New names for old things? Creating Languages.


"Hope is not victory."
Jul 8, 2011
Having received a lot of helpful and interesting ideas for my WiP, I am currently trying to decide the question of languages.

As of now, my world has multiple sentient species though I intend the story to be set mainly in the human dominated lands. I am in no way equipped to create unique language(s) from scratch. I'd prefer considering English to be the equivalent of the most common language used on the world, with occasional words borrowed from the other fictional languages.

I've also heard that it's best to base your fictional languages on real languages for creating words, names etc.

Question - Does it make sense to rename things like Earth, Sun and Moon? I don't really want to do that unless I'm replacing the old names by easily understood names. Like Sol for Sun.

Another issue is that if for example I keep names like Earth, Sun, Moon, can I name the second sun (the world is set in a binary star system) something made-up like Lor'at or would it sound clashing? If yes should the second sun be named something derivative like Sun's Twin? What would be the best approach?

I'm thinking of using made-up names only for words from non-native tongues or from ancient times or having a religious context. Does that make sense?

Also, would it be weird if I had the same language specie wide? I realise that in reality different regions should develop their own languages, but if I get into that, this is all I'd be ever doing since I'm no linguist. How could I make humans (for example) from different regions sound a little different even though I'll use English for all of them?

Hope that was somewhat clear... :confused:
How about calling your suns something like Sol and Ra? Both names for the sun that are probably recognisable to most readers (or lots, anyway).

In terms of making people sound different, you could use accents - ideally quite subtle (no "hoots mon!" or "awrigh' guv'nor") I find it easiest to write dialogue in a particular accent if I've been listening to that accent - but (sorry, I know I've said this before) one of the best "made up" dialects I've encountered was in Stacia Kane's book Unholy Ghosts ( -- a fantastic dialect that's all in English and completely comprehensible, but so distinctive that you'd never confuse it with standard English.

I don't know much about this because I've never done it, but I think you're on the right track about not using made-up names unless it's for something genuinely new that you can't use a familiar word for.

There's the whole rabbit/ smeerp thing (see below!), although it seems a bit cut and dried to me, and I suspect this is one of those things that doesn't work unless it *does* work. As a rule of thumb, though, it seems like a sensible rule.

  • “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp
A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

The second sun would have been an important astronomical feature since the dawn of sapience (and thus astronomy). It would, in a culture where ancient terms are simple, generally monosyllabics, (as with moon, or sun, though possibly not "Earth", since it is no immediately obvious we are standing on a "something"), be unlikely to gain a glottal stop and complexity except poetically or scientifically.

Separated groups of humans inevitably display linguistic drift – and isolated groups of songbirds develop particular phrases, which are passed on through generations; memes mutate faster than genes.

But we're only one example of symbolic language users – the one we know of, obviously. Another species might develop differently. Take dolphins, with their sonar squeaks. If they can paint pictures for each other with their voices, meaning would tend to remain stable, rather than edge towards surrealism, because a picture, or sculpture, has to retain a large percentage of reality to be rapidly recognisable. (And what would life be like if poetry, music and the graphic and plastic arts were essentially one field?)

Isolation and differences in experience cause the linguistic drift, so a race with an annual migration would tend to retain a certain symbolic homogeneity. I agree that abstract thought is probably impossible without a symbol set, but could that set be made up of a fixed number of relatively simple symbols, to be stuck together like German technical terms for complexity? That way, the base vocabulary remains fixed, and careful listening can let you understand almost any word even if in a different order you would it be constructing. Unless you got generalised vowel shift, which would make the simplest words as incomprehensible as the most complex.

The standard Human response is (well, apart from slaughtering all those who do it differently from you) to develop a simplified, low vocabulary "trade talk" which can handle commerce, pleasant/distasteful, copulation and primitive diplomacy, but is inadequate for philosophy, poetry or politics. Many of these have turned into languages in their own right, as increasing sophistication in communication was required. Whether this would work cross-species, or is dependent on essential cultural similarities, I can't say. And finding the set of sounds that each is capable of producing, and perceiving, for a multi-cultural rather than a bi-cultural link would be time consuming (the "th" sound would have to go, for a start; some humans can't distinguish it, let alone other species. And there went your English definite article…).

But you can consider your book to be a translation from another language, quite likely this trade pigin, and if you're reading a book translated from the French you wouldn't expect to see "soleil" for "sun"; only words which have no equivalent, and proper names, would be in the original form.
Absolutely, keep it simple. No smeerps.

