A lot of worldbuilding is thinking about big-scale things. It’s thinking about things like transportation systems and political hierarchies. It’s accounting for trade systems and timelines of development.
But every so often, it helps to take a moment away from the big picture and focus instead on details. One place it might surprise you to look at the details is in your languages—specifically, in the phrasing of your languages.
English is the official language in sixty-seven countries globally. More importantly, that means there are literally thousands of phrases that can confuse even other English speakers.
Case in point, the British (and Australian, and New Zealand) use of the word ‘knackered’. Although it means tired, it largely doesn’t exist in the American lexicon. Similarly, asking an American child to show you the barbie results in them fetching a doll while an Australian child would show you their barbecue. Speaking of American specifics, we ‘break’ our bills into change or smaller denominations.
None of the above examples account for the other sixty-four countries where English is the official language. It doesn’t include Canadian loonie and toonie. It doesn’t touch on the Irish quare. Although the language might be the same, the phrases and specific use of words changes between countries.
Part of that has to do with history. Although we may hear of international events such as Prime Ministers disappearing, unless it’s happening in our own country, we largely don’t have to deal with the immediate ramifications. Over time, bad political choices tend to create a reputation. Combine that with the usual gossiping and discussion from the people and when you disappear mysteriously you might just do exactly what Australians refer to as ‘doing the Harry’.
Another part of that is cultural. It’s no secret that America is a capitalist country. In fact, it’s capitalism that gives rise to one of our phrases: don’t buy it. As an example, if someone is telling you they were late to work because their dog jumped off their balcony and miraculously landed on their neighbor’s trampoline but still escaped into the street by climbing the fence…if you don’t believe this far-fetched story, you don’t buy it.
And finally: words simply warp their meanings. Pissed for example, might mean drunk…or it could mean incredibly angry. Again, knackered means tired for many English speaking countries but has practically only come into the American use as a sort of import from European English.
So while you’re crafting your countries and your languages, take a little bit of time and ask yourself how they might refer to certain things. Would they use ‘barbie’ or ‘BBQ’ when using the shorthand form of barbeque? Are there specific cultural and historical events that might give rise to a certain phrase? What words might change meaning over time? Which countries would consider a particular word offensive?
By doing this you can help craft entire regional identities for your world. It also feeds into building better characters—after all, they may have grown up with different local phrases or even in entirely different countries.
What are some of your favorite local phrases? What are some phrases you’ve come up with in your worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments below!