This post is all about naming languages, and will be geared more toward those that are new to the art, and have little to no experience creating languages. Whether you just want to add a little flair to your world, or want to add a fully fleshed out language with original stories and texts, constructed languages, or conlangs as they are more commonly called, add all manner of depth to a world.
Before we get into the actual language creation, it’s important to note that there’s no denying that culture and language are tied together and the addition of linguistic details to a world, regardless of how small they are, can add a shade of depth and a level of complexity to your cultures, stories, and characters. And even if you decide not to add any actual languages to your world, a mere mention of one or two can bring details of your world that can show the complexity of its cultures. The following is just a little blurb to give you an idea of what I mean.
“The people of the mainland, and especially the capital, loath the people from the islands just off shore. It is not only because of their uncivilized ways, but also their uncivilized tongue, which sounds ‘guttural and horribly uneducated’.”
Even with just that little bit we can see who the dominant group is, and how they see a more marginalized group. And of course you could talk about it from the other perspective. Maybe the islanders view the mainlanders as very proper and uptight because of how they speak. It’s all up to you.
PART 1: SIMPLE PHONOLOGY AND ROMANIZATION
We’re going to start things off simple by creating a bare bones naming language. A naming language is one which isn’t really all that fleshed out. It doesn’t have all the complex grammar or syntax of a full language. What it does have at the very least is a system of sounds, ways of putting them together to form words, and a way of writing them down. These are known as a phoneme inventory, phonotactics, and romanization respectively. The advantage to having a language such as this is that it keeps all of the names for your locations and people within a regular framework, rather than just having them be random syllables that were thrown together. The other advantage is that you have control over what the names are like, as opposed to using real world languages, which come with their own cultural connotations.
The first step in creating our naming language is working out its phonology, that is, what sounds it has in it. In order to choose some sounds for your language, you may want to familiarize yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is the system used by linguists to describe all the possible speech sounds used by humans for language. At first glance it can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert on it. For now, just know that there are a lot of sounds to choose from and play around with. An overview of consonant and vowel features can be found in the section Understanding the IPA Chart.
What Kind of Sound?
So how do you choose? Well there are a couple of ways to go about it. One method is to think of some languages that you are either familiar with or just know a little bit about. Do you want your language to sound a bit like Spanish? Or maybe even a cross between Korean and Zulu? You can look up these languages and see what sounds they use, then use some, all, or more in your language. Another method is to just pick out some sounds that you like, ones that you feel will fit the language that you’re making. Ask yourself what sort of “flavor” you want.
A harsh guttural language might be very consonant heavy, specifically with lots of stops and consonants made in the back of the mouth such as /k/, /q/, and /x/. It might also use lots of clusters not found in English like in the word “kazg” and vowels made in the back of the mouth such as /o/ and /u/. A light, flowing language will have lots of vowels (specifically front ones like /i/ and /e/), sonorant consonants like nasals and liquids (l’s and r’s), as well as fricatives (sounds like /f/, /s/, and /h/).
Here are some examples that will give you an idea of how language can help shape how others view your cultures. The first set adheres to the stereotypical Tolkien races with a light flowing Elvish and a harsh gutteral Orcish. The second switches them up a bit to show that things don’t have to be so black and white.
“The Orcish tongue is very harsh and guttural, as can be seen by the general Qordazhg’s famed battle cry: «Qrot ga zhuvd terkodz!»”
“As one enters the great Elvish city of Thiliem it’s hard to miss the royal seal inscribed just above the gates: Nirem Alshia Laisuron”
“The orcs strike fear into the hearts of men with swift words which flow like poison. Most notable is the phrase they leave marked on every city and town they decimate: Sirgeth khrets ki jorlen sekadh.”
“Elvish rulers, such as Kutitsa Tarek, Cesta Sotoq, and Kraqta Turats are some of the fiercest politicians in the land. Their tongues are as sharp and piercing as their arrows.”
Picking the Sounds
So now let’s start picking out some sounds for our example naming language. We don’t want it to sound too English-like, so we’re going to make sure to pick several sounds not found in English. During this I’m going to be using characters from the IPA, which will be enclosed in slashes (e.g. /s/), so you may need to reference the chart if you aren’t familiar with a particular sound. I like to start with vowels because there are far fewer of those than there are consonants. We’ll go with something simple, the five standard vowels common to Spanish and Italian: /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/. and /u/. However, I also want to throw in a little curveball, /y/ and /ɯ/. The first is the rounded counterpart to /i/. It’s the sound of German ü, and French u. The second is the unrounded version of /u/, and is found in Turkish. Now that that’s set up, it’s time to think of some consonants. I’ll start with the least English like sounds. /ɲ/ /ɾ/ /x/ seem like some good choices to me.. I’ll want some more consonants than that though. So we’ll add: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/, /m/, /n/, /f/, /s/, /h/ /w/, and /j/. As a general rule of thumb, try to keep your phoneme inventory relatively balanced. That is, don’t just use sounds from one end of the chart and not the other. Spread them out a bit. Of course every natural language has irregularities, so one or two oddballs won’t hurt anything.
