Fantasy research #4 – constructed languages


When I first set out to write my current project, I had an idea that involved at least one other culture. It was a key element that has always remained a part of my idea. Early on, I decided to focus on building the culture to make sure it was clearly foreign. Part of the reason for this is my terrible attempt at a sci-fi novel. One of the very many things wrong with that story is that it was from the perspective of an alien civilization, and it was not alien. There was no culture established and I hadn’t done enough to make them seem alien. When I started developing the story I have now, that stuck in my mind, so I set out to ensure that different people did have a different culture and voice. The starting point of this was, for me, language, as I have often heard that language defines a culture.

So, there it was, a starting point. To add to this, at around the same time my boss had suggested I read the Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein. I had tried it before, but gave it another go, and fell in love with it. This launched me into a lot of reading about elvish as a language (languages really), and also the various writing systems developed for it. So, in developing my own language system, I looked at Elvish and Klingon, and also looked into oddities and elements of other languages. Currently, I have two con-langs that I use for naming places and also to add a bit of flavor into the text, though sparingly. Now, I still don’t have the grammar all the way nailed down for either, but I’m closer with Lotath than Swaerem. After all, these were intended for developing phrases, and naming places. It wasn’t so much intended for translation, although I find that to be a fun exercise. I would point to a vast array of different sources for all of this information, but it was all collected some 3 computers ago, and I no longer have most of the source material. In any case, it’s not a journal article or anything, so citations are more of a nicety than a requirement.

That said, here are some things I learned along the way.

Language really should define your culture. So, if you are creating language for a foreign culture, it should contain words that are ideas relevant to that culture. These words shouldn’t necessarily be directly translatable to English. If you find that you don’t have any of these sorts of words, it might be best not to bother with the effort of constructing a language.

It is my firm believe that constructed languages for an English audience should be English readable, or damn close. There are several guidelines I’d place around this one, but to pick on one for the purpose of illustration, is the use of the glottal stop. Avoid it as much as you can. Don’t eliminate it, just reduce it’s use. This IS present in English, but rarely -uh-oh is the most common American English occurrence. If not done well, this adds nothing to the foreignness of the language and makes it somewhat confusing to read. Not only that, this is one of THE MOST common things included in fantasy and Sci-fi, and often rendered as an apostrophe rather than hyphen or en-dash. If you insist, use it sparingly and not in names. That said, there is precedent for this, so you can get away with it if you want. I am largely (not completely) avoiding it though. The Dragon Riders of Pern uses the glottal in names: F’lar.

Another thing to consider is that English is odd when it comes to how vowels are written vs. how they’re actually pronounced. Before you get started, do a LOT OF RESEARCH ON VOWELS. If you take nothing away from this blog post, take that with you. Please. Also, define the vowels your language uses ahead of time and mostly stick to them. It would be a good idea to keep to those vowels familiar to English. I settled on the following set for Lotath:

ä – pronounced as ‘ah’
ë – you will find this in the English word bet,
é – You see this in the word resumé, though phonetically the same as the a found in rate.
i – As in the word bit
í – as in the double e found in beet.
o – pronounced the same as the letter o.
ú – pronounced the same as the double o in too.
ai – as in the i in mine.
oi – exactly the same as the oi in oil.

There are others I use, but these are the main ones, and I decided on them almost before I started building the language.

After looking at the list of vowels I chose as the primaries, you will notice a few things. First off. There is no ‘uh’ sound, or the schwa ‘ǝ’. This is the most common English vowel, and it doesn’t have its own character. It’s often given the u, but any letter will suffice (banana is often pronounced with schwa, for example). I concluded that because I couldn’t represent it in a manner that would be intuitive, I’d just avoid it. Western American English also often gets squishy on the short e and short i sounds, and so in cases where I think this will happen, I employ diacritic marks. I also use the diacritic mark when there would be an English tendency to actually drop the vowel sound, as in the ‘er’ found in diaper. There is some debate on whether or not the ‘er’ actually drops the vowel, but I’m in the camp that it’s phonetically not present.

Other things that make it impossible to read? Well, for starters, unless you’re writing a screenplay (if you are, ignore all of this – talk to a linguist instead), don’t try to use inflection, tone, or emphasis for meaning (If you are a screen writer, you SHOULD do this, because it would be awesome). I had started my first language like this, using an underline to indicate emphasis, but concluded it was not intuitive and dropped it. I also started thinking about a third language using a tonal system, but again had to conclude the English alphabet had no mechanism for representing this so it would be a waste of time.

The next bit of obvious advice is to avoid impossible stacks of letters like xmeqrdreg or zhredrgt. These just aren’t worth putting to paper. Perhaps it’s not that bad, but if it has no sound in English, just don’t bother, you’re wasting your effort. Every time the reader sees this it’s another opportunity to pause with the possibly of breaking the suspension of disbelief. On the opposite side of the coin, there are English sounds that are hard to get at because we don’t have a good alphabetic representation, like the ‘th’ in this, versus the ‘th’ in thing. Old English used Þ and ð to make this difference clear, but we don’t have those any more. You could use th and dh (as the voiced version of th), it’s what I do for my second language, but really it’s better to just not go there.

Pronunciation aside, be consistent. Select a handful of consonants that are preferred. It will help you build words that give your language a consistent feel. Another way to facilitate this is to use word endings or prefixes with some meaning. For example, you could choose ‘mes’ as short-hand for the word for county in your language, thus you could end up with Velmes and Nallames for two county names. Feels a lot more natural than Velamin and Nelmark. Not that the second choice wouldn’t work, but the first example provides the consistency you often see in a language. I might use the second in a case where I wasn’t trying to build a language.

Languages also often have a variety of features like case endings and declensions. There really isn’t any advice I could give to say what to use or not for this except that you need to look at these things and make a decision as to whether or not your language includes them – it probably should include some of this sort of thing.

