So far in this series of posts, I’ve talked about choosing a writing system (Post 1), and the structure of a sound system (Posts 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D). I talked about parts of a sound system like stress and tone, syllable structure, consonants, and vowels.
Now that you know all this stuff, what to do you with it? A sound system is big and complicated; a scholar could study the sound system (phonology) of a single real world language for an entire lifetime and still not know everything about it. Obviously, you don’t want to have to spend your whole life working on your fantasy language!
In this post, I’ll break down creating a fantasy sound system into step-by-step instructions. Then I’ll work through a few examples.
Step by Step (by Step by Step)
1. Choose the consonants you want to include in your fantasy language. It’s fun to include a few weird ones—but remember that you’ll have to find a way to record your weird consonants that your publisher will accept!
2. Choose your vowels. How many do you want, and when do they appear?
3. What syllable structures will you allow in your language? Remember that many languages require onsets or do not allow codas. If you have onsets and codas, how complicated can they be?
4. How many syllables can you have in a word? Can only certain kinds of syllables end a word?
5. Stress or tone? If you have tones, how many? (Remember this rule: more tones usually means shorter words. With fewer tones, words are usually longer.) If you have stress, where does it fall: first syllable, second-to-last syllable, last syllable? Does stress fall in a different place in verbs as opposed to other types of words?
Once you’ve made your decisions, stick to them! A unique and consistent sound system will make your fantasy language sound and look consistent. An inconsistent sound system is also the language quality most likely to jar a casual reader out of the story. Readers may put up with a lot in terms of word order changes or inflectional inconsistencies, but if your language doesn’t sound right, they’ll notice.
Example 1: A Simple Language
I’m going to make up a very simple fantasy language, so you can see how this works.
Consonants: Voiced consonants only (bdgmnβvzʒlyw)
Syllable Structures: Must have onset, cannot have coda (CV, CCV, CCCV); in CCCV the third C must be /l/, /y/, or /w/. CCV and CCCV only occur at beginning of word.
Word Length: One to seven syllables. Verbs are two syllables.
Stress or tone: Tone. Two tones, High and Low; High tone marked with acute accent (á), Low tone not marked.
bmá tátágana dnyázala ta βlwama dána!
bmá tátágana Nawá dná?
dná va ta Nawá tátágana.
la, dá va. dnyagazánáwa báma.
This is total gibberish, of course. But it looks like it could mean something, doesn’t it?
Example 2: A Slightly More Complex Language
This is a language that I’ve been working on for a while. I started it when I was about 12, and had no idea what I was doing; it’s undergone a lot a revision since then! I’m just doing a basic version of it here.
Consonants: Voiceless /ptkθfsʃh/, voiced /bh dh gh m(h) n(h) r(h) l(h) ly y wɾ/; the consonant /ly/ written for publication as <ll>. Aspirated consonants written as <bh dh gh> et cetera. Voiceless consonants may be pre-aspirated, but this makes no meaning difference. The flap /ɾ/ is written as <q> (don’t ask me why). /l/ and /r/ may act as vowels.
Vowels: /aieεou/, plus diphthongs /ai/ and /εo/. Vowels may follow vowels even when they are not diphthongs. To remind the reader to pronounce vowels separately, vowels not in diphthongs may be written with double dot (ä).
Syllable Structures: V, CV, CVC, CCV, CCVC, VC.
Word Length: One to five syllables in the basic word; more than five allowed with suffixes.
Stress or tone: Stress on last syllable of verbs and most other words. Stress marked with acute accent (á) in words of more than one syllable.
Example Text (first IPA with syllables divided, then publication version):
Sεh.wi.o.é a lyé.orh hyu lε.hέ.na, hyu lε.hέ.na
Llye.or.hi.o.é ɾεn ham.málh lye.or.hi.o.é ɾεn al.yá.
ʃe kalθ lhu.án lhf al.lu.ádh li yah.ládh lu.ál
ʃe al.yá in ʃe mor.he.eyh hahf ol.lo.rá hai lwál il.há.
Sehwioë a lleorh, hiu lehena, hiu lehena…
Llleorhioë qen hammalh, lleorhioë qen alya.
She kalth lhuan lhf alluadh li yahladh lual—
She alya ihn she morheëy hahf ollora hai lual ilha.
This lament always plays with its own soundtrack in my head!
If you’ve done your work correctly, your fantasy language should be easy for your reader to recognize. Ideally, you could have a scene where your characters are speaking several different languages, and your readers could still tell which language was which.
Here are some lines from different languages. Can you tell which ones are from Examples 1 and 2? (The other languages are from the real world.)
1. uviʃnát xaméʃ ləyorám ben axɁáv mélex
2. ɾεn nahaiilónεs in tamέθ hyu.á halέt li llyalí lwál
3. hémos oído ablár de ésa ermósa fortaléza
4. έθεtɔ potamɔús eis εrémɔn kai dieksɔ́dous hudáton
5. gwá βwazataya va ta tanazá ʒáda.
Scroll down for answers!
1) Biblical Hebrew 2) Example 2 3) Spanish 4) Septuagint Greek 5) Example 1