Languages and World-building

Languages often play a crucial role in society, for since we, humans, are social creatures, much of our actions, thoughts, worldviews, and so forth are expressed through the filter of language.   Some linguists have gone so far as to speculate that language can influence the way we think and how we perceive the world.  This speculation has been formulated into a hypothesis called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.  Regardless of whether this hypothesis holds truth, the idea of language influencing thought can be an interesting exploration within fiction and world-building.

Here’s two examples:

In 1984 by George Orwell, the book explored the implementation and development of Newspeak, a crafted language by a dictatorship-like government. The goal was to force the populace to conform to only a certain set of allowed thoughts, and the government in 1984 tries to achieve this through the implementation of Newspeak.  The book not only explores some of this concept, but also explores what may happen if socialism was distorted or taken to an extreme, which Orwell – a socialist himself – wished to caution fellow socialists.   His book was two-fold in purpose here: he had a distinct interest in how language influenced one’s thinking and other cognitive process, and also the consequences of philosophies taken way too far to an extreme.

Newspeak, itself, is based on English, but the vocabulary is reduced to a minimum of allowed words, the meanings of which were carefully controlled by the ruling Party.  The purpose was to reduce thoughts that the Party deemed to be heretical and damaging to their version of society.  To further control the vocabulary, Newspeak used three sets: A, B, and C.  Set A contained words that relate to everyday life; set B relates to politics; and set C focus on specialized characteristics, where people within politics or science would use, but no one would else would need to, at least according to Party thought.  This idea of controlling though through language is an extreme exploration of the ideas set forth in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

To further examine Newspeak, let’s take a look at set A.  The purpose of it was to create a way of speaking that expressed everything as simply and purposefully as possible, thus creating a set of words that often involved concrete objects and/or physical actions. The words in set A were often used interchangeable as both a noun and a verb.  For example, the word ‘thought’ is not even included in the vocabulary, for the word ‘think’ could instead be used in its place.  The rules of conjugation of any word was highly simplified, in order to cause less thought in the act of speaking and/or writing.  Any irregularities is eliminated, so that there isn’t any deviations in order to further avoid thought on the part of the individual.  For example, adjectives have only one rule for their formation: -ful is added to the end of a noun/verb.  In this manner, the messiness of language was highly simplified and regularized in the attempt to curtail the need for thought. (This is explored in more depth in Chapter 3 of From Elvish To Klingon).

Although Newspeak wasn’t used extensively in 1984, an appendix was provided at the end of the novel (in most versions of the book) to further explain the language.  It is interesting to note that the Newspeak term of ‘doublethink’ now exists within our English dictionaries, most definitely a result of the popularity of this book within our culture.  ‘Doublethink’ meant (in the contest of the novel) the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s mind and believe both of them; this was used in the book as a necessary part of being in the Party as they transitioned from ‘Oldspeak’ (English) and Newspeak.  Today, doublethink is often used in our everyday common language, so thus is an example of how even invented languages can influence our own native languages through the use of fiction.

Did Orwell actually believe that language controlled thought?  Not necessarily.  Many of his essays explore this concept.  One in particular, ‘New words’, explores the idea that our language does not allow for precision concerning our inner thoughts, experiences, and/or what goes on in our brains; his suggestion is to create new vocabulary that can offer more precise set of words, allowing for more precision to describe areas of thought that are currently ‘nameless.’  This is the exact opposite of the Newspeak idea explored in 1984.  He also, in his ‘Politics and the English Language’ essay, explores the debasement and corruption of language; how language can corrupt thought just as thought can corrupt language. To Orwell, it seems that finding the precise words to express truth was where language often failed, and thus words would often obscure or even corrupt thought.  This idea is also inherent within the exploration of Newspeak in 1984, where words were deliberately chosen to obscure, corrupt, and/or simplify thought.

This exploration of language influenced his writing and helped create his experimentation language of Newspeak to explore these ideas.  It seems, in his essays on the subject, that he does not think language actually can control thought, but he does give the impression that language can influence thought just as much as thought can influence language.  It seems to be more of a feedback cycle, at least in how I’ve interpreted his writings.

George Orwell is definitely a great example of using language and the philosophical musings about language into his world-building for his novel.  It’s also useful to note that his invented language has in turn influenced our current society as well, which shows there can be quite a lot of power in invented languages in fiction.

