Important Words

Image result for words in snowWhen creating a language of your own, it’s not necessary to translate every word in a dictionary, nor is it helpful. Remember, your character will mostly still converse in English [or at least in English translated text]. With just a small glossary of a few of the words that are the most important to your culture, you can create a lot of voice without losing readers.

For example, many people know that Eskimos have dozens of words related to snow and ice, as do the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia. Would you expect anything less from the people whose whole existence is snow and ice? No doubt Londoners have many terms/expressions for fog, Washingtonians for rain, and Wyomingians [is there a name for them?] for wind. Why? Because in each of these areas, these are the most prominent–and high frequency–weather phenomena.

Conversely, it’s unlikely that native Nigerian or Sudanese people groups have even one word for snow. But I bet they have countless terms pertaining to dust storms!

Besides weather, many other things could be a prominent linguistic focus for a people group, including: food, flora, fauna, religion, astronomy, clothing and accessories, social structure, etc.

Try listing the top ten most important nouns in your created culture, then have fun creating the words/expressions to communicate these.

Avoiding Dictionese

Image result for walking dictionaryNot every word in English can be translated to an equal word in another language. Students often struggle learning new languages for this reason. Because they would like to use a dictionary to substitute French or Spanish [et al] words into an English sentence. The result is, what I term, dictionese.

The English speaker feels that they’ve communicated well because every English word has been turned into a target language word and in the exact same word order that any good English speaker would use. But an actual French or Spanish speaker may have trouble deciphering true meaning.

Consider this phenomena if you decide to create a language for your character. Avoiding a dictionese approach to language creation will authenticate your end result.

The French, for example, have the verb ausculter. The English translation would be something like to listen/examine with a stethoscope…basically the definition because we don’t have a succinct word equivalence. If a French speaker tried to force a dictionary one-to-one, they would end up saying, “The doctor stethoscoped me!” [Sounds gruesome.]

Trick-or-treating, an American cultural activity, also requires a lengthy definition translation to be able to say it in many other languages.

How about the language that you’re creating? Are there phrases that just aren’t said the same way as we would communicate them in English? Words that we don’t have an equivalent for? These could lend a very authentic diversity in voice whether you’re incorporating the actual new language word/phrase, or the English translation thereof.

So start a glossary and grammar primer, and have fun with turning bilingual phrases.

Notable Book Voice: The Goose Girl

Image result for goose girlAuthor Shannon Hale does a masterful job creating languages for her Books of Bayern series. THE GOOSE GIRL introduces both animal tongues and the ability to communicate with inert forces of nature. However, Hale records not the words of the languages themselves in her narratives, but the English translated versions and the overall sense of communicating in these others tongues.

One of my favorite linguistic passages in THE GOOSE GRIL includes owl language. Hale describes Isi’s challenge to try to communicate, because owl is similar in some ways to her knowledge of swan but differing on some key vocabulary. Isi then needs to circumlocute–or talk around an unknown word by using the words she does know to try to get the basic idea across.

On another instance, Isi compares the dialects of swan and goose much like if she were comparing Spanish and Portuguese. The effect is utterly charming and wholly believable.

THE GOOSE GIRL by Shannon Hale is an incredible mentor text for the author who wants to give the sense of other languages without actually creating the new vocabulary and grammar structure to write in that new language.

Workhorse Words

Image result for workhorse + imageVerbs are the workhorses of any language. Without verbs, action as we know it is impossible. So naturally, when creating a language, we want to lay the foundation of active voice by creating verbs.

Most modern languages conjugate verbs by changing the endings. In English, for example, we say:


  • I see                 We see
  • You see            You [guys/y’all] see
  • He sees            They see
  • She sees
  • It sees

So, at least in regular verbs, only the third person singular forms [he, she, it] change the ending of the verb.

In the Romance languages–French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian & Spanish–the last two letters of regular verbs are dropped and replaced with a new ending. In Spanish, each of these endings is vocalized, whereas in French many either sound the same or are silent.

  • Spanish                                                                    French
  • Veo                    Vemos                                           Je vois                  Nous voyons
  • Ves                    Veis                                                 Tu vois                Vous voyez
  • Ve                      Ven                                                  Il voit                  Ils voient
  •                                                                                     Elle voit              Elles voient
  •                                                                                     On voit

Norwegian is the only language that I’m familiar with that all my students wish they could study because the endings change by tense rather than subject.

