Beyond Common: fantasy language worldbuilding

Your fantasy or sci-fi world probably has its fair share of situations where groups with different languages have had to learn how to live together. Something like D&D’s Common is the most…common…solution that I’ve seen. All the groups involved learn to speak a new, universal language. Nobody seems to have any hard feelings that they coincidentally chose the human language. World peace.

“But Esperanto–” When was the last time the U.N. held a summit in Esperanto? Do you speak Esperanto? (Dammit, this blog’s demo definitely speaks Esperanto.)

Why is “Common” iffy? This scenario never seems to play out IRL the way D&D would have you believe.  The good news is, instead of that single one, there are many ways that groups in the real world settle on what language to use when they collide. So when this happens in your novel, you have lots of interesting techniques to choose between. And because language is political, the technique you choose for your language worldbuilding can also tell your readers about the history of your world.

In this post, we go over just a few options that are miles more interesting than “Common.”


Adopt a lingua franca.

This is closest to the “Common”-related strategies. In some cases both groups will indeed adopt a lingua franca that neither group speaks natively. But big caveats: The lingua franca has to come from someone, and the group it comes from are usually the past or present owners of economic and social power. Native speakers of a lingua franca have a big advantage. This pattern isn’t just about English–Nahuatl/Aztec was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, and they were pretty strong dudes; the lingua franca of the Philippines is a standardized version of Tagalog, and Tagalog was the language of Manila.

Plus, remember that new speakers are constantly repurposing and altering language for their own use in reference to their mother tongue. Even if you designate one language as “Common” because that group took over the whole continent and made it Common, if it’s been a few hundred years, there’s probably still a Mountain Common and a Plains Common and a Marsh Common, just like we have Singlish, Hong Kong English, and Indian English.

Another option is to adopt an ancient or literary language both groups know. Hebrew was not spoken as anybody’s mother tongue–or, as modern language revitalizationists sometimes say, it was sleeping–for hundreds of years. But when Israel was formed, Jewish people who moved there from all over the world could understand one another with the liturgical language.

I know of one circumstance where a sign language has been adopted as a trade language–Plains Sign Talk was used by 30 or more nations in the Americas to communicate.


Assimilate to one language.

If group A has much more power, they might try to get group B to assimilate to their language. Settler-colonial practice was to uproot children, interrupting language transmission in communities by literally forcing children to speak English.

Assimilation can also come “from below” under economic and educational pressure. Even if group A takes over group B’s area and mostly leaves group B alone, or if group B chose to move into A-land, group B could still decide to use group A’s language because it’s the only way to become a lawyer or whatever. Then, especially if they’re immigrants to an A-dominated area, their children may end up not learning language B.

In other cases, the situation stabilizes with one “high” language and one “low” language. Such a situation is known as diglossia. Group B will speak language A at work and school while continuing to speak language B with close friends at the pub.


Make a new, blended language.

When two groups meet that have no shared language, they can also create a new language from bits and bobs of their old ones.

The usual process is the development of a pidgin -> creole. I use the arrow because these terms are two stages of the same process. To create a pidgin, two language communities with different mother tongues hash out common vocabulary from what they’ve got on hand. When children start to learn it as their first language, it’s a sign that it’s developed to the point of what we call a creole.

Maybe you’ve heard “pidgin English” as a derogatory term, but this is misguided. It’s true that pidgins, the first stage of language blending, tend to be “simpler” because they’re created ad hoc. They have to be easy to pick up by their nature. But by the time they’re creoles, they have all the hallmarks of a full-on language–consistent internal logic, expressive lexicons, and linguistic innovation. Jamaican Patois might sound to some people like “bad English”, but it’s not any kind of “imitation” or “failure” of English. It’s a different language with its own consistent grammar and a lot of words that kind of sound like English. Remixing a song isn’t a failure to play the original song!

Now, there is another niche option. Unfortunately, I can’t really communicate how bizarre this phenomenon is until you have about two years’ worth of linguistic intuition.  But let’s give it a shot; you can come back to have your mind blown again in a few years. We call them mixed languages. (I know the nomenclature is vague, but nobody asked me.)  These are languages where one part of the grammar is lifted completely, without simplification, from one language, and another part of the grammar is lifted completely from another language.

The most well-established example of this is Michif, which is spoken by Metis people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Michif has pretty-close-to-French grammar, but then, for unknowable reasons, all its verbs are Cree. Some linguists think this is what happens when, rather than having no shared language, everyone in a community speaks two languages equally. If this happens, and the community members are always switching between them, the process could become fossilized around certain aspects of the grammar.


And there we have it–broad strokes of possibilities for language contact.

But don’t forget that real-world language systems are chaotic, with lots of factors and lots of moving parts. The number of people involved, the parts of society they participate in, how well-respected each group is, the grammar of each language, whether the mother or the father is the member of the minority group…all these things might influence a language contact situation. So if you’re interested in using something like this, dig in to some research! (And say, don’t be afraid to reach out to the humble blog owner for possible sources.)


What’s with the brackets?

Top things linguists love: #owning prescriptivists. Categorizing stuff. Trading linguistics facts like baseball cards. Baby-talking to infants: “awwww, you can still distinguish every human phoneme can’t you, you’re so cuuute”. Brackets.

But for us writers-turned-conlangers, brackets can be endlessly confusing. When you start reading linguistics and conlang grammars, you’ll see these brackets getting thrown around, but nobody will define why they use the brackets they use. In this post: descriptions and mnemonics for the punctuation that just wants to give good hugs.

As a beginner, I used my brackets willy-nilly.  Brackets looked professional so I just figured they should be there. But linguistics brackets have very specific, defined meanings. When you see them around an IPA letter, they’re giving you information about the kind of symbol you’re looking at:

  • /x/ – represents phonemic-level transcription. This essentially means sounds as they’re held in your brain, and contrasts with sounds as they’re pronounced.

