Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Guest Post by A.J. Abbiati

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Todd Travis talking about fear here:

You can read Patrick Balester talking about how he learned to love e-publishing here:

You can read Shantnu Tiwari talking about publishing cliches here:

You can read Mike Dennis talking about noir here:

You can read Douglas Dorow talking about the publishing game here:

You can read Iain Rob Wright's 10 self-publishing tips here:

You can read about Tracy Sharp talking about just doing it here:

Now here's today's guest poster, A.J. Abbiati...


I’d like to take this opportunity to share a nifty little writing tool I created a few years ago.

For those who don’t know me, I have a background in science. Twice now I’ve used that background to solve particularly gnawing artistic problems. The first time came at the start of my MFA program when I found out that, apparently, no university, no workshop, and no how-to book teaches writers how to actually write. Really? Yup. Sad but true. No one teaches a logical, step-by-step process for learning how to construct professional quality prose. As such, I had to figure it out for myself (using a scientific approach), and I wrote The NORTAV Method for Writers so I could teach the process to others (using a non-scientific approach). In fact, some very well-known, well-respected authors, authors who frequent this site, offered me their prose for use as examples in The NORTAV Method, and I want to thank them again for their generosity!

Anyway, the second time science bailed me out of an artistic problem, and the point of this post, came during the writing of my episodic novel Fell’s Hollow. Fell’s is a dark fantasy, and I needed to come up with three new languages to support certain aspects of the story. I didn’t want to make up fictitious words on the fly. That’s a rather hack way to go about it, in my view, and experienced readers will pick up on a shortcut in an instant. I also didn’t want to pull a Tolkien: I didn’t have ten years to build three new languages from the ground up. So I decided to do a little research into linguistics, and I ended up creating a tool that, in a matter of minutes, can define a “new language” from scratch. I call the tool “The Transliterator.”

You can download the Excel or PDF version of The Transliterator here. My gift to you.

In the span of this relatively short post I don’t have the luxury of walking you through The Transliterator in detail, with screen shots and explanations and all the associated theoretical background, etc., but I can give you an overview of how a transliteration works. If you download The Transliterator, you can follow along as I go, but it isn’t necessary to get the gist of the idea.

Basically, The Transliterator will help you transpose the phonetic sounds of an English word or sentence into a non-English representation, using a different set of consonants and vowels, thus recreating the English word in a “new language.” (This is not a letter-for-letter transposition from English to something else. That approach introduces WAY too many technical problems, which I won’t get into here.) For example, you could set up The Transliterator to map the English vowel sound “i as in fine, line, behind” to a new vowel representation aa. Thus, whenever you encounter the long vowel sound “i” in an English word, you represent it physically and phonetically as aa in the new language. The rest of the transliteration process simply involves tailoring the new language to taste.

Note: The Transliterator is not a computer program! It’s a reference sheet on which you mark down and save your transliteration choices for your new language. You then, by hand and by ear and by using the reference sheet, transliterate the words you need, as you need them.

Let’s say you’re writing a humorous thriller in which the hero must learn how to communicate with a newly resurrected cave man in order to solve a 30,000-year-old mystery. The cave man, we’ll call him Grunch, speaks his own strange, prehistoric language that will be quoted throughout the novel. (And of course you want Grunch’s language to look and act and sound as real as possible, which is why you use The Transliterator!) There are six steps required to set up The Transliterator. The seventh and final step is to actually perform an English-to-“Grunchian” transliteration.

STEP 1: Choose the Consonants and Vowels for the New Language

Here you need to choose what the new alphabet or script will be. That is, you need to choose the letters and letter combinations that will represent individual Grunchian phonetic sounds. Since you will probably want Grunchian to be a rough and guttural language, you might want to eliminate some of the softer or more pleasant-sounding letters, such as j and f and i, etc. Thus your new Grunchian consonant representations might be:

b, d, dd, g, gg, k, kk, p, pp, r, rr, s, ss, t, tt, v, w, z, gh, kh

And your new Grunchian vowel representations might be:

a, aa, o, u, uu

STEP 2: Map English Consonant Sounds to New Language Consonants

Next you want to map (i.e., assign) each individual phonetic consonant sound from the English language to one of your new Grunchian consonant representations. There are at least 24 individual consonant sounds in the English language, so you will end up with some Grunchian consonants representing more than one English phonetic sound. That is, the Grunchian gg could represent the English sounds “qu as in queen” and also “sh as in shut,” just like an English c can sound like a hard k or a soft s.

STEP 3: Map English Vowel Sounds to New Language Vowels

You can probably guess what happens here. Map each individual phonetic vowel sound from the English language to one of your new Grunchian vowel representations. There are at least 16 English vowel sounds, so again, Grunchian vowels will represent more than one English vowel sound. Hence, the Grunchian a could represent the English sounds “uh as in but, ocean, caution” and “oh as in boat, moat, home, comb.

