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When world builders are building a fictional language, do they typically create a mass of words in order for it to be useable or do they create a system for crafting new words from English? Example: with Tolkien’s Elven languages, did he begin with a base and create lists of words that could be translated to English words or did he have a system from which words could be created from English/other languages? I understand that his (and practically all fictional languages) are based on real languages, so I guess he could have tweaked the real world languages and developed a system from there. I assume both would work, I’m just wondering if there is a traditional way it has been done or would be more effective.

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    $\begingroup$ This might be a better question to ask on conlang.stackexchange.com. I'm sure there's a way to make languages from Earth languages, but I usually just make a few words based on how they sound, and create more words based on those. $\endgroup$
    – value1
    Commented Jan 30 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ I would question the assumption behind the word "typically" in the first sentence. There are a great many books with fictional languages, but the amount of development and consistence of these languages is extremely variable. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 30 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ (a) The effort going into a fictional language is proportional to how important it is that it exists in your story. Don't waste time on things you aren't going to use much. (b) Tolkien is NOT a good example for developing fictional languages. By the time he started writing, he had a degree in English, had served in WWI, and had a job with the Oxford Dictionary researching etymology. He didn't have a repeatable solution unless a lifetime of education and experience counts as repeatable. (c) Spend time at Constructed Languages and read a couple of books about the semantics of constructed languages. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 31 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to @JBH 's excellent comment about Tolkien, somewhere in his letters (my books are all in boxes waiting for my move), Tolkien said that he nearly dipped out on his exams, while he was an undergraduate, because he was studying Finnish & Welsh instead. So he knew the guts of a lot of languages. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 31 at 7:08
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: Just to add to your point regarding Tolkien being a bad example, I would go one step further: Tolkien did not construct languages to support his world. He constructed his world to support his languages. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 1 at 21:23

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Tolkien is arguably a very special case. He was a professional philologist (person who studies language in historical sources) who specialized in ancient Germanic languages, and actually created what is still considered one of the best translations of Beowulf into Modern English. He also created languages as a hobby, so he had a great deal of practice by the time he developed his tales of Middle Earth. He didn’t just ‘create’ the languages of Middle Earth though, he actually modeled their evolution, including things like how mass migrations or cultural splits impact languages, and how cross-contact between people leads to usage of loanwords.

Most sources do not go anywhere near that far. These days the norm is one of three things:

  • For cases where only a few words are needed, the author may just pick some random gibberish that they think sounds good. This is how Klingon originated (though it has since been developed into a full language), I believe it’s how the Old Speech and Kargish language in Le Guin's Earthsea novels and the Dwarvish and Trollish languages in Pratchett's Discworld novels originated, and I believe it’s how Dothraki and Valyrian originated (though both of those have also been built into full languages).
  • In some cases, the author may take a similar approach, but specifically attempt to produce a particular ‘sound’, either by replicating the phonetics of an existing language, or simply structuring the phonetics to fit some particular ideal. This is how most of the languages in the original Star Wars movies came about (Huttese is mostly derived from Quechuan phonetics, Jawaese from isiZulu, Ewok from Kalmyk Oirat, etc).
  • In cases with large budgets, an actual linguist may be called in to construct the language based on the author’s constraints. Na'vi was developed this way, as were the modern forms of Klingon, Dothraki, and Valyrian and the current canonical form of Mando'a.
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When we say that constructed language is "based on" one or more natural languages we do not mean that the vocabulary of the constructed language is somehow made by mechanically altering the written form of words in the natural languages. What we mean is that the constructed language has certain aspects in common with the inspiration languages.

For example, a constructed language "based on" English could copy one or more of the following aspects of English:

  • Trivially simple morphology.

  • No agreement in gender, number, or case between adjectives and nouns.

  • No cases for nouns and adjectives.

  • Two distinct verbal aspects, continuous and indefinite.

  • Only two verbal tenses, present and preterite, with everything else constructed using auxiliary verbs.

  • An elaborate and rigid word order, to provide for the functionality of the missing nominal cases.

  • A preference for phrasal verbs (where the meaning of the verb changes based on the following preposition, e.g., take in, take out, take off, take over) instead of, for example, deriving verbs with prefixes.

  • Etc. etc.

  • And yes, it may also use a vocabulary smartly and artfully based on English words, but that's a rather unimportant aspect.

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When you construct a language, you do it for a reason. Perhaps for the fun of it, perhaps for use in a game, perhaps for use in a book. This reason influences what happens:

  • Do you want your readers/players to recognize the language, or possibly several different ones? Then it helps if each is different, obviously, and if they are different from any real language.
    Orkish: Short words, almost like grunts, often ending on "k" or "ck"
    Elvish: Most words gave more than three syllables, many "o" or "i"
  • Do you want your readers/players to learn the language to some degree? Then it helps if they can find similarities to things they know.
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It depends. Zamenhof generated Esperanto by importing words from the most common European languages.

Tolkien was a language scientist, he actually generated language like an art: he tuned both grammar and vocabulary to make us feel the cultural and... branding of various races and other groups. So, elfish sounds like the language spirits in the forest, and black speech like the devil. Not surprisingly from an Englishman, he made the most evil language agglutinative :-)

Lojban (originally loglan) is a constructed language with the goal to entirely avoid any disambiguation, probably a standardizing committee decides there the words. The original root vocabulary was generated algorithmically by computers (!).

Lingwa de planeta constructed language is like esperanto, but it imports words from all languages of the world, not only from the Europeans.

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    $\begingroup$ As I understand it, lojban was created because of a "philosophical" split in the loglan group. At best, one could call lojban a 'fork of' or a 'derivation from' loglan, rather than an 'evolution of' loglan, which is what "lojban, originally loglan" implies. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 31 at 11:57
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When world builders are building a fictional language, do they typically create a mass of words in order for it to be useable

No. Creating enough words for a new constructed language to be generally usable typically takes a very long time. The beginning stages of vocabulary growth are usually directed by the need to fill out a relatively short "starter list" (the Swadesh list is a popular choice), or to meet specific translation needs for names or dialog, and nothing else. In coming up with specific word forms, methods vary from spending days or months pondering what sounds just right for a specific necessary meaning, to writing a computer program to generate thousands of options that conform to the language's phonotactic rules, and picking from them at random.

or do they create a system for crafting new words from English?

Hardly ever. That is one of the marks of a neophyte, who has not yet learned the difference between languages and ciphers.

Example: with Tolkien’s Elven languages, did he begin with a base and create lists of words that could be translated to English words or did he have a system from which words could be created from English/other languages?

Neither. He started with proto-Qendian roots and simulated the internal evolution of the Elvish languages with a goal towards replicating the phonological aesthetics of real-world languages that he liked. At no point was there any connection to English.

I understand that his (and practically all fictional languages) are based on real languages, so I guess he could have tweaked the real world languages and developed a system from there.

Depending on what you mean by "based on", that's either trivially true, or completely false.

I assume both would work, I’m just wondering if there is a traditional way it has been done or would be more effective.

Nope. There are many different ways of approaching language creation. Within the conlanging community, "tweaking" an existing language is known as "a posteriori" language creation. It's a whole genre, with subgenres--alternate history languages, lost languages, future languages, etc. You typically only do it if the world the language is meant for has some connection to real history that would justify its descent from the language you chose as a source.

The alternative is "a priori" language creation--inventing components from whole cloth, with no intended relation to any real-world language.

Both are approaches are equally "traditional", and there's a whole spectrum of impure cases in between. I wouldn't care to wager on whether a priori or a posteriori language creation is the more common over all, but in my experience, a priori conlangs are far more popular.

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