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Language creation guide part 5: Words and extras

Now it's finally time for the final part of this guide and the final part of creating our language. Although you'll probably notice you'll go back and change many of the previous parts as time progresses, sometimes a new great idea will pop up or an existing idea will turn out to work badly with another.

But right now it's time to get our vocabulary together, because what's a language with words. This step may be very enjoyable to you or it may be very tedious, either way it's a necessary step, but it's relatively small in comparison to setting up the grammar rules or figuring out the sounds of your language, so no worries, it's almost over.

Besides vocabulary, this final part also covers some extra bits, they're unnecessary for language creation, but if you want to take your language to another level they're good ways to do it, but more on that later.

How many words

Before you start writing down all the words in your own language it's a good idea to have a rough estimation of how many words you need. Part of the answer is based on what you need. If your language is meant for a novel or game and the only spoken lines in your language are about war or love then you probably only need a few hundred words.
The other part of the answer is related to how many words we use in our own lives or more specifically, how many words we need to know to be able to communicate at an adequate level.

The English language has over 1 million words. Now before you flip a table and give up on making a language consider that the average person only knows about 45,000-60,000 words. Which is still an insane amount of words if you have to turn all those into your own language, but that's fortunately not the case, at least not unless you want to. You have to remember that a lot of those words are very specific to a certain field, like words related to computer games or biology. Words only people in those fields will know and those outside likely don't.

So, the amount of words you need to be able to communicate well enough about 'normal' things is about 2000-4000, up to about 6000 if you want to have a rich vocabulary in order to express certain ideas in different ways.
This is still a lot of work, but at least you won't have to get a dictionary and translate it into your own language. This is a bad idea in and of its own by the way, but I'll get into that later.

Word length

Another thing to consider before creating your own words is word length. Length has to be varied, but creating many (very) long words is not really recommended. By long I mean words longer than about 7-9 letters. Are there many words longer than 9? Of course, but most of them are combinations of two short words or one word with one or more grammatical structures, like 'recommend' + 'ed', which is exactly how you'd probably best create the words in your language.
Of course, you may have a language in mind which purposely uses longer words, which is perfectly fine, but it might get difficult to read for whoever views your work, perhaps in a novel or game.

On a side note, the longest 'word' in the English language is 189,819 letters long. Insane right? But the longest word in most major dictionaries is "only" 45 letters long.

Word origin

Every language, or at least almost every language, uses words from other languages. It's something which occurs naturally over time as language changes and progresses. However, this is hard to replicate when your language is fictional and the world around it is fictional as well. You could borrow words from English, but this may not always be an option.

You could create (half of) a second language, just enough to have the basis for words and a logical way for those words to end up in your main language. So basically you have to create another set of sounds for a different language and use those as the basis for words, but only for specific words. For example, say your main language is used for a race who lives in the desert, they will have words for everything related to the desert and won't need words from other cultures for that, but they will need a word for snow, they might create their own (like 'white rain') or use one from a different culture, perhaps the culture that introduced them to snow.

On the other hand, language evolves over time. Just like we use many words from Latin and old Germanic tribes, those same desert people may use words from the civilizations before them. But taking all that into account may be going a step too far.

On another side note, Tolkien did not consider it to be a step too far, not at all. In short, Tolkien's elven languages (mainly Quenya and Sindarin) went through changes for pretty much his entire life. Part of this was because he cared so much for those languages and part of it was because he wanted to replicate how languages change in real life.
To notice just how much he loved his language you simply have to consider the fact that his first form of Quenya was created around 1910-1911, he didn't start writing 'The Hobbit' until the 1930's and the Lord of the Rings was written between 1937 and 1949.

Creating the words

Now we finally get to creating our own words. There are various ways to do this, most of which are kind of terrible. Methods like translating a small dictionary or a list of the 3000 most commonly used words in the English language for example. Sure, you will end up with a vast vocabulary, but probably not with the words you need, let alone with the words that fit your language and the culture behind it.

The best way to create words (in my personal opinion) is to simply start from nothing, pick a specific field or word group and create the words that would logically belong to your culture in your language. For example, family words are likely to be part of your language, so you create the needed words to express all the aspects of family available in your language. This doesn't have to mean you have words like 'grandfather', 'cousin' or even 'father' and 'mother'. Your language might not distinguish between gender and simply use a single word (like parent). 'Cousin' may be a foreign idea in your culture, instead they're all children part of the same generation within a family, all called the same word. 'Stepbrother' is another concept that may be foreign, maybe in your culture you either are or aren't a brother, maybe it has to be blood related or maybe blood relation has nothing to do with it.

You do this for every word group or every field until you think you've all the words you need. Remember to not stick to how words are constructed in English or any other language for that matter. 'Grandfather' is a combination of two words, but some languages have a separate word for it and others simply use "father's father". Think about how your culture would name something, not about the words we have.

