Imagine you are some deity about to create a new universe from scratch, including all of its stars and planets, mountains and oceans, plants and animals. You’ll probably start with a handful of subatomic particles, a sprinkling of energy, and give it all a good mix together. If, as is more likely, you are a writer trying to build a new universe on your typewriter your building blocks are going to be different. To create a new Star Wars galaxy, or the desert planet of Arrakis, or the island of Westeros, you’re going to need new words – and more than just a few of them…
2015 is quite a year for science fiction fans. This December will see the release of the seventh chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time – and potentially the most lucrative. 2015 also marks the 60th anniversary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. Set millennia into our own “future”, Dune tells the tale of a young nobleman who enlists the powers of a strange desert people to avenge the death of his father.
Arguably, George Lucas’ Star Wars borrows more than just a desert setting from Herbert’s 1960s classic. One thing that the two sagas certainly have in common is an abundance of fantastic and exotic words. From Herbert, for example, we have “Paul Atreides”, “Vladimir Harkonnen”, “stillsuits” and “sandworms”. From Lucas and his colleagues, we have “Luke Skywalker”, “Darth Vader”, “lightsabers” and “ewoks”.
But just how did Frank Herbert and George Lucas come up with these wonderful new words?
Lucas and Herbert – just like George R. R Martin – might not be trained linguists. But, in naming the alien things and novel concepts that populate their fantasy worlds, they both demonstrate high levels of sophistication in lexicogenesis – the term linguist Gary Miller uses to describe the processes which give rise to new words. And, as it turns out, they rely on the very same processes of word creation that linguists have identified on our own planet – the very same mechanisms that all of us can use, and which keep English topped up with everyday neologisms like “manspreading”, “contactless” and “binge-watch”.
So, in celebration of a bumper year for science fiction, here are the ten main ways that budding science fiction writers, like Frank Herbert and George Lucas, can create new words for new worlds.
- Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)
Of course, new fantasy worlds need to have some commonalities with our own universe or otherwise we’d struggle to connect with them on any sort of level. It’s no surprise that both Dune and Star Wars feature humans (or humanoids at least) – as well as planets, stars, deserts, food, drink, gravity, love, hate, and so on. It’s trivial to say that, for most of these, there’s no need for a new word. It suffices to use the relevant linguistic label (the common noun), like “planet” or “star”, that already exists in English – or whatever language the writer is working in.
But where the word and concept doesn’t exist in English, there’s also the possibility of borrowing common nouns, and the relevant concepts they represent, from other languages too. Herbert does this masterfully in Dune, borrowing heavily from Arabic (“Butlerian jihad”, “erg”, “Mahdi”) and Persian, as well as Turkish, Latin and French. In Dune, the title for the ruler of the galaxy (the “Padishah” Emperor), for example, comes directly from Persian.
In borrowing these words and concepts, Herbert gives us a flavour of “Galach”, the “official language of the Imperium” and the native tongue of Dune’s central characters. In the same way that the English of North America mixes British English together with words and concepts from Spanish, French, and various indigenous languages, Herbert’s fictional language is “hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialisation terms adopted during the long chain of human migration”. Lucas too, is not afraid of a bit of borrowing either. The word “stormtrooper” (the English translation of “Stosstrupp”), for example, comes from Nazi Germany.
- Borrow proper names
In any science fiction universe, people and places need naming too. Proper names can be taken from a variety of source languages, and not just English. Herbert, for example, borrows many first names and family names directly from English (“Jessica”, “Duncan”) as well as Russian (“Vladimir”), Finnish (“Harkonnen”), Chinese (“Yueh”), and ancient Greek (“Leto”). Lucas also derives characters’ names from a variety of sources, including a Moghul emperor (“Admiral Ackbar”) and a 1960s TV character (“Han Solo”). Despite the linguistic diversity, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that the central characters of both Dune and Star Wars still have first names (“Paul” and “Luke”) that are less than alien to English speakers.
