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.

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The power of taboo

Worldbuilding is essential to sci-fi and fantasy. Even if your story takes place in modern New York City with some vampires, you still need to build the “world” of those vampires– their culture, their history, their biology, their strengths and weaknesses, their mindsets, and so forth.

One way to add flavor to a new culture is to address their unspoken rules and taboos.

The alien world of the late Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth is full of rules and taboos: one of the biggest is that no one ever removes his or her mask in front of another person, and no other person will ever remove your mask. Things are thrown into chaos when a stranger comes to down and starts stealing people’s identities– but the taboo is so strong that nobody is willing to take off their mask, even in the name of catching a killer.

Apart from being a great read, The Moon Moth also gives us the meaning behind this particular taboo:

Masks are worn at all times, in accordance with the philosophy that a man should not be compelled to use a similitude foisted upon him by factors beyond his control; that he should be at liberty to choose that semblance most consonant with his [position in society]. In the civilized areas of Sirene… a man literally never shows his face; it is his basic secret. 

Though we don’t necessarily need to know the specific story behind every custom and taboo in your world, it’s important that as the writer know the reason, and it needs to make sense within the context of your world.

Going back to the taboo of naked men, we don’t exactly know where it came from, but it could stem from questions of objectification of women, historical representation of beauty in art, and paranoid defense of one’s own sexuality. And more importantly, all of those things interact with each other over the course of history.

A challenge for writers:

Try to come up with some taboos for your story.

Maybe it’s a taboo about food, like not being able to eat with your left hand. Maybe it’s a taboo about who can work with whom, or what you can and can’t do on what days. Maybe it’s a taboo about sex (and for the love of creativity, don’t just make it about which gender can have sex with which– that’s been done to death).

Now write a quick scene in this world where the taboo is relevant.

The trick: don’t ever mention what it is. See how the characters naturally steer around it. There’s no need to explain this thing, because everybody already knows, and nobody would dream of violating it.

And tell us about what you came up with in the comments!

Changing the background

If you look at the majority of non-modern fantasy, be it medieval, pseudo-victorian, what have you, you’ll notice a pattern: everybody’s white and straight. If genderqueer or homosexuality is brought up, it’s with a heaping helping of homophobia and transphobia; if people of color are included, you can expect to see racism that would make the KKK hang their hoods in shame. And if a woman has a “non-traditional” role, it’s because she’s a spunky, norms-defying rebel.

Guys, it’s getting old.

“But we’re just being historically accurate!” you may say.

Historically accurate for some times and places, sure. But remember, there are plenty of other houses to rob.

Yesterday I talked about borrowing story elements from more than the few overtapped sources that have donated to most of our mainstream media. But when I say we should look at other cultures and sources, I wasn’t just talking about mythological animals and pantheons.

From the Library of Congress: TITLE: Thos. W. ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spectrum in

William Shakespeare gave us what I consider a compelling Primary Source Document on the presence of POCs in European society when he wrote Othello.

The movie Arabian Nights did a great job of portraying the way international interaction happened in a lot of the ancient world: we have an African wizard venturing out to China to make deals with Aladdin; we have Englishmen and Chinese men and locals alike living within a few blocks of one another in a bustling metropolis.

And that’s the thing– any major urban area is going to attract people from all over the world, especially traders selling rare exotic goods to the social elites. Often enough those traders will be foreign themselves, or have non-locals in their caravan/on their ship/etc. Unless there’s some major isolationist movement going on, there should be a healthy population of out-of-towners.

Homophobia is so 1950…

Keep in mind that

  • Gay male relationships were considered the purest form of love in ancient Greece, and Plato believed that only barbarians would condemn such a love
  • Historical records suggest that bisexuality was considered the norm in China before the Tang Dynasty
  • In New Guinea it’s believed that sharing semen through male/male sex promoted growth, while excessive heterosexual sex led to “decay and death”
  • Several cultures have a third gender (or more than that!)
  • There are entire websites dedicated to this sort of thing. I recommend you check them out.

Women wearing the pants

Several cultures are matrilinial in their leadership and inheritance. Even among cultures that weren’t, women were often encouraged to know how to fight.

Keep in mind that females have held pretty much every conceivable male role. History is full of powerful female rulers, such as Hatsheput of Egypt, Empress Wu Zeitian of China, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Hell, the world’s first novel was written by a woman (The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu of Japan). There are plenty of websites to explore on that topic as well.