Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages

This past weekend I gave a presentation at InConJunction in Indianapolis, and one of the attendees requested that I make it available online later on. So let’s give it a go!

First of all:

What is a Conlang?

Conlang is short for “Constructed Language”, meaning any kind of artificially and intentionally created language. You’re probably familiar with them, considering that fiction is absolutely rife with them.


  • Dothraki from Game of Thrones
  • Klingon from Star Trek
  • Sindarin from Lord of the Rings
  • Newspeak from 1984 (This one’s interesting because it doesn’t introduce new writing systems or vocabulary so much as a new grammar, but it technically still qualifies)

There are also non-fictional conlangs, including Esperanto and Toki Pona, some made for easier communication across borders, and some made just for fun.

Some people, like JRR Tolkien and David J. Peterson, are able to construct languages on their own, with their own history and evolution and declensions.

If you’re anything like me, though, the thought of trying to make up an entire language by yourself is enough to make you do some declensions of your own.

So I cheat use resources that I found on the handy dandy internet.

Pre-Generated Conlangs

I use a browser-based program called Vulgar to generate conlangs for me. It’s available for free with a more robust paid version, but even the free version is more than enough for my needs.

In my case, I’m constructing an entire world, with multiple countries that have war and trade and immigration, and so I generate different languages to represent various linguistic groups from different regions.

After a while you can tell a Situian name apart from a Remishi one just by looking at it, because they sound different, the word length is different, they have a different distribution of consonants and vowels.

And I know that, because the site supplies me with a basic vocabulary list. And that’s where I get to have some fun.

Cultural etymology, or: the power of puns

It’s human nature that words reflect the way we think about our world, and so we can use a culture’s vocabulary to make inferences about their culture– even (especially) when that culture doesn’t yet exist.

Drawing from the real world, look at the Latin words dexter (right-handed) and sinister (left-handed). Thanks to our cultural baggage associated with left-handedness, those words have since been adapted to be associated with intelligence and agility (poindexter, dexterity) and wickedness, respectively.

The reverse is also true, where concepts that might otherwise not have been linked become linked because the word sounds similar. Consider that “Shi”, the Japanese word for 4 (四) shares pronunciation with the word for death (死), which makes 4 an unlucky number in Japan (and indeed, in a lot of East Asia), to the point where many buildings don’t have a fourth floor, certain objects are considered inappropriate as gifts, and certain rooms are avoided in hospitals.

By picking out similar words from a pre-generated vocabulary list, I can reverse-engineer that process to create little quirks within a fictional culture.

Some examples from a culture we made up together at the convention:

  • Aeza can mean either “miniature” or “dead”. In the presentation, we decided that people of this culture commemorate their deceased loved ones by making tiny figures of them and keeping them in home shrines
  • Beto means both “sudden” and “receive”– from this we determined that they live in an arid region where bounty tends to follow abrupt rainstorms
  • Bewu can mean either “bracelet” or “peasant”, suggesting that the adornment is a marker of one’s class
  • Daso means both “stalk” and “paralyze”, suggesting that a major predator in this culture’s world is stuns its prey through some kind of poison.
  • Denu‘s meanings include “rose”, “harmony”, and “accountant”, which led to a talk on the importance of accountants and accurate bookkeeping in this culture, with the added note that the accountant’s guild has used a rose as its symbol for so long that the flower became synonymous with the practice

We played that little game for less than an hour, but over the course of it we created an intricate and detailed culture almost entirely from scratch.

Next week we’ll play some more with ways you can use vocabulary lists for worldbuilding.




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