Spec Tech: Conlanging 1 – Introductions

This is the first in a series of posts “live-blogging” the creation of a fictional language from scratch, with the help of our readers.  We plan to construct a functional language one piece at a time, incorporating suggestions and preferences from our audience along the way.  But first, because the “who” and “why” of a conlang is so important, allow us to spin a scenario for you…

All right, all right, sit down, people!  I’ll tell you why you’re here as soon as everyone’s quiet.

First of all, congratulations on winning the aliens’ lottery.  As winning ticket-holders, you will most likely be shipped off by the Qu’ssh!rrians to some other planet before Fenrir’s seventeen kilometers smashes into the Pacific and kills everyone Earth.  I’ve recently been informed, however, that our tickets to the future are not free, nor are they guaranteed; we’re expected to work for the privilege of salvation.

The Qu’ssh!rians have divided the lottery winners into several “doing-task groups.”  Our group’s task is to create a new language for all of humanity.

What’s that?  No, I don’t know why the Qu’ssh!rrians think we need a new language.  Not exactly, anyway.  From what I gather, though, this is a further demonstration of the Qu’ssh!rrians “more-grown understanding-state.”  They’re attempting to get rid of hierarchies and power-structures across the board, and seem to think that preferring any one language over all the others would be “against the process of trying this thing.”

And before someone asks if they’ve been assigned to the wrong group: no.  None of you have much of a background in language or linguistics; I’m the only full-fledged linguist in the group.  Apparently the Qu’ssh!rrian’s dislike of hierarchies extends to academic pursuits as well. So even though none of you have studied linguistics beyond a couple courses in college, the Qu’ssh!rrians have decided that you are as able to create a new language as any linguist.  And who knows, maybe they’re right.

What do you mean, “if you don’t want to help”?  The Qu’ssh!rrians obviously aren’t thrilled about saving any of us, even under the auspices of “trying to see what happens.”  Frankly, it looks to me like they’re just looking for an excuse to let us all die.  If we don’t complete our task — if any of these groups doesn’t — I would assume that we’ll get left behind on our doomed planet.

I hope that’s enough motivation for you to participate.  If it’s not, just sit there and be quiet while the rest of us work.  Speaking of which, the Qu’ssh!rrians have given us some rules for this process:

The language we come up with has to be learnable by humans.  Obviously.

The language we come up with can’t be based on any Earthly language, whether currently spoken or extinct.  No Yoruba or relexified Latin or Old English.

The Qu’ssh!rrian’s were particularly clear on this point; too strong a resemblance to any particular language will mean that we have to “regrow these children from the soil all over again,” which I assume that means “sent back to the drawing board.”  We can’t avoid all similarities, obviously; anything we come up with here is going to have a parallel in some language.  We just need to be sure that we get a good mix in there, and not rely too extensively on any particular language family or group to come up with ideas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the language we come up with must be the product of this group.  As much as I might like to sit down and do all of this by myself, I’ve been told that that is not an option.  I’ll be coordinating and guiding the effort, but your input is essential to this process.  If you have questions, comments, concerns, or snide remarks, you should voice them.

That’s probably enough for today.  Next time, we’ll need to decide what vowels and consonants to use for our language.  The choices are wide open, but since we’ll have learners with a number of different native languages, we should probably try to keep it simple, using sounds that appear in a wide range of languages.  We’ll talk more next time about what that means, exactly, but if you have thoughts about this now, speak up!

Stay tuned to the post tag “Clarionlang” for the continuing saga…


18 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Conlanging 1 – Introductions

  1. Great post (and start of a series), Chris! Hope this draws a good readership and active participation. If you’ve seen and heard Klingon in Star Trek, Elvish in Lord of the Rings, Na’vi in Avatar, or if you know anything about Esperanto, you’ve encountered a language constructed by one person. These are just some of the better known ones. Constructing a language with the input of a whole group should teach us a lot about language (and consensus!).

    Chris says our first task is to agree on a set of consonants and vowels for our language. There are several factors to consider. First is ease of pronunciation; if the language is for all of humanity, then as Chris says, we want one which as many people as possible can pronounce without major difficulty. But if we severely restrict the number of possible sounds, we make words (on average) longer, since the variety of sounds we can use is limited. That’s one of the trade-offs.

    Another factor to consider is what sounds can occur together. Even with individually simple sounds, we can still combine them in ways that are quite difficult or more easy to pronounce. We probably don’t want words that resemble English “strengths” or Russian “Dniepropetrovsk” with their tongue-twisting (to most people) clusters of consonants. Alternatively, we could require that all words follow the pattern of consonant-vowel or consonant-vowel- consonant-vowel: mata ki duno pa seme risa, and so on.

