Linguistics IS worldbuilding
Yeah, I said it. Linguistics is worldbuilding.
In the real world, we understand and create through language. Everything we do is filtered through various forms of communication, so every aspect of our lives is built on how we talk about those things. Likewise, every bit of worldbuilding you do in your fictional world, whether that involves technology or setting or culture, is done through language and how you use language.
What is language?
I don’t even know, guys. Language is weird. Just the fact that we can express thoughts by using arbitrary sounds or scratch marks or hand signals seems impossible. What’s even more impossible is that people can understand what we’re saying. Language is basically telepathy. You’re taking a thought that exists only in your head and making it exist in someone else’s. This shouldn’t be possible. No matter how sophisticated the language is, complete explicitness is unachievable. So we adapt, and still find ways to make meaning out of the chaos.
As humans, we gather more meaning from what is left unsaid than from what is said. Like, what even? If I get home from the grocery store, and my roommate asks, “Did you get the bananas?” and I say, “I got apples.” YOU KNOW I FORGOT THOSE DAMN BANANAS. Did I say anything about bananas? No. I never uttered the word “banana,” but because language works for some reason, “I got apples” can mean “I didn’t get bananas.” This is achievable through context and cognition and inference. (This is exemplified in Ernest Hemingway’s HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS, where a couple is having an unspoken conversation in the gaps of their spoken conversation. Context, cognition, and inference.)
So yeah, language is cool.
Why is language so important? Simply put, language creates and is created by society. By naming things, we give them power and have power over them (as any fae will tell you), and the only way we understand anything is through naming it.
Let’s think of everything as on a spectrum. I think colors are the easiest way to understand this. Colors obviously exist on a spectrum, with minute variances that shift from one color to the next. Blue slowly becomes purple slowly becomes red, etc. The question is: when *exactly* does blue become purple? The easy answer is: language. We have decided as a society that everything between here and here on the spectrum is blue and everything between here and here on the spectrum is purple. By naming them, we have separated that part of the spectrum into two distinct colors.
Think about it this way: A long time ago, people didn’t see blue, because there wasn’t a name for blue. If you look at ancient texts, anything that we consider blue was described as other colors. For instance, the sea was often referred to as purple. If the sky was even given a color (which it often wasn’t), it was described as white. Blue quite literally didn’t exist to humans, because it had no “thatness”—it wasn’t separated from the things beside it on the color spectrum. Once humans decided that the color of the sea was in fact different than the color of wine—that it had its own “thatness”—they named it, and bam! The color blue finally existed.
Humans use language to understand the world around them, and because of that, language defines the world around them. Language influences thought to the point that depending what language you think in, you see the world differently.
Some communities can see more shades of green because they have names for them. They give them their own “thatness.” There is an indigenous people in Australia that doesn’t use right and left, only cardinal directions, so they’re centered on the land instead of the self. In many east Asian languages, there’s no verb tense. Some European languages gender nouns. And all of that shapes not only cognition, but our reality. Language builds our world.
Language is worldbuilding
So what does this mean for your writing? Quite a bit actually. Every bit of worldbuilding you do is going to be tied to language. Every piece of language you are using is going to be building your world. You can’t escape it. This doesn’t just apply to fantasy languages and dialects. This applies to writing in the real world about things that are happening now. The language you use is going to create reality for your characters, in the same way that the language we use in our daily lives creates our reality.
Let’s assume we’re all writing in English. We’re still not all writing in the same language or grammar. There are multiple Englishes—British English, American English, AAVE, internet English, etc.
The English an author uses in narration establishes not only the tone of the book, but the world. I don’t have to be told THE LIGHT BETWEEN WORLDS is set in England, the vocabulary and grammar of the prose tells me that. FANGIRL and ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS feel real because Rainbow Rowell and Francesca Zappia use a lexis that reflects their mains characters’ involvement in fanfic and internet culture. One of the many reasons THE HATE U GIVE is so authentic, is because Angie Thomas incorporate African-American Vernacular English.
The type of English you speak shapes your reality. It’s your default. Do your characters live in the same “world” as you? If not, they speak a different English.
Side note: This is not an invitation to appropriate Englishes that do not belong to you. If an English—such as AAVE—is connected to a marginalized identity that you do not share, it’s best to leave it to the experts. Those identities and Englishes are vastly underrepresented in literature and those who are fluent in the grammar and culture attached should be the ones who get to shine light on those Englishes. It’s better to lift up marginalized voices than to speak over them.
Aspects of Language
Let’s break this down into practical steps you can take as you use linguistics to worldbuild.
1. Phonemes – What sounds/signs can your character physically make?
First let’s look at the building blocks of language. Phonemes are basic units of sound (or in sign language, a basic unit of signing). If you connect several phonemes together, you get a word. The thing about phonemes is that they aren’t universal. English-speakers use some sounds that aren’t found in other languages. Likewise, there are tons of phonemes that aren’t used in English. (I’m learning Polish right now, and it is completely made up of phonemes that are impossible for me to pronounce.) This is something to think about as you are constructing your world. What sounds come naturally to the characters inhabiting your world? Are there some sounds that are difficult for them? Does your society have a sign language? If so, how is it constructed?
This doesn’t just apply to fantasy worlds or made-up languages. If you are writing a contemporary, think about accents. The way vowels are pronounced in the English language varies vastly from country to country, and even from region to region.
