Fictional languages are systems of communication used by a culture, civilization or group of peoples. Fictional languages may include spoken words, written symbols, hand gestures, bioluminescent pulses, telepathic imagery, or any other mode of transmitting meaning from one person or creature to another. Languages in fictional worlds may be ancient languages spoken by long since collapsed ancient civilizations (and perhaps preserved on the walls of ancient tombs or within the pages of occult spell books). They may be alien languages that must be correctly deciphered during a first contact event. Or they may be new slang and ways to greet one another used in future eras. Worldbuilders may create entirely functional fictional languages, but as this is a massive endeavor, more often they will create simple alphabets and a limited vocabulary.
Designing Fictional Languages
Many worldbuilders will design fictional languages and alphabets to match (or subvert) the culture or tone of the world or people that use the language. The letters of a sophisticated maritime civilization may ebb and flow like the ocean tides. Orc brutes may speak with a language that sounds crude and harsh (or is unexpectedly melodic).
Worldbuilders with an audience in mind should also be aware of the problem with fictional languages. In short, the audience doesn’t know what any of these words mean. Worldbuilders usually rely on a language audiences do understand in narratives that occur in a fictional setting.
Fictional languages are often referred to as constructed languages or conlangs.
While in the real world alphabets are established long after a language has been first spoken, worldbuilders often begin creating new fictional languages with the creation of a fictional alphabet. Alphabets are relatively easy to generate and serve wide ranging roles in fictional settings, from shop signs, to graffiti, to magical scrolls. First, consider if the symbols of the fictional alphabet are direct substitutions for a real alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) or represent the word sounds of a fictional dialect.
|Basic Visual Design Principles
|Aesthetics: Alphabets may reflect the culture’s artistic sensibilities. Consider whether the society prefers intricate, flowing lines or simpler, angular shapes.
|Distinctiveness: Create characters that are distinct from each other to ensure they are comprehendible. Characters should be both distinct within a language, and between multiple languages. Avoid confusing similarities.
|Consistency: Maintain a consistent style and design across characters. This consistency helps the script look cohesive and natural.
Consistency and distinctiveness in the design are important when creating multiple languages, as these can be used to easily tell one language from another. Keep in mind that languages that are derived from a common ancient language may have more similar appearances.
Fictional alphabets can be direct substitutions for real-world alphabets, can represent the word sounds of a fictional language, or can represent entire ideas or concepts. Keep in mind that alphabets can feature upper and lower cases, as well as a plethora of punctuation marks.
The word sounds (or phonetics) of a fictional language can be another way to generate a unique language. Consider what sounds match the tone you are striving for as well as what sounds can be physically made by the speaker of the language. These sounds, once put together, will form the words of the language and give it a characteristic flavor. Subterranean ratfolk may use raspy consonants and hisses as the basis for their language, while a plains tribe may favor melodic vowels.
|Example Word Sounds
|ah, o, sh, ng, ch, st
The sounds that can be made by fictional creatures or aliens (if they even communicate via sound and not some other means) may be vastly different than what humans are capable.
Worldbuilders can use simple word sounds to create toponyms, or placenames, that are unique to their fictional world.
Even if worldbuilders will not go on to create a fully functioning language, creating a short list of common words and their fictional language translations has many uses. World-specific greetings and curse words can be one way to add depth to a world. Having a list of common places can also be a way to create unique toponyms. And if worldbuilders are naming elements exclusive to their worlds, or mythonyms, these words may stem from a fictional language.
Languages may have formal and informal variants which use drastically different vocabularies, grammar, and syntax.
Languages may borrow words from other languages and use them as their own.
Grammar & Syntax
Grammar and syntax are how words are organized into understandable phrases and sentences and may differ greatly between a fictional language and our own. Even simple sentences can have drastically different ordering based on the rules of the language.
|She ran home.
|Home she ran.
|Ran home she.
|She home ran.
|Home ran she.
|Ran she home.
Subject-object-verb is the order most commonly used in languages on Earth. Languages that typically use the subject-verb-object order, such as the English language, are the second most common.