Q&A: Constructed Languages

Random question: is there any languages that kinda look like elf languages, for example Welsh? Idk, I’m creating a new language for worldbuilding, and I thought.

That depends on your definition of “elf.”

Okay, so, we live in the aftermath of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rampage across fantasy literature. I don’t have much against Lord of the Rings, it’s very well written, and my reservations are more political. However, Lord of the Rings casts a very long shadow over the genre to the point that when you ask about elves, you’re probably asking about some variant of Tolkein’s elves.

Tolkein based his Elvish languages off of Finnish grammar, with elements pulled from other languages. Ironically, he did use Welsh, but it that was for the languages of Man.

So, is this right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. If you want to use Gaelic and say, “this is the language of the elves in my setting,” you’re not wrong. Just like if you wanted to use any other language that’s an option. You may wish to be a little sensitive when picking languages. Remember, these are real cultures and simply rebranding it can have some unfortunate connotations.

Stepping back from this for a second, Tolkien created his fantasy languages because that was his hobby. While it’s probably important to remember your fantasy characters aren’t speaking English (or whatever your native language is), your audience will be reading them in English.

Something really important happens here, if your character speaks both languages, they’ll be able to translate what the elves are saying. For that to be useful information for the audience, it needs to be restated in English. So, you can either write the same line twice, or skip the foreign language entirely.

In general, I’m not a fan of “Bilingual Bonuses,” unless the author is being clever about it. If you’re supposed to be going through the experiences of a character, either they know both languages, or they don’t. If they don’t, then as the audience, you shouldn’t have access to information they couldn’t use. Now, having said that, I’ll chalk this up to my aversion to metagaming in RPGs, so this isn’t the final word, but it is my bias on the subject.

When juggling alternate characters, you can get into situations where some are familiar with both languages, and others are not. It can be a little daunting to manage who can follow what parts of the conversation, and the dialog can become very messy, as characters bounce information back and forth, translating for one another. I wouldn’t, normally, recommend a scene like this, but it is an option.

Another option is to never provide a direct translation of what the elves are saying. So, instead of writing dialog you tell the audience what they’re talking about. I actually did this for a short back in college, where all of the dialog was described rather than written, and surprisingly, it kinda works. It feels weird after awhile, but if you’re using that to distinguish between two languages, it will keep them separate for the audience. It will also permanently separate your character from that language, and can allow you to articulate the experience of hitting a word or conjugation you don’t remember. Anyone who’s ever tried to use a foreign language they’re not fluent in, can relate.

Unless, like Tolkien, you’re really into the entire idea of creating your own language, this isn’t something I’d really recommend for world building. You probably want to have a grasp of how the language works, and if there are any weird omissions that tell you about that culture. However, actually sitting down and cooking up a full language is overkill unless you’re going to be using this for decades. You may want to create a few words or phrases that are left untranslated, but anything beyond that and you’re investing a lot of time into something you don’t need and probably won’t use.

Then again, I write up full setting bibles, so it’s not I’ve any room to judge what is, or is not, an efficient use of your time.

-Starke

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