The final consideration I’ll bring to your attention is that you are going to inadvertently break the rules just by not paying attention. This is perfect. Languages change and they adopt words from other sources. Having oddities in your language adds some authenticity that is hard to manufacture otherwise. If you screw up. Keep it.

So, after that less than complete discussion, research language before trying to assemble a constructed language. It’s a lot harder than just slamming letters together.


Fantasy book research #3 – guns and gunpowder

First question, I suppose, is what the hell are guns doing in a sword and sorcery fantasy? In short – I’m writing this story and I get to choose. When most of us think about guns and gunpowder images of white smokeless powder come into our heads. This is the stuff that you’ll find inside of modern cartridges, let’s say a .22 round, for example. My story doesn’t involve this sort of thing, otherwise it would be a lot easier. For my purposes, I’m more interested in black powder, the sort of stuff you’d find on an old wooden tall ship, or in a revolutionary war musket.

This proved to be one of the more difficult things to easily dredge up. Largely because there are thousands (millions? possibly approaching trillions?) of blogs and forums on the interwebs about guns, and you have to wade through a lot of unhelpful junk in order to find anything useful. Even then, since guns and gunpowder are so dangerous, there’s not a lot of easy to find general information out there. Most folks offering advice have an interest in making sure you don’t accidentally blow yourself up. Let’s say we ask the question: What is the volume of a pound of black powder? The answer you’re likely to find time after time is: ‘it depends’. What about: How much powder is required to fire a cannon? Again, this can be a ‘it depends’ situation. As a hapless writer who really just needs to know what is reasonable and plausible, none of this ‘it depends’ crap is helpful. In the end, I did manage to locate enough detail to sketch out an island of ‘reasonable’ for my story, here are my notes on the topic:

Black gunpowder consists of roughly seventy-five parts of saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate KNO3) to twelve and one-half parts of sulfur, and twelve and one have parts of charcoal. Once upon a time, Saltpeter was extracted mostly from animal waste through various methods OR could be mined. Either way producing it was NOT cheap (

Powder kegs are considerably smaller than kegs to transport anything else. Most traditional oak barrels run anywhere between 160-300L (about 40 to about 80 Gallons), which take up a space of something like 28” in diameter and 35” tall. One source (I’d cite it here, but I didn’t write it down. I think it was associated with the US Civil War, or possibly the British navy. In any case, I couldn’t find it when I went looking.) describes a common powder keg as containing 25lbs of powder, which translates to a container roughly 10” in diameter by 14” tall. This makes sense, because it’s a very transportable size.

The consumption of powder for a cannon can be assumed to be 1/3rd the weight of the ball (Can’t locate the source for this again), for example, a 32 pounder would consume roughly 11lbs of powder per round ( If you scale this down for a musket (and I suspect it scales reasonably well), the amount of powder consumed per shot is negligible compared to the volume of a full powder keg, something on the order of 6-8 grams ( You could easily get 1500-1800 rounds out of a powder keg.

And finally, (only because it’s in my notes, and was actually important for my story) rust rate of cannons:

Basically, if you have a cannon sitting in open air next to the ocean for five hundred years, after a bit of cleaning, you could still probably fire it.

Anyhow, all of this looking around got me enough information to write the bits I needed to, and I think what I have seems plausible. Perhaps not perfectly accurate, but good enough.

Fantasy book research #2

The question of this research topic is: How far can a person walk in a day? The answer is always: it depends. Once again, this is the least helpful response for someone who just needs to know what’s a reasonable distance for a human being to travel. Now, this is a topic I researched some time ago, and is buried in my notes. Also, I’ve tacked in my own opinion on the matter by applying my various, albeit limited, hiking and hunting experiences.

Easy terrain – a road, or well worn trail, with gradual slopes or short stretches of steeper terrain. This would include game trails. A fit person over relatively easy terrain can travel about 30 miles in an 8-10 hour day. If well trained, and pushing it, a person could plausibly go 40-50 miles. Keep in mind that over the course of 10 hours, stops have to be made for food and bodily functions.

Moderately difficult terrain –  This would include some steep terrain in open forest with limited trails. Imagine a forest with lots of big mature trees, few thickets, some windfall trees mostly knee-deep grasses, bracken and similar foliage. A few creek fords might be thrown in there. My experience is that you could probably cover about 20 miles, pushing 30 in a full day. The terrain isn’t really that difficult, and the slow-down comes largely from navigating around obstacles, and being a little more careful with footing.

Hard terrain – This is where you have lots of steep bits, dense thickets of willow and alder (or similar depending on your climate). I’d say something like 10 miles per day would be reasonable. Part of this comes with elevation, you tire much faster when you climb, so you have to stop and rest more often. You may still cover a lot of ground, but you won’t make much actual distance across the landscape.

Painful terrain – Knee-deep (or deeper) fresh snow on reasonably flat ground, I bet you could make 10 miles, but it would hurt, and you couldn’t keep up the pace for long. On hard-packed snow, you might be able to make it closer to 20 or even 30 miles. The thing about walking through snow, even with snowshoes, is that it’s like walking with thirty pound weights on each leg.

Don’t ever do this terrain – Deep snow up the side of a mountain – A very fit person is going to make 600feet in an hour without having a heart attack. There will be a lot of switch backs, and slipping around on uncertain footing. In this case, it really does depend on how steep the mountain is. Bottom line is that over the course of a day you could make it up and over two or three 600 or 800 foot ridges, and the actual distance covered is going to be on the order of 3-5 miles or a lot less.

I’m not going to promise these are the best estimates ever, but this is generally what I think is reasonable for a fantasy book adventurer beating his or her way across some exotic landscape.