Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ways to Effectively Use Constructed Languages in Fiction

*due to some confusion, I have edited this post to only include constructed languages. So if you saw this yesterday, you're not going crazy, I am.

Using a constructed language in fantasy and science fiction can add richness and depth to your plot. It could also add a colossal headache for your reader if you don't use your constructed words with care. In addition, some readers don't like fake words in fiction, just as some people can't stand books written in first person, so remember that you can't win them all.

For those of us who do appropriate judicious use of foreign words, here are some tips:

1) The conlang is used without any explanation at all, and you're supposed to infer from the context.

It's the most efficient use of a conword if you can sneak it in without any explanation, and the reader can infer what it means through the context.

Readers actually do this all the time. Most people have a decent vocabulary, but they still might encounter a real word in a book they don't know the meaning of. Rather than looking it up in the dictionary, the reader just figures out what it means in the context of the sentence.

The problem with this method is you can only do this with a word with a relatively simple meaning, and if you go too far and bombard the reader with a game of "figure this word out", they will get tired and put the book down.


“Derek turned around and nearly walked into the sojetha of the local tribe. ‘Excuse me! Sorry, sorry, hann ma, hann ma,’ Derek stammered. The surrounding members of the tribe didn’t look happy.”

a) I put the conwords in italics, so the reader has an easier time of picking the conwords from the real ones. If you decide to go this route, just remember to do it through out the rest of the novel.
b) 'Sojetha' means something very close to ‘chief’, which you may have inferred from the reaction of Derek and the other tribe members. For my purposes, it’s not really important that you know that “king and spiritual leader of his people” is the exact meaning of ‘sojetha’. This is a decision you should make for each conword you use. If it’s not super duper important that the readers understand the distinction, then you can leave it as is.
c) I snuck a conlang phrase in Derek’s speech, which you might have already guessed is an apology in their own language. You don’t have to do this, but I think if it’s believable, and you don’t over use it, you can do this to add some flavor. It works because Derek apologized in English, and then almost as afterthought, apologized in their own language. Your readers probably won’t analyze like that, but they will pick up on the nuances. Using some of the conlang depends upon whether Derek would actually know their language or not…but wouldn’t it be really funny if Derek thought he was using the appropriate apology, but in fact just grievously insulted the sojetha of the tribe by using the slang apology instead of the formal apology that is befitting a man of his station? :D Ahh, the many fun ways you can use your culture for conflict….

2) The conword is used, followed by a quick explanation, and then you move on. Further explanation of the foreign concept is explained as the book needs it.

There are some conwords you might want to use to convey concepts you can't convey as well in English or whatever language you’re writing in, but their meanings are either really complex, and or important for the reader to grasp.


Let's say that concept of a "sojetha" as not just the leader of the tribe, but their spiritual leader as well, was really important to my book. Maybe the sojetha's extra responsibilities of being his people's shaman was an important plot point. So I wanted to explain a little bit of this foreign word the first time I introduce it, and build on the explanation as the plot calls for it.

I could rewrite the sentence this ways in order to reflect this importance:

“Derek turned around and nearly walked into the sojetha of the local tribe. ‘Excuse me! Sorry, sorry, hann ma, hann ma,’ Derek stammered. The surrounding members of the tribe didn’t look happy that Derek stepped on their shaman and king's right foot.”

You can give the reader a tiny explanation, just enough for them to form an image, and buy yourself some time for further explanation later, should you need to do so.

3) The word is used without explanation, and you don't really need one.

Depending on how crazy you get with the foreign language, you could have all foreign character and place names.


Your characters names are Dalla, Ceje, and Lleves.

They live in the town of Faethan, and drive to work on Jyth Street.

Notice how I used the English words of “town” and “street” to give you some context clues of where to attach the names. You could also know what these foreign words mean in your language, and name other similar items appropriately.

Let’s say “jyth” means “brave”. You could name the military barracks “Fort Jythstan”, which literally means ‘brave people’. Maybe Jyth Street is named such because there’s a war museum there.

You wouldn't ever have to tell the readers that "jyth" means brave, but it can give your world some really cool internal consistency. The reader might not know that "jyth" means "brave" but if the word appears in connection with the military and honor, the readers will start to associate it with those things, even if they don’t know the exact meaning.

This method works best if you're absolutely crazy about making up constructed languages like I am. You don't have to put a lot of effort into a conlang in order to get something that you can use with confidence in your book.

You can get as in-depth or as light as you want and still have a good conlang. I have half a dozen conlangs in various stages of building. Like anything else, you don't want to go crazy with the conlang, so I only build what I need or want from it.

I use one or all of these methods in a book, depending on what I need. I try to use English words when English words will do, but I also try to give the feeling that this is a real world, so I pick my foreign words carefully. I don't say "hega" when magic will do, but I will say "sojetha" to describe the special position in the elvish government if it's different enough from "king".

Speaking of elves, I do the same thing for fantasy races. I call my elves "elves", and gnomes "gnomes", but if I've made up a race, I'll call them by their made up name. I try to give the reader as many things they can understand and relate to as possible.

4) My one deadly sin for conlangs

Making up a word on the spot, just to make things look foreign. I know a lot of authors do this, and I am not trying to call them out, but this drives me crazy. I'd rather see the word in English if the author isn't going to use a conlang effectively. Making a word up on the spot just to make things look foreign usually shows in the book, and I think it has the opposite effect intended.

Obviously we're all making up word on the spot, but I try to have some sort of internal consistency with the language, even if I am not going so far as to develop the grammar of the language.

To me, this is just as bad as making up your magic system on the spot, without any sort of internal consistency.


"Sarah walked down the T’Reyutighj street, and into the Fg''ityufittt House. She sat down and drank some daimyu tea."

It's not that your conlang can't be brutal with consonants, but a language like that will have a certain look, and it gets obvious as the book goes on that the words are being made up on the spot. It’s also a good example of over-using conwords for no reason.

So there you have it...some tips on smoothing over your constructed language use. I hope you guys have an easier time tackling this thorny subject.

What about you? How do you approach constructed languages in your novels?


  1. I'm very sensitive about language and have quit books because the naming structure was too rigid to reflect any naturally evolving language. Throwing in cumbersome words for a sense of immersion actually pulls the reader out of the story as he or she stumbles through the word. For some reason fantasists pick the most guttural and difficult linguistic pairings to create their new languages. I think sitting down and listening to a variety of world languages and see how smooth most of them are.

    As for me, I always want to add a dialect or spell phonetically to show the differences in pronunciation or whatever. It always feels hackneyed and I back out. I'm struggling with that in my recent ms and my current ms.

    To date, I have only used one alternate language to any great effect, and I had Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in the original Middle English) open and beside me the entire time I wrote that scene.

  2. Ewwww, yes...dialect. It always seems like a good idea at the time, but then as you read over what you've written, you realize it's just distracting.

    And I agree the naming structure shouldn't be too strict or it looks fake. Conlangs require a certain amount of...finesse shall we say.