When building your universe and its inhabitants, language goes a long way in establishing a people’s identity, and gives a fluid balance to their religious, artistic, and economic aspects as well as solidifying their presence in the universe you create.
Please keep in mind as you read, that my examples are basic, and you should implement more advanced techniques when patterning your language after a modern or ancient language.
Introduction to Language
Language is difficult, because in the western world, we have little need for more than two similar or related languages to function in society. If we’re in a country in which English is not the primary language, the citizens of the country usually learn language by the time they reach adulthood. If we’re in an English-speaking country, secondary languages are usually a bonus of higher education, and not the core of elementary learning. This makes the speaker of the secondary language more intriguing and adds to the perception of their intelligence, rather than an assumption that this person is simply normal.
So when we create a language, we need to be aware of our audience. If we’re writing for kids, creating a language similar to finnish or arabic may not have the same code-breaking-mystery-box impact that an alphabet-code replacement would be. For instance, if we replace every letter in the english alphabet with a symbol, and keep the syntax, grammatical structure and liguistic origin the same as english, it’s easier for children to decipher the codes, and just like James Gurney’s Dinotopia books, provides an easy code breaking tool to understand the vast and wondrous cultures contained within the books.
More complexity is usually suitable for more fantasy driven, specific markets. For instance, Tolkien is usually considered the greatest when it comes to creating fantasy languages (being a linguist himself), patterning most of his languages around the Finnish language. He even went further and based much of the mythos of Middle Earth on the Finnish myth epic Kalevala.
It’s a good idea to get a master list of your creature and their civilization level before beginning the writing stage, because other aspects of civilization will directly affect this aspect and will be affected by it.
So where do I start?
Let’s look over the basics of the writing systems in the world. This is important, because we can use these as patterns for languages we write in our own content.
Types of writing systems:
- Logographic (Chinese, Mixtec)
- Logophonetic (Aztec, Cuneiform, Egyptian, Hittite, Indus Script, Japanese, Mayan)
- Syllabic (Tagalog, Most south asian writing systems, Tibetan, Thai)
- Consonantal Alphabet (Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician)
- Segmental Alphabet (Greek, Korean, Latin, English)
These types will be our guide to figure out what kind of writing system we want to choose for our culture.
Phases of creating a writing system
For this tutorial, we’re going to assume that our writing system will directly translate into a verbal language. This will simplify the process and allow us to focus on the writing aspect, which needs most of our attention when we world-build.
There are two phases of language creation: research and production. Once you’ve decided who your market is, we can proceed with our research phase. I’ve created three rudimentary languages for my works, none of which are based on english. I’m going to assume that you’re wanting to do something similar, and I’ll take you through the process I went through to create a certain language.
The written language of your chosen culture will reflect everything from their ideas of the world around them to their philosophical and mythological stories, and the way they approach the world and other cultures.
Research phase: know your creature, their environment and their ways
Let’s make up a culture for this tutorial, and call them the Burries. Let’s say they’re a race of bears, with furry hands and retractable claws. This is important, because the phsyical structure of your species will directly affect how they go about writing. Sticking a squid in a futuristic control booth might be fun for painting-sake, but it tells us nothing of this creature’s culture. (This is one of my qualms with some fantasy paintings. Many times I see the creatures created in these paintings with weird, unusual, or naturally impossible limb functions.) Your creature’s anatomy means everything to their writing system.
So these Burries are ursine caniform pinnipeds, (Carnivorous bears who can walk on all fours and stand up. This is important to our language.) The only major difference we’re going to give to these bears (Burries) is that they have human-like three fingered hands. (Each finger would probably increase the complexity of the writing system.)
So here’s our rundown of the creature’s that we are creating:
Type of creature: Sentient ursine caniform pinnipeds (Bears who can walk on all fours or upright.)
Weird factor: They have humanoid hands with three fingers and an opposable thumb.
We have our creature, now what?
