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

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Worldbuilding: Extinction Events

Blood: The Brotherhood Saga

I am pleased to introduce to you my first guest blogger, Kody Boye, author of Blood: The Brotherhood Saga. Kody and I first connected on Facebook where I discovered this novel and became rapidly engrossed by the work (expect a review forthcoming). It’s currently available at Amazon. If, like me, you enjoy epic fantasy, I recommend picking up a copy.

But for now, on to the post!

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Extinction Events
A guest post by Kody Boye.

It became prevalent early on within the writing of the Brotherhood saga that much of the world and the sentient creatures that populated it had already died off. Due to human encroachment, disease, mass extinction events or all-out genocide, several races that bore intelligent thought within the world of Minonivna perished or are in the process of dying off as the first book begins.

You might be wondering after reading the introductory paragraph: Why?

Why did entire species have to die off, you ask? Simple: they just did.

If we are to follow what the fossil record shows, there have been many a man (or things resembling men) that have fallen to the greater acts of nature. Who can forget the Neanderthals that roamed parts of Europe and Asia or, more recently, homo floresiensis (better known as the Hobbit) in Indonesia? These are only two of the many examples of sentient, human-like creatures that existed on planet Earth throughout its billions of years of existence, yet they died out. Nature is a cruel and savage beast, as she whittles out many a creature either through predation or natural disaster. Many a theory has been proposed about how the Neanderthals died out (climate change and lack of food, interbreeding with or being killed off by homo sapiens.) Even the Hobbit is believed to have been wiped out by a volcanic eruption that completely annihilated its species, so to think that such species-killing disasters are common are not entirely out of the question.

However, though history has shown that life on Earth has a tendency to die out, what does that mean for life in a fictional setting? Why kill of entire races of creatures when a world builder can avoid such atrocities?

There’s a few reasons.

Reason numero uno is simple—I wanted there to be depth and realism to the world. Earth’s history has shown that life, especially dominant or intelligent life, has a predisposition to death. I wanted to explore the concept of mortality within the world I call Minonivna, particularly because it’s interesting to see the demise of grand creatures, but also because it makes a more well-rounded world for there to be extinctions.

The second reason, and possibly the more complex of the two, is the idea that humanity may have played a role in killing off some of their fellow sentients. This theory has been proposed particularly for homo erectus (what we modern humans are.) We have, over the course of several millions of years, hunted dozens upon dozens of animals to extinction. Off the top of my head in but a moment alone, I can name: the Moa bird in New Zealand, who was killed by foreigners by stealing their eggs after settling on the island; the Thylacine, who was hunted to extinction in Australia; the Yangtze River Dolphin, who was killed for food and poisoned by garbage dumps in China; and the Passenger Pigeon, which was wiped out in a mass hunt in North America. These are only a few of the creatures who, though not sentient in any way, were wiped out by humanity. Since there are no modern examples of humanity wiping out something that is capable of thinking intelligently and with a conscience, I wanted to explore the idea of human cruelty or ignorance and how, through rash choices and decisions, our actions may have killed off creatures that may have compared to us emotionally.

What kind of creatures were or are in the process of being killed off within the Brotherhood universe, you ask?

Allow me to demonstrate.

The Centaurs were a race of humanoid equine creatures that existed within a part of the world southwest of the Northern Coastline called The Whooping Hills. With a human torso connected to an equine lower half, they lived in tribal structures and hunted local wildlife. Called ‘abominations’ by modern humanity due to the belief that they were ‘created by horse demons who slept with women,’ they were hunted to extinction.

Further southwest, beyond the Whooping Hills, exists a place known as the Abroen Forest—a vast, sprawling forest that is commonly known as the home of the Elves. Within the forest exists a multitude of intelligent or somewhat-sentient life. A race of rat creatures known as the Unclean were hunted to death in a mass genocide by the Elves. Known as the Great Hunt, the creatures were hunted to extinction because the Elves could not prevent the creatures from preying on and killing their children.

Beyond the coast of Minonivna, in an arctic wasteland known as Neline, a race of upright-walking bear creatures known as the Kerma are afflicted with a flesh disease that creates tumors along the body that rot through flesh, bone and, eventually, the matter of the inner body. Though not yet extinct within The Brotherhood Saga, the creatures’ numbers are rapidly declining. No source to the disease has been found, though it is believed by the Kerma people that human settlers brought the illness to the island that is ultimately decimating their numbers.

Within the world of The Brotherhood, I tried to create a realistic background in regards to not only humanity, but the creatures that coexist or have coexisted around them. It’s a harsh stretch to destroy entire creatures that could have added a positive dimension to the story, but as a writer, and as a world builder, I believe killing them creates a more well-rounded, three-dimensional world.


Kody Boye

Kody Boye was born and raised in Southeastern Idaho. Since his initial publication in the Yellow Mama Webzine in 2007, he has gone on to sell nearly three-dozen stories to various markets. He is the author of the short story collection Amorous Things, the novella The Diary of Dakota Hammell, the zombie novel Sunrise and the first book in The Brotherhood Saga, Blood. His fiction has been described as ‘Surreal, beautiful and harrowing’ (Fantastic Horror,) while he himself has been heralded as a writer beyond his years (Bitten by Books.) He currently lives and writes in the Austin, Texas area.