Five-Minute Languages

J.R.R. Tolkien spent years developing his fantasy languages and then wrote a handful of books to test them out (you’ve probably never heard of them, they’re pretty obscure). Klingon and Dothraki were developed for film and TV – carefully encoded over time with great care. But you’re you. You need to crank out some gobbledygook for game night and you need it fast. Well, hold on to your diphthongs and protect your predicates because we’re doing a crash course on fast-and-dirty language creation.


A made-up language is known as a constructed language or conlang, and if you really want to study this stuff, there is a huge community of people online and lots of resources from which to draw inspiration and knowledge. Here are just a few starting points:

You can really go down the rabbit hole with conlangs, but we’re interested in speed and efficiency right now, so let’s examine what a Game Master needs in an imagined language: Visuals, Speech, and Names.

Quicky Calligraphy

If you need the visual aspect of languages – runes, scripts, symbols, and glyphs – then you need to look at some of the beautiful alphabets of the real world to get an idea of what you’re going for. Or, just straight up steal one. (It’s technically not theft – you’re a citizen of the planet and you’re allowed to use our stuff). Flip them horizontally, vertically, stretch, squish, and mix-and-match to get some unique lettering. Turn curves into corners for a more runic look, or soften lines and link them together for a flowing script.

Here’s a really neat site if you want something that’s exclusively yours – a script-evolution tool called Grapheion that starts with scribbles and ends up with symbols that look like the real thing. You select the random characters that capture the look you want, then the app passes those traits on to the next generation of characters. You do it again and again (the creator says twelve generations is ideal) and when you start to see characters that you want to keep, you save them as “elites.” This really simulates a part of how actual alphabets develop over centuries, but you can do it in a matter of minutes. Here’s my result after about eight generations:

Speedy Speeches

It’s time to talk Troll and it needs to sound convincing. Where do you start? Since we don’t have time to build our language from the ground up, we’ll have to lean hard on random generators and translation software. Here’s a quick list of randomizers, which are handy for that unexpected moment when Kill Team: Omega suddenly decides to try diplomacy on the alien admiral.

If you need a more realistic feel for your phonemes, you may want to try using Google Translate or another sentence-translator and choose a real-world language. If you pick something just obscure enough, even polyglot players won’t be able to tell that you’re not actually fluent in Atlantean. Dig around for videos of native speakers if you need some help. Here are my recommendations:

  • Draconic – Basque (really emphasize the “s” sounds)
  • Dwarven – Scots Gaelic or Icelandic (roll those “r” sounds if you can)
  • Elven – Corsican (aim for soft, melodic tones)
  • Giant – Swedish (speak loudly and slowly)
  • Gnomish – Shona (speak quickly and precisely)
  • Goblin – Macedonian (go for a higher-pitched voice)
  • Magical Chanting – Igbo (chant in a slow rhythm)
  • Orcish – Estonian (imagine gravel and anger in your throat)
  • Peaceful Alien – Yoruba (try to channel your inner hippy)
  • Undercommon – Latvian (fill every word with high-school angst)

Instant Identifiers

A good map, item, or NPC requires a good name. It’s what players will use to file it away in their mental inventory and it has to fit just right. There are a great many random name generators and baby-name resources online, and it’s always a good idea to have some bookmarked and ready to roll (or just a page of prepared names for Mayor Improv of Side-Quest Village). But if you’re in a bind, try one of these tricks:


  • Take a standard name and change a vowel or two – Robert becomes Rybart, Martha becomes the pleasant-sounding Mirthi, and Baltimore becomes Biltmire, which was almost certainly constructed on a cursed swamp. If your conlang omits certain vowel-sounds, trade out the offenders for ones that fit.
  • Swap some consonants – Alexander becomes Axelander, Isabella becomes Illabesa, and the city of Melbourne turns into Belmourne, which sounds like it has a sad history. Again, certain languages are very restrictive on what consonant sounds are permitted, so try your best to match it.
  • Deconstruct and reconstruct those longer names to get some exotic combinations – Samantha polymorphs into Thasanam, Raymond transforms into Modrayn, and frigid Milwaukee is tropically modified to become Em’Ukaweli (when in doubt, add an apostrophe).

A lot of good GMs owe their success to astute time-management. The more time you can save on linguistics, the more time you have to build up your world and fill it with wonderful stories. We can’t all create entire cultures and languages from scratch, but we can give our players an enthralling and engaging experience with just a few shortcuts.

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