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Context

I am currently working on a fantasy novel in which one of the main characters is a nobleman and scholar, studying exotic languages as part of his higher education and translating documents for the city library in his spare time. The fact that he is fascinated by languages is important to his personality and characterization, and thus the constructed languages I've devised for the setting are more prominent in the plot than they would otherwise be - they're not just there for flavor or worldbuilding flair, in other words.

In particular, there is a Latin-inspired language that features heavily in the books and culture of the world. I try not to "dump" this exotic language on the reader, or spend an inordinate amount of time explaining its syntax and grammar; the reader's main reference for this language comes from the scholar character, and it is only explained or translated as needed for each scene. However, it is significant to the world and spoken with varying degrees of fluency by a number of characters.

Question

Should I include an appendix of common words in this language? Will a language reference be helpful to the reader in any way, or will it just bog the reader down in unnecessary information and excessive worldbuilding?

Notes

I have read some other fantasy books that do this, i.e. Eragon, but was wondering about this site's consensus on the topic.

I want to do this for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that the other main character does not speak this language at all, and at some point he tries and fails to communicate with a person who only speaks in that language, which I use to contrast this character's "street smarts" with the scholar character's "book smarts." Obviously the POV character will have no idea what they are hearing, and thus, since I'm writing the chapter from this person's point of view, there's no obvious way to convey to the reader what's being said unless I provide an out-of-story reference.

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    Welcome to Writing and thank you for the interesting question! Your question qualifies for a contest we're currently running, so feel free to add your entry there. – Monica Cellio Feb 28 at 20:16
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A "dictionary" for your fantasy language should never be needed by the reader. If the reader has to learn a language, or flip back and forth to a dictionary, the flow of the reading is broken every time, reading becomes too much "work", and chances are the reader would drop your book. Thus, every time a line in your constructed language appears in your writing, its meaning has to be either understood from context, at least broadly, or a translation needs to be provided, or, if the meaning is left obscure, it has to be deliberately so.

Examples:

When he saw Strider, he dismounted and ran to meet him calling out: Ai na vedui Dúnadan! Mae govannen! His speech and clear ringing voice left no doubt in their hearts: the rider was of the Elven-folk. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book 1, chapter 12 - Flight to the Ford)

We understand from context that the conlang line is some form of greeting, a pleased/happy one.

‘I thank you indeed, Gildor Inglorion,’ said Frodo bowing. ‘Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting,’ he added in the High-elven speech. (ibid, chapter 3 - Three is Company)

Translation is provided.

Frodo gazed in wonder at this marvellous gift that he had so long carried, not guessing its full worth and potency. Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit. (ibid, book 4, chapter 9 - Shelob's Lair)

Meaning left deliberately obscure.

That said, even if a dictionary is not needed, it might be wanted. People wanted to learn Quenya and Sindarin, and the constructed languages of other franchises. Such fans would find an appendix such as you suggest helpful.

There is, however, yet another consideration: within the story, you suggest that this language of yours is a complete language, that some people once spoke. If the dictionary for this language is so small as to be contained in a short appendix, you're breaking the illusion. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, is 20 massive tomes. Your conlang pretends to be on equal scale, it's just that your characters only know a few words of it. And then comes the appendix, and it turns out that no, there is no massive language after all.

  • Thank you for the comprehensive and interesting answer! Including an appendix and/or breaking the flow of reading could definitely be harmful in the ways you explained, I hadn't thought about those aspects of the problem before. You have been extremely helpful. – Sciborg Feb 28 at 20:20
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    @Sciborg it's especially harmful for people reading ebooks. First, they might not even notice the glossary at the end, and second, even if they do, it's more of a hassle than for a paper book so they might not bother. Think of the glossary as a nice supplement, but it shouldn't be essential. – Monica Cellio Feb 28 at 20:36
  • Very often the same is true for maps or reference images – NofP Feb 28 at 21:55
  • Great answer. Mine covers some of the same points which I chalk up to GMTA (great minds think alike). I tried to emphasize parts you didn't cover, since you covered them very well. – Cyn Mar 1 at 1:44
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    I don't see the issue you raise in your last paragraph (the short length of the appendix on the conlang) as a problem. All the author needs to do is label it "A Brief Introduction to Language name". The fact that the main story does not describe every last detail of the fictional world does not stop it being believable, so neither should the fact that the dictionary is shorter than the O.E.D. In any case, as you say, the very act of turning to an appendix takes the reader out of "story mode". I do agree that that is a reason for ensuring that it is not necessary to read the appendix. – Lostinfrance Mar 1 at 11:28
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The best appendix is one the reader never needs to use. The same thing applies to footnotes. They're there for people who want the exact reference. They shouldn't have material that you need to understand the story (or even the scientific paper). They're bonus features.

But yes, include it. People who want to use this language or just know more do not want to go through the entire book and take notes. They want it all together in one place. A couple hundred vocabulary words and a basic grammar will satisfy most people.

Anyone who needs more can go to your website. Anyone who wants to build more can go to the forums on your website. Why not turn this in to something to energize your fan base? Or at least to make a small percentage of them happy. Look at how many people put time and energy into "learning" and expanding Dothraki.

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