Hello, Readers! Tyler here again, and this time I want to talk a little bit about conlanging.
Conlang is short for constructed language. In other words, a conlang is any language intentionally constructed to convey meaning rather than “natural” languages that have evolved over time. English, Spanish, German, Albanian, Japanese, these are all natural languages. No one sat down and said “Well, Bob, I think we should invent English to communicate with one another.” English kind of just happened.
This is not the same thing as, say, Klingon. Klingon didn’t just come into being over time as people learned to associate certain combinations of sounds to certain concepts. Klingon was constructed for the purpose of being an alien language in Star Trek.
There are lots of conlangs out there, and while some of them were developed for “serious” “real world” use, like Esperanto and Lojban, I want to focus more on languages like Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya, Dothraki, and Atlantean which were created for works of fiction. Why did the authors decide to go through the trouble of making up a whole new language? And what things should you consider when deciding whether or not to add a conlang to your story?
Let’s start with the arguments against using a conlang. The first one, and I cannot stress this enough, is that creating a (quality) conlang is really, really hard. Sure, you can throw a bunch of made-up words together and just throw them onto the page and not think about it any more. I suppose that would probably be okay if the conlang is only supposed to show up once or twice and there isn’t much to “translate” into the conlang. But if it is going to be used as frequently as Klingon or Sindarin that probably won’t cut it. Because most of the benefits of a good conlang are a result of the hard work required to make it good. In some cases it might simply not be worth it. Sometimes it would just be better to mention that the character is speaking a different language and leave it at that.
Because if you’re going to make the effort, you can’t go halfway. You will have readers who will put in the effort to learn your conlang. And if it doesn’t make sense, if it’s clear that you just threw some sounds together and slapped it on the page it will pull those readers out of the story. You will lose that reader’s trust and they will probably think twice before picking up any of your work again. And thanks to the internet, some of their frustration might lead others to not pick up your book.
But say that doesn’t bother you. Or maybe you take great effort and make the perfect, unassailable conlang. Either way there are still potential problems with adding a conlang to your story. I call this problem the Tolkien effect. When Rii and I were reading LotR together we ended up skipping large sections of the text. I can handle little pieces of a language that I don’t know but… when you have whole poems and songs that occur (seemingly) every other page I just lose interest. And when you have paragraph after paragraph of Gimli explaining that this mountain is called such and such by men, and such and such by elves, but the dwarves call it such and such and the mountain next to it is called such and such by men and such and such by elves but such and such by dwarves and the mountain next to that is called…. man it makes me cringe just remembering it. Sure, there are LotR fans who love it. But there’s a reason why the Kingdom of Loathing (which satires everything) makes mention of a “fantasy storybook that reads like the Bible” and the PC also skips all the songs. It’s rarely a good thing when you make your reader want to skip part of your book out of boredom. Finding that sweet spot between “why did you even bother to come up with this if you’re not going to use it” and “I GET IT, YOU INVENTED A COOL LANGUAGE” can be terribly difficult.
So, in summary, incorporating a conlang into your story well is dauntingly difficult. A lot of the time it only serves as a diversion at best and a major distraction at worst for your readers. But there must be benefits too, right? If it’s so difficult, why would so many authors and creators do it? Let’s discuss that tomorrow.