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.)


Creating a language from scratch: six questions

This post deals with step 3 of our writer’s approach to language creation. You don’t need to have a 200-page grammar before you start having fun with your conlang, but you will want to decide on some basic facts about your language if you’re starting from scratch and you’re a beginner. Here’s the scoop on how to do that.

These six parameters are, I think, the essential basics for what we call your language sketch before you can start translating. First of all, let’s just scan the parameters and see how much of this even makes sense. Some of it will be familiar if you’ve studied other languages or English grammar.

  1. What subject-object-verb order are your sentences?
  2. Does your language tend to be head-first or head-last?
  3. Does your language tend to be analytic, agglutinative, or fusional?
  4. Do your nouns have case, classes, number?
  5. What are your verbs like?
  6. What are your pronouns like?

Now, for a brief overview, I’ve done my best to explain each parameter below in 140 characters:

  1. English orders sentences subject-verb-object (SVO) but other langs are SOV, VSO, and rarely, OSV/VOS/OVS. That’s important because…
  2. Phrases have main words, “heads”. Some langs like heads to go first in a phrase, others, last. VSO likes head-first; SOV likes head-last.
  3. Langs make new meaning by 1. adding new words, 2. adding extra to a word, or 3. changing a word. 1: analytic; 2: agglutinative; 3: fusional.
  4. Some langs have multiple categories of nouns, put their prepositions on the noun, and have duals/plurals/(trials…), so sort that out.
  5. Verbs can do a lot of stuff. Past/present, expressing beliefs and feelings, matching their subject. Decide on your basic verb divisions!
  6. Not just I/you/she: someone/everyone and what/where/who. Lots of small, confusing bits of sentences, and the beginning of your word list!

But that won’t be enough if you’re ready to begin your language sketch! To start absolutely mainlining grammar facts, download the PDF. It’s eleven pages long and contains explanations, resources, and terminology to help you answer these six questions pretty confidently. But it’s dense, and I don’t want you to feel intimidated. If you just skim the PDF and feel like you kind of got the gist but don’t remember all the weird jargon, that’s perfect. Your next step will be to make a word list and get translating!


Dialect cage fights: worldbuilding, language policy, and social power

Alternate title: Macrosociolinguistics: the vitamin you didn’t know you needed.

If you’re writing large-scale stories about political intrigue and pretenders to the throne and so on, the way your societies relate to their language–and how they think those other, terrible people, who they dislike, relate to their language–could be a relevant part of your worldbuilding. Even if your stories are small-scale, the way your characters think about their own dialect and the dialects of others can be revealing of power dynamics in a subtle, useful way.

Sociolinguistics is the combination of sociology and linguistics. Obviously. I was going to go search for a “Duh” gif to fit in with the kids here, but you’re probably making the right face anyways. But the topic is really interesting! So let’s talk a bit about the principles behind large-scale language and dialect shift. At the end of the post, I added some worldbuilding questions I often ask myself to explore how linguistic power dynamics work in societies I write.

Macrosociolinguistics is interested in how whole groups and nations use and abuse language. In order to understand sociolinguistics, one of the things we have to understand is power relationships between groups. Who has political power? Who gets laughed at on TV? Who gets their language taught in schools? Who is right, and who is wrong?

Because here’s the biggest secret in linguistics: No language is wrong. No language is ungrammatical. Just like a biologist would never say a bird was singing “wrong,” you’ll never catch a linguist saying that somebody’s speaking “wrong.” In fact, you can often tell who’s in power by who’s getting to say what’s grammatical and what’s not.

“No language is wrong” is not actually a secret. We’re so obnoxious talking about this that we’ve been blanket banned from every Applebee’s in seven states since 1972.

A lot of social work language does is distinguishing one group of people from another. You speak like the people who you want to be seen to be like, and not like the people you don’t want to be seen to be like.

So aspirational middle-class people try to speak like the high classes. Often they do it even harder than the high classes, because the high classes have got nothing to prove.

On the other hand, groups that are discriminated against often form their own dialect because like, screw you guys. (Also because the originators of this group may have come from another place with another language and features of their language may have become mixed in.) But then this dialect becomes cool to people outside the group because it signals you’re not trying too hard, not like those squares in government. So then the people who actually speak that dialect start changing their speech so it’s clear they aren’t like those posers. Inter-language dynamics are really complicated.

Language is also a common site where governments and institutions try to covertly regulate who’s “good enough.” If you have a group that’s discriminated against, and they all speak a particular dialect, it sure is convenient if that dialect is considered really bad and funny and ungrammatical, so none of them can conceivably get a job in government until they’re willing to assimilate to your standard.