STEP 4: Define New Language Consonant and Vowel Separators

Next you want to decide if Grunchian will be a language that can be pronounced by your readers. After transliterating, you often end up with new words that contain consecutive consonants or vowels that make the new words difficult, awkward, or impossible for English speakers to pronounce. This might be a desired effect (e.g., an alien language), or it might not be. If you want Grunchian to be pronounceable, you can define a standard “separator” vowel to be inserted between any pair of unpronounceable Grunchian consonants in your new words. You can define a standard “separator” consonant to be inserted between any unpronounceable Grunchian vowels as well. For example, if you transliterated the English word frat to the Grunchian dkkaz, you could use a standard consonant separator e to make the word more pronounceable, as in dekkaz.

STEP 5: Define a Syllable Split Value

After transliteration, words can sometimes grow in length due to adding multiple separators or changing a single English letter into a double letter representation in your new language. This may or may not have an impact on the style of language you’re trying to create. You probably want to keep your Grunchian words relatively short. You can do this by defining a “syllable split value” and then splitting into two any new word that has more syllables than that value. Simply count that many syllables into each new word and split it at that point if it’s longer. Thus if your split value is three, and your new word is ghakuukasoratad, you would end up with two new words after the split: ghakuuka and soratad. After splitting, if you still have words containing more syllables than the split value, you can repeat the process again and again.

STEP 6: Define Custom Start and End Values

Lastly, you now want to take a close look at the new language consonants and vowels you created in STEP 

1. After transliterating, separating, and splitting, any new word could theoretically start or end with any of these consonants or vowels. Most will not present a problem, but some might. If you do not want any of your new words to start or end with any particular consonant or vowel, define standard prefixes and suffixes to be used when these undesired consonants or vowels end up at the start or end of a new word. For example, if you do not want any new words to start with the consonant gg, you could define a prefix u to be tacked on the front of any words that do begin with gg after transliterating, separating, and splitting. Thus ggud would end up as uggud. Similarly, if you defined a suffix of d for any words ending in aa, the word rokkaa would become rokkaad. Note: This step can also be used to add even more flavor to your language by defining certain styles of prefixes or suffixes. For instance, adding Latin-like prefixes and suffixes to words will give your new language a magical or scientific feel.

STEP 7: Transliterate

When you finish STEPS 1-6, which shouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so, you are now ready to use The Transliterator whenever you need to create words or sentences in your new language. Transliteration consists of five phases (which you already understand if you’ve gotten this far). I will use our Grunchian example to illustrate the five phases below. (The complete Grunchian setup can be found in The Transliterator.)

I.                   Choose the English words or sentence to transliterate.
This is a wild transliterator!
II.                Use the mappings created in STEP 2 and STEP 3 to transliterate your English words or sentence into your new language, one phonetic sound at a time.
Wuk ukh aa guasgh zkkugkhsuzukkaazukk!
III.             If desired, use separators between any unpronounceable consonants or vowels.
Wuk ukh aa gunasegh zekkugekhesuzukkaazukk!
IV.             If desired, split any overlong words. Repeat if desired.
Wuk ukh aa gunasegh zekkugekh esuzukk aazukk!
V.                If desired, add custom prefixes or suffixes where needed.
Wuk ukh kaa gunasegh zekkugekh esuzukk kaazukk!

That’s all there is to it.

I hope you find The Transliterator as useful as I have. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at or If you’re interested in checking out the first episode of Fell’s Hollow, you can download it for free from my website here.

Joe, thanks so much for the opportunity to guest blog. Tess, I’m thrilled to have contributed to such a worthy cause!

And as Grunch might say…

Zu zu dukk gug

Joe sez: Thanks, AJ.

I haven't had the need to create a new language, but for many hardcore fantasy writers and readers, it can mean the difference between disappointment and immersion in an alternate world. 

Now some savvy programmer reading this needs to take The Transliterator and make it into a computer program, like Babelfish. I can easily see a whole segment of fans geeking out by translating English into something else, and back again, bringing a greater depth and new techy element to fantasy books. Why have a glossary when you can translate for yourself?

I admit that fantasy is one genre I never got into (after the ninth poem in The Hobbit I lost interest in Tolkien) but I also admit that there are plenty of worldwide fans who go nuts for it. In my Timescaster sci-fi series, I took the Burgess Nadsat approach (aka the Adams Watership Down approach) and made up words, acronyms, and portmanteaus to give the book a futuristic feel. But I never understood the lengths writers will go through to attain authenticity in a made-up universe until I read this post.

I have no doubt, AJ, that going to Comic-Con with this will gain you fans, and possibly even some cosplay action.

If anyone has experience creating new languages for their stories, I'd love to hear your comments, and what you think of The Transliterator.


Anonymous said...

Wow! That language creator is brilliant! Thank you very much.

Jason D. Morrow said...

This is amazing....

Jason D. Morrow said...

For my fantasy books, I would assign different consonants to another consonant, and do the same with vowels. I would then match them up based on the original word. So, say the letter B was assigned to R, E was assigned to A, and N was assigned to X, BEN would become RAX. Of course, I would use longer words, and just start making lists. The original might be BEN, but then you use RAX and do the same thing over and over until you find a word that sounds about right.

That's how I came up with the word land of Marenon, the creatures called sarians, Stuhocs, and Erellens. And much more of course. Then if it's not spelled axactly how you'd want, but you like the sound, you just change it to whatever you want. It was a lot of fun for me.

