Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Building a Fantasy Language 1: Writing System

I love to write, and I love to build fantasy worlds.  As a high-school student, making up my own languages was always my favorite part of worldbuilding.  Sometimes it was also the most frustrating--I revised and revised, but my languages didn't seem quite right!  Since I felt this way, it's probably not surprising that I ended up going to school for linguistics and language-related degrees!
A lot of people create fantasy languages for their stories (J.R.R. Tolkien, anyone?), but most folks don't have time to wade through a two year program or a bookshelf's worth of reference books to learn how real-world languages are put together.   This blog series is for them.   
I am planning blogs on various language-building topics that will help you think through the way languages work.  Then you can decide how you want to build your own languages.  If there is a particular topic that you want to learn about, leave a message in the comments!

Building a Writing System
The following post grew and grew to monstrous proportions... so unless you are a language-obsessed person like me, you probably won't want to read it all.  Scan down and look at the headings in bold; that way you can decide what you want to know.  :)

I'm starting the series with something that isn't actually necessary for a language... but is necessary for 99.99% of fantasy languages: a writing system.  Many real-world languages have gotten along fine without a writing system for hundreds of years, thank you very much; but because we usually want to include bits of our fantasy languages in our stories, we have to be able to write them down.  

There are two types of fantasy writing systems.

1. The writing system you use to transcribe what your characters are saying in the fantasy language, for the purposes of publication.
2. The writing system your characters themselves would use to write their own language (assuming that they know how to write).

Type 1: The writing system your publisher can accept
If you are transcribing a language in a story that you hope to publish, you are probably stuck with the Roman alphabet (the one I am writing in right now).  I will talk about the things that you can do with this in my post on "Building a Sound System," which is in the pipeline somewhere.  But a few quick notes on this right now.
           A. Spelling - There are some languages out there where one letter = only one sound, always the same sound, all of the time.  But this is not very common.  Often, a given letter can make more than one sound, or a given sound can be represented by more than one letter.  This kind of thing is often a relic of the historical development of a language, so it will be systematic, even if the system isn't immediately obvious.  Using a complex spelling system can get 'real complicated real fast,' and it can be hard on your readers, so use with caution!  If you pick a few letters to be multivalent (to have multiple values), that is usually manageable both for you and for your readers.  After all, if your readers learned English, they already mastered the language with what is probably the most complicated spelling system in the WORLD.
           B. Weird Characters - Sometimes it seems like the easiest way to make a language seem foreign is to throw in some weird characters: mwe'rt/k ml^t`ak!  But be aware that the weird characters, like the normal characters, should represent a specific sound, as they do in the transcription of the world's real languages.  (Maybe this is obvious to you... I think that I was sixteen before I figured out that an apostrophe represented a glottal stop in one common linguistic transcription system.)

