Now that we’ve talked a little bit about how to begin creating words for your language, let’s talk about some strategies for diversifying your lexicon.
One of the common pitfalls when constructing a language is just making it English (or whatever your native language is) with different words. In every language pair that I know, there are some words that just can’t translate directly from one language to the other. My favorite example of this is between Albanian and English. In Albanian there is an adjective (i mërzitur) which essentially encapsulates any negative emotion other than anger and fear… and jealosy. And probably some others that I just can’t think of right now. So okay it isn’t ALL negative emotions but it’s a lot. For example, if I was wanting to translate ‘annoyed’ I would use mërzitur, but I would also use mërzitur to translate bored. So if I wanted to translate the sentence “I’m not annoy; I’m just bored” I would end up saying that I’m not mërzitur, I’m just mërzitur. But the truth is that mërzitur is neither annoyed nor bored. Those are just the best English words to describe the emotion of mërzitur. While just having a one-to-one correspondence between English and your language might make coming up with words easier and might make it easier to learn, it breaks the illusion that this language could have evolved naturally in the world of your story.
There are lots of ways you can make your language distinct. Let’s look at words for different kinds of precipitation. English has many different words for different kinds of precipitation. There’s rain, there’s sleet, there’s snow, there’s hail, etc. Albanian has words for rain (shi), snow (borë), and hail (breshër), but it doesn’t have a word for sleet. They just say “borë me shi”, literally “snow with rain”. To try to make your language distinct you can take any granularity of idea and choose to make a word that represents that. Maybe your language could have ten different words for different types of rain but only one word for sleet, snow, hail and any other form of frozen rain. Take a word that has a very broad meaning in English and dissect the concept into several words. Or take several very specific words and combine them. You can decide whether to do this with a whole new word or with a compound word.
There’s another important reason, aside from authenticity, that you should avoid just directly translating on a one to one basis: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory states that the language we speak affects our cognitive functions, that it literally can change how we think. There’s actually a fair amount of evidence for this. There is a certain tribe (I think in Africa but I’m not certain) that does not have a word for ‘blue’ but does have a whole bunch of words for different shades of green. They did an experiment where they had several squares of green and one blue square and when asked to point out which square was different they weren’t able to do so, even though an English speaker easily could. Interestingly, when they had several green squares and one of them was just slightly off in hue, most English speakers couldn’t tell the difference, but people form this tribe could tell the difference as effortlessly as we can tell blue and green apart. In my own experience, I know that I am almost an entirely different person when I’m speaking Albanian than when I’m speaking English. The simple act of switching languages visibly changes how I act. In English I am very reserved and thoughtful. In Albanian I can be much louder and more boisterous. In English I will rarely talk over someone. In Albanian I’d do it in a heart beat. I am much more extroverted in Albanian than I am in English and some of that is probably due to the circumstances surrounding my learning of the two languages but some of it, and I would argue more of it, is also just due to the nature of the languages.
This is why taking the time to thoughtfully create a language is so important. Because culture affects language and language affects culture. Your language should be shaped by the world it is created for and that world needs to also be shaped by that language. That is how you get a great conlang that helps to build your world.
(Sorry it’s a day late – Tyler got this to me in time but I was trying to finish up Halloween costumes and forgot to post it.)