Proper names can also be borrowed to name other things too, such as places. Dune’s “Giedi Prime”, for example, is derived from the name of a star in the Capricornus Constellation. Luke Skywalker’s home planet “Tatooine” takes its name from a city in Tunisia.
And, as is the case on our own planet, you can use place names as surnames (Dune’s “Duncan Idaho” or Star Wars’ “Wedge Antilles”), or surnames as first names (“Anakin”, for example, comes from the surname of a British film director). And, likewise, if you want to give familiar names and labels just a whiff of the exotic, you can use an unusual spelling but keep the sound or pronunciation the same. One of Herbert’s minor characters, for example, is called “Piter”. This is something that George R. R. Martin does to even greater effect in A Game of Thrones (think “Robb Stark”, “Jaime Lannister”, “Joffrey” and “Ser Jorah”).
- Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things
Related to the first two, you can also take existing linguistic labels, from English or otherwise, and apply them to new – seemingly unrelated – concepts or things. In Star Wars, the proper names of characters “Wedge” and “Wicket” are everyday common nouns (the latter being everyday, at least, if you are a fan of cricket). In Dune, Arrakis’ all important spice “melange” borrows its label from the French for “mixture”. The drug “verite”, for example, looks like the French word for “truth”.
- Extend the meaning of existing words
In fantasy fiction, it’s not always clear whether there is supposed to be a semantic link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the linguistic label from our own planet and the concept, person or thing it is used to represent – even if you can’t stop yourself as a reader from mentally trying to find one. For example, it’s not clear whether the Dune spice is supposed to be a mixture of various substances, or whether “verite” – a bit like ten pints of lager – is more likely to make you tell the truth.
However, what is certain is that another very good way of naming new concepts and things is to simply take an existing word, and extend its meaning. Herbert, for example, uses this process of semantic extension to come up the word “shield” (some kind of electromagnetic defensive barrier) and “carryall” (a flying vehicle for transporting spice). Famously, Lucas extends the common meaning of “force” to describe the invisible “energy field created by all living things” that gives a Jedi their power.
- Extend the function of existing words
Related to this, another way to create new words is the process of conversion – that is, taking an existing word and changing its grammatical function. Verbing, the process of creating a verb from another part of speech, is a very common example of conversion in English (think “to email” and “to text”). Herbert does it, for example, with “weirding room”, creating a verb from the adjective “weird”.
- Play with a word’s component sounds
One simple mechanism for creating new words is to take old ones and make small changes to their pronunciation. For example, one of the major cities on Herbert’s Dune planet is “Carthag”, which can be arrived at by changing a phoneme (vowel or consonant) or two of “Carthage” (“Qartaj” in Arabic) – the ancient Tunisian city. Apparently, for Star Wars, Lucas derived the name “Chewbacca” from “sobaka” the Russian word for dog. Interestingly, these sorts of phonological changes often mirror the changes that happen to words on our planet, as languages evolve, or as they are borrowed from one language into another.
- Build new words from parts of old ones
In any language – certainly in any Earth language – words are built up from smaller chunks of meaning, called morphemes (themselves built up from phonemes). As a result, new words can be formed by chopping bits off existing words, or by adding adding other bits to them.
In Dune, for example, Herbert creates a name for the galaxy’s currency “Solari” by taking the word “solar” and adding “-i”, which looks suspiciously like the Arabic suffix used to describe people from a particular region (think “Iraqi” or “Pakistani”). He also derives the name of the prevalent language, “Galach”, by chopping the end of the word “galaxy”, in a process which linguists call back-formation. Similarly in Star Wars, to create the gangster “Greedo”, Lucas takes an adjective befitting the character’s penchant for money and adds the suffix “-o”, an English device for creating faux Italian or Spanish names (like “el stinko”).
- Combine words in new ways
Perhaps the most common – and most fundamental – way of creating new words is to simply combine old ones together. Both Herbert and Lucas rely heavily on compound nouns, which forge together two or more words – and the concepts which underpin them – to create entirely new ones. In Dune, for example, there are “stillsuits”, “groundcars”, “sandworms” and “battle language”. In Star Wars, famously, there are “star destroyers”, “lightsabers” and “the Death Star”.