Type 2: The writing system your characters use themselves
This is the fun kind of writing system... the one that exists only in your own folders, or on your website, or in the appendices of your third book after the first two books sell well. :)  There are several issues to think about here.
           A. How much does one sign tell you? 
In English, one letter (or sign) = one sound, more or less.  But not all languages work this way.  
           One sign = one word.  This is called a logographic (word-writing) or ideographic (idea-writing) system.  (We are supposed to call these systems ideographic now, not logographic, but almost nobody actually does this.)  These systems usually develop from pictographic systems (where each sign is a little picture of what it is; a cow looks like a cow, a wheat sheaf looks like a wheat sheaf, etc.); often, the logograms (word-signs) still look kind of like what they are, as many of the logograms are stylized versions of the earlier pictograms.  (Especially if you squint and tilt your head to one side.)  A pictographic system is best for writing about buying and selling, or for other long lists of nouns, since it is hard to draw a little picture of a verb or a conjunction.  Logographic systems are more flexible, since you can have a sign for any word you like.  But this also means that you either need to make up and memorize a new sign for EVERY SINGLE WORD in your language, or some signs need to double up, and mean two or three or four different words.  
The Sumerian language (possibly the world's oldest written language) was a largely logographic language.  The Sumerians came up with a clever way to make their signs do more work: they used determinatives.  These were signs that went before other signs to tell you what category the following signs would fall into.  For example, the DINGIR determinative told you that what followed was the name of a god.  So DINGIR + UD = UTU, the sun god, while the UD sign by itself could be read U4 "day," BABBAR "white," etc.  Other determinatives included a determinative for a person's name, for a place name, for a country name, for an object made of wood, for an object made of stone, for a profession, and so on.
             One sign = one syllable.  This is called a syllabic system, and instead of an alphabet, it has a syllabary.  For this system, you need a sign for every syllable that you have in your language.  So you need signs for just vowels, if they can be their own syllables: <a> <i> <u>.  You need signs for vowels plus consonants (<ab> <ad> <af>), and consonants plus vowels (<ba> <bi> <bu>).  This may be all you need... but be aware, even going to only this level of syllabic complexity, if you have three vowels in your language, you need six syllabic signs for every consonant (<ab> <ba> <ib> <bi> <ub> <bu>).  If you have four vowels, you need eight signs per consonant, and so on.  You may also want some consonant + vowel + consonant signs (<bab> <bak> <fab>).  The Babylonians used a mostly syllabic writing system (although they threw in some of the Sumerian logograms sometimes, to show how educated they were); they only had consonant + vowel + consonant signs for common CVC syllables.  Usually, they made their lives easier by using consonant-vowel and vowel-consonant signs. So instead of "Ak-kad is great," they would have written "ak-ka-ad is ge-er-re-at."  This looks like more work in the short term--you have to write 8 signs instead of 4--but in the long term it will save your sanity.
             One sign/letter = one sound.  This is called an alphabetic system, because the first two letters of the Greek alphabet are alpha and beta.  English and most other Indo-European languages use alphabetic writing systems.  Early Semitic writing systems, like Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew, had a consonantal alphabet--no vowels.  When you read texts in these languages, you had to fill in the vowels yourself.  (Over time, they gradually added some vowels to their writing, which, since they didn't have vowel signs, had to be written with consonants!)  Alphabetic systems are nice because they have a relatively small number of signs (usually less than 30) that can be combined into any of the words in the language.  There is always some slippage--letters that end up representing more than one sound, or sounds that can be represented by more than one letter--but that's language for you.  
            Some mixture of the systems noted above.  Many systems mix several of these systems together.  For example, the writing system of Akkadian, the language of Assyria and Babylon, was a mix of logograms and syllabic signs.  Very common words, like "man" and "son" and "city," were more likely to be represented by logograms than uncommon words were.  So you can get sentences like the following, where the logograms are in CAPS and the syllabic signs are in lower-case:
          LU2.MESH sha KUR Ha-at-te ip-pa-ar-ra-as-su-shu
          man.plural    of   land  Hatte      do (3rdmascplural)-3sgaccusative
          "The men      of Hatti-land          did it."   
Another common way to mix logograms and syllabic signs is to use syllabic signs as phonetic complements.  As I mentioned before, you can often read a logogram in several different ways.  When a reading was ambiguous, the Babylonians sometimes stuck on a syllabic sign after the logogram that told you what the end of the sign should sound like.
UDud =  ud          UDshi = shamshi
              B. Different strokes for different folks 
Is there only one way to write a certain sign or letter?  Or is there a cursive version and a print (or incised) version?  Do you have "lower case" letters?  If so, who uses what version of the writing system, and when?  Which version is more formal?
Cursive scripts have been around for a long time.  Demotic Egyptian, a cursive script, is the bane of Egyptologists--imagine trying to read the bad handwriting of someone who lived thousands of years ago.  Even though printed scripts have only been around as print technology, the idea of a less flowing script also goes way back.  Writing carved into rock is not in cursive.  The idea of a lower case set of letters is, as far as I know, a relatively modern invention.  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote in ALL CAPS.
              C. What do your characters write on, and with?
Do your characters write on rock, clay tablets, wax tablets, pieces of broken pottery, vellum, parchment, papyrus, paper, metal tablets... computer screens?  Do they write using paint, ink, or graphite--or do they carve their letters into their writing surface?  Do they use a chisel, stylus, quill pen, paintbrush, number 2 pencil, typewriter?
You might think that this is an irrelevant detail.  While cool to think about, what does the medium your characters use to write have to do with the writing system?  More than you would think.  The medium you write on and the instrument you write with directly influence the shapes of the signs in your writing system.  Signs which are painted or inked onto a surface can have flowing lines, be cursive.  Signs carved into rock have to be made up of mostly straight lines, something you can do with a chisel.  In ancient Mesopotamia and Syria, the most common medium to write on was the clay tablet.  They used a triangular stylus to combine triangle-shaped wedges and thin lines into the thousands of unique syllabic and logographic signs that they needed for their writing system.  (This use of wedges and lines made on clay with a stylus is known as a cuneiform writing system.)

So what does all of this mean for you when you create your own writing system?  Think about what your characters write on and with--this will influence the shapes of the signs.  Think about whether you want a logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic writing system, or some combination of these.  Don't make your writing system so complicated that you can't remember how it works!  And, if you're using logograms or syllabic signs, don't create signs until you need them.


                         Sumerian logographic writing.

Phoenician alphabetic writing - no consonants!


  1. What a fascinating read! I think I will store your blog away as a resource for future world-building . . . Thanks for sharing, Kathryn!

  2. This goes way more in-depth than I've ever thought about! Very cool. I look forward to the Building a Sound System post.

    I don't know if this falls under your area of expertise, but I'd be really interested in advice on consistency in fantasy languages. I seem to have trouble making the words and names and everything sound like they're based on the same system. Or even the same culture.

    Also, congrats on your Five Magic Spindles win! I can hardly wait to read your story. :)

    1. Tracey, I hope my Sound System posts have been helpful in thinking about fantasy language consistency! Thanks for your feedback!