From “CHOAM” to “Chewbacca”: 10 Ways to Create New Words for New Worlds

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”).

  1. 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”.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”).

  1. 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”.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Tolkien, Fiction Writing and the (Implicit) Act of Translation

TolkienAs translator David Bellos points out in his excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, translation of literature is no easy task. Take this passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

‘It was one of those regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby […] and now you’d hear the thunder go off with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.’

As well as getting as close as possible to the basic (‘referential’) meaning of the text, there are poetic aspects of rhythm and rhyme (‘rumbling, grumbling, tumbling’) that the translator might try to somehow recreate in the target language. There is metaphor and simile, and invented words like ‘spider-webby’, which might not transfer easily from English to another language. And there’s the specific cultural reference to rolling wooden barrels down cellar stairs, which would seem an odd choice of simile for audiences in, say, Morocco.

And how about the dialogue that follows:

‘Jim, this is nice,’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot cornbread’.

‘Well, you wouldn’t a ben here, ‘f it hadn’t a ben for Jim. You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner […]’

When it comes to the speech of Huck and Jim, and all the other characters, there is also the prickly question for the translator of how to render the (very meaningful) differences in dialect and style. In fact, how could anyone hope to translate the dialogue of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without risk of offending Twain himself, when he writes in the preface: ‘The shadings [of the dialects] have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work, but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech’?

But even though they might not be aware of it – and even though they are not ‘translating’ in the literal sense – these challenges are also faced by novelist themselves, writing fiction in their own language.

Admittedly, if an English speaking author is telling a story set close to their own time and in an English speaking setting (as Mark Twain was), then there’s unlikely to be any translation involved. Assuming it will be reasonably comprehensible to the average English speaking reader – even if, for instance, the protagonists in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting might sometimes stretch that assumption – the author simply has to do their best to render their characters’ (imagined) language in a way that captures their nationality, place of birth, class, and so on.

But if the context or setting for that story becomes too far removed from the writer’s here and now, they will soon have to face the same challenge the translator faces. For a novelist writing in English, the question is: what is the best way to represent the language of that (spatially or temporally removed) context in a language that will be readable and comprehensible to a modern English-speaking audience?

In the temporal dimension, language change is the principle problem. For instance, what if the story is set in Medieval England, like Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth? In the imaginary world of the story, about the building of a cathedral in the twelfth century, the characters will all speak various dialects of Middle English. But in writing the novel for (and making it sellable to) a modern British audience, Follett has no choice but to render this speech in modern English – albeit with a few choice archaisms (such as Tom Builder’s ill-fated wife being ‘with child’).

And perhaps less evidently, because of the unstoppable evolution of language, a similar issue arises for authors writing about an imagined future – dystopian or otherwise – as Stan Carey has recently pointed out in his blog. All we can be sure about the English of 1000 years from now is that it will be very different to the English of today.

Likewise, the challenge arises when events unfold somewhere else in the spatial dimension. Where the narrative unfolds in a foreign country, where another language is spoken, the author most make certain choices about how to represent that language to an audience who might not be familiar with the language in question.

Take, for example, French author Jules Verne writing about upper class British gentleman Phileas Fogg in Le Tour Du Monde En 80 Jours. In the imagined world of the novel, his characters speak a Victorian version of English. The first problem the author-translator faces is how to get across a sense of ‘foreignness’ (Englishness in Jules Verne’s case) in the French prose.

Verne, however, had a few solutions up his manche. For instance, when Fogg meets Passepartout for the first time he asks, ‘Vous êtes Francais et vous vous nommez John?’ (‘So you’re French and your name is John?’). Of course, his reliable new manservant is French, so his name is really ‘Jean’. With one carefully placed word, Verne captures Fogg’s true nationality in an otherwise Gallic sentence.

Lastly, of course, there are those story-tellers whose imagination takes them far further along the dimensions of both time and space, into whole new worlds entirely: that is, the writers of science-fiction and fantasy.

Today, one of the most celebrated of these is George R. R. Martin, author of the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. In creating the lands of ‘Westeros’, ‘Essos’ and beyond – and in keeping with their geographical, ethnic and cultural complexity – Martin also needed to create an entirely new linguistic world to map on top of them. Handily for us, the Common Tongue of Westeros is represented by an English we understand, with all of its more fine-grained dialectal and stylistic variations represented by similar variations in English.

But whether Martin, Verne and Follett considered themselves translators – or even considered that writing direct from their imagination could seen as ‘translation’ – is a different matter. It’s fair to say that this (implicit) act of translation is seldom made explicit by writers or novelists – albeit with a few notable exceptions.

