Inventing languages is a crucial—and fun—part of fantasy novel worldbuilding. Words unique to a country, region, people, or race give the world texture and depth that can’t come from ordinary words alone. But inventing a solid, believable, and rich fantasy language is about more than just throwing together weird-sounding combinations of words; when done properly, the language is creates conflict, reveals character, and even provides crucial solutions to the plote (can you say “Speak friend and enter”?)
Here are eleven words your fantasy language has to have.
Swear words, curses, and oaths represent the immediate, impulsive instincts of your character, and so they often reveal lots about the psychology of the people who speak your language. Are the swear words religious in nature? Scatalogical? Do they reference societal taboos?
Similarly, insults are a necessary part of every language, and an excellent opportunity to weave in information about the societal mores of your speakers. What is the gravest insult a person could be called in your language?
Terms of Endearment
Ah, love. The flip side of insults are pet names and sweet nothings that people in your language’s society call each other. What do they value and prize? Consider how in English, we have not only a lot of sugar-related words (“honey,” “sweetie,” “sugar”) but value-related words (“dear” can also mean “expensive”—compare “mon cher” in French). In French, however, a parent or lover might refer to “mon petit chou”—my little cabbage! You can also creative diminutives—versions of words that imply smallness or youth (like “kitten” for “cat,” for example). Be creative and think about your society’s nearest and dearest things when crafting.
People who outrank your characters will need some term of address that conveys deference and honor—think “your Majesty” or the Japanese suffix “-san.” How will characters of lower rank speak to those of higher rank? Do the words have any literal meaning?
How many levels of “hello” and “goodbye” does your language have? What do the words literally mean? Many languages use “peace” as a greeting (or valediction). Some are imperatives (like the Latin “ave”). Some are more extended, idiomatic phrases.
Language is a reflection of mindset, and your characters are from an unfamiliar society that you’re building. What concepts does their culture have that don’t translate neatly into English (or the primary language of your text)? Consider words like “tsundoku” (the act of letting reading materials pile up) in Japanese, or “saudade” (a feeling of longing or nostalgia) in Portuguese.
A kenning is a term from Old English poetry that refers to a word construction out of two smaller words, whose meanings, when combined, take on a new, non-literal significance. For example, in modern English, a “passport” lets you pass through a port, i.e. a metaphorical door to another place. Combining two words of your language to create a new, deeper, or more abstract word adds depth.
Demonyms refer to the name for a person from a particular place—e.g. a Floridian, a Canadian, a Parisian, a Brit, a Scot. How do the names of cities, countries, and regions translate into demonyms? Don’t merely employ the form that we use in English; consider adding a prefix to modify your place names.
Of course, specific dishes need names, but also consider the differences between food in the field and food on a plate: in English, we have “pigs” in the barnyard, but “pork” on the dinner table. The reason for this difference is the Norman invasion in 1066 CE, when French-speaking invaders took over the nobility and referred to their cooked dishes by Norman French terms. The Anglo-Saxons in the farms, however, retained their native words. Consider how such a divide could reflect social stratification—or something else significant—in your fantasy world.
All literate societies have common texts that speakers know of, if not know by heart. (For example, almost every English speaker will recognize “To be, or not to be.”) What phrases do your speakers know from their society’s written corpus, and what significance do they hold?
Similarly, any religious society (or a society with a strong moral code) will have prayers, blessings, and benedictions. What formulaic language do your characters use to ask for divine assistance?
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