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Does it make sense to (partially) create a conlang that you don't intend to actually use in the story?


The story that I'm currently working on is in a very far future. Clearly, people will speak a different language then.

Now, I wondered if it can make sense to (partially) create a conlang for the story even though I don't plan to write anything in that language in the final text.

I see two potential advantages of this: First, your language determines to a large part how you think. I guess writing dialogues in the conlang, and then translating into German (the language I'm writing in) might help with the authenticity of the dialogue because the source language character, even though not present any more, still should inform the translation.

Since such effects should be seen also for real languages, maybe someone has already experience (either positive or negative) with the difference between translated dialogue and dialogue directly written in the story language.

The second effect is related, but in a sense opposite: When creating a conlang, at least if you do it seriously, you are forced to consider aspects of the society that you might not think about otherwise.

To explain what I mean with this point, let me describe how the fact that I'm writing in German made me consider questions that I would probably never have considered if I had written in English.

German has two forms of “you”: A formal one (“Sie”) and an informal one (“du”). So when I was writing, I had to decide whether the people in my story should also use both forms. I decided to do so, and that forces me to make more decisions: How close do people have to be to each other in order to use “du” (in German, that changed over time, and it even is different in different social contexts). Also: Is it acceptable to use “du” when you believe that it is appropriate, or do people expect to be asked before being addressed with it? Or maybe you have to explicitly be offered the “du”?

Answering those questions forces me to consider aspects of the fictional society that I might have overlooked if I had written in English where the only way to address someone is “you”. I'd expect to encounter other such aspects when creating a conlang (disclaimer: I haven't done so yet, but watched a few videos on YouTube about conlang creation, and one major element was typically how the fictional culture affects the choices of the language).

On the other hand, creating a conlang is certainly a lot of work. Now some of the work can be omitted if the language is never actually shown (for example, I wouldn't need to give much thought about the sound inventory or the writing system). But maybe someone here has created a conlang for a story (probably in order to actually use it there) and can tell how much it informed the parts of the story not directly using the conlang.

So in summary: Does creating a conlang but not using it actually have the positive effects suggested above, and if so, are those effects large enough to justify the work that goes into creating it?

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4 answers


I think instead of creating the language, you can save a lot of time by just doing as you did in the question: Decide on features of the language that will make a psychological difference in the character's communications, how they think or feel.

You can read some tutorials on creating a conlang, but instead of creating one, borrow the features you want (two pronouns for "you", different pronouns for male and female, different forms of address based on class, etc).

Then decide on the psychological effects, which is all you are really after. Then adhere to that psychology for whatever you intend to write.

Language does influence psychology; I read a study years ago about two languages that used gendered language for nouns; i.e. inanimate objects were considered "male" or "female". But they differed in their gender assignment on some objects. So, for example, a bridge over a chasm was male in one language, and the native speakers asked to describe a bridge used male correlates: It was 'strong', 'sturdy', 'steady', etc. Words used much more often as admirable male attributes, than admirable female attributes.

In the other language bridges were female, and the native speakers asked to describe it used female correlates: It was 'graceful', 'beautiful', 'lovely', and so on. Words used much more often as admirable female attributes, than admirable male attributes.

What you are seeking in fiction (at pretty much all times) is conflict, so what you should be looking for in this exercise is the ability for one character (the writer) to cause the others cognitive dissonance, misunderstanding or confusion due to the way the language is used. That is the payoff, minor conflict and difficulty understanding what is written. It is not absolutely necessary, but these little forms of conflict, problems and misunderstandings, force readers to engage and wonder how they will be resolved, and they keep turning pages to find out why.



Does creating a conlang but not using it actually have the positive effects suggested…?


The obligatory Star Wars reference

The character Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back has a distinctive manner of speaking. He swaps the parts of his sentences around so the subject and verb come at the end. There were probably specific rules to his manner-of-speech, but nearly every person alive knows how to make fun of Yoda by saying the end of a sentence first so it sounds mockingly pseudo-profound.

Emphasis on "pseudo".

I've read this was originally done to show that he is thinking in another more formal language – that's a nice worldbuild-y excuse if it was supported by anything in the story. We never meet other "Yodas", we know nothing about Yoda's language, his home planet, his people or culture. That excuse is a ret-con lie. There is no worldbuilding there.

(No, the books are not canon, Star Wars is a pastiche of old movies and Hollywood trope subversions.)

Worldbuilding vs Narrative

Yoda the puppet is a wonderful subversion of a mentor character created at the peak of the Muppets "dark fantasy" phase. He works narratively because he is presented as one thing (a silly harmless creature who steals Luke's hotdog) before he is revealed to be the wise and powerful mentor.

