On Conlangs in Science Fiction: When Should a Writer Use It?

As you have seen here and here, the Mendaihu Universe has its own constructed language, or conlang. which I’ve chosen to use for the alien Meraladhza race.  Creating this ersatz language was not just a hella nerdy thing to do, but it was a lot of nerdy fun as well.  As noted in that previous blog post, there were two reasons for doing so:

1. To give the aliens their own language, pure and simple.  Once you read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as a writer you can’t help but feel super-conscious about aliens being able to speak your native tongue so easily, and sometimes fluently to the point of using localisms, without thinking it’s a cop-out.  It’s a silly worry, as it’s widely accepted in the genre, expected even, for aliens from other worlds to be able to speak your language, or at least to have some sort of translating device.  Thus Adams’ brilliant sendup using the babel fish–it’s a brilliant satire of the old-school science fiction stories where the aliens somehow knew the Queen’s English upon first contact.

2. What if I wanted them to use their language?  In a way, I wanted to play around with the idea that our languages have permeated Anjshé, just as it has permeated ours–which is how a lot of real languages have evolved on Earth, anyway.  This is another reason I chose the aliens to have been among us for at least a few hundred years before the trilogy’s timeline; this would have given time for a bit of cultural bleedover to take place, including language.  The Meraladh would have picked up on various languages, and the Earth humans would have picked up on Anjshé, and both sides would have appropriated a few phrases into their own language at that point.

So if you’ve created a conlang for your novel or your created world, you may need to ask yourself: when is it needed?   In my opinion: when it’s needed within the context of the story.  Think about why you want to use the alien language–I mean, aside from “because it’s cool”, of course.  Give the language a reason for being there.

Say your main character is meeting up with your aliens for the first time, and he or she doesn’t know the language, or doesn’t have a translating device on them.  You could play up the tense moments by having them attempt to converse, never quite sure if they’re being friendly or aggressive.  Some writers have used this as an ongoing plot device, such as CJ Cherryh whenever she has the alien kif speak in her Chanur books.  Even Adams used this idea to amusing effect, having Arthur Dent hear a few moments of the Vogon language before Ford Prefect slams a babel fish into his ear; in the process, we find that the Vogons are not just horrible amoral aliens in general, but their language is so hard on the ears that it has literally caused other aliens to kill themselves rather than listen any further.

Within the trilogy, I use the Anjshé language only where it’s truly needed, specifically when a character is having an extremely emotional or spiritual moment.  It could be passive, such as when Alec Poe spits out the word pashyo (a general exclamation of surprise or frustration) whenever he’s annoyed with the situation.  Or it could be when Caren Johnson humbly apologizes to a Meraladian character with nyhnd’aladh…I am sorry, when she speaks out of turn and inadvertently says something hurtful.  I also use it whenever a character is performing some kind of spiritual action; just before a major ritual begins, I have Denni Johnson speak an entire introduction completely in Anjshé before she repeats it in English.  All these moments not just utilize the conlang to give the moment realism, but I’ve also given it a reason for being there:  as the Meraladians are a very spiritual people, so is their language, which they deem just as important as their actions.

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As always, one major thing to remember about creating a conlang is to make it pronounceable to the reader.  Unless you’re creating a language that’s deliberately hard on the tongue and/or ears, such as Adams for his Vogons or Cherryh for her kif, you’ll want to voice them out as you create them.  If you can’t pronounce it without tripping over your tongue or your throat seizing on you, chances are good that your reader will have the same problem.

A few other hints to think about:

–Make some ground rules to keep it consistent.  As stated in a previous entry, the most common sounds in Anjshé are “mmh” and “aah”, as they are the sounds of the spirit at rest.  Creating these kinds of rules will show that you put effort into this conlang, that you’re not just making it up as you go along.

–Study up on real foreign languages–or even your own native tongue–as a way to see how and why that culture created its vocabulary.  Anjshé is partly inspired by real languages that create new words through existing shorter words, like some Japanese and German; it’s also partly inspired by the aural flow of Gaelic.  In this process, keep in mind how these new words will affect your characters:  how would they deliver them, and is there a specific reason why they are saying them?

–Create a primer or a glossary that you can always refer to while writing to help you remain consistent in usage as well as in spelling.  You may even want to add these words to your word processor’s dictionary to avoid the auto-correct kicking in.  Additionally, you can use this glossary as part of your novel’s endnotes so the reader can refer to it when necessary.

