J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.
My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.
The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!”
Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb.
If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to."
The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.
Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.
A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)
There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .
Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession.
But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F? Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.
Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.
Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense.
Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over.
Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.
Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”
Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.
In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.”
A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.)
Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society.
It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.
In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.”
Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions.
If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.
Adjectives and Adverbs
An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)
Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company.
It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.
The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them.
The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”
Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase.
“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”
You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English.
In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.”
Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)
Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending.
If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.
In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.
Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language.
Articles and determiners
The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.
However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these.
Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.”
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.
Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well.
It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.
Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!