24 January 2018

Well. I made a language.

Klingon Success! (c) KEB.
Vintage woman by Freepik
Qapla by Carlos Francisco Cruz Fierro.
I've continued to break rules as I write, and this includes some of the self-imposed limits I made years ago when it came to worldbuilding. I wasn't really into some of the traditional epic fantasy tenets, where authors included introductions or glossaries containing pronunciation and language guides,  vocabulary, maps, histories, family trees and lines of succession, full appendices, and so on and so forth. 

As fun as it is for writers to invent these things when you plan out your speculative fiction series, I never felt like any of it should actually be included in the book (see "A Personal Treatise on Maps and Fantasy" 1 & 2). A huge chunk of this was because I felt like if readers needed all of this extra help to understand and become immersed the story, then the story just isn't strong enough to stand on its own as it should. (I still mostly believe this, but am finding exceptions to the rule, and I'm slowly becoming more sympathetic to why writers and readers dig these tropes.)

The other issue: the long, dark shadow of Mordor stretching across the realms of the fantasy genre...the behemoth known as J. R. R. Tolkien. Middle Earth was and is the framework for modern epic fantasy worldbuilding.

Maps? Check. Detailed histories? Check. Constructed languages? Check.

Brief confession - I like and appreciate LOTR a lot. The movies are what introduced me to the books. And I liked the books enough that I wrote a critical analysis of it my senior year of undergrad after my professor kept insisting there was no academic merit in covering Tolkien's masterwork. As soon as I produced an essay by W. H. Auden as one of the sources, that shut him up. 

Here's the thing, though. I will probably NEVER read the books again. They were difficult to get through in the first place, partially because you have to wade through so much worldbuilding that doesn't contribute to the immediate plot or scenes. There are certainly lovely things in the books, but there were many times when I glossed over songs, sentences with other languages in them, most of the scenes with Tom Bombadil, etc. Maybe if I reread the books I'll find something new and richer in the pages therein, but it'll take quite a bit of effort on my part.
OMG Namarie! (c)  KEB
Vintage Woman by Freepik;
Quenya Example by TigerTj√§der.
Because Tolkien really set the tone for modern epic fantasy, I also burned out on Tolkien-esque books by other authors. And the largest indicators to me that a fantasy would strive to be like Tolkien were books that included maps and original languages, so I avoided them. For decades. 

I tried to avoid them in my writing, too. 

But as I've been writing for a while, and especially through the inspiration blitzkrieg of this past year, I realize I've been a bit of a writing snob and my perspective is too narrow.

Anyway, just as I did a 180 with my worldbuilding philosophy and made a World Book, I sat down over the weekend and threw together the foundations of a constructed language.

I was in the middle of writing The Step and the Walk and realized I needed to put a simple sentence in the text, but it could not be English. It was a strong pull in my gut telling me I had to figure this out before continuing on. 

Part of this is because for a long time in the series, especially with The Name and the Key, I was writing a culture based off of the Roma. What I didn't want readers to think was that I based the culture off of gypsies. My plan was to build up description of the characters and drop cultural hints here and there without being on the nose about it. Then I had a couple tough epiphanies.
  • It is incredibly difficult to describe things without ultimately giving it a name, whether it is a language or an entire people.
  • Excellent discussions with authors about points from this article taught me that "if you truly want to discuss issues of race, tell the stories of an oppressed people, or just want to write a multicultural story, it’s best to create your own world" (Naz).
  • Another quote that is true: "DO NOT write ethnically vague characters [...] Everyone will assume your character is white, so don’t pretend otherwise" (Naz). Look no further than my "Lily and Andresh" project--all artists were given the exact same descriptions of the characters, but you can see that when it comes to Andresh's skin color, there are a wide range of interpretations. 
Now that I had a better understanding as to why I needed to make changes in my approach, I went ahead and invented my own culture: the Koradza. Over the weekend, I constructed their language.

I wanted to go about language construction from a more academic standpoint, and use the book The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson as a resource. I own the book, but left it in America. D'oh. Too lazy to reorder the book from Amazon Japan, I straight up Wiki How'd language creation. It was pretty helpful, actually! On top of that, I tried to use what I knew about languages from the experience I have teaching EFL in Japan.  

Queen Koradza (c) KEB.
Vintage Lady and Background by Freepik
Koradza text (c) KEB.
First I wanted to figure out a sort of history and cultural basis for the Koradza language.  Since the Koradza is Roma-inspired, their language is, too. The Roma's true origin is India, not Egypt (and many point to Rajasthan). There are linguistic traces of Sanskrit and Hindi in Romani languages, which helped place India as the origin. Most of the sounds and spellings in Koradza are inspired by Hindi and Romanian; Hindi due to the Roma's origin, and Romanian due to the Roma's long, tumultuous history with that country.  I've also consulted Romani dictionaries for stylistic influences, too.

Rounding out the language are influences from Welsh and Japanese. I lived in Wales for a term abroad and studied the language, and now I am in Japan. It was hard for these not to pop up in Koradza somehow. 

After choosing some stylistic influences, I hammered out a mini guidebook to the language in these steps:
  1. Create the alphabet and pronunciation guide 
  2. Create the sentence structure - I started off with a simple subject + verb sentence and then complicated the grammar from thereon. I also chose not to use articles in this language.
  3. Create an honorifics system and names for titles
  4. Create conjunctions and prepositions
  5. Create directional phrases
  6. Create numbers and quantities
  7. Create verb tense forms
  8. Create subject forms
  9. Create singular and plural conjugations
  10. Add a small glossary of words that are culturally important to the Koradza
These are the bare bones of the language, and I'll probably add to this as I go, but it was important to lay down ground rules so that way if I need to make something else up in the future, I have this as a guide. 

Now the next part--how much of this language will appear in the books? 

Probably next to nothing. I want to follow my goal of including only 15% of my worldbuilding directly in my writing. The rest is just for my reference.

And if I remember my personal preferences as a reader (as well as my experiences with Tolkien), I know I'll skim or skip the parts I can't understand anyway, so who's to say the same thing won't happen to my readers if I plunk Koradza sentences in the middle of a scene? I definitely don't want to be the type of fantasy writer who goes, This isn't immediately relevant, but woohoo! Look at what I can do! I made a thing! A thing called LANGUAGE! And then the scene derails and the reader stops reading. 

I'll file language creation under really cool things that should be used sparingly. It was a ton of fun to create Koradza and I'm weirdly proud of myself (because it was hard), but I'll do my best not to beat my readers over the head with it. ☺


How do you feel about constructed languages? Have you ever tried to build a language? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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