Guest Post: Creating a World by Creating a Language

It’s an exciting weekend for guest posts!  The first guest post for this coming weekend comes to us courtesy of Matthew Arnold Stern, author of Doria.  Matthew’s talking about a subject that I personally find fascinating–creating language in fiction.   (For my take on this in my own writing, visit this entry in fantasy author Kody Boye’s blog.)

Without further ado…

Creating a World by Creating a Language

By Matthew Arnold Stern

Picture the last time you traveled to a different place. It probably had its own local language with idioms particular to that region. You may have been asked if you want a bottle of pop to go with your hero or offered a soda for your sub. Language like this gives a place local color and a sense of its history and culture.

We can do the same for our stories. Creating a language makes our fictional world more realistic and engaging. As readers become accustomed to the lingo, they feel like they’re “insiders” and become more invested in our story. Local language also gives us a tool for characterization. The words our characters use and how they use them tell readers who they are.

These are the reasons why I invented a local language for the fictional country in my novel Doria. It also addressed a couple of other challenges: Telling a story in English that takes place in a Spanish-speaking South American country, and revealing the history and geography of this country without relying on exposition.

I started with the first words people typically pick up in a language, the insults.

The first thing to know about South America is that those countries are not alike, and they often don’t like each other. For example, Chile hasn’t gotten along well with its neighbors. It fought a war with Peru and Bolivia in the 1870s that is still a source of conflict, and it almost came to blows with Argentina in 1978.

My fictional country of Doria is an archipelago off the coast of Chile, giving those poor Chileans yet another neighbor to annoy them. I use insults to show the tension between the two nations. The Dorians use an epithet I found in my research that has been used by Chile’s enemies. They call Chileans “rotos.” It’s the Spanish word for “broken,” referring to the seemingly shabby appearance of the Chilean army. I wanted to give Chileans an insult they can give Dorians in return. I came up with “isleño,” the Spanish word for “islander.” The term not only shows the contempt the Chileans have for the Dorians, it reminds the reader that Doria is an island country.

Spanish words give me a way to show that Doria is a Spanish-speaking country, even though I wrote my novel in English. I was going to include more Spanish dialogue, but my beta reader felt I would need to add a translation so she could understand what was happening. She felt the same way most of us do when listening to people talk in a language we don’t know. We feel left out and wonder if they’re talking about us. By using a few select words, I can still give that cultural flavor without making the reader feel excluded.

I also needed to create a language for Doria’s indigenous people. One of the conflicts in my book is between Felipe Sérigo, who rejected his Native Dorian heritage to become a communist rebel, and his father Ramón, who is fighting to preserve the country’s native culture after years of repression. As with the Spanish terms, I used a few words to give people a sense of this different culture without excluding the reader. I also wanted this language to tie with my theme of people setting aside their differences for the good of their country.

The story of the Native Dorian language is revealed in a scene where Ramón asks Felipe to tell a visiting film crew about their ancestors’ history. Felipe explains that ancient Doria was in a state of war between people who migrated there millennia ago, refugees from the Nazca Empire that recently fell, and Polynesians invading from the West. A sailor, who was cast adrift after his ship got lost and destroyed at sea, washed up on this country’s shores and was rescued by a native woman. When he recovered, he became determined to bring peace to his new home. He brought these peoples together and created a new religion and language.

I included a combination of Quechua and Polynesian words with words I created for the indigenous people. I wouldn’t expect the reader to know words in those languages, but observant readers may notice words that sound a lot like Hebrew and Arabic, like “rabe’ya” and “nakaba.” I wanted to create a mystery about the sailor who brought those words to the Americas centuries before Columbus. Who is he? Where did he come from? How did he get all the way across the Pacific? What does this mean for this country’s future? These are questions I can answer in later books of this series.

Even though I created a number of words, I did not add a glossary to my novel. The problem I see with a glossary is that it stops readers. It leaves them asking, “Why do I need to know all these words before I can read this book? Will I remember their definitions when I see them?” Instead, I used the words in context and trust the reader to understand their meaning. This is the way the Harry Potter books present the language of their wizard world.

By creating a local language, I can make my story world more vivid and engaging for my readers. It also helped me address a number of storytelling challenges. If you would like to learn more about the language of Doria, you can view the glossary at http://www.matthewarnoldstern.com/download/doriaglossary.pdf.

To find out how to get your copy of Doria, visit http://www.matthewarnoldstern.com/doria.html.

I wish you the best in your writing efforts.


Matthew Arnold Stern is an award-winning writer and public speaker. He has written professionally since 1983 as a technical writer, journalist, playwright, and novelist. He has published two novels, Offline and Doria. To read more of his writing, visit his Web site at http://www.matthewarnoldstern.com