Unfortunately we have to bring in several factors with our creatures before we write our language. We’re going to assume that they live in forest cities (Cities aspect of civilization), they have a thriving art culture (art aspect), trade in gold coins (economic) and worship a nature spirit (religious).
Now we have more of an idea of what these creatures are. They’re probably more concerned with natural preservation than they are industrialization, and they probably have a very thriving meat and pellet trade (carnivorous). Since our bears can climb, they probably work their cities into the natural landscape, and lets assume they live in dense forests. One way they would overcome the uneven terrain is by elevated platforms. Most of the city could be woven into the trees ans uneven landscape.
This is all very important, because the writing system will permeate this culture, and we’ll see more writing in one area than another. The more production-driven areas will usually have less than normal singage and writing, and the writing we will see will be instruction-based. In the cultural centers, the language will be geared for trade, entertainment and communal goals and functions. The art accompanying this writing will alter accordingly.
Okay, I got it. Let’s get started on the language!
So for our forest dwelling bear species, let’s assume they became sentient in the forests. The two easiest ways of creating writing in the forest is engraving, or subtractive forms of communication. When I say subtraction, I mean that you carve or engrave words or symbols, instead of using something like rocks or shells in a group to form symbols.
Style and function of the writing system
So we look at our creature again. It’s possible they would use their claws to make deep impressions in the dirt and mud to communicate with each other, much like Sumerians carved into clay to communicate with others. So we should assume the earliest forms of writing were very sharp and harsh angles. We’ve chosen a starting point for our language. What many fantasy linguists will not tell you is that most fantasy languages are based off of an existing or ancient language. For production time, it’s the fastest and easiest way to create a language and keep all of the rules and exceptions in check. Modern and ancient languages are great templates.
Doing the research
So now we have an idea that its going to look Sumerian. You can go an interesting route and make their language Sumerian, which could be an interesting story point, but otherwise we’ll assume that we want to make a language that LOOKS sumerian, but with our claw-like symbols. This is when we go to the library and geek out for hours, studying and writing in our notebooks. This is where the really hard part comes into play. There is really no way around the hard work needed to create a language. This is why creating one can sometimes take years.
So we’ve spent our hours on the internet and in the library (many times libraries are as good if not better resources for us because of the abundance of univeristy-donated books on syntax and grammatical evolution of languages. Especially middle-eastern languages).
We now how notebooks full of language notes, and it’s time to construct our language.
Production phase: getting it written
I can’t tell you HOW to structure your language, other than encourage you to use a current or ancient language as a template for it. Let’s take Sumerian Cuneiform:
This image is from ancientscripts.com, and depicts the evolution of some words from proto-elamite to standard dynastic cuneiform. Notice how the pictographic symbols became even more symbolic as the language progressed. This is seen in nearly every language on Earth. Chinese is a perfect example of a complex language evolving from a simple picture-based representational system. However, Chinese is a different ballgame, and Sumerian is easier to quantify in many ways.
I’ve created a basic bear-claw symbol structure similar to Sumerian Cuneiform to demonstrate. I’ve based these words off of the 1000 BC version of words above. Instead of the reed-images, I have substituted what might look like bear claw-marks in the mud or soil.
If you don’t want to show the evolutionary process of your language, and just want a simple working system, then we can choose the Cuneiform circa 1000 B.C. In place of the Cuneiform symbols, begin writing your own, based on a shape, or line. Make sure there is typographic unity in these symbols, so the language doesn’t end up looking like a dingbat font.
A good practice for creating a written language is using the elements and principles of design. Knowing basic typography is key as well, as most modern languages follow a set of typographic rules.
Here’s the english set of definitions for typography:
Following the english set of definitions, or creating your own will ensure that your writing system will visually appeal to the reader, as well as sit comfortably within the environment you have created. For the Burries, the fictional race we created, we can assume that at this point, they may have a sets of sans-serif and calligraphic styles for their writing. Usually for first-world countries, Sans-serif styles are used mainly for productive or instructional purposes (that has been changing recently) and calligraphic styles are primarily used for entertainment or product purposes. So the production areas of the Burries cities would see more sans-serif styles, and the entertainment districts would see more calligraphy and script (cursive) styles.
