic alphabets have no more than 33 distinct symbols. English, which uses the Roman alphabet, utilises only 26. The most letters any known alphabet (as opposed to ideographic writing systems) has is 74 (the Khmer alphabet).

For more on writing systems, here’s another great video from the same linguistics channel I linked to above:

[Embedded YouTube video: Writing Systems, Graphemes, and Scripts]

Next: Drawing on Real-world History, Politics, and Culture

Previous: Mapping Your World

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

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