A lot of the time, these are subtle ingroup/outgroup effects. People can pick up on very small cues about how others talk and factor it into their judgements of those people. Or, because they’ve been taught that their way of speaking is the only “grammatical” way, they’re under the very false impression that anyone who got enough education would naturally talk like them instead.

But….it definitely does happen overtly in other cases, especially when we’re talking about a state machine dominated by a single ethnolinguistic group. Australia and Canada both literally took away generations of Indigenous children from their families and made sure they wouldn’t be able to speak the language of their parents. Now dialects of English spoken by Indigenous people are also devalued and considered “uneducated” or “funny”–even pathological–when they, like all dialects, are actually beautiful, complex and shifting expressions of community.

And there are many other places around the world where a single language imposed in schooling, for both logistical and ideological reasons, starts to edge out local languages. There’s also places where everyone speaks one language at work and one language at home. There’s places where everyone knows who the Language A families are and who the Language B families are, and where all grandparents speak Language A and all children speak Language B….any time that people want to distinguish themselves from another group, language starts getting rolled in.

If you’re trying to construct a society with a lot of power dynamics, a lot of the time language will factor into how groups distinguish themselves from one another, as well as how they enforce power over one another. I’ll leave you with worldbuilding questions you could ponder on:

  • Who’s in power in your society? What languages do they speak?
  • What language gets taught in schools? What languages are spoken at home? In church? What language are books and laws printed in?
  • How is the “correct” dialect enforced, socially, legally, politically?
  • Whose dialect/accent is funny?
  • Whose dialect/accent is considered “incorrect”?
  • Whose dialect/accent is sexy?
  • How do women talk in your society as opposed to men? (Women tend to adopt linguistic innovations sooner and men in power devalue them. See: vocal fry, uptalk, “like.”)
  • Are there “tells”  or shibboleths for the dialects in your society? Does everyone know if you can’t say th you’re part of that religious group from the mountains?
  • What dialects do your characters speak? What do people think of them because of it? Have they had to try to learn other dialects? Were they disciplined in school for the way they talk, or socially sanctioned, or have they never thought about the way they talk? How do they feel about the way they talk?

Favorite resources: creating a language for your novel

So you’re all ready with the inspiration for your constructed language and you’re raring to go? In this post, step 2 of our writer’s approach to conlanging, I’ve linked some of the best research resources you can consult to get started on a new or first-time conlang.  The number of crosses (✚) beside each resource, up to four, indicates how technical and difficult to read they are so you can be prepared. Your aim is to have a resource available that will help guide you through the most important parts of your grammar’s “sketch” before you can tuck in to some sweet, sweet translation, and which you can consult when the going gets tough.

  • Wiktionary is awesome for its indexes of every word in every language it knows, which are often an amazing source for vocab inspiration, and its translations. (Did you know the Nahuatl word for ‘fish’ is michin? Now you do.) It’ll help you learn non-English ways to arrange meanings with words, which is a really important element of conlanging. More on this in an upcoming post on growing your word list. ✚
  • Laypeople’s “learn to speak X” websites. Finding a good one of these for your inspiration language is like gold when you first start out. Eventually, though, you’ll outgrow them and want the technical explanation for the phenomenon they talk about. ✚
  • Wikipedia grammar explanations are sometimes relatively very technical and confused, but Wikipedia is also a guaranteed source of vocab for inspiration languages that are less present on the web, e.g., Winaray. ✚✚~✚✚✚
  • Other conlangers’ websites. These are especially good resources for first-time conlangers who want to present their language to other people someday so you can see how others do it. David J. Peterson and Mark Rosenfelder are two well-known conlangers with pretty accessible websites. ✚✚ ~ ✚✚✚✚
  • The World Atlas of Language Structures is, literally, my favorite site on the Internet. Info on linguistic elements from a cross-linguistic perspective that will give you a great sense of what is possible and what’s common in language.  ✚✚✚
  • University libraries. If you don’t go to a university, it might seriously be worth it to buy a library membership from the nearest university if you really get into conlanging. Local libraries typically don’t carry the kind of academic info you’ll need when you get up in the four-cross difficulty range. ✚✚✚✚
  • Google Scholar is also a good source of academic linguistics! Some of the articles you really want are going to be locked behind a paywall, though. It’s gonna hurt. ✚✚✚✚
  • is another place you can find academic linguistics for free on the Web. ✚✚✚✚

And don’t forget about other conlang guides! Each of these takes a different tack on how to conlang, but they can all be helpful:

