For my story I'm writing, some of the characters speak a different language from the protagonists.

Should I actually create a ConLang (constructed language) for them and use it in dialog OR should mention that they speak a different language and continue as normal and make the reader assume the protagonists understand?

  • How much time do you have/want to devote to constructing a language? Will you use it in other stories or just for this one? How much dialogue do you expect to have in your conlang? Will it be reflected in the surrounding culture (e.g., names of towns, terrain, and people, slang terms for things)?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 5 '15 at 17:43
  • @KitZ.Fox it will definitely be noted in terms of certain cultural/geographic/technological things. IDC how much time it would take. It will be used for other stories as well.
    – WeekzGod
    Mar 5 '15 at 17:49
  • Related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4368/how-can-i-effectively-invent-a-language/ Plus you may want to ask at Worldbuilding SE, where conlang questions are on topic, I believe. Mar 5 '15 at 20:49
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    @LaurenIpsum Questions relating to constructed languages are on topic on Worldbuilding, provided that they otherwise fall within the site's scope (for example we don't accept character-building questions) and aren't excessively broad or open-ended.
    – user
    Mar 9 '15 at 14:02

It's vanishingly rare to need a constructed language in written fiction.

Orson Scott Card sums this up in How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy:

Invented languages are a lot more fun to make up than they are to wade through in a story.

Here's the thing: very few readers will have the patience for more then brief, occasional snippets of languages they don't understand. And for brief, occasional, you really don't need the depth and authenticity of a constructed language - almost nobody will care enough to check up on your linguistics.

There exist very effective ways to convey foreignness while keeping the individual words clear. Here's the relevant page in Card's book.. He gives two basic approaches:

  • Use snippets of the foreign/fake language, and then immediately translate into English.
  • Don't use any foreign language at all, or very little; automatically translate into English. Make the culture foreign rather than relying on made-up words. Card gives an example of this:

"God give me strength not to kill you for having seen my ugliness," he said to me.

I blinked once, then realized that he was speaking Samvoric and had given me the ritual greeting between equals. I hadn't heard Samvoric in a long time, but it still sounded more natural to me than Common Speech. "God forgive me for not blinding myself at once after having beheld your glory," I said.

Then we grinned and licked each other's cheeks. He tasted like sweat. On a cold day like this, that meant he'd either been drinking or working hard. Probably both.

So clearly, you can get along pretty well without a constructed language. All you really need is:

  • A general, hand-wave-y sense of what the language might sound like.
  • Maybe a few unique words, phrases, and concepts.
  • Good writing technique.

You can get very, very far with these - and you'll generally be more reader-friendly, too.

Sometimes, though, there are good reasons to go ahead and make up a language anyway, even if it isn't strictly necessary. In my eyes, the main benefits of a constructed language (vs. faking it) are authenticity, and richness - a fully-constructed language is just more real than making stuff up.

Here are some circumstances where I'd recommend considering a constructed language:

  • You care deeply about the authenticity of your setting, and see this as worth the investment.
  • You see developing a constructed language as a tool to developing and fleshing out the culture which speaks the language - a worldbuilding tool. The actual language may rarely (or never) actually appear in your story, but you'll know how crucial it turned out to be that your culture has five thousands words relating to "survival" and none relating to "food."
  • Your story deals with language or translation as a significant, primary element.
  • You're writing for TV or film, where you can get in lots of foreign-language dialogue because it doesn't bring the action to a halt (as it does in prose).
  • You have, or would like to cultivate, a fanbase interested in this culture, and you think having a language to sink their teeth into would be exciting for them.
  • Inventing languages is a hobby of yours, and you enjoy doing it even if the language isn't ultimately necessary or prominent.

I'm sure there are other good reasons (and other bad ones); the important thing is that you know what you stand to gain by constructing a language (and how important it is not to lose your readers by swamping the story with it). If you understand the pros and cons, you should be able to make your decision on your own particular case.

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    Incidentally, snippets are often useful for communicating unique concepts such as kemmer from LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness or just giving an impression of difference (and sometimes "tone"). (I consider such minimal vocabulary construction as still part of ConLang design. Even more fleshed out fictional languages may not derive complete etymologies, dialects, and other features of real languages.) Mar 6 '15 at 12:32
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    I may have to give this answer a bounty! Mar 6 '15 at 12:32
  • @PaulA.Clayton Glad you liked! :) Unique culture concepts and phrases can definitely be a powerful tool. kemmer, and the associated phrases in Left Hand of Darkness, is a great example. I don't see that as being necessarily a "constructed language," although with LeGuin, maybe it is :)
    – Standback
    Mar 6 '15 at 13:37
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    Similarly, you don't need to construct the entire Klingon language to appreciate a statement like "The traditional Klingon greeting is nuqneH, lit. 'What do you want?'". But, constructing the language gives you an opportunity to reach interesting, defining examples like that.
    – Standback
    Mar 6 '15 at 13:39
  • Marc Okrand constructed Klingon as not having the verb "to be." This posed a bit of a problem in Trek VI when Chang is "quoting Hamlet in the original Klingon." Okrand tried several variants before settling on "Whether to continue existence, or not." The lack of this verb allows you to make arguments about what that kind of society is. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon#Language Mar 6 '15 at 22:59

Hire someone else to do it instead. There are thousands of conlangers looking for work and eager to work on any project, whether it be a motion picture or a short story collection. You can hire conlangers using the LCS Jobs Board.

That said, when it comes to using the language in the book, Card's advice is pretty good. Even being a professional language creator, I prefer not to have to work for a translation when reading. That's precisely what supplementary material is for. If I'm interested, I'll look that up and actually work through the translations later. For reading, I don't want to have to make reference to extra material, be it a family tree, a map, or a dictionary.

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