  • Jeg ser              Vi ser
  • Du ser               Dere ser
  • Han ser             De ser
  • Hun ser

Overall, modern verb ending changes can be taken as a reliable pattern for language creation to ensure that you’re not just typing babble on the page, but that your new language will be cohesive and even comprehensible to its non-speaking reader.

For example: Let’s say that you want to choose the word occulus to mean to see. Following an English pattern, you would need two forms–occulus and a third-person singular form occulun. For a Romance language type you would need 6 distinct endings:

  • occulus
  • occulio                 occulsom
  • occulito               occulsechay
  • occulun               occulairon

And for a Norwegian type verb, you would simply need a form for each tense:

  • present: occulus
  • past: occulato
  • future: occularia

A few other considerations–the Romance language are each made up of three main verb types. Each type has a different letter combination ending on the infinitive form and uses a unique set of endings for each infinitive type in each tense. Consider this as a way to lend both variety and authenticity to your created language.

Also, verbs don’t stand alone, so you will need to create a set of subject pronouns for your language as well [I, you, he/she/it, we, you all and they].

And using familiar roots in a new way will help a reader to connect intended meaning to an otherwise nonexistent language.

Other than that, have fun and enjoy what you create!

Create-a-Language Primer

Image result for languagesAs a general rule, you’re going to write your picture books and novels in English [or the target language of your home country] and occasionally you will need/want to throw in some foreign language to root character development in multiculturalism. However, there are also times where it is not only fitting, but necessary to create a new language for your character.

So how do you start creating a brand new language? There are many possibilities, but here a few suggestions distilled from modern world languages:

  1. Parts of speech: All languages have them, because all languages identify nouns, take action in verbs, describe nouns with adjectives and verbs with adverbs, and give position with prepositions. We all need to express the same things, so it is no wonder that every language contains these basic parts of speech. Your created language probably should too.
  2. Root words: Again, all languages have families of words–some that span noun, verb, adjective and adverb forms–that are related through the root of the word. This is a simple way to create many words from one easily recognizable root of your choosing.
  3. Affixes: By adding beginnings and endings to root words, languages create variation on meaning. Again, choose a few easily recognizable affixes to repeatedly reuse in your created-language so that readers don’t actually have to learn a whole new language to be able to read and understand [and enjoy] the voice you have created.
  4. Syntax: Language distinctions–if all of them were translated word for word into the same language–would become most obvious at the word order level. Romance languages flip adjective-noun word order on English speakers, while other languages always put their verbs as the last thing in the sentence. Some Native American languages don’t even create sentences, just really long strings of affixed word segments in a grammatically ordered word.

Keep reading this month for more insights into languages and examples on how to use them to create-a-language for your character.

Notable Book Voice: The Lightning Queen

Image result for the lightning queenThe love of friendship is a powerful motivator in children’s literature, and no friendship has resounded so strongly with me as that of Teo and Esma on the Hill of Dust.

Here two marginalized cultures collide in a chin-jutting, yell-healing, grandparent-abetting unlikely friendship that spans a lifetime and two continents. A friendship that mends broken hearts, despite the family members who refuse to heal. A friendship that defies cultural boundaries and societal exclusions. A friendship that roots itself deep in the heart of both characters and readers, wanting to become more, but remaining steadfast out of genuine love.

Laura Resau’s The Lightning Queen is an amazing mentor text for so many things…language, dialect, multiculturalism, physical diversity, friendship, love, loss…It possesses, in every way, a beautifully wonderful voice.

Mon Petit Chou

Image result for cabbage personified(Title translation: My little cabbage!) French terms of endearment feature one of the notable loves of France–food!

However France does not love food the way that Americans do [i.e. sweetie pie or honeybun]. They are gourmand, which  means that they enjoy eating food worth eating–in quantities that won’t last forever on the hips after their moment on the lips.

Perhaps that is why they can lavish food love on those nearest and dearest to them, ma petite carotte.

It’s a simple thought, but when creating voice, why not think French? Use food names as terms of endearment to express a character’s love. Or, exploit the object of the character’s affection [i.e. videogames, or horseback riding] and mine these activities for terms that could be used to tell someone how they really feel.

