Saturday, March 26, 2011

Made-up words

The lovely Elizabeth Mueller wrote a fascinating post about made-up and foreign words. In it, she gave a beautiful example of showing the meaning of a foreign phrase without actually translating it. Check it out here.

I commented about my own made-up words and Elizabeth said she'd like to see my example in a blog post. Well, that sounded way too much like a challenge to pass up...

So, to continue the theme, yes, I make up a lot of words in my own stories. Mostly, these are place names or character names, with a few individual words for drugs and poisons and other things.

I haven't graduated to full-blown made-up languages like Tolkein or Elizabeth, but I do try to give the impression that my words are part of a larger whole.


"Barza" and "Braz", ancient words for town and city, crop up in many place names: Stoon Barza, Sho Min Barza, Cravel Braz, Prandis Braz...

Trylex, animastin, and nacrolin are all drugs in Shayla's armoury. I tried to make them sound "druggy".

When I make up words, I try to keep a "sound" in mind for some sort of consistency, usually based on an existing terrestrial region. In Ghosts of Innocence, many place names have a slightly harsh sound to them, reminiscent of Russian, while other districts are more oriental. Many characters have a middle-eastern sound, with lots of "bin" and other prefixes. The idea was to create an exotic feel to the average English-speaking reader, to echo Shayla's feeling of entering foreign territory.

I also like to adapt or combine English words: "starhopper" is a type of ship, "passkey" is an electronic security implant, "shimmerblade" is a kind of knife that you really don't want to meet down a dark alley.

On to the example Elizabeth wanted to see...

The MC, Shayla Carver, has infiltrated the Imperial Palace staff as a high-ranking official. She has just dismissed a member of her staff, and her boss, Mabbwendig ap Terlion (a.k.a. Mad Mabb) is not happy. Her tirade includes a completely invented word, plus familiar words combined in new ways.

     The summons came quicker than Shayla expected. Barely an hour after Skimlok had left, muttering threats under his breath, she was back in Mabbwendig's office.
     The air was as stifling as it had been two days ago. There was no waiting in the outer office this time. Mad Mabb was in too much of a hurry to vent her rage to bother with the niceties of psychological abuse.
     "You prance in like the Shal-heil ..." Mabb spluttered. Shayla puzzled for a second, searching her mind for the undoubtedly insulting reference. Shal-heil? The evening desert wind? Flighty. Hot. Bringing no relief from the day's sun. Aah! Late and useless!
     "Make Mabbwendig and whole Palace wait on your precious meditations. You have no respect for Palace. Nor Emperor, I think. What Grand Duke saw to recommend you I know not."
     Hmm. What interest does the Emperor's uncle have in Brynwyn?
     "Ten thousand years these walls have stood. Traditions old beyond your paltry wit to understand. Who you think you are? Red-faced fishlander, coming here upstart-nose-in-the-air to teach us new ways like we know nothing?"


  1. I needed a language for some characters in my book too and what I did was use a biblical greek translator (switching some of the letters a bit so it's not exact) to get a conversation pieced together. Then I translate it for the reader in my character's ear (in italics). It's definitely an interesting thing coming up with a language for your work isn't it?

  2. Such an interesting post. In my main genre and WIP (Romance) I have no need of a new language but I do dabble in paranormal where I've 'invented' new words. A couple of villains' names have been inspired by word verifications!

  3. That ingenious, Danette. There are so many online resources now to help with things like that.

    Margo, I never thought of word verifications. But some of the things they come up with do make good raw input for inspiration!

  4. I have a bad habit of making up words in my novels. I often fight with word over the corrections of such words.

  5. Thanks Elena.

    I don't see why it would be a "bad" habit, Tana, depending on what kind of story you're writing of course. But I long ago switched off all auto-correct features in Word because they are just too troublesome. I hate it when some dumb piece of software insists that it knows better than me what I'm trying to say :D

  6. Cool fragment. Really liked the voice of your character. I invent words all the time - but that's because I don't know English and they come out wrong :D
    I will one day write something that will need such a task and I shall be up for it.
    Fun post, Ian :)

  7. Thanks Steph. I think made-up words are fun, and I'm glad I write in a genre that allows that kind of latitude.

  8. This is such a helpful post for me, as I'm trying to come up with a list of phrases/names for two thousand years into the future. Thank you!

  9. Glad you find it helpful, Ellie. I sometimes have a brainstorming session just to come up with a list of useful-sounding words. Then when I need one, I can look through my list for something that might fit the bill.

  10. On another note, I did have a book once in which one of the MC's brothers spoke words he often put together a.k.a his own language. I thought it was a lot of fun to formulate the words.


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