On Earth as on more distant planets, wherever compound nouns get too long, especially when describing machines or organisations, it’s not uncommon to substitute them for a suitable acronym. On Arrakis, for example, the “Field CP” is a “command post”. In Star Wars, “ATAT” is an “All Terrain Armoured Transport”.
- Use any combination of the above
Of course, if you want to be really creative, you can use pretty much any combination of the processes above. Herbert, in particular, isn’t afraid to mix and match. He forms “lasgun” and “repkit”, for example, by contracting the compounds “laser gun” and “repair kit” to form what linguists call portmanteau words or blends. “CHOAM”, a powerful intra-galactic trading company, stands for “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles”, where “Honnete” and “Ober” are borrowed from French and Old German, respectively.
- Create a new word from scratch
Finally, if all else fails, you can simply create a new word from scratch – that is, from some arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. When you do so, you need to make a decision whether the new word you create will fit into the sound system of English – that is, the set of rules which govern which phonemes, and which combination of phonemes, are allowed in English – or whether it will fit into some other, possibly alien, language. For example, while “Han” and “Hoth” are entirely plausible words in English, “pchagavas” and “hrobas” in Herbert’s invented “Chakobsa” language, are definitely not.
It’s actually pretty difficult to invent a new word that doesn’t share at least some similarities with existing ones. But short of asking Frank Herbert or George Lucas directly, it’s really quite difficult to tell if a word is an entirely arbitrary invention, or whether similarities with other words are intended for artistic reasons. For example, is Paul Atreides’ home planet of “Caladan” a complete invention, or is it derived somehow from (the equally watery) “Caledonia”? Is the name for Dune’s native “Fremen” an accidental string of vowels and consonants, or is it a contraction of “Free men”? Because we all love looking for deeper, hidden meanings in words, the fantasy universes of Dune and Star Wars leave plenty of room for folk etymologies about the meaning of things. According to this website, for example, Han Solo’s name means “he who is alone”:
“Solo” means alone, and Han is very much a loner. Also in Swedish, Han means “he”. Combine these two definitions, and the resulting translation is “he [who is] alone.”
Whether that’s what Lucas had in mind is highly debatable, and the man himself has been known to spread a few myths about how his characters’ names were created.
“Napoleon Solo” always struck me as a name picked by opening a dictionary twice and picking two random words. As for the villainous Piter de Vries in Dune, his name clearly parodies the American novelist Peter de Vries, but I don’t think it was chosen as an attack on the real de Vries: probably Herbert just liked the sound of it.
Stephen R. Donaldson uses a huge vocabulary of English words, even more extreme than Tolkien’s, and also borrows extensively from Sanskrit for the names of characters and things.
Imagination and a lot of spare time is all you need. 😊
I love creating new words and also used a combination of all 10 of your points. Building words from Latin roots or combining languages (as you mention in #6) is one of my favorite like Lucas does for Darth Vader: Darth (made up variant of the word dark) and Vader (means father in Dutch). In the Ranger’s Apprentice series, John Flanagan gave names and words surrounding the cultures of characters: the Skandians are like vikings for example and their words, gods and belief systems all use Scandinavian words. This is something I have also kept in mind in my own series.
There have to be places to use a word like “jessicant” and “peschwigo!” Fun essay!
“jessicant” should be paired with “dessicant” in a rhyming couplet; “peschwigo” paired with “crushed ego”.
The one about using regular words in a new way reminded me of when I took the word “scarlet” and used it as a synonym for “cool” in a story I’ve been trying to get published. You’re very right, creating new words for a fictional universe isn’t that difficult, and creating new words from scratch is only a small part. The rest is just adapting your native tongue for the space you’re creating.
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing a science fiction/fantasy story is creating the world in which it will take place.
Definitely, but I think that applies to almost any genre. Just creating a world on paper is enjoyable. Are all writers control freaks?
