Worldbuilding with Languages

Learn about how natural, pseudo, and constructed languages can be used in your sci-fi or fantasy novel.

Dear worldbuilder,

Thank you again for your interest in this blog. I hope you thoroughly enjoy this post and stick around as there will be many more to follow. I know you’ll find value in the coming examinations of worldbuilding, literary elements, publishing, and the writer’s life and I can’t wait to share all I’ve been working on!

In the meantime, though, I’d like to discuss the use and role of various languages (natural, pseudo, or constructed) in sci-fi and fantasy. 

What are natural Languages?

Before we engage with language usage among tentacle wielding pirates, let’s start with human languages. Language use and invention, like everything in sci-fi and fantasy, is based on observations from our own world. Natural languages, those that evolved over time and have no creator, are an important aspect of human culture and development.

Some examples of natural languages include:

Latin (dead)




From a survival standpoint, they enable us to communicate with our fellow earthlings, to innovate, and to change. From a literary perspective, these natural languages allow us to tell and write stories for our entertainment and education.

In sci-fi and fantasy, natural languages also serve these purposes. Characters rely on natural languages to engage in dialogue and to relay information to readers. The books themselves are written in natural languages to be shared with readers around the globe.

How to use natural languages in sci-fi and fantasy?

Modern languages are also used readily in sci-fi and fantasy in a variety of ways. In urban fantasies and near-future sci-fis, for example, it’s possible, if not plausible, for characters to speak in languages and interact as a part of cultures that the target audience may or may not belong to. Artemis provides one exciting example of this cultural dynamic. In Andy Weir’s novel, characters often use snippets of other languages as nepotism amongst the colonial moon’s working class creates tight knit communities with ties to various counties around the world.

Modern languages can provide useful military titles for speculative fiction set two hundred years in the future or two thousand years in the past. Words from around the world can make good names for:



Organizations and Cultures

Special and Magical Objects

They can be both thematically relevant and not obvious to the average reader without precise contextual cluses.

Additionally, names and naming conventions from natural languages can be used to develop cultures with specific moods or associations with places readers are already familiar with. Likewise, names provide an excellent opportunity for readers to reveal consequential information about characters with subtlety. Natural Languages can also be used to create names as I went over in my social media post on naming.

Our use of language also informs and is informed by our culture, so there’s plenty of cultural usages for language. In many languages, it’s common to metaphorically assign gender to objects. We gender cars and ships, the earth and nations, hurricanes and storms, tools and robots, and even stocks. Metaphorical gender can be useful as an aspect of characterization or used to build religions and other cultural practices.

As a speculative writer, you can also make liberal use of idioms. Leigh Bardugo’s series, Six of Crows , uses “no mourners, no funerals” as an idiom for good luck with darker connotations as any member of the Kerch underworld who dies is unlikely receive burial or any proper funeral rites. In this way, idioms can not only be used to characterize people and groups in a particular setting, but also help establish tone and theme.

Compound words, likewise, are a common feature in sci-fi and fantasy when author where authors develop simple terminology in order create a new object or convey a new idea. George Orwell’s 1984 made such liberal use of compound words—doublespeak, thoughtcrime, and unperson—that Newspeak can even be considered its own pseudo language, if not a proper language in its own right.

Speaking of pseudo languages…

What are pseudo languages and how are they used?

Sometimes, fantasy and sci-fi tales feature a few words or a couple of translated phrases in a natural language. Perhaps more commonly, though, speculative stories feature pseudo languages, invented words, phrases, and pieces of a language that lack an identifiable grammar and clear rules for spelling. They are tidbits of language designed to embolize or remind readers of an actual, well-developed language. Klingon, for instance began as a pseudo language with only a few key words spoken in the earlier works.

Pseudo languages are common. Many sci-fi and fantasy authors have a need for inventing new terminology in order to describe processes, worldbuilding, objects, magic that doesn’t exist by any particular name in the everyday world. One of my former clients developed a pseudo language when they created names for various species and cities that don’t exist in our world. Another needed to name gods from subterranean realms and create demonic incantations.

Likewise, pseudo languages are often simple to make. They only require a string of letters to which the author ascribes meaning. You can create pseudo languages that are spoken in dialogue, used to describe objects in your manuscripts, or translated to characterize a culture.

Pseudo languages can be applied similarly to natural languages, but they can serve a vast array of purposes, including:

enhancing the believability of worlds,

creating metaphors and symbolism,

presenting motifs and themes,

They can also be used to establish vocabulary for actions and ideas that have no English equivalent.

Pseudo languages, however, are not complete languages. They do not demand any measure of consistency and as such tend to lack a clear etymology and grammar. For something with more unity and rules you’ll need to delve into the not-so-hidden universe of conlanging.

What are conlangs and how do they contribute to worldbuilding?