    Think of the word “ladder”. How do you think it should be said? Odds are good when you actually say it you say something in that D-slot that’s…not actually D. Or T. If you really put your mind to saying “ladder” with a D or T you’ll hopefully be able to hear the difference. That sound is actually a completely different R-like sound called an alveolar flap, which we represent in IPA as ɾ. ladder is the phonemic word, but laɾer is the phonetic word.

  • [x] – its counterpart, representing phonetic-level transcription.

    I always had a hard time remembering this until I started thinking of the square brackets as chomping teeth, like the sound is literally in your mouth. Om nom nom. (And teeth begins with t so you can remember it’s phone-t-ic.)

  • <x>- This represents literal letters. In this case, the letter X. <– That letter. Not a sound, not a thing in your mind, but just the humble letter. So for instance, you can say, the IPA letter /j/ is represented in English by <y>.

    We call these graphemes. Think of it as the triangular tip of a pen that writes out the letter.

  • (x) – In variationist sociolinguistics, grandpappy William Labov used this to symbolize a variable. That’s a part of a language where two or more different options can be used by speakers. So for instance, we sometimes say “having” and sometimes say “havin’“, and we might then call this a new variable, the (ng) variable.

    This is a bonus round–I don’t see a lot of sociolinguistic notation among conlangers. But maybe we could start a movement?

Linguistics lingo for new language creators

As you translate, you’re often going to come across phenomena that nobody’s ever mentioned to you a word for. It can be hard to know where to even start. If you try to chunk that last sentence for translation you might run into “can be hard to know” and realize…is can an adverb here or what? Why are there so many verbs? How am I supposed to know how my inspiration language handles a phrase like that without even knowing what I’m looking at?

A screenshot of a Google search reading
Turns out this doesn’t work.

I got nostalgic about the words I was so puzzled over when I started creating languages, so here’s my best attempt to define some of them for curious newbies.

Quick look: auxiliary verbcomplementizergerund •  infinitiveindirect objectintransitiverelative clause


auxiliary verb: First, what you really came here for: the reason there are so many verbs.

One strategy languages use to introduce new meanings is to chain or combo verbs up together. In the very long term, this is the first step in the arduous journey of making new verbal grammar like the -ed in “walked.” In the short term, it just looks like verbs getting stacked together.

All the verbs that don’t constitute the main meaning of the sentence, but just modify it, are auxiliaries. In “can be hard,” can is the auxiliary verb to be. Auxiliary verbs in English include should, would, could, can, will, must, shall…

complementizer:  In the sentence “I hear that Lee loves ducks,” that is a complementizer.

Complex sentences can be very confusing for beginner conlangers because our mainstream schooling in English doesn’t typically get into this level of syntax. A complementizer makes an entire sentence act like an object (or another part of the sentence.) Consider “I believe that Lee has a duck.” “I know that Lee watches Game of Thrones”.

In English, “that” and “how” are possible complementizers, so if you see those, perk up your ears.

gerund: In the sentence “I love grooming my duck,” this use of the -ing suffix makes the verb groom into a noun, so it can be the object of love. Verbs made into nouns by the -ing suffix are called gerunds in English.

As you’ll see below, the other strategy is to make groom a special verb form, “to groom.” We consider that one still a verb because complex linguistics reasons (I think, I actually did no research to confirm.) This one is definitely a noun.

Which is weird because you can say “I love slowly grooming my duck.” …You know what, let’s not talk about gerunds anymore, I’m getting nervous. I think I almost took an advanced syntax undergrad class on this and then dropped out. Damn it.

infinitive: In sentences like, “I know to groom my duck,” the verb groom is in a special form called the infinitive. It’s called that because it has no tense or aspect. It just…is.

A galaxy because I couldn't find a pictorial representation of the infinitive tense.
Pursuing my Google joke, I searched for both “Infinite” and “Infinite, but not the boy band photos you just showed me.” Both search terms showed me exclusively pictures of the Korean boy band Infinite. Looks like the robots ain’t taking our jobs yet, boys.

Verbs with no specified tense or aspect are used for different purposes in different languages and has different formats. But in English, the place where you’ll probably be most confused is in sentences like the one above, where the infinitive signals that the verb phrase that it starts is acting as the object of another verb. Verbs within verbs.

indirect object/oblique: In the sentence “I gave that duck to Lee,” duck is the direct object and Lee is the indirect object or oblique.

“Recipients” are the only type of oblique–you wouldn’t say that in “I dunked the duck in the lake,” in the lake was an oblique. We like having a specific word to talk about recipients because, across languages, they tend to be treated with special grammar for whatever reason. For more try looking up the dative case.

intransitive/transitive/ditransitive: An intransitive verb has no object. An archetypical intransitive verb is something like “Lee sobs.” (Poor Lee!)

That can’t take an object at all–you can’t say “Lee sobs the duck.” What would that even mean? Meanwhile, a transitive verb can have an object, like in “Lee helps the duck.”

I was constantly confused about intransitive/transitive until I learned about ditransitivity, because it makes a good mnemonic–imagine that “trans” as a term for the object of a sentence and you can see that “intrans” has no trans, “trans” has one trans and “ditrans” has two transes! They’re verbs like “I give Lee the duck” that allow two “places” to be filled by two types of objects.

relative clause: This is the whole clause “The person that loves dogs“. The particle connecting “the person” and “love dogs” is called a relative pronoun. It takes a whole sentence and relates it to a noun. In English, “that,” “which”, and “who” are some possible relative pronouns, so if you see them, be on the lookout.