In The Old Man And The Sea, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Ernest Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting by scattering occasional Spanish words throughout the English prose. On the first page, he writes:

‘But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].’

But what makes Hemingway different to other authors is the fact that – at one particular point in the prose – he actually acknowledges that he is ‘translating’ the words of his ageing protagonist as he types:

‘“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. […]’

Hemingway was something of a linguist having lived and worked in many countries, including Italy, Spain and Cuba. As a result of his multilingualism, perhaps he was more aware than most of the process of transferring meaning between different languages. Or perhaps, by making the act of translation explicit, he simply wanted to make the story more real. That is, he wanted the reader to feel that he wasn’t just writing from his imagination. Instead, he was translating from Spanish the true story of an old fisherman fighting for the biggest catch of his life.

But if Hemingway alludes briefly to his role as translator, there is one author that goes far further. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this writer was also himself a linguist.

As well as an author, J. R. R. Tolkien was an academic philologist – an expert in medieval languages. C. S. Lewis said of Tolkien’s work in writing The Hobbit and the epic Lord Of The Rings: ‘No imaginary world has been projected which is at once multifarious and so true to its inner laws.’ Perhaps this is most apparent in the mind-boggling complexity of the languages Tolkien devised for his fictional Middle Earth.

In a preface to The Hobbit, Tolkien briefly introduces the languages of the world he has created. ‘This is a story of long ago,’ he says. ‘At that time the languages and letters were quite different from ours of today. English is used to represent the languages.’ But in The Lord Of The Rings, he goes far further. He includes an entire Appendix to Book III about the ‘Languages and Peoples of the Third Age’. In it, there are lengthy descriptions of ‘the Westron’ (or the Mannish ‘Common Speech’), as well as the ‘Elderin’ languages ‘Quenya’ (the ‘Latin’ of the Elven languages) and ‘Sindarin’, and even the ‘Black Speech’ of the Orcs. The phonemic systems or these languages are described in great detail, as are their roots and origins in earlier languages. Tolkien the linguist also describes the way language contact, between speakers of these different languages, has led to language change – for example, how the Westron has been ‘enriched and softened under Elvish influence’– just as it does in the languages closer to home.

Later, and at some length, he even discusses the dialectal and stylistic variations between speakers of the Westron. According to Tolkien, the Hobbits mostly speak ‘a more rustic dialect’ and – with the exception of the odd one or two with knowledge of ‘book-language’ – in a less formal style. In The Hobbit, very soon into his adventure, Bilbo Baggins comes across three trolls whose language is ‘not drawing-room fashion at all’ (‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton tomorrer’). Later on, he comes across Gollum who has possibly the most famously idiosyncratic idiolect of all: ‘Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciouss. It like riddles, praps it does, does it?’

The second part of the Appendix to The Lord Of The Rings is even more striking. Titled ‘On Translation’, Tolkien gives a thorough and detailed account of how he has rendered the languages of Middle Earth for his readers and how, in doing so, the Common Speech has ‘inevitably been turned into modern English’. Tolkien explicitly makes the point that – from the very first page – he is translating the words of his characters, except for a few names of places and people, into English. At the same time, he acknowledges those very same challenges that all translators have in representing the source language in the target language of their readership: the subtle variations in accent, dialect, register and style, code-switches to third languages, and so on. He even makes a point, which David Bellos also makes, that in the act of translation differences in dialect and style are inevitably smoothed out (into what Bellos calls ‘Tranglish’).

Perhaps most striking of all is Tolkien’s central conceit that, in writing The Lord Of The Rings, he is in fact translating from a manuscript called ‘The Red Book’. Tolkien says he is ‘presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for the people of today to read’. Perhaps, as with Hemingway, Tolkien wanted to create a tangible origin for his writing, that wasn’t simply his fertile imagination: that is, to make the ‘story’ closer to a ‘history’. Perhaps he was setting out a defence of his work against serious academic colleagues who might deride his stories of dwarves and dragons as frivolous. Or perhaps, as a linguist who greatly enjoyed the intellectual and artistic challenge of translating old Norse Anglo Saxon texts, he couldn’t help himself from consciously bringing that same process to the process of writing fiction.

Either way, it’s clear that for Tolkien the act of creating a fictional world, and all the fantastic stories that went with it, was inseparable from the act of translation. One thing is certain: without authors like Tolkien (and Hemingway and Martin) who are prepared to ‘translate’ for us stories from other times and other places – knowingly or otherwise – our own world would be a far poorer place.

Many thanks to John Cowan for giving me the initial idea for this piece in the comments he made to an earlier blog post.