Worldbuilding Languages

Language, to me, presents one of the most interesting aspects of worldbuilding.

Grandpa Tolkien set an incredibly high bar here, designing several realistic (and, according to many, beautiful) languages from scratch. I remember reading the Silmarillion as a child, devouring the language appendix, and trying to come up with my own language soon after.  

It didn’t work, of course. I was twelve, I wasn’t Tolkien, and I didn’t have the ear for languages the same way a trained professor of linguistics has.

I’m still not Tolkien, and I’m still not a linguist, but I’ve since learned four foreign languages to near-fluency (one of them, admittedly, was Esperanto, which probably doesn’t count) and a smattering of other languages on a very basic level. I’ve discovered that I do have the ear for languages – in the sense that learning them tends to be relatively easy and extremely enjoyable. I’ve also discovered that there are many more languages – with unexpected grammar structures and amazing sounds – than I could ever possibly learn, let alone design.

So, by the time I started wordbuilding in earnest, I decided that rather than trying to build languages from scratch I’ll just take real-world ones. If that gives me an excuse to learn something about them in the process, so much the better. 

I’ve never really regretted that decision from the language-acquisition standpoint, because digging up new words and figuring out grammar patterns is still as fun as ever. 

However, the problem I didn’t foresee is that languages are more than the vocabulary, the grammar, and the subtle mentality shift the two force on the speaker. Languages have history. And geography. And culture. And my world’s history and geography and culture are entirely different from the real-world history and geography and culture.

It wasn’t enough, then, to decide that this country speaks French and that country speaks German – I also needed the older generations that spoke Old Latin and Proto-Germanic and then intermixed in a variety of interesting ways. I couldn’t just have Russian – I also needed Old East Slavic to have met Byzantine Greek and a few centuries later have a nice long run-in with French. Not to mention that all those languages would have to somehow develop in the first place – on another planet.

See, I initially thought of my world as existing in a parallel universe, and so duplicating many of the elements the real world has. The Solar system, for example, was exactly the same, and I’d been using Earth as the blueprint for stuff like gravity and moon phases. However, while I could imagine species evolving along the same lines given similar physics and chemistry, my imagination failed with languages. The variety of languages on Earth demonstrated too clearly that the exact same biological species is capable of developing completely different systems of verbal communication (and even given the same initial language will veer off into dialects).

Thus the idea of lifting languages from the real world wholesale went out of the window. The results just weren’t organic enough, at least, in my eyes.

The next – and latest so far – solution was to imagine that my world’s humans actually originated in our world or, at least, in a world that is a close copy of ours. At some point between 9,000 and 7,000 years ago, some sort of thaumic event in my world temporarily bridged the two universes and allowed a whole lot of Homo sapiens from all across Earth to wander in. They were either still hunter-gatherers or farmers looking for new lands, and they didn’t even realize they’d crossed a dimension.  

Those migrants brought with them cattle, seeds of some domesticated plants – and a whole bunch of proto-languages which had already split into the major families, groups and sometimes even branches. From there, while languages may not have evolved in the exact same way as on Earth, the connection is traceable. Bereghin may not be Russian (or Ukrainian, or Bulgarian, or Czech, or Polish), but it’s distinctly Slavic, sharing many roots and grammatical structures with all of them (and significantly fewer with Greek and Latin). Areinish may not be German, but the name Regart has the same ancestry as Richard. Velnish may not be French or even Middle French, but they still address their nobles as messire.  And so forth

Admittedly I can’t do complete justice even to this system. While I know laws of language evolution exist, I only very vaguely know what they are or how they could apply. And, sometimes, there’s just not enough source material. 

For example, my Llitan is a Celtic language closely resembling Breton, and Llitan-speaking people play an important part in the novel I’m still (occasionally) working on. Unfortunately, the modern Berton has the “severely endangered” status. Which means that a) even modern resources on it are vanishingly rare, b) I haven’t yet been able to hunt up anything substantial on Proto-Brythonic, and c) it feels wrong to butcher an already-dying language. So I’m torn between trying to keep it as intact as possible, changing it up to suit the world, and reinventing the wheel for the lack of a dictionary.

And don’t even get me started on trying to adapt Basque. It’s a fascinating Pre-Indo-European language isolate – and because it’s an isolate, we know next to nothing about its older forms. So I’m left trying to evolve its relatives completely on my own, and, well… I settled on pilfering Proto-Uralic instead. 

…And, oh yeah, my planet still has no name. Can’t decide which language that name should be in 🙂

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  1. Pingback: Worldbuilding Languages | History Muse

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