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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

World Building: Language and Communication

Welcome back to the series on World Building. Today we’re going to cover Language and Communication. I went back and forth a few times over whether I wanted to include the Conlanging piece. Eventually I decided to keep them separate. So if you’re really not interested in learning about conlangs, this will be the last installment in this series. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to do another one-off, but the next series is going to cover character development.

Language and Communication are often regarded as minor details in world building, but I find them to be rather essential. First we’ll cover the easy part, the Communication part.

On an interactive level, how do your people communicate? What is the role of body language versus spoken word? Do they have spoken language, or do they have telepathic abilities? Could there be some other method of communication, maybe by skin-to-skin contact? Something else? Can they communicate with animals or other lesser beings? What are the implications of this on society?

What are some forms of greeting and goodbye? How does a person know which one to use? What gestures may accompany these greetings to convey emotion or disposition? Are there any social rules that must be observed if a person is addressing someone inside or outside of his particular class? How did these rituals come to be? Why are they still observed? Do people accept them willingly, or is there call for change?

How are ideas conveyed to larger audiences? What can one expect from a speech or lecture? Is there much pomp and circumstance, flowery words, anecdotes, analogies, quotes from famous figures? Is everything short and to the point, blunt to the point of being painful? What if these expectations are not met?

How are ideas disseminated to the masses? Do couriers take news to every corner of the kingdom? Are there town criers? Have your people invented radios or televisions yet? Is there wireless communication, like the Internet? Do your people have cybernetic implants that let them receive information and commands simultaneously?

How is information imparted in an emergency? When a message needs to be delivered quickly, how is this done? Do messengers have to rely on the fastest horses? Is there an emergency broadcast system? How are orders given during battle? Are there flags and bugles to signal certain maneuvers? Radios? Something else? Are there backup systems in place in the event the flag bearer is killed or the radios brought down?

Do your people trust news that they cannot see for themselves? What is the role of propaganda in your society? What does information warfare look like, and are your people even aware of its existence? How do they determine who or what is trustworthy?

Is there any advertising to your people? Are there ads in magazines or commercials on TV? What methods do advertisers use in order to nudge people to buy a product or use a service? Color scheme? Famous figure endorsement? Ad placement based on age, race, religion, hobby, or other demographic factors that one would expect to buy a product or use a service? Is there an addictive factor at play?

How dependent are your people on outer communication? What happens if the town crier dies with no replacement, or a newspaper is no longer printed, or a wireless communication goes down? What happens after an hour? Six hours? A day? A week? A month? A year? Longer? What are the physical, social, and psychological ramifications? Would your people be devastated? Is it possible that they would be happy about it? What would be the risks and benefits of having broader communication taken away?

Next we’ll talk about Language. Your people have a great system in place to talk to each other, now let’s talk about what they say.

How does language develop? Often it has to do with a group of people needing to communicate needs or wants and getting other people to understand, refining this communication until everyone is on the same page. In the same way a baby will babble and gradually pick up sounds, slowly refining these sounds until his sounds match other people’s sounds and he can communicate his needs.

The thing is, different people groups have decided that different sounds mean different things. How does this happen? Typically it has to do with geography and society, as different people groups interact with each other, or become separated from each other. For example, one group speaks a particular language. As that group grows and smaller groups move off on their own, one group settles on one side of some mountains, and another group settles on the other side. Because of the difficulty of traversing the mountains, the groups rarely interact. Over a century or two, isolation drives the common language into two camps. They may be dialects that can be generally understood, or they could become distinct.

Societies that don’t have effective means of mass communication, and who may not have much contact with outsiders, are more likely to see linguistic divide, or, put another way, linguistic inbreeding, as generational slang forces an isolated language further and further away from its parent tongue.

All that being said, how is the language of your main people similar or different compared to surrounding people? Are they similar enough to be understood in common conversation? Do they have a few words and basic grammar in common, enough to make basic needs known? Are they so different that the only choice is to either learn or get an interpreter? What does each scenario say about the history of your people compared to their neighbors?

How do languages interact? How do your people decide which concepts to translate and which ones to assimilate? Why do some terms get bastardized? Why do English speakers call a burrito a burrito and not a meat wrap of deliciousness? How is it that most people can identify Italian dishes without knowing a word of Italian? What is the origin of the name Detroit (hint: it’s French)? Where does “long time no see” come from, and why is it used? How many places are named after Native American people, places, and languages, and no one knows it?

Why are places named what they are? What historical, political, or religious significance is attached to it? Is there a greater meaning behind the name?

Why are people called what they are? Why would someone be named after a plant or an animal? Why would someone be named a common adjective, like Strong or Fast? Where do family or other group or clan names come from? Why? What does this signify? What is the intent behind the name? Is there a difference between what your people call themselves in their language, and what other people with other languages call them?

What kind of slang is in use, and why? What determines whether something is “groovy,” “gnarly,” “tight,” or something else entirely, all basically meaning that it’s good and acceptable for the appropriate generation? Is slang limited to words that already exist, or is there a penchant for inventing brand new words, thus perhaps necessitating an urban dictionary? How often does new slang come into play? What can be inferred from a particular person or group who uses certain terms? What terms may be exclusive to certain people or groups?

What is the role of pejoratives and profanity? What makes a word or phrase inherently good or bad? Who decides that a certain, otherwise-nonsense word or gesture is tantamount to a threat? What social rules are in place regarding such things? Is it perfectly acceptable to go around telling people to go have sex with themselves? Does anyone bat an eye when someone refers to someone else as a female dog or a male horse or a transgender chicken? Or is the slightest criticism of character the equivalent of murder? Does anyone believe in the concept of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

What dead languages exist? How are they treated? What is their historical significance, and what is their impact on modern language? Even if it is considered historically dead, are there any modern speakers who have resurrected it? If it can’t be spoken, can it at least be read, or studied some other way?

What languages are in danger of extinction? Why? What is the significance of the language, and what will be lost by its death? Does anyone care? Are there any attempts to save the language? What do the last speakers think of this?

I think that covers Language and Communication fairly well. If you’re interested in the Conlanging video, that will be next up. Otherwise, thank you for joining me on this long road through World Building. I hope that you were able to use some of it to craft your world, give it a little more depth and flavor.

The next series is going to be on Character Development and Evolution. See you there.

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