Culture

To further point out how important the culture behind your language is when creating words, consider the following: "Eskimo languages have many different words for snow.". This fact isn't true, but it would make sense if they did. Now apply this logic to your language. A good example of this is the fictional language of the Dothraki in the 'A song of ice and fire' novels.

'Dothraki' means 'riders', in their case they're riders of horses. Horses are incredibly important to the nomadic Dothraki, horses are used as gifts (better horses make for better gifts), as food, as transportation and they even worship a horse god. All this was taken into consideration by David Peterson, the man who created the Dothraki language for the 'Game of Thrones' tv-show using only what was available in the books.

In English you'd ask 'How are you doing?', in Dothraki you say 'Hash yer dothrae chek?', which means 'Are you riding well?'. 'To ride' is also used for verb conjugation, somewhat similar to how we use 'to be', 'will' and 'going to' in some of our tenses.
Do note that 'are you riding well?', like many other aspects of language, isn't meant to be taken literally. When you ask somebody "What's up?" you don't want to know the roof or the sky is up, you want to know how they're doing and "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse" doesn't mean you could actually eat a whole horse.

The Dothraki also measure distance in how far an average horse with an average rider could travel before the horse has to rest, it's not an exact measurement, but it makes perfect sense this system is used by the Dothraki.

This logic will apply to all the words you create and, in my opinion, it makes creating the words a far more interesting task than simply translating a list of words.

Multiple meanings

While creating words remember that many words have multiple meanings. Some words have multiple meanings which can be related to each other, like 'I enjoy your company' and 'I work for a company'. In both cases 'company' is related to multiple people in some shape or form.
Other words have multiple meanings which are completely unrelated. 'I seal my letters' versus 'A seal swims fast'.

The unrelated double meanings are usually due to the origin of the word, a word which likely started out as 2 different words, but over time slowly became the same by accident.

When you apply this to your own language the first example is far easier to apply, but if you feel like it you could always have words like 'seal' in your language, if only to make it look more natural.

Symbolism in sound

In English we generally relate the 'i' and 'e' vowels to small things, high pitched sounds, cuteness and softness (twinkle, little, tiny), 'o', 'u' and 'a' are often related to the opposite (rumble, bounce, roar). There are exceptions of course, most noticeably 'big' and 'small' which sound the opposite of what they mean.

This is the same reason why 'i' and 'e' are used more often in names and languages of smaller fictional creatures and 'o', 'u' and 'a' for larger or more savage creatures.
The same point can be made for melodic and guttural sounds in those names and languages.

This isn't something you'll want to use on a strict basis, but it's still a nice little element you can add for some specific words.

Dialects

If you want to go a step further why not develop one or more dialects for your language? It's not a difficult task to do, it mostly involves changing a few sounds into others, like changing a 'sh' sound into a 'sz' sound and you may also wish to change up some of the words.
Perhaps you have a need of a world with a wide range of dialects and one main dialect, perhaps for tv or for nobility.

Language families

Language families are groups of languages which share a common ancestry. The Indo-European language family is spoken by 45% of the world, but while all the languages within it share a common ancestry, many of them aren't all that similar. But there are languages which are very similar, like French and Italian and it's that degree of similarity which is interesting from a language creation point of view.

Languages often naturally develop into new languages, those new languages are based on a single language, but they're different enough to be considered a separate language, so if you plan on creating a large world a language family of similar languages might be a good idea to create as well.

Fortunately it's not too big of a task to complete. You already have the grammatical structures down, those will stay mostly the same, but you'll want to change all or most of the articles, phonemes and so on. The word order usually stays the same as well, but it can change, and conjugation is usually done in a similar fashion as well, but again with different phonemes.

The sounds can stay roughly the same, but they can also change a lot, that'll be up to you. Vocabulary will change a lot though, but many words will still be very similar in both languages, so you won't have to create a vocabulary from scratch, you simply have to alter your existing one to match the new set of sounds, although changing some words completely is still a good idea to replicate a naturally developed language.

Final note

So we've come to the conclusion of this pretty enormous guide. Enormous, but yet it still doesn't contain everything. There are many more smaller parts I didn't cover in the grammar section, mostly because I simply end up repeating myself: 'change the word order, use prefixes, suffixes or other phonemes, use words for this and that, etc. etc.', so I decided to leave those out. You will come across those elements while writing sentences in your language and they're minor parts anyway.

Having said that, you should be able to create a very detailed language with all the information in this guide. There are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from and there's a whole world of languages and information about them available on the internet, free to take ideas from and mold them into your own.

There are also two language creation tools on this website, the language generator and the grammar creator. They're both helpful in their own ways, but don't expect to be able to create a fully detailed language with just those two tools, languages are far too complex for that.

Anyway, I hope this guide has been helpful to you and I wish you the best of luck with the creation of your own language(s). If you ever need any help with it, feel free to send me a message using the contact form and I'll do my best to help.