With language, I tend to use made up words with common syllables, usually checking that they don't actually mean anything in the language I'm using as inspiration. For example, two of my 'races' have very Japanese style cultures, and so their languages have a lot of similar sounding words, using syllables such as ko, shai, etc.

Others have quite obvious French influence (which conveniently allows me to use all the French words that have become accepted in English). However, my 'English' is simply called Imperial, though I have an ancient language as well which is essentially latin. Just be non-specific, and as I said above, keep it simple. Readers won't be impressed by smeerps, as Hex said. I find that a lot of the time, even though I have developed languages, I generally opt for; 'He swore colourfully in Serician,' or some such, just because when I read I find other languages a bit annoying when it isn't specifically necessary.
I make no apologies for linking to that quicksand of serendipity TVTropes - but just have a quick look, 'coz if you're not careful, you'll fritter away the hours like milliseconds...

Call A Rabbit A Smeerp
How about calling your suns something like Sol and Ra? Both names for the sun that are probably recognisable to most readers (or lots, anyway).
Great idea Hex, especially since the names are short and simple.

Unfortunately I don't seem to have much of an ear for accents... :(

Would it be possible to describe the attributes of the speech from various regions? Like say that humans from the east spoke like they had all the time in the world. Their speech had a slow unhurried sound that was faintly soothing.

And thanks Chris for your idea of considering the book to be translated into trade-pidgin...

Smeerps would definitely be terrible :p

Thanks everyone for the responses :)
Don't describe them as talking slowly, make them talk slowly. Add unnecessary words in there to bring the pace right down. Have characters who are not used to that become very aware of it.

"The harvest? Oh yes, the harvest," said Bob, chuckling to himself. "Ah, the harvest... never seen one like it. Don't reckon I will again, neither. Grains as big as your fingernails, mark my words."
Bob stood and looked at his fingernail for a few moments before nodding and repeating: "Big as your fingernails."
Charlie, unsure of whether Bob had finished or not, was about to speak when the old man opened his mouth and continued to talk as if he had never paused.
Don't describe them as talking slowly, make them talk slowly. Add unnecessary words in there to bring the pace right down. Have characters who are not used to that become very aware of it.
Great example. I like Bob already.
You can overdo that sort of thing, though. Take it too far, and readers could get tired of Bob and bored by any scene where he appears. Also, unless you have other easterners in the story speaking in that same way, readers are not going to get the idea that this is a regional characteristic unless you tell them. They'll just think, "Well, that's Bob."
Teresa - That's exactly what I was wondering. And we can hardly introduce lots of eastern characters just to illustrate that point... Maybe show an example of how someone from the East talks, and then maybe when Charlie meets another person from there, he can make an inference about it being a regional characteristic?

Is there any other way to differentiate regional speech except accents?
In a novel I'm reading now (Acacia)the authors just tells you when the characters are switching languages or speaking with accents without altering the actual writing. Seems to works pretty well. Something like:

"Good Morning dearest." Dave began in Swahili, before continuing in heavily accented English, " I hope you slept well."
I love this question, since it's one I struggled with. The story in question for me is a fantasy, so I decided in the end to go with a number of myth names appropriate for the mythos, as well as names in an appropriate language that had significance for the characters in question. Even though in that latter case most people would never get that significance.

I figure I'm in good company with the myth names, considering the names C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used in their epics.

I had a couple of made up names, but for the most part I tried to avoid stringing together random syllables that sounded good.

As for languages, I would avoid trying to create them unless you are a linguist and/or skilled in languages similar to what you're shooting for. There's just too much room to mess up.
mithril, sometimes the simplest way to say something is the best. I actually liked your example:

humans from the east spoke like they had all the time in the world. Their speech had a slow unhurried sound that was faintly soothing.

To me, it sounds like the people speak slowly, not as though their speech is rambling and repetitive -- which wouldn't soothe me. I like the way you say it, it's the kind of description that lingers in the memory, and it lets you get on with the story, rather than drawing out the dialogue in a way that might not get the same point across anyway.
Thanks Teresa. That is actually what I wanted to convey. :)

So I guess quick, short descriptions of characteristics of speech should be ok at appropriate points in the story. For foreign languages, I'll see if sprinkling a little bit of 'foreign' words for unique concepts works out well...

Thanks everyone for your inputs...

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