Notable Book Voice: One Came Home

Image result for one came home + imageAmy Timberlake’s One Came Home is one of my all time favorite book voices. Boldly darling Georgie’s story captures a spectrum of loves appropriate for middle grade readers. From the quest to find the truth of her sister’s demise, to the palpable bond with her grandfather and the strength of her mother’s hug in the end, family love runs deep. But Timberlake sets all this against Georgie’s developing observation and understanding of the possibility of romantic love around her–first her sister’s and then maybe even her own precious heart beginning to fall for the first time.

Georgie’s voice and character strength is full of heart, her story a sampler in love. One Came Home serves as an excellent mentor text to challenge any writer considering the multi-dimensional truth of love in their character’s lives.

For the Love of Motivation

Image result for St. Valentine + imageIn honor of Valentinus–the Patron Saint of Valentine’s Day–it seems only proper to examine motivations of the heart today. While there are many slightly different takes on what the true story behind the man sainted on February 14 may be, one thing remains, he was sainted. And to be sainted is to die for one’s faith–martyrdom–amongst other things.

Why would anyone die for something unless they believed it and loved it with all their heart?

Each of the varying accounts holds that Valentinus [his true Latin name] was executed for trying to convert Emperor Claudius [Gothicus] in the mid-to-late 200’s. He may or may not have secretly married Christian couples who were being persecuted by the Roman government [and therefore unable to marry publicly]. So the fact that his Saint Day connotes romantic love today is believed to have little to do with his actual life.

However, true love–whether for faith or friend or family or marriage–is truly love because of the motivation of the heart. And motivation is key to developing character. How love is expressed may outwardly depend on the culture. But inwardly, what motivates love is one of those universal needs that transcends culture.

In each culture we write from, people long to be loved–at least at some point in their lives they do or did. Perhaps they’re now jaded. Perhaps they’ve lost their one true love and are satisfied to wait out eternity to be with them again. Perhaps they enjoy familial love, or have never really known it but want to. Perhaps they mistake physical passions for the choice of lifelong love.

Whichever circumstance our characters find themselves in, we must probe the motivations of their love lives. Who do they love? In what way? Why? Or why not? The love motivation question list should go deep, and outwardly, our culture investigation should go deeper still, getting to the heart of character.

Paris or Passion?

Image result for gypsy dancerThe City of Love? Paris.

The Culture of Passion? Latino.

Cliché? Maybe. But even clichés are rooted in some perspective of the truth.

Though Paris has been consistently occupied for over 2,000 years, its reputation as The City of Love is much younger…maybe as young as 100-150 years at most. Consider why it has been so named in recent history? The cafes, the river walk along the Seine, and other sights submerged in the sounds of the beautiful French language.

Why honey, it’s the perfect place for a honeymoon! But even honeymoons of this sort are a more recent cultural development, starting in England and migrating through the rest of western Europe in the early 1800’s. Affluent people had money and time to burn with lavish trips. The average westerner though–and the rest of the world–didn’t adopt the practice of honeymooning until much later. And there are probably cultures where honeymoons still haven’t caught on–remember, it’s a time and money thing.

So where does the Latino passion come from? The word passion comes from the Latin root meaning to suffer or endure. But today it connotes a sense of energized adoration. And I believe that suffering/enduring creates that energized adoration response.

Historically, the Moors of North Africa occupied Spain beginning in 711AD. I’ll never forget my high school Spanish teacher sharing about a time when she saw a Moorish gypsy woman passionately dancing barefoot on a wooden chopping block in a kitchen. The dancer stomped and clapped and moved so much like–like a Flamenco dancer. It seemed obvious to my teacher where the roots of the passionate Spanish Flamenco dance came from–a nomadic people group that suffered and endured much in its history.

Obviously, Spanish and Hispanic history is too wide and deep to trace all of it into the single stem of passion, but it is worth keeping in mind as you study Spaniards coming to the New World, intermarrying with Native Americans, and their biracial-descendants later fighting for freedom from their own European parentage.

It’s no coincidence that people often identify both Paris and Latino passion as ideals for love stories or blooming romances. However, it may behoove our young reader generations to paint the historical backstory for two romantic ideals that often fall prey to cliché.