    Finally (before this post becomes annoyingly long), it’s interesting that the Qu’ssh!rrians assume that any of us is “as able to create a new language as any linguist.” This shouldn’t be surprising, however, if you reflect that we all speak human languages, we learned at least one language by ourselves, without any real training, by the time we’re 5 or 6 years old, we all make up new words on the spot when we need them, and we all can create new sentences that have never been heard before. The Qu’ssh!rrians in fact know exactly what they’re talking about.

    1. On that note, if the language is to be applicable for all humanity, then I believe that we’d have to take into account different letter problems that certain languages encounter.

      For example:

      l/r with Japanese, Chinese, and, at times Korean. e.g. “fried rice” becomes “flied lice”

      p/b with Arabic. e.g. “I bought Pepsi at the parking lot becomes “I bought Bebsi at the barking lot”

      p/f with Filipinos. e.g. “I need a fork for my pork” becomes “I need a pork for my fork”

      v/w with Indian and Pakistani. e.g. “There was a vampire in the van” becomes “There was a wampire in the wan”

      Just a few problems that I’ve encountered with my students (ESL instructor) that I believe would come up with the language that’s to be created. Not that those should be omitted, but rather be taken into consideration.

      1. Let me generalize from this – there are some sounds that are common in languages around the world, and others that are less common, and that distribution shows certain patterns.

        For example, all languages have at least one voiceless stop (in English, the voiceless stops are “p”, “t”, and “k”; some languages have others, like the Arabic sound often written “q”, and some have fewer.) But only some languages have voiced stops (in English, the voiced stops are “b”, “d”, and “g”.)

        Linguists describe these patterns in terms of “markedness”. Every language with voiced stops also has voiceless stops, so you can say that voiced stops are marked with regard to voiceless stops.

        By using less-marked sounds, we increase the learnability of our language by people with different native languages.

        It won’t be a 100% fix – for example, most human languages have “t” as a distinct sound, but Hawaiian doesn’t (in Hawaiian the stops “p”, “k”, and glottal stop [as in English “uh-oh”] are different sounds, but “t” is just a variant of “k”). Arabic usually distinguishes between voiced and voiceless stops, as you can see in this chart, but doesn’t have that distinction for f/v or b/p.

        Using a smaller set of less-marked sounds does have a trade-off – the language will be easier to learn, but words will tend to be longer. (There are more possible syllables in a language with more sounds, so there are more possible distinct one-syllable words, and more possible distinct two-syllable words, etc. To coin the same number of words in a language with fewer sounds, you need more syllables.)

    2. “Alternatively, we could require that all words follow the pattern of consonant-vowel or consonant-vowel- consonant-vowel: mata ki duno pa seme risa, and so on.”

      I am actually going to vote for this exact method of word construction. I think it will be easiest for everyone to learn. Use maybe 20 or so consonants that exist in a great many human languages (! is out) and maybe 7-8 vowel sounds and every word must be alternating between them.

      For consonants I have a fondness for the tidy “families” that exist in English of M B P, N D T, NG G K, ZH J CH (say them aloud and you’ll see what I mean even if you don’t know the terms).

      Because we are using American/European keyboards for this, let’s just Romanize the language spelling for the time being and use sounds that are easily “romanized.” We can assume that there would be a creation of an entirely new phonetic alphabet at some point later on so as to be “fair” to all the Greeks and Indians and Japanese and Egyptians out there.

      Those are my thoughts.

      1. Oh one more thought! We can have our 7 or so basic vowel sounds (a=Ah, i=EE, etc.) and then allow a limited number of diphthongs (vowel blends) such as ai, ua, au, etc. just to help shorten word length without adding pronunciation difficulty.

        I vote NO consonant blends like ST or FL.

  2. Hey, Chris, this sounds like it will be lots of fun.
    Creating a language by group consensus (or maybe by majority vote) – I have never heard of anyone trying to do that. It will be interesting to see what the group comes up with. Maybe Esperanto v2.0 – or something like that.
    Just one nit-pick point: We should all avoid jargon or specialized linguistics vocabulary, like “relex” or “relexification” (unless they are explained in the text) so that non-conlangers and non-linguists will feel comfortable participating, too.

  3. Wow, lots of great comments over the long weekend! Awesome! Lemme see if I can respond to everyone in one go…

    Dean — As you say, there is definitely a trade-off between number of sounds in a language and the length of words. We’ll definitely want to be careful in choosing our sounds so that we have a wide enough range to not have cumbersome words, while also allowing for ease of pronunciation. And, yes, a large part of that is figuring out what sounds can go with what other sounds; CV (consonant-vowel) is the most common type of syllable cross-linguistically, but it is pretty limiting. We’ll have to think more about the structure of our syllables once we decide on what our sounds are going to be.