With that in mind, I’ve created a script-version of our bear-claw words I made above.
One thing to note about many cursive languages, is that cursive letters and logographs are asymmetrical. Asymmetric symbols in a language seem more legitimate than symmetrical because of our conditioning in learning to write. Our brains are wired to read a set of asymmetrical symbols in a straight line as a language, even if we can’t decipher it.
Without giving you an enormous lesson in Typography (which would be helpful), I will give you basic rundown of it. This is assuming your language will be meta-representational (representation of representations or pictograms), and that every one of your creatures has a spoken form of this language.
Keep in mind, communally-conscious creatures, as well as telepaths and colonist organisms (like fungi) would probably lack the same kind of written language we would, because it would not be as much of an integral part of their culture as those who have to rely on physical stances, facial fluctuations and voice (with volume and pitch as indicators).
So we have our language, which is now formalized, and even has a script version, we move on to syntax. Again, without a book-length tutorial on how to write syntax, and since it’s a good idea to continue to follow the Cuneiform template we’ve begun using, our next step is to replace all of the words of current Cuneiform with our own symbols. Then we can place them into a syntax similarly to Cuneiform with little difficulty.
With Cuneiform, there is little information on the syntax compared to a modern language like Finnish, Russian or Hindi. The more ancient your language is, the fewer rules you will have to contend with in creating a syntactic structure for your writing system.
The good thing about creating a language based off of an ancient language is that simply saying that your language is part of an ancient, forgotten system, is that your writing system becomes a mystery box, and a point of interest in your story.
Placement of type and text in your environments
I’ve mentioned placement of writing before, but I want to pull everything we’ve talked about together.
Let’s say we have a basic working structure of our language. So where does this aspect now fit into our civilization? The answer is: It depends. With the culture we created, the basic signs in production or cultivation areas would be instruction-oriented, as we would find in a warehouse or greenhouse. The more script-heavy, artistically derived versions of text would center in areas of dwelling for the creatures as well as places of economic exchange (such as a market) or entertainment (centers for the arts, etc)
Writing systems as marketing
If you think about our daily lives, and where we tend to see a lot of visually heavy elements in regards to text, be they logos or altered type to grab our attention, it usually centers around areas where marketing is in high gear. Assuming we’ve created a living society, there will be an aspect of marketing, homegrown, corporate, or otherwise.
Places of religious importance may have writing all over them, depending on your religious system. For instance, Shinto shrines tend to have certain types of writing on lanterns to inform worshippers of certain aspects of the shrine. Muslim mosques incorporate their writing system extensively, with passages from the Koran covering many of their places of worship. Some religions tend to be picture-heavy, relying less on writing and more on symbolic imagery, such as seen in ancient Greek temples and later on in medieval cathedrals.
Education centers tend to have a lot of writing incorporated into their structures, temporary displays, and more. There are two types os writing usually found in centers for education: institutional and student-generated. Institutionally-generated text can be permanent, such as dorm names and statue inscriptions, or temporary, such as educational announcements. Most student-generated text will be temporary, such as announcements for study groups, student events or other temporal announcements.
Social and mass communication:
You must decide if your culture has a form of mass printing. Gutenberg revolutionized our civilization by producing the printing press, and it is not at all uncommon for there to be mass media in a society that has achieved all seven aspects of civilization. The very definition of civilizations indicates that the people in question have moved beyond the city-state model of government and hangs somewhere between that old model and globalization to varying degrees.
A good rule of thumb is this: the more advanced your society is, the more ease in which an individual can access mass communication in some form.
Working the system into the other aspects of civilization:
Once we have a general working copy of our writing system, we can begin to incorporate it into the other aspect of our society and people’s lives. Suddenly we can create labels, signs, messages, and even books of writing to flesh out our culture. We no longer see the culture in a one-dimensional way, and our viewers now see our culture as a vibrant, living organic structure.