Now’s a good time to bring up Romanization, that is, how you write your language in the Latin script. You can of course make up your own orthography or use a different transcription scheme, such as one based in Greek, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, or any other script you like. For this example, I’m going to represent the sound /y/ with the character ü and and /ɯ/ with ı. The other vowels will be written normally Most of the consonants will be represented as they are in Engish, with the exception of /j/, which I’ll write as “y” as English does. To represent /ɲ/ /ɾ/ /x/, I’ll use ñ, r, and kh respectively. Some people like to make use of diacritics when making a language. And that’s perfectly fine, plenty of natural languages use them in their writing systems. For the purposes of a naming language though, you may want to keep them to a minimum, especially if it’s for a novel. You don’t want your readers getting caught up everytime they have to read a name like “Ăşŕeȕṭ”. Apostrophes are another thing to watch out for. Don’t just throw them in to make things look exotic. In real writing systems they serve a purpose, such as in contractions, to represent ejective consonants, to show a glottal stop, or even for a long vowel. The main point is, if you want apostrophes in your language, make sure they serve a consistent purpose.
Now that we have our sounds laid out, it’s time to work on syllables. How your syllables are formed will determine what words will and won’t be possible in your language. For instance the word “bnick” (IPA /bnɪk/) is impossible in English because it doesn’t allow the consonant cluster ‘bn’ at the start of a syllable. At the heart of every syllable is the nucleus. This is the most prominent point of sonority, and 9 times out of 10, the nucleus will be a vowel (there are some exceptions to this, but we’ll talk about that at another time). Consonants that form the beginning of the syllable are called onsets, while those that end the syllable are called codas.
Some languages have very simple syllable structures such as (C)V, where C is a consonant and V is a vowel. The parentheses show that an element is optional. So if we make our little naming language like this we could have words like ferado, tuna, and arakha. However, I’d like to go a bit more complex than that. Let’s add codas to the mix, giving us a syllable structure like (C)V(C). This would give words like radkon, fensi, and ürkhet. That’s more like it! You could of course create more complex structures with more restrictions. For instance, in English, the sound /h/ can only be at the start of a syllable, whereas the sound /ŋ/ (the sound made by ‘ng’) can only be at the end of a syllable. Other languages allow these sounds to go in either spot. We could also make a very complex structure such as (C(C(C)))V((C)C), which could give a word like Ksrant. Try playing around with a bunch of different structures to see which one best fits the language that you want to make. And once you’ve done all this, you’ll have a basic naming language perfectly suited for labeling various places in your world, as well as naming the people who inhabit it.
PART1 SUPPLEMENT: UNDERSTANDING THE IPA CHART
Here we get a little in depth with the actual sounds of the IPA chart. All consonants have a Place of Articulation, that is, where they are made in the mouth, and a Manner of Articulation, which is how they are made. There is also a distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants. Voiced ones are made with the vocal cords vibrating, and voiceless without. To get a feel for this place your hand on your throat and pronounce the sound /s/ (like in English “sit” and hold it for a while: sssssssssssssss. Now do the same for a /z/ sound (like in “zoo”) zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. /s/ is a voiceless consonant, and /z/ is its voiced counterpart. Start with /s/ and transition into /z/: ssssssssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzz. You should feel your vocal cords “turn on” when you transition to the /z/ sound, but you’ll also notice that your tongue and mouth position don’t change. Whereever you see pairs of consonants in the chart, the left is the voiceless and the right the voiced (e.g. s z).
Now we’ll take a look as the various Places of Articulation, which can be divided up into four major areas:
Labial: Made with the lips
Bilabial: These are consonants made with both lips. Examples include /p/, /b/, and /m/.
Labiodental: These are made with the lower lip touching the upper teeth such as in the sounds /f/ and /v/.
Coronal: Made with the front of the tongue.
Dental: These sounds are made with the tongue tip touching the back of the teeth. The “th” sounds of English “thick” and “that” (IPA θ and ð respectively), are considered dental. Though do note that these two sounds are often made with the tongue between the teeth in English, and would therefore be called “interdental”.
Alveolar: These sounds are produced with the tongue near or on the alveolar ridge, which is just behind the teeth. Some alveolar sounds from English include /t/, /d/, /n/, /l/, /s/, and /z/.
