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Some Challenges of Fictional Languages in Worldbuilding

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Languages in the Ark Saga are not any Earth Prime language. My philosophy of writing the characters’ idiom – how they speak and write as natives – was rooted in the principle that my narrative style is a direct translation of their fictional language (vocabulary, syntax, and grammar) into idiomatic American English.

Years into writing the books, I formalized unique alphabets for two of the languages represented in the fictional world of the Ark Saga. For the language the main characters speak, I realized that, given my philosophy of language within the story, any time a unique letter was named, there was not a complete correspondence between the English alphabet and the fictional alphabet. What this meant was that any time a character wanted to talk about the language they speak, they didn’t call it “English.” When any character had to directly name a letter or directly spell a word, they had to name the letter(s) in their language, not English. When an acronym was used, there wasn’t direct correspondence between the English alphabet and the fictional alphabet.

The biggest problem this raised was that because the characters were not speaking English, the words they used were themselves different. “Cat” was not pronounced “cat” and may even have had a different semantic range than it did in English. Thus, another layer of trouble arose: if the words themselves were different, then any acronym used was necessarily different. How a person’s name was spelled was different than how we might represent it in English.

How did I overcome this problem?

I altered my philosophy of language. Sometimes it's good to sleep in the bed you've made; it'll stretch your writing and creativity. In this case, the problems outweighed sticking to my guns. I decided that the language (excluding the alphabet) the main characters speak essentially corresponds to English. It created too many problems for consistency. I couldn’t play by the rules I’d written, and sometimes you've got to call it as it is.

However, for the other primary fictional language in the story, no alterations were made because to the main characters, it is a foreign language. Problems of regular usage (as in with the spelling of words or the use of acronyms) don’t apply.