Alice M. Roelke said...

I once started making up a cat language for my fantasy story that was, I may as well admit, inspired heavily by Watership Down. But I've never finished it (yet?), so it hasn't seen the light of day. :)

Nancy Beck said...

Fascinating, as Mr. Spock might say. ;-) Though I haven't gone the high fantasy or epic fantasy route, I may one day (and I do write fantasy).

I remember a writer, whose name escapes me, was well known online for being conversant in Klingon, another invented language.

And a little trivia (fantasy nuts like me probably already know this, but what the hell): Tolkien's favorite real language? Spanish. I thought it would be Italian or French.

Nope. I can't tell you why he especially liked Spanish, but then again, I'm not a philologist nor do I play one on TV. :-)

Nancy Beck said...

Oofah, should have added a THANKS to A.J. for the language creator.

Carradee said...

When I needed languages for my made-up fantasy world, I first played with transliteration, but I didn't like the result. The sounds and grammar followed the same patterning as English, and I wanted them to differ.

I ended up using Holly Lisle's Create a Language Clinic, and I love it. It let me quickly create the core sounds and grammar for a few different conlangs, which has proved particularly useful as the series continues.

However, I'm also the kind of person who enjoys researching entymology and such, and I enjoy learning how other languages work. ^_^

Anonymous said...

Happy 4th everyone. Off topic but I am in the Amazon Overall Top 100 paid right now - and I sold 1500 copies in the past 24 hours.

When reaching that level at a time other than the dead heat of Summer, I required closer to 3000 copies in the same timeframe.

Just an idea of the summertime drop-off in readership for most authors. No surprise; the entertainment industry noticed this decades ago and stopped releasing new episodes of TV shows while also premiering fewer big ticket movies.

BUT, for us indies - NOW is the time to release/promote/sell; as one can more easily achieve some visibility.

Likewise; it seems to hit the USA Today Bestseller 150 list in the colder months requires 5-7k sales in a week; perhaps now that figure is cut in half? With a new release set for late July I will be back to document results.

Christopher Hopper said...

Great post. I suppose I'm one of "those geeks" that likes this sort of thing. Kudos, A.J.

Since I have a personal connection to the C.S. Lewis family, I think it was inevitable that my first trilogy followed the more immersive and exhausting route in creating a dialect. But unlike a complete formation of a written language (a la Tolkien), mine was originally an oral one that I then dictated. This seemed to suit my background as a musician: I wrote what I heard – what sounded good in my ear. It laborious, to be sure, and I would have enjoyed using A.J.'s tool.

The result, however, paid off, as my readers felt drawn in by the dialect; I still get emails that sign on and off with Dionian phrases. It's very endearing.


Josh Brown said...

I developed an ancient language from an extinct tribe that one of my characters rediscovered. She was naturally fluent, to her surprise.

-To start off, I made up words, but with a predetermined idea of how these people would talk (A Mexican, an Englishman, and a Frenchman will all speak differently. even saying the same word will sound different thanks to dialect). Words made up were all basic, which mostly included nouns and verbs related to this place. Making up words alone seems cheap, but adding dialect and purpose in the formula makes it seem unique.

-When two things had similar meanings, the words would also look similar (example: carpet, ground, floor, tile would have similar prefixes/suffixes). This shows pattern in the language, making the reader try to translate words for themselves subconsciously. Right or wrong, they will feel satisfied.

-Because this tribe is very old, I eliminated pronouns, conjunctions, etc, adding phonics to the words instead to imply these things, and creating ways to arrange the words without them. When the character translates (not transliterates) the language verbatim, the translation seems gritty and incomplete, as any rough translation would be. This makes the language feel authentic.

Those three things alone will make a reader interested in the language and not wonder if the writer just made crap up. I actually had numerous compliments on a language that's 40 some words big. However, With the work I've put into it, I can easily expand that, should she use this language again in the future.

There are more ways you can develop a language. The key is, don't just make up words. The more time and thought given to your language, the more readers will enjoy it.

Karen Bryson said...

Amazing! Thank you so much for the new language creation tool! I need it for a science fiction trilogy I'm working on.

Alan Spade said...

I've tried to make the consonance of my new words evocative of what I wanted to suggest in the mind of the reader. Names with more "v" and "en" for the windy people, with more k for the rock people, with more "an" or "ian" for the water people, and with more "y" for the fire people.

I tried to let my instinct and my sense of story guide me with the new words.

Colin M said...

Hi A.J.

Creating a new language seems like way to much work for me but I know a Fantasy writer who I will pass this on to. I did take a look at your writing book and picked up a copy. It looks great.


Nancy Beck said...

@Carradee, thanks for that link to Holly Lisle's clinic. I'll try A.J.'s method first (free is always good in my book :-)), but I'll know there's something else I can look at if that method doesn't work for me.

And I'll be picking up that writing book today (which is also available on Smashwords, if anyone is wondering).

ajabbiati said...

Thanks everyone who picked up the NORTAV Method....and to the 150 or so who grabbed The Transliterator.....enjoy!!!!