Post-Alveolar: Sounds like English ‘sh’ /ʃ/, are made with the tongue positioned just behind the alveolar ridge.
Retroflex: These are consonants made with the tongue curled back toward the roof of the mouth. For some speakers of English, this is how ‘r’ sounds are pronounced.
Dorsal: Made with the back of the tongue.
Palatal: These are sounds made at the hard palate, which is more commonly known as the roof of your mouth. The only palatal sound found in English is /j/, which is the y sound in “yard”. However, a full range of sounds can be made here, from stops, to fricatives, to nasals.
Velar: These sounds are made with the tongue touching the velum, or as it’s more commonly known, the soft palate. Some examples would be /k/, /g/, /ŋ/ (ng in “sing”), and /x/ (like in Scottish “loch”).
Uvular: The uvula is that little dangly thing at the back of your throat that looks like a punching bag and there are plenty of consonants that can be made there. Some examples include the /q/ sound found in Arabic and Inuit languages, as well as the French ‘r’ sound /ʁ/.
Radical: Made with the tongue root.
Pharyngeal: These are sounds that are made in the throat. A great example is the Arabic letter ع which in IPA is /ʕ/. For speakers of English, and other European languages, these consonants can be a bit difficult and strange.
Glottal: These consonants are made at the glottis, which is the where the vocal cords are. The most notable sounds here are /h/, and the glottal stop /ʔ/, which is the sound separating the syllables of “uh-oh”.
Next we’re going to move on to Manner of Articulation. This is the way in which a consonant is produced and is related to the degree of constriction of the vocal tract.
Stop: Stops are just that, a full stop in the airflow. Examples include /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, and /g/.
Nasal: Nasals are also technically stops, in that a full closure is made at some point of articulation. However, the air is allowed to escape through the nasal cavity. English nasals include /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/.
Fricative: These consonants allow a little air to pass through, which creates a turbulent sound. Examples from English are /f/, /v/, /θ/ /ð/ /s/ /z/ /ʃ/ /ʒ/ /x/ (Scottish “loch”) /h/.
Lateral Fricative: These are like normal fricatives, with one major difference, the air passes around the sides of the tongue. A lot of books might describe them as a breathy ‘l’ sound.
Affricate: Affricates are consonants that begin as stops, and are released as fricatives. An example from English is the ‘ch’ in “church” (IPA [tʃ]).
Tap/Flap: These terms are often used interchangeably to refer to a sound which has a quick closing and then opening of the vocal tract. The American English word “latter” has this tapped sound in it. It’s the ‘tt’ in the middle (coincidentally, the ‘dd’ in “middle” is the same sound).
Trill: Ah the famous (or infamous) trill. Trills are made my rapidly opening and closing off the vocal tract over and over. The one most familiar to English speakers would be the one used in Spanish, /r/. There are other trills though, some French speakers have a trill made at the uvula, /ʀ/, and there even exists a bilabial trill /ʙ/, which is like a quick fluttering of the lips.
Approximant: Of all the consonants, approximants are sounds made with the least obstruction of airflow. These are sounds like /w/, /j/ (English ‘y’ like in yard), and /ɹ/ (English ‘r’).
Lateral Approximant: Just as with the lateral fricatives, these are approximants made by letting the airflow pass around the sides of the tongue. The /l/ sound of English is a great example, but they can occur at other places of articulation as well.
For the final part of this post, we’ll talk about the all-important vowels. Vowels fall along three main gradients, height, backness, and roundness (as a disclaimer, vowels can be pretty wishy-washy, and there are a lot of complexities we won’t get into here. For the purposes of a naming language, we’ll stick with basic definitions).
Roundness simply refers to whether or not the lips are rounded when a vowel is made. Where vowels appear in pairs, the left is unrounded, while the right is rounded (e.g. i y)
Height (or openness) is how high in the mouth your tongue is. Typical high vowels are /i/ and /u/, while /æ/ (like in hat) and /ɑ/ (like in father) are low.
Frontness refers to how far forward the tongue is in the mouth. Vowels like /i e ɛ æ/ are front, while ones like /u o ɔ ɑ/ are back.
This is a good site for listening to the various sounds in the IPA which can help with choosing a consonant inventory.
This is a list of some of the most common vowel systems found in natural languages and again, can help with choosing which ones you want.
Lastly Zompist’s Gen and Awkwords are both word generators. You put the sound and syllable rules of your language and it can spit out a whole bunch of words at once. I personally prefer Awkwords simply because you can add weights to the various sounds to make them more or less common. They’re really useful to get a feel for the language before you start naming things.
In the next part we’ll be looking at Word Order.
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