  • Language Construction Kit is really powerful for people who have a good grasp already on some linguistics terminology and for people who do want to get on their sound system early. (The way I approached conlanging when I started used no sound system at all, and I think it’s a good way to go for beginners who just aren’t that into phonology yet.) ✚✚~✚✚✚
  • The Conlang Wikibook is very effectively and concisely organized and provides good scaffolding for “leveling up”. If you would rather get to know your language better before you start translating, or if you want to start another language with more complex grammatical concepts, this is a good place to start. ✚ ~ ✚✚✚✚

Creating your first fantasy language: Inspiration and research

In our outline of our writer’s approach to conlanging, step 1 is Find a language you like the sound of. You probably already have one in mind.  Having two is even better because you can mix and match them. (Based on my anecdotal surveys of beginner conlangers, there’s an 80% chance you just thought of Japanese, Arabic, or Italian. But they’re good choices!)

You don’t have to speak the language you’re inspired by. You don’t even have to be very familiar with how the language actually sounds–you’ll get that through research too. What’s important is that you have a solid foundation to get started with and something specific to research when you can’t figure out what some pesky adjective in your translation text is doing.

Tips to pick great inspiration langs, for happy and healthy conlangers:

  • For your first language, you’ll want something that has a lot of popular resources. Languages that are often learned as a second language–Italian, German, Japanese, Mandarin–have lots of resources for laypeople and learners. No technical vocab necessary!
  • Prepare to do more work if you pick a language that’s very differerent from your own. Some languages are more the same than others; English is in a family called Indo-European that many people have done a lot of easily available research about. If you pick a language from a family you’re familiar with, you’ll get off the ground faster.
  • BUT, if at least one of your inspiration languages is very different from yours, in the long run you’ll learn more. It’s always a balance! Learning about a beautiful language that might be unfamiliar to you, like Nuxalk, Igbo, Hmong or Inuktitut, is its own reward and will teach you more about the limits of language.

Do you have your inspiration in mind? I’m putting together a resource list to help you get researching. In the meantime, get excited about your inspiration language! If you start researching and suddenly feel the linguistic electricity going down your spine–“Nuxalk has an anti-passive voice? What is that?!”you’re in the perfect mood to start conlanging.


How much linguistics do you need to know to start conlanging?

Way less than you think.

Here’s the thing. As you conlang, you will learn linguistics naturally. Yes, really! I was in my third year of a linguistics degree before anything major was presented to me that I hadn’t already learned “on the job” through conlanging. Upcoming blog posts will outline the functional approach I and others took to get from “curious writer” to “constantly infodumping about conlanging and linguistics at inappropriate times.”

You won’t learn theoretical models and frameworks unless you’re into that kind of thing, but you’ll learn the empirical facts, linguistic universals, and grammatical structures that make those models possible, with the help of many scholars and the bountiful conlanging community, through your own research.

Let’s assume you know nothing about linguistics or grammar. Here’s three basic facts about language that you do want to think about before you start:

  1. You know way less about your mother tongue than you think.
  2. Language is way weirder than you think.
  3. Languages are more different from one another than you think…but also more the same, in ways you don’t know yet.

Think about it–linguistics findings are everywhere around you, and trivially accessible, but most people don’t have the vocabulary or intuition to accurately talk about them. Imagine if most people couldn’t even tell you what an element was, but they were doing complex experiments with hydrogen every single day without even realizing it!

That maps exactly onto linguistic elements like sounds and sentences. Humans have unbelievable intuitive abilities with language, which many linguists believe are coded in your brain before you’re even born. That coding would produce the “limits” of language that give all languages similar underlying structure. For instance, all languages have pronouns, which I’m sure sounds right to you.

At the same time, a natural error to make is unconsciously assuming your mother tongue, say English, is the most normal language. In your mind, you might calibrate your idea of what’s strange, what’s normal, and what’s impossible in language based on how English is put together. But in reality, there is no normal language, and the actual limits of language encompass a lot of possibilities that seem completely off the wall to people who only speak English. For instance, not all languages have adjectives!

Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Greenberg. Grandpappy!

Linguistic universals like pronouns are constantly being catalogued and studied. The big grandpappy of linguistic universals is Joseph Greenberg, and his seminal texts are available online. 

If you open that link and immediately break into a cold sweat…don’t worry, you don’t have to understand any of that yet. One day it will be super helpful to you. Right now it’s probably just confusing. That’s fine.

The main point of our three facts is that as you’re starting your conlanging journey, you’ve got to remember to stay open to the insane creativity of language. Until you develop an intuition for cross-language structures, don’t assume that anything is the same in your language as it is in English–or that you really know what’s going on in English! The best way to start honing your language intuition is to research like a conlanger. I’ll talk about how to research for conlanging in the post coming up. Always stay curious!