ConLangs 101: Culture of Communication

In the third and fourth installments of this series, I discussed the biological and linguistic components of language construction. In this post, I'll be discussing the intersection between language and culture. The study of this relationship is called ethnolinguistics or cultural linguistics, which might be of interest to you if you want to delve more deeply into language theory. But my focus here is on conlang development for world-building, so I'll be offering you a more practical approach to the topic.

Building Language and Culture Together

Once you've built your species biology (if necessary) and structured your language, you'll need to begin pairing that work with your cultural world-building. You'll certainly want to create language around landscape, weather and family relationships, and you'll want to create idioms, colloquialisms, slang and tabboo words. You might also give voice to historical events which have become fixed parts of the language (e.g. Hitler was a man, but Hitlerian is an adjective), and your story might require that you develop legalese, academese or specialized terms around a magic system.

As I've mentioned before, I stopped at syntax in the creation of the languages spoken by the Primoridal World Sea People and their descendants. But even so, I was building that syntax simultaneously with my cultural world-building, and I urge you to do the same. Language and culture are deeply intertwined and inform each other at the most basic level, so it makes good sense to build them together for fiction. Patricia Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions are by far the most comprehensive and widely-known set of touchstones for the cultural world-building process, and these can be extrapolated for conlang development as well. Consider the following example, chosen at random from her work:

Patricia Wrede's Natural Resources Questions

  • Which areas are the most fertile farmland? Where are mineral resources located?
  • Which animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife are commonly found in which areas? If there are imaginary animals such as dragons, where do they live?
  • Which natural resources, if any, have been depleted in which areas over time?
  • Which resources (e.g., coal, oil, iron ore, gold, diamonds, limestone, etc.) are particularly abundant, and in which areas?
  • Which are scarce? Are there places where there are rich deposits that haven’t been discovered yet, or where they haven’t been fully exploited?
  • How much conflict has been or might be caused by these imbalances in resources? How much active, peaceful trade?
  • What water resources (are) available, and for what uses (a mill wheel requires flowing water, i.e., river or stream; irrigation needs a large, dependable water source like a lake or large river; etc.)?

My ConLang Extrapolation

  • What are the words for fertile and infertile farmland? What idioms exists around good and bad growing seasons?
  • What are the names for the animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife commonly found in the world/region? What slang is used to describe imaginary animals living there?
  • What colloquialisms exist around resource-rich or resource-depleted areas? What are the resources found or mined in them called?
  • If a resource imbalance exists, how is it described in the language? Conversely, how is peaceful trade described?
  • What are the names for rivers, oceans and other nearby water sources? What are the words for mills and irrigation systems?

As you can see, language can be built around any aspect of culture. In this case, a story written about a resource inequality might benefit from conlang development in this area, while a story written about a plague might benefit from Wrede's questions about medicine. In this way, you can fit your work to your need, building both language and culture as you go.

Language Questions About Language

While an extrapolation of Wrede's questions might carry you a long way in your cultural conlang development, and while she does include a section about language, you might find yourself writing a story about an aspect of language itself and need a more comprehensive set of questions in that regard. Here's a set I wrote with an eye toward building culture around a minority language:

General Questions

  • Is your constructed language spoken by a majority or a minority of the people in your world?
  • Is linguistic unity or diversity valued in your world?
  • Is your constructed language the 'global language of business'? Is it one of many such languages?
  • Do speakers of your language have to learn another language to get an education or a job?

Majority Language Questions

  • If your language is a majority language, are speakers usually monoglots or polyglots?
  • What sub-set of the majority language do your characters speak? Is it 'proper' or 'improper'? 'High' or 'low'? How are they viewed by other speakers of the same language because of the way they speak it?
  • How do speakers of your language feel about speakers of other languages? Are they admired? Marginalized? Ignored?
  • What linguistic traits, words and phrases has this language absorbed from other languages?

Minority Language Questions

  • Have speakers of your constructed language had to fight to speak it? Were they ever forced to speak a different language?
  • What emotional issues have arisen around the language? Shyness and shame in those who were punished for speaking it as children? Fierce pride in those who are fighting to preserve it? Apathy and detachment in those who believe it's better to let the language die?
  • Are there any euphemisms or terms of endearment speakers of your constructed language use to describe it? What do speakers of the dominant language call it, and is this name complimentary or derogatory?
  • What constructed phrases, colloquialisms or seahfhacals (wise sayings) might you develop around these issues, and how might these influence character construction?

I might use these in a story about an oppressed people struggling to retain their identity. I might make some words in the language sacred and spoken only by the privileged few who know them. I might even force a magical forgetting of the language, much as Guy Gavriel Kay did with the name Tigana in his 1990 novel by the same title. There are so many possibilities for stories about language itself that I couldn't possibly write world-building and conlang questions for all of them, but perhaps this example will spark your imagination.

A Few Words About Language Appropriation

I speak Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic), and I do volunteer work for the Nova Scotia Gàidhlig community. I also have a Bachelor's degree in Celtic Studies that includes three years of Celtic language instruction. So if you butcher your Scottish Gaelic in a story, I will know it and not get past it1. Similarly, if you butcher your Ghanan, your Mandarin, your Russian, speakers of these languages will know it and not get past it. The same is true of these cultures. 'Celtic' remains a popular sourcewater for fantasy fiction, but what finds its way into print is often so far away from authentic Celtic language and culture that it crosses the line into appropriation. Of course, the moral of this story is that you shouldn't borrow what you don't know how to use. And anyway, wouldn't it be so much better to create an imaginative language and culture that bring something fresh and interesting to your readers?

Conclusions

There are a number of resources online and in print about ethnolinguistics and cultural world-building beyond what I've shared with you here, but I think the combination of your biological and linguistic research with Patricia Wrede's questions will take you just about everywhere you need to go in conlang development for fiction. There is one more resource I'd like to share with you though, and while it's primarily for physical world-building, I extrapolated much of the material there for cultural world-building and some for language construction as well. That resource is the World Builders Home Page.

Next time, I'll be showing off my own conlang development in ConLangs 101: The Primordial World Sea People. Until then, tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, agus qapla!

  • 1. I'd probably know it if you butchered your Irish too, and I'd investigate your Welsh. =)