–Have fun with it and see where it leads you!  Don’t think of it as your boring homework from high school–you’re creating not just new words here, but a new created culture, which you can then integrate into the novel itself.  This  will give your story more depth in the process, even if it’s just a short passage.  Readers will pick up on this and enjoy the reaction it causes.

 

Creating a conlang can be as detailed or as vague as you want and need it to be.  On the whole I believe I only have about seventy or so Anjshé words I created and added to the Bridgetown Trilogy, and used them only when necessary.  I left the door wide open for expansion, of course, and if that is part of your long-term goal, then by all means, go for it!

On Conlangs: Creating a “Constructed Language” for the Mendaihu Universe

The Anjshé language I created for the Bridgetown Trilogy didn’t come about well until about 2002 or so, when I was rewriting Book I, A Division of Souls and also working on Book II, The Persistence of Memories. As the revised plot moved further into alien relations and advanced spirituality, I’d decided to make the move of giving the Meraladhza a native tongue.

Creating an invented language is always a detailed undertaking, and one that has to be taken somewhat seriously. You can’t merely select sounds at random without giving them some semblance of order. And most of all, they need to be pronounceable, or at least pronounceable to the characters who will use them as a first language.

Then there’s the basic ground rules. I’ve heard it suggested that the best way to try out your new words is to pronounce them yourself; if you can’t get your mouth around it, chances are neither can the reader.

Some, like I did, will go a few steps further and decide what will be the most common sounds and letters. In English, “e” is the most common letter and the mid-central vowel “ə” is the most common sound.

In Anjshé, I’d decided that the most common letters/sounds are A/”ah” and M/”mmm” (note: not “emm” but a humming sound); I chose these as the most relaxed sounds in Meraladhza history, given their spiritual background. Thus there are a lot of Meraladian names and Anjshé words with these two letters and sounds.

The other ground rule was the way words were built. Anjshé was inspired partly by the process in which many real languages have words primarily created out of smaller mono- or duosyllabic words.

My starting point, I’d decided, would be the Anjshé equivalent of “I think, therefore I am.” I wanted the first alien words spoken to us humans to be along the lines of “we exist as well.”  In a notebook I wrote the following words:

dehndarra Né hra nyhndah

[Mind you, I didn’t have specific words in mind, I just wanted something where the sounds hinted at perceived meaning, and sounded mystical without being too derivative. More on this momentarily.]

Next, I broke it down to mono- or duosyllabic words:

dehn – darra – Né – hra – nyhn – dah

Let’s start with the second word. Né [/nay/] was the one I’d chosen as the pronoun. And since only this word is capitalized, it was an important pronoun…but it wasn’t going to be “I” or “me”. It was going to refer to the One of All Sacred, the deity these aliens revered. This is the reason why only that word is capitalized–only names and spiritual nouns should be such, to denote their importance.

Now to the next few words. hra [/hrah/] (the initial ‘h’ is more exhalation than a laryngeal sound) I felt was a “small but mighty” type of word, so I chose that to be the all-important verb “to be”.

dehndarra [/denn-DARR-ah/] I chose to use as the verb “to believe”. I then split it into two syllables and created two more words. “dehn-“ was a shortening of dayen [/DAY-en/] meaning the verb “to know”, and “-darra” being a shortening/mutation of the next word up there, “nyhndah”. nyhndah [/n’YIN-dah/] is an extremely important word in this universe–it means heart, or spirit. [Thus, dehndarra = dayen + nyhndah = “to know in one’s heart” = to believe.]

So literally, it translates “to believe One to be in spirit”.

From the other end, I deliberately chose dehndarra Né hra nyhndah to mean “To know oneself is to be One in Spirit” in its intent. It’s an extremely loose literal half-translation, so that left an opening for the other half–the unspoken intent.

This is where I came up with the idea that it wasn’t just the words that were spoken, but the emotional/spiritual intent behind the words that gave Anjshé the rest of its meaning. This fit in quite nicely with my aliens having heightened extrasensory awareness–they were able to not just voice their thoughts, but to transmit them voicelessly as well. This is why Anjshé sentences don’t start with a capital letter, as capitalization there is considered superfluous.

And that’s how I created Anjshé.

(Note: The word “Anjshé” is also part of this created language–it comes from “anjh” [/ahng/] meaning ‘word’ and “Shé” [/shay/], the feminine form of Né. So thus: “Anjshé” [/ahng-SHAY/] literally means “word of the One of All Sacred”.  The spiritual capitalization was merely moved to the start of the word.)

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More to Come:
–On Conlangs: An Anjshé Primer
–On Language in the Mendaihu Universe: Speaking and Innerspeak