Conlangs, or constructed languages, are fully fleshed languages that are created by either a single person or group of people. They do not develop naturally over time and their rules are dictated by their creators.

Conlangs don’t just belong to worldbuilders and fandoms. Some conlangs are used in the everyday world. Coding languages, for example, could be considered conlangs. On a less technical level, Esperanto, an attempt at developing a universal auxiliary language, was one of the most successful conlangs to date. It was developed in the late 1800s, almost become a country’s official language, and is still spoken by an estimated 2 million people today.

Most conlangs, though, are meant for fictional worlds. Na’vi, the language spoken by the humanoid aliens in Avatar provides one clear example of this in popular media (Has anyone seen the new movie? It’s absolutely amazing!). Tolkien’s many languages, which served as the basis of his novels and their worldbuilding, present another example, perhaps the one most integral to the literary history of speculative fiction.

Language invention affords the creator numerous advantages. I asked the conlangers of reddit to describe some of the benefits of conlanging and they said that it:

helps the author develop other aspects of worldbuilding,

allows the audience increased insight into the world,

creates realism and cohesion in naming and cultures,

serves as a nonexplicit “shortcut for cultural and thematic messages”

They also noted that conlangers get the opportunity to explore linguistics and understand languages not native to them while belonging to active and supportive communities. Ultimately, though, the most common benefit they listed was that conlanging is fun. It’s an artform and an aspect of worldbuilding that can be just as interesting as designing maps, and cities, and cultures.

And constructed languages don’t have to adhere to the conventions of their human predecessors. You can develop languages for races and species with a different vocal anatomy, languages with no consonants, or dozens of precise grammatical rules. There are an infinite number of possibilities.

If you’re interested in conlanging I recommend checking out The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson. As the linguist in change of rendering George RR Martin’s languages for the TV series—and a historical member of the conlanging community—Peterson deftly explains the basics of creating your own languages as well as various parts of phonology, orthography, and etymology. His book also covers:

Alien Sound Systems

Intonation, Stress, and Tone

Grammatical Gender

Lexical Evolution

Evolving Modern Systems of Writing

And so much more!

If you’re looking for more specific resources and step-by-step guides, consider checking out this resources page from r/conlangs and this one from r/neography.

Conlangers have several global communities and if you’re interested there’s no reason you can’t be a part of them. These welcoming communities will help you grow and learn more about language creation. They can answer some of your questions and help you improve upon your language in the capacity you’d prefer.

If you like the idea of having a fleshed-out language for readers to discover and enjoy but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of inventing your own or aren’t interested in such an undertaking, consider enlisting the help of a professional conlanger.

Likewise, if conlanging isn’t the path for you that’s okay! Conlangs aren’t necessary for most stories and the ever-popular pseudo lang will likely meet the needs of your novel. Additionally, not every novel needs to have a written language of its own. You can always describe or translate other languages for the reader. In Persephone Station by Stina Leicht, a species communicates thoughts via scents and smells, which can’t be written in human language and are instead translated to the reader.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, you can use natural languages, pseudo languages, conlangs, or some combination of the three in your work. In science fiction and fantasy, languages can be used to:

develop new worlds,

enhance the believability of an existing world,

define the identity of a cultural group or organization,

serve as a plot device,

add depth and complexity to a world,

help readers understand characters’ thoughts and emotions,

explore theme and tone,

develop other aspects of worldbuilding,

help you grow as a writer, reader, and person

As worldbuilders, we have the literal world at our fingertips, there’s no reason we can’t be responsible for the creation of languages in addition to the development of cultures and topography. It all depends on what you’d like to explore within your novel.

I hope you found the examples and examinations of language usage in sci-fi and fantasy helpful. I’ll see you later this month for the next post. Have a wonderful worldbuilding Wednesday!

Your editor,
Breyonna Jordan, signed in a cursive-like font.

PS. How do you use language in your novel(s)? Are you interested in creating conlangs or pseudo languages for your work?

Title Image Credits

Credits for the languages used in the title posts will be in order of appearance, in the following format: “English by Who Knows”

Ŋ!odzäsä by u/PastTheStarryVoids

Dźäsiṣ by u/nexusdaplatypus

Misa Okan by u/EmbriageMan

Unitican by u/mistaknomore

Dee Noo (Furbish) by u/GuruJ_

Koro (Κωρω-παρυτυ) by u/CGGRed-001

Unnamed Language 2 by u/Automatic-Campaign-9

Zedion by u/Fueyo222

Gëŕrek by u/wynntari

Unnamed Language 1 by u/Automatic-Campaign-9

Tokétok (cursive) by u/impishDullahan

Khaskhin by u/Automatic-Campaign-9

Ménresda by u/TheHorrorProphet

To learn more about these languages, view romanizations, and examine the processes the conlangers used to translate “Worldbuilding with Languages,” visit this reddit post.

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