The Power and Authenticity of Fictional Languages

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Research! (Book cover courtesy of author Robert Hendrickson and illustrator/cover designer Cathy Rincon)

Creating a new dialect ain’t easy.

During my worldbuilding endeavors for my serial novel, Stormriders, I discovered that some of the people who lived in the World I Built spoke an interesting hodge-podge creole of Appalachian English and Pirate English vernacular. Interesting, but tricky. I’d never created a dialect before. Luckily, I have been able to research to my heart’s content because The Interwebs. And what I’m finding is fascinating!

I’ve learned that there are dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference materials out there for just about every language that exists or has ever existed on the planet. And many of those are free!

I’ve learned that Appalachian English remains the closest still-spoken dialect on earth to the language of Shakespeare (Hendrickson, 1997).

I’ve learned that Pirate English is a dialect that is actually spoken by more real-life people today that I could have imagined.

I’ve learned that creating a language, even a creole dialect of English language variations, is HARD. But as words fly out of my main character’s mouth and onto the pages of my story, it’s apparent how worthwhile the effort is.

Language brings authenticity to the world you’ve created.

World-building is one of the most enjoyable writing exercises for me. And why wouldn’t it be? Science fiction and fantasy authors the world over have created some of the most vibrant, beautiful worlds I’ve ever pictured inside my head via the words on their pages. And all of those worlds came replete with rich geographical, climatological, political, and cultural details.

I’m no J.R.R. Tolkien. Inventing a brand new language from scratch (as Tolkien did multiple times for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) is daunting in a way I can’t fully voice. Perhaps Tolkien felt similarly as he began wandering through the World He Built. Perhaps not… he was a philologist, after all.

Thankfully, for the purposes of my story and the world I’ve built for Stormriders (which takes place in a post-apocalyptic former North America), I did not have to invent a new language from scratch. But for one group, the Shoalfolk of the Carolina Shoals (a string of low-lying islands and cays that formerly comprised the Appalachian highlands, before catastrophic flooding devastated the low-lying continental United States over millennia), it felt inappropriate to neglect to honor that rich culture that, to this current day, reflects the linguistic cadences and phrasing of Elizabethan English.

In order for readers to believe in your characters, you have to be able to answer questions about every aspect of the world in which your characters were born, grew up, and have embarked upon their journeys. Language is one of those critical aspects (and I would argue, perhaps one of the most important), which can shape a culture and bring authenticity to your characters themselves, as they move through the world you’ve tirelessly imagined.

And it’s a big, big world out there, indeed.

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