Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo.
A star shines on the hour of our meeting.
If you tried to guess what language this is, you might have thought it was Finnish, or Italian, or any number of others. But it is no language native to Earth—rather, it is of Middle-earth. This is Quenya, one of the languages of the Elves in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. And it’s a conlang.
What is a conlang?
Conlang stands for constructed language. Instead of arising naturally like Greek or Chinese, a conlang is—as its name implies—artificially created. Some conlangs, like Lojban and Esperanto, were created for practical purposes; their creators intended them to function as means of communication in the real world. The vast majority of conlangs, however, like Quenya, are created for artistic purposes, especially for fantasy and sci-fi media. Other conlangs in this category include Klingon and Dothraki.
Does my story need a conlang?
It might surprise you that many stories in the sci-fi and fantasy genres use conlang to some degree. Most frequently, this is limited to a few key words, particularly nouns that lack an English translation: proper nouns (such as kingdoms, planets, and given names), and animals, weapons, and foods that are unique to the world.
This is often sufficient to convey to the reader that the story takes place in another world due to what I call the “translator effect.” The native language of the narrator or central character is assumed to be the language in which the story was originally told, but it has been translated to English (or the language of publication) for the reader’s benefit. There are certain words, as I mentioned above, that cannot be translated because they are proper nouns or unique to the fictional universe, so those are left un-translated. The result is a book written in a natural language, with a few made-up words sprinkled throughout, as though the manuscript had been run through a much more sophisticated Google Translate.
There are several reasons why an author might choose this for their story. If it takes place entirely within a single linguistic community or culture, there is no need to put in the effort of creating a well-developed conlang. As long as the narrator or central character understands the language used in this community, the translator effect can step in and allow the story to proceed smoothly.
Things get more complicated if your story reaches across several cultures and linguistic communities. Inevitably, you will have people who do not understand one another. You could give them a lingua franca or trade language, or you could have all characters understand multiple languages, so that you can simply write, “‘XYZ,’ Character said in Language” with no need for translation. This avoids any communication challenges between characters and also saves you a lot of work—because I’ll be honest, conlang is a lot of (very rewarding) work.
But you might find that conlang is a good option for your story. Maybe your character has found themselves among a culture they’re unfamiliar with, and has to navigate the situation with fragments of language they pick up from others. This is the case in J.L. Stowers’ novella Uncharted Territory, which I edited in 2018, and which I developed a conlang for. The characters in this story must look for a rare resource on a strange planet, and there they find a marooned alien woman whose language has not been incorporated into their ship’s translation program.
It was useful to employ a conlang here to show the communication difficulties between the characters, and because Stowers wanted the alien woman and her culture to become important in later installments. But there was another reason we chose to develop a conlang for this story: it enriched the fictional universe. It made the story that much more tangible.
A conlang isn’t a requirement for any story to be successful, and it would be inappropriate or unnecessary in many stories, but it does enhance the stories it’s suited to.
Where do I begin?
Tolkien’s conlangs were so successful because he had been educated in linguistics, and I believe some knowledge of language mechanics is absolutely a must if you want to build a conlang. This is especially true if English is your first language. You’ll want to model your conlang on a natural language or a few of them (Quenya is modeled on Finnish, and the Vaerian languages I created for Stowers’ books are modeled on Swahili and Irish), borrowing rules and verb conjugation patterns to create something unique.
English is not really a language you want to do this with for your first conlang. From a linguistic viewpoint, English is a hot mess. Its lexicon is filled with borrowed words, its spelling often seems to lack sense, and its irregular verbs make even native speakers cry. It is a language in which there are more exceptions than rules.
If you don’t speak another language besides English, I would strongly encourage you to learn one. Even a basic grasp of other linguistic systems will open your mind to the possibilities of language. You should also learn the basics of linguistics to further broaden your knowledge. I studied it as my minor in college, but the internet and your local library have plenty of great resources too. (When I was bored as a teen, I read the Wikipedia articles for various language families and absorbed as much information as I could. Yes, I’m a nerd.)
Once you’ve decided to dive in to the world of conlang, I recommend starting with the Language Construction Kit. I used it to build my first conlangs several years ago, and my conlang process still mirrors its steps. When you’re a little more comfortable with the process, I recommend ConWorkShop as a place to host your conlang’s data. And if you have a more advanced grasp of linguistics, you can even use Gleb to randomly generate a phonological inventory and syllable structure, and add more details from there.
You might feel like your story needs a conlang, but this isn’t a job you feel comfortable taking on. If that’s the case, check out my new conlang service. I’ve been conlanging since my teens, and I’m thrilled to be able to offer this to authors of fantasy and sci-fi who need a little assistance with this aspect of their worldbuilding.
Here’s a little sample of Royal Vaerian, the language I created for Uncharted Territory:
Ladonulkoshumnakir thaji. Ulchânma koshum kunshe.
We should not go. It is dangerous (to go).
We must hurry.
Pânulkûtna azhken hîn hi.
I do want to go with you.
For the nerds among us who are curious: This language features a VSO word order, highly agglutinative verbs with mood and aspect affixes, a high/low social status distinction, and gender-related lenition.
And this is just the tip of the conlang iceberg. If you’re interested in having me construct a language for you, let me know what your fictional culture is like, how you want their language to sound, and anything else you have in mind to bring them to life.