My second example is no doubt very well known: J.R.R. Tolkien and his Elvish languages.  Tolkien explored languages in a very different manner than Orwell, and used this invented language quite differently in his fiction as well.  Tolkien is an unusually rich study in regards to invented languages because of his approach to it.  He was well-versed in a variety of languages due to his Roman Catholic upbringing, classical education, and education at Oxford.  He was highly proficient in Latin and Greek, and he also learned Anglo-Saxon, Gothic – the oldest surviving Germanic language – as well as learning various other languages such as Finnish, Spanish, Welsh, and others.  Many of his writings reveal that he regarded inventing languages as an art form; however, one of the most crucial elements in his language inventions was their connection with mythology.  To Tolkien, language and mythology were highly connected, and as he invented language, he also invented the mythology and history associated with his languages.  This, in turn, slowly formed his world of Middle-earth and its extensive histories, mythology, and cultures.

Tolkien wasn’t just content with inventing the languages, he also went so far as to create how the languages evolved from historical times to modern times; such as how words may change over time and usage.  This in turn created yet more interesting tidbits for the histories of his languages as well as the histories of his world.  Since elves in Tolkien’s world lived nearly immortal lives – unless directly killed, Tolkien often had to explore ways to explain how the languages could evolve over time, and what this would mean for his world.  Sound changes in a language can often occur over time, especially through several generations, and Tolkien – in his genius – took this into account when developing his languages.  For immortal elves, the sound changes would be harder to explain than in a race of people who are not immortal – for those who do not have immortality, those who remembered how words used to sound would eventually die out, leaving those that use the sound changes to flourish.  Since elves were mostly immortal, Tolkien created a rich narrative, which involved personal grievances, the elves’ quasi-mystical relationship with their language, and various other explanations chronicled in the history of the elves.  This newly created mythology to explain the language’s evolved sound changes added richness to the world’s history and the cultures of the elves over the many centuries of their existence.

An example of sound changes within a language, let’s look at an example: alkwa meaning ‘swan.’  In Quenya, this became alqua, where ‘kw’ became ‘qu’. However, in Sindarin, it became alph. Let’s see this evolution in steps: first, the more primitive ‘kw’ evolves into a ‘p’, which then becomes ‘ph’ due to a softening of the consonant, and finally, the unstressed vowel ‘a’ was subsequently lost.  In this manner, alkwa evolved into alph.  Through this evolution of sound changes, Tolkien’s languages grew more diverse, interconnected, and rich – making them seem remarkably similar to the naturally formed languages of our own world. (This example is chronicled in more depth in ‘From Elvish to Klingon.’)

Tolkien  was able to use language to create a fully realized, fully developed, and highly fascinating world.  If you want to read an even more detailed analysis of Tolkien’s use of language in world-building, I highly recommend Tolkien’s works – especially A Secret Vice (one of his essays/letters) and the History of Middle Earth, compiled and edited by his son –  as well as From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, compiled by Michael Adams; you can find their analysis of Tolkien within Chapter four.

Both of these examples chronicle how language – especially invented languages – can be useful in world-building. Both authors took very different approaches.  Tolkien created for the art of creating, and viewed language, mythology, and history to be all interconnected; he helped create some of the main ideas behind world-building for fiction, and his works practically invented the fantasy genre.  His route to language and world-building was incredibly thorough, and for him, one could not build a world without first constructing the language for it. For his works, world-building and invented languages were an art form that manifested itself in his novels but could exist outside of them as well within numerous appendixes, books, and essays.

On the other hand, Orwell tackled language and world-building through the use of philosophical and political contemplations.  He used world-building and invented languages to explore his philosophical and political musings as well as the limits of the current theories of his time.  Orwell wasn’t too concerned with the process of world-building and its connection with language, but instead was more focused on exploring his philosophies through these two mediums.  Both were tools used to further his aim, instead of an art form that could stand on its own inside and outside of the fictional novels for which they were created.

Both ways of approaching language and world-building are valid.  There may be even more ways to approach the two within the realm of fiction, but for simplicity I focused mainly on these two examples to illustrate my point that language can play a fairly large role in fiction and world-building.  It often helps to explore the language of your fictional world, characters, and plot in order to explore all the possible tools you can use to show your story to your reader.

In time, I’ll provide another post detailing some resources for those interested in exploring these ideas further.

By Aibird

Open the door, step inside. Here you find a forest, teeming with animals and birds, which sweeps up the sides of snow-capped mountains. Here in the small pocket of beauty, one finds the essence of my soul. A writer at heart, I delve deep into the finer details of humanity's spirit, and seek to share with others what gems I uncover. I find life exciting and full of interesting surprises, and despite the great pain that often confronts me, I persevere with the joy in my heart still bubbling, and the light of my soul still aflame. There is a time and a place to introspect one's self, but often enough it is best to not look back in regret, but leap forward in the present toward the achievement of one's deepest dreams. I am a wanderer. An explorer. One place cannot contain me for long, but to my friends and family, I remain loyal, for love is not bound by time nor place. Once cultivated and nourished continuously, it binds people together on a journey through the unknown reaches of life.

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