Perhaps…I enjoy writing origin stories and fictional histories. The rise and fall of kingdoms, the intricate detail of races, the fall of heroes and the “unexpected luck of widows sons.”
Those widows’ sons are usually trouble 😉
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Good one 🙂
Imagination is all you need
Your essay is quite interesting and a fan fiction writer like me applauds you…
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Wow I love this. You really put in a lot of effort into researching on this. I love sci-fi , I love your writing style. You are just wonderful!!!! I also have a blog too, with some funny and motivational articles there. http://www.probingdeep.WordPress.com
i realy like the idea
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Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this article. I am new to writing but when I get lost in stories in my head I have often thought this story needs something special. What better way to make a fantasy story more special than giving it its own language. I will definitely be using some of your suggestions.
One interesting area is how brand names become common words over time: Xerox = to copy; Kleenex = tissue; Crapper = toilet;…on and on. I’m sure readers could add extensively to this list.
Way cool !
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This is a great way to build words. I would also suggest that we just add prefixes or suffixes to existing words and just make a new word, like post-bath
Interesting.But I don’t think we need New word for New world’s. We already have enough.
CULMINATIONS OF WORDS OF LIVING LANGUAGES PHILOLOGISTS HAVE PROVED ARE ALWAYS MOVING ON?
This is one of the most interesting, useful while entertaining posts I’ve read in a long time. I’ve always loved science fiction, and I’d never stopped to think of the genre from a linguistic point of view. I’m totally fluent in a number of languages, of which English is my very favourite. I wrote a post comparing a few main languages lately, but from a very personal and superficial point of view http://14thcountry.com I’m going to seriously explore the various items in your post over the next few weeks. Thank you very much for a very stimulating linguistic overview!
I am obsessed with words and their meanings, especially names. I like to know a person’s full name (first, middle, last) and what it means. My first name (Lynette) means little beauty and my middle name (Jo-letta) was made up by my parents. They took Jo from my father’s middle name (Joseph) and added letta to it with a hyphen (Jo-letta). Your post gave me several ideas for making up names for my characters and my children.
This post combined my love of language, Star Wars, and the Dune series! Bravo! ❤ xx
Félicitations pour ce post ! #PrayForParis
What an interesting post! When I’m jotting down story ideas, character names and locations are often the hardest for me to imagine, in terms of originality. This has given me lots of great ideas!
Reblogged this on studentunej.
i love it! i basically just started creative writing and eventually i wanna get good enough to be able to turn the sci-fi story premises i have written down in my journal into full-fledged novels and i would definitely need to create a new set of words. this article of yours has really helped point me in the right direction so thank you for posting this very informative guide.
This is a great way to build words.
Reblogged this on therichardbraxton and commented:
I am definitely going to start using these ideas in my writing. Creating convincing language is part of creating convincing worlds.
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Nice post. Slight error in the source of “Stormtrooper” though: they were developed during WW1 as a means to bypass trench warfare, although the term became better known as a result of WW2. So technically not a Nazi term, but conjures up Nazi connotations.
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Nice thoughts recollected from the dust and sand of times, alluring the expert of etomology towards new eras of language destinations, measureless to man!
Fantastic post. Language is a fascinating subject, even when that language is based in a fictional world.
I like the language break down “he who is solo”. The character never lives up to his name!!! It is totally ironic. Hahah I am amused by the smallest of things. Wonderful piece I cannot wait for SWVII
Nice way to exercise imagination!
I am thinking of trying to creating a new language…..
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Not all of Lucas’s words were prosaic. Tattooine is simply tbe phonetic pronounciation of Tatouine, the Tunisian village where those scenes were shot in the original movie. And a place that New Zealand forces helped liberate from the Nazis in 1943. This is not to diminish Lucas’s creativity, but it underscores the breadth of influence that went into the names he used.
Oh yeah, just remembered one of the best instances of ‘borrowing’ an existing name and re-applying it in a whole new context: Douglas Adams saw an estate agency sign for a company with the very unusual name of “Hotblack Desiato” and decided to use it for a character that was ‘spending a year dead for tax purposes’.