When Your World-Building Needs Word-Building: Creating and Mutating Language For Fiction

The book I’m writing at the moment is set thousands of years in the future, in an isolated community. If you look back only a few hundred years, English is very different from what it is today. In my book, I wanted to create a sense that English has evolved and moved on from it’s modern day origins.

I had a hard time knowing where to begin until I came across an essay entitled ‘Uncleftish Beholding‘ which was written in Anglish.

Anglish is an attempt to re-write English displacing all those lovely loan-words from other languages with ones from their original Germanic roots. I guess on some level, you have to question the motive behind it, but on another level it’s an interesting foray into the origins and development of language.

One of the things I love about Anglish is the way it can transform old unloved words and give them new vigour. So, inspired by Anglish as a starting point, I set about an attempt to use elements of it within my own work.

I started slowly, a word here, a word there. Kill became quell, beautiful changed to sheeny, computer switched to reckoner. Some days I’d add a word, only to change it back later. After a few months I’d made over 150 substitutions (and the list is still increasing).

So here are my top tips for anyone thinking of attempting something similar.

Finding New Words

  1. Inspiration can be found everywhere, from a misspelt word, the incoherent babbling of a toddler, to an odd decision on your mobile’s predictive text. Stay alive for new words!
  2. Mine the internet for resources. I look at the Anglish wikia for inspiration.
  3. Dictionaries. Synonyms are your friend! Consider words with similar meaning. For example, I’ve replaced ‘ignore’ with ‘underlook’  readers can understand the substitution but it makes it feel different and alien. English is already a rich language with abundant possibilities! Exploit them!
  4. Create a word by splicing together two different words. In my book sparkcell means battery.
  5. Use onomatopoeia. Have fun making up completely new words that express the essence of what that word conveys.
  6. Online word generators can be used to free up your imagination in times of great anguish!


taken by P K https://flic.kr/p/yY54S
Part of the Voynich manuscript


Editing Your Text

  1. Get familiar with the find and replace functions on your software!
  2. Never be tempted to hit ‘replace all.’ Some alterations will have subtle nuances that need mulling over before you commit. Go through the replacements one by one to make sure you are happy with how they sound in context.
  3. Back up your work (which you should do regularly anyway), before you make any major alterations.
  4. Start with simple nouns. These are concrete beasts, easy to manipulate! How to make them plural is probably the hardest decision you’ll encounter.
  5. Verbs are trickier kettles of fish! And watch out for words with more than one meaning, sometimes a word that is perfect in one context just sounds wrong another way.
  6. Don’t rush it! Sit with a word for a while, consider it. Decide if it’s right.
  7. Sometimes it’s better to hold back. It’s fun making up new words, splashing them about left, right and centre. But you don’t want your readers to turn away in disgust because they can’t understand what you’re blathering on about.

And always think about the origins of the word and its meaning in your story. Is there a reason a particular word is being changed? Is that word important in your universe? Relevant to your plot? it’s all very well changing words here and there because they sound cool, but ideally they should have some importance in your story, a thematic resonance or some logic behind the change.

Thought up some great new words? Found some particularly useful resources? Get in touch or post a comment!

Photo credit


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