Monday, February 24, 2014

Creating a Fantasy Language: Choosing words

You may remember the posts I've done on creating your own fantasy language a while back. Recently someone asked me an interesting question that I thought I'd share with you.

(Creating a fantasy language: (Lesson 1, Rationale, Lesson 2Lesson 3Lesson 4, Choosing words, Creating an Alphabet)

How do I choose my words?

For this language, it uses a basic English alphabet, so I chose random short letter combinations as word roots. Some I just nab parts off words I see around me; others I pull out of nowhere. I rarely run out of ideas since there's so many basic combinations, but being random can be harder if you like working with a system. It's fun, though, because if you end up with two similar words you can start making puns in your language, and sometimes I do things with it like say the words are considered associated in the culture (so if "hoskon" also meant "colorful," I might say having lots of furniture is considered a sign of being a cheerful person).

It was actually easier in a language I made with a character alphabet that had 56 characters, each either a single letter or a pair of letters (similar to Japanese hiragana). The first 50 characters I each assigned to be a word on their own, and I chose a set of fundamental concepts that I thought would be most important to an evolving society --“ti”=life; “so”=I/self; “fa”=water; “ku”=eat; “da”=first; “sho”=after; etc. Then, whenever I needed a new word, I chose which of those 50 concepts it was most related to and combined the characters. So, “sotifa” would be “blood” and so on. The last 6 concepts I used for conjugating verbs, making plurals, making adjectives, etc.

Another method, if you want to sound similar to a certain language without being that language, is to find a word in the target language that means the same and changing it to sound similar to the words you already have (if you have a language without o’s, for example, and you want to create something vaguely close to german, the word for week might be “vak” instead of “Woche”; and you don’t want it to be too close, so “bahn” for train might be “bina”).

If you don't have a language you want to sound like, and you're not interested in creating a system of characters, you can still use a system to create thematic words. Choose what sounds your language uses and make a chart lining them up along the top. With this method, I write 4-5 "words" for each starting letter, using different verbs for each. These words are associated with basic concepts.

In general, short words will be your basic concepts. So choose 2-4 letters from your sound system to form a large set of basic concepts (I'd go with at least 40-50, including numbers, some basic time/space prepositions, concepts of self, affirmations and negations, and survival-related words like eating, water, fire, home, love, etc). I usually try to make opposing concepts (fire and water, for example) to sound as diametrically opposite each other as possible (sosa and bitu might be a good pair, with different consonants that have very different sounds, and different vowels), but you might prefer to make them similar or inverses.

Then, as with root words, you can use these concepts to combine into new words, or form words that sound similar to existing concepts.

Choosing the basic concepts for my societies is one of the most influential pieces in coming up with the culture. After all, what we say reflects how we think. So it tells me what that society considers most important.

How do you choose words for your languages?

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