Phonemes are the physical part of language. What sounds can we physically produce? What signs can we physically make? These are *learned*. I mentioned learning Polish and not being able to recreate the phonemes necessary for that language. My inability to do so is rooted in the fact that I was conditioned into using only the range of American English phonemes. If I had grown up in Poland, I wouldn’t be having any problems.
2. Vocabulary – What words are your characters using?
This is where we start to get into the construction of reality. The weird thing about words is that they have an arbitrary connection to the thing they represent, while simultaneously defining the thing. There is not an innate connection between the word “tree” and an actual tree. That is why it can be called arbre in French, drzewo in Polish, and 树 in Mandarin. Even though there is arbitrariness to words, they define the world around us. Think about the connotations of the words you are using, and how your characters are using those words to create reality.
I see a lot of thought go into this with how characters curse—and that’s great! Cursing is socially constructed. No words are inherently “bad.” Society makes them appropriate or inappropriate. But let’s not stop there. The vocabulary your characters choose is going to be directly influenced by: history, religion, environment, technology, social structure, natural resources, cuisine, etc, etc, etc, ETC. And, in turn, that vocabulary is going to directly influence all those things. It’s that weird dialectical tension of language: it’s both created by society and creates society. What I’m saying is, you can’t have a character say “oceans of sand” if the world they live in has no oceans.
Vocabulary worldbuilding extends to slang and figures of speech. Think about the phrases we associate with SIX OF CROWS. Bardugo uses phrases like “No Mourners, No Funerals” and “The deal is the deal.” Those feel like natural extensions of the world she created, because in fact, they are helping to create the world for her. This also applies to technical jargon (THIS MORTAL COIL), a whole new language (A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC), or dialects present in our real world (THE HATE U GIVE). The vocabulary you choose shouldn’t just reflect the World proper, but also the world as it is experienced by your characters.
3. Grammar – How do your characters put those words together?
The words we use are super important, but just as important is the way we put them together. How do your characters grammatically construct sentences? If they say “The vase broke” they are creating a vastly different reality than if they say, “John broke the vase.” One puts the vase as the subject, the other puts it as the object. We’ve attributed blame in the second. In the first, it’s an accident. Just by arranging the grammar of the sentence, we have created a reality.
Like there are different Englishes, there are also different grammars. There are even different grammars within a single person. You use different grammars with your parents than you do with your boss than you do with your friends. Each of these grammars are creating a world between the speakers.
Leigh Bardugo does this well in SIX OF CROWS. She uses phrases and vocabulary that indicate the world that she’s built (and in turn, these phrases help to build the world). Think about the colloquial questions she’s incorporated, such as “how down?” and “what business?”. These questions are quick. In Ketterdam, if you take the time it takes to say “how badly do you want this guy hurt?”, you’re already dead. “How down?” is much quicker, and gets the point across, and in doing so, builds a dangerous world where both speed and accuracy are needed. Even the phatic question “what business?” is doing world building. In Bardugo’s world, this is akin to saying “how are you?”, but in Ketterdam, it doesn’t matter how you are, it matters what business and deals you are bringing to the table. World built.
4. Language Evolution – How has the language evolved?
Language is a growing, living thing. It doesn’t stay stagnant. This is blatantly obvious when you go back and try to read Beowulf (Old English) or Canterbury Tales (Middle English). It’s like reading a different language. If we got in a time machine and traveled a thousand years into the future, English would be unrecognizable to us. Think about how the language evolves. If you’re writing historical, you’ll be working with a different vocabulary and grammatical structure (and, depending how historical, possible different phonemes). If your story takes place in the future, again, you’ll be working from a different lexis, and you will have to determine what that lexis is—how has language evolved? And why?
In Emily Suvada’s THIS MORTAL COIL, the main character, Cat, is a gene hacker. She’s a genius in both technology and science, and the linguistic structure of the book shows this. Suvada pulls from familiar words and current terminology and builds off them to create her world. Texting, in this world, isn’t done through a phone, but in your brain. The word hasn’t changed, because the functionality is still the same. The collection of bio-apps that a person can use to alter (sort of) their DNA is called a panel. The word works within the framework of current English, but the meaning is altered to fit the need. This shows how language evolves—it’s rooted in what came before it, but shifts and grows to fill the current needs. World built.
Now your turn:
Ask yourself the following questions as you build your word:
- What English and/or grammar are you using? How does it reflect the world you’ve created?
- What phonemes exist in this world?
- What are the basic building blocks of the language—oral, written, signed?
- What sounds, characters and signs can those in your world physically produce? Why? How?
- What words are found in your world? What words aren’t?
- How is the lexis shaping your world and shaped by the world?
- Have you looked into the origin of certain words? (For instance, if a word is French, does your world have a France?)
- What grammar rules do your characters use?
- Where do they put the most important words in the sentence?
- Do they attribute blame?
- Do they use passive voice?
- Are there gendered nouns and pronouns?
- What do the characters leave unsaid? And how do they fill in the gaps?
- How is the language/grammar you are using a living thing? How has it evolved over time?
I know that’s a lot to think about. It may seem overwhelming, because we do all of this on instinct. Language comes naturally to us—even though it shouldn’t—and we are constantly creating and recreating our world as we speak. Language is action. When you speak, you change the world. Or in this case, build a world.
Lora Beth Johnson earned her Master of English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, studying creative writing and linguistics. She now spends her time teaching college English, writing YA sci-fi, and learning new languages. Her debut novel, GODDESS IN THE MACHINE, is set to release summer 2020 from Razorbill. You can find her on twitter at @LoraBethWrites or visit her website at www.lorabethjohnson.com.