Language and Worldbuilding



by Pekoeblaze


Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a very quick look at one of the more basic rules for making fictional “worlds” seem more immersive and realistic. This is because I happened to see an absolutely perfect example of this rule in action fairly recently.

So, what is this particular rule? Well, the rule is that the language in your story or comic should reflect the area that it has developed in. Whilst your story or comic itself should obviously be written in your own native language, a lot of linguistic changes can be shown through things like expressions and idioms.

A good example of this can be seen in the ninth episode (“Civilization”) of the first season of “Star Trek: Enterprise”. In this particular episode, the crew of the Enterprise visit a long-lost human colony on another planet. For a variety of environmental reasons, the inhabitants of the planet have ended up living in a vast network of underground tunnels and caves.

Although these characters speak a slightly more basic version of English, their language has still evolved slightly to reflect the fact that they’ve lived underground for several generations.

For example, when they want to emphatically point out that something is untrue, they’ll use the word “shale” in pretty much the same way as we would use the expression “bullshit” and/or “bollocks”. The word is said with exactly the same tone and emphasis and it still somehow carries the same dramatic weight.

But, you might ask, why does this work so well? It works because it actually seems like an expression that the characters would have developed of their own accord. After all, shale is a fairly weak type of rock that is prone to breaking and splintering. So, in the context of spending your entire life around rocks, it makes sense that it would be used as a synonym for falsehood.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of language reflecting the world that the story is set in. With this one simple expression, the fact that these characters have lived in rocky caverns for their entire lives is emphasised to the viewer.

This mirrors how real languages develop. For example, the verb “to Google” didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago. The only reason why it has entered the English language is because Google happens to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) search engines in the present day. In the times before the web became popular and before Google was started, the verb “to Google” probably wouldn’t make sense.

So, when creating fictional worlds, it’s often a good idea to come up with expressions that have evolved from everyday life within the world you’ve created.




Guest post contributed by Pekoeblaze. Pekoeblaze is an artist and writer, who has produced many drawings and online comics.

14 thoughts on “Language and Worldbuilding

      1. Hi Pekoeblaze,
        as a HUGE Enterprise fan I know exactly what you mean about languages (those darn universal translators). I love the way the writers adapted English just enough to be evolved yet still understandable (“I’m leg broke” or “track with me”). That episode is actually called Terra Nova.
        Civilization is another good world building episode as the intrepid crew check out trouble in a pre-industrial civilization reminiscent of Earth middle ages – stone paved roads, oil lamps, simple clothes, etc.
        Thanks for the shout out to my favorite Star Trek franchise!


      2. True. The adapted version of English in “Terra Nova” also reminds me slightly of a weird Youtube video I saw a few weeks ago where a linguist tried to imagine what English would sound like if it hadn’t been influenced by Latin/ Romance languages. Very strange!

        It’s been a while since I watched “Enterprise” (apart from a couple of episodes I’d seen on TV a few years ago, I watched all of it for the first time on DVD last year), I think that I know the “civilisation” episode you’re talking about. The only other time I’ve really seen medieval sci-fi was probably in the later series of “Stargate SG-1”.

        No probs 🙂 “Enterprise” does get overlooked somewhat (I mean, I only got round to watching it last year). I think that the reason is that it’s much more similar in style to a lot of other early 2000s sci-fi shows (eg: “Stargate”, “Battlestar Galactica” etc..) rather than to the more classic modern Star Trek series from the 1980s/90s.


  1. This is great advice. I am still not enough of a linguist to feel like it would sound authentic, but I will be keeping it in mind. For another excellent example CJ Cherryh “Foreigner” series builds three languages AND the language difference define the cultural differences.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks 🙂 Ah, if you’re in doubt then it’s probably best to make the langauge as close to modern.English as possible – with possibly only a few phrases or idioms that reflect the setting (but are understandable from the context).
      I mean, when it comes to experimentation with language, readability/understandability is probably the most important thing. The classic example of this is probably a book called “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban. It’s a novel that I tried to read but abandoned after a relatively small number of pages for the simple reason that the whole thing is written in a confusing, phonetic post-apocalyptic version of English that can be difficult to decipher. So, understandability takes precedence over linguistic experimentation in my opinion LOL!
      I haven’t heard of CJ Cherryh’s “Foreigner” novels before but, I’ve just looked them up on Wikipedia and the fictional world that they’re set in certainly sounds fairly complex.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read a lot of books that get this right with expletives but forget about it in every other case, and I think it’d be more accurate if we include slang and phrases in the “cultural conversion.” For example, “glass half empty,” “a bird in the hand worth two in the bush,” etc. can all be reworked in amusing, realistic ways that show how their cliches are similar to ours…and yet different, based on how their world works.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is great advice and one of those subtle things that people pick up on as they read without it having to be shoved in their faces that yes, this is an different culture and different world from the one which we normally find ourselves.

    I’ve tried to apply this in my world building. It’s especially interesting when dealing with non-human races.

    Liked by 1 person

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