It's exactly the sort of test that Luke would fail. Yoda is showing us that Luke doesn't have a heroic personality, he's too impatient to get back to adventure to realize the only other person on the planet is the mentor he's seeking. Yoda will tell us this too, repeatedly, which we all dismiss as Yoda being a jerk because words are meaningless if the story shows us something different. Luke blew up the Deathstar, he's already a hero, right?

Yoda is a clever narrative element, not in his worldbuilding and esoteric con-language which we never actually hear, but in the way he's introduced, and the dichotomy of his character design – he's not the mentor the audience expects either. We're just as unworthy as Luke.

Once Yoda turns and he starts speaking slowly and deliberately, the same errors in his speech change from pidgin to profound. He switches from "coolie" (hello, Jar-Jar Binks) to Kung Fu Master in an instant, and it works because Luke has seen the same movies we all have, so he recognizes the 2 (male) East Asian stereotypes that are allowed in whiteguy entitlement fantasies. Yoda is not actually "deep", he's a bait-and-switch.

That exact same mentor character – without the genius of Muppets and Lawrence Kasdan – is Qui-Gon Jinn, a whiteguy in a yellowface role with an exotica name who spouts mystic gobbledygook and drags down the pace by being boring AF. He has no character arc, his motives are non-sensical (as convenient), he isn't cool. He's just another racist trope plucked from the leftovers of bad Hollywood that George Lucas grew up on. He's a cliché ripped from Kung Fu movies, if not the specific character Kwai Chang Caine from the TV show Kung Fu.

Yoda becomes "cool" because he transforms from Jar-Jar Binks into Qui-Gon Jinn. Without that narrative plot twist we clearly see those same characters alone are embarrassing throwbacks from someone else's childhood. Yoda's transformation happens in the story, in front of our eyes, and in a way that surprises us and makes us empathetic to the protagonist. That's Narrative.

Stop worldbuilding and write the Story

Worldbuilding isn't writing, it's ego. It's self-flattery. It's a trap. Worldbuilding is a false sense that We are creating something deep – so deep that the readers won't even see but a tiny part of it – the tippy-top of the iceberg that peeks out of the deepest ocean.

No, that's not creation, it's masterbation. It's regurgitation of tropes and clichés, like ketchup on fishsticks. Like the Star Wars prequels. We are claiming that We are going to create something fantastically detailed and profound, but we're only going to show the reader a tiny hint of it. The reader will "fill in" with a lot of assumptions about Our world that are just as deep as We are. In otherwords We are going to give the reader nothing and they will do all the work imagining what's under the water, and recognize Us as a genius.

It doesn't work like that. A writer actually has to create something and then communicate it, word-for-word, page-by-page, to someone else. That's what writing is. All stories require the reader to fill in the blanks. All character descriptions are shorthand for the things your aren't saying. All readers use stock characters and simplistic tropes until we show them something else, something they didn't expect. Storytelling is not a new artform. The only way to convince a reader that our ideas are actually cool is through an interesting narrative. Story turns Jar-Jar and Qui-gon into Yoda.

We all love worldbuilding. For most of us it is a happy refuge where we get to suspend the mundane and float free in the potential of our imagination, but if it doesn't end up on the page it wasn't real and it wasn't writing. Yes, it's great to think and worldbuild, then step back from it to tell the story, but no this will not come across to the reader. Yoda is cool because the story makes him cool, but that "worldbuild-y" thing about the way Yoda speaks is the joke that everyone makes fun of.

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I would say it's acceptable, but only devote proper time and effort to creating aspects of the conlang that may be relevant to the story (how grammar has changed, any neologisms/single-word summaries of what would be multi-word concepts in current languages, et cetera.)

If a piece of the iceberg stands a chance of peeking through, then bother to create it. If not, it's probably best to save the effort.

This post was sourced from It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.



To me, the answer is more about you and your writing process than about constructed languages.

I am not constructing a language but I've done lots of worldbuilding that will never be visible to my readers. I feel more grounded having done it. And when I write new chapters, I never know which characters might pop up or where they are wandering. Knowing that I already have all that more or less set up gives me the confidence to allow my story the space it needs to grow.

Ask yourself, what answers are you hoping to hear? Think about how taking the time to do this will affect your work.

  • Will creating your language be fun for you? Or tedious?
  • Is working on your language a way to get into the mindset of your world? Or is it a form of procrastination?
  • Do you find it easier to write dialogue (or even narrative) knowing the constraints of your world? Or would you rather write as you please then create the structure of the setting (including language) after you know how it's come out?

In my case, I'd answer yes to the first question in every pair (with a dab of procrastination). But I don't know you or how you work.

If you go ahead and create the language, you'll probably find places to sneak it in here and there. It also might make for terrific supplemental materials after the book is published, either in appendices or on a blog. It won't be wasted time.


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