    Lakan — Indeed there are a number of issues such as these to take into account. We’ll want to be careful when considering these things, though, as some problems occur only for speakers of a limited range of language backgrounds, as Tracy (and you) note. So yes, I agree completely: we’ll need to keep these things in mind, while realizing that we can’t accommodate everything.

    Tracy — Yup, we’ll definitely want to tend toward using the least-marked sounds we can, while also keeping in mind word length issues.

    Mishell — For vowels, we’ll probably want five. In a fair-sized majority of human languages, there are five vowels, written phonetically: /i/ as in “beet”, /e/ as in “bed”, /a/ as in “Todd”, /u/ as in “boot”, and /o/ as in, roughly, “bow” (although the English vowel here always has that funny off-glide at the end, which isn’t present in most languages). That said, we still have plenty of room to have diphthongs, thus increasing our possible number of words quite a bit. And yes, Consonant “families” is certainly the way to go, and is, in fact, how human languages tend to distribute their consonants (although there are always funky exceptions in any given language).

    Jeffery — Good point re: “relexification.” I was trying to avoid using jargon as much as possible, but I guess that one snuck through. I’ll try to mind myself better in the future 🙂

    Thanks, everyone, for your feedback and comments! This should be a fun little project…

  4. Wow… This sounds fun!
    This is my first time here, and i’d really like to participate in any way i can. I had a few linguistics classes in college and i’ve always been a Tolkien fan since my teens. It has been many years since those classes, and i have a daughter now. When she was younger i would sometimes read stories to her, but many times i would make up stories with characters with strange names. She remembers them and always wants me to tell her more stories like the ones i used to tell her. After much pleading i finally relented, but with the condition that she help me in creating the story. I guess, for the most part that’s why i’m here.
    Anyhoo, this seems like a great opportunity to get my feet wet and learn about the creation of a fictional language and thus -perhaps at a later point- add some depth to those curious names of my daughter’s bedtime stories.
    Finally, i agree with most everything that has been discussed so far, and would like to lend a hand in creating the writing system. One idea: if there are relatively few possible syllables then perhaps a syllabary or better an abugida would be very appropriate IMO. Of course it cannot be based on the latin alphabet so i propose something like a featural or symbolic system where ‘ti’, ‘ta’, and ‘tu’ would be related to ‘ni’, ‘na’, and ‘nu’ the same way ‘pi’, ‘pa’, and ‘pu’ would be related to ‘mi’, ‘ma’, and ‘mu’. i.e. the symbols for all the syllables that start with a labial consonant (e.g. /p/, /m/, /w/)would share some common feature that identifies it as a syllable that begins with a labial consonant. Also, all nasals (e.g. /m/, /n/, /ng?/) would share some symbolic feature that would identify it as a syllable that begins with a nasal (perhaps a high curved arc signifying the air going through the nose?). Stops/plosives would be treated the same (perhaps a dot somewhere on the symbol indicating the sound’s very short (i.e. non-continuous) duration. These features would aid in learning the writing system.
    Of course we can’t design the writing system until we decide on the phonology. Will it just be CV and CVCV or will CVn, CVnCV, and CVCVn be allowed as in Japanese (e.g. ‘Nippon’, ‘sensei’, ‘Honda’)?
    Anyway, sorry this post is so long – i guess i’m excited about the possibilities of this project.

    1. Well, I hadn’t thought much about a writing system for this. We’ll obviously need to use the Latin alphabet in designing and planning things, as it’s the alphabet we all already share. Still, if you want to play around with various ideas after we get the phonology and whatnot pegged down, have at it! A syllabary or abugida would likely work. I might suggest using the Mayan system as visual (and perhaps combinatory) inspiration, since it is totally the coolest-looking writing system ever!

  5. A great source for a language such as this would be the creole / pidgin languages of the world, of which there are a couple hundred perhaps? A pidgin/creole is a language that emerges naturally when people of many different languages are suddenly thrown together and they have to communicate. For instance, the post-colonial world is filled with creoles that resulted from plantations where workers from all over the earth were brought together.

    For example, there is a Hawaii Creole English that was created when Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipino workers came together on the plantations in the late 19th / early 20th centuries. (YouTube – Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii). Tok Pisin (Talk Pidgin) is another creole on Papua New Guinea. Bislama on Vanuatu. Many all over the Carribean. Nigeria. Etc. There are YouTube videos for Tok Pisin as well I know.

    Creoles often look a lot like dominant languages at first, because they borrow the majority of their words from a dominant language (often the plantation owners, so English in Hawaii). However, they have different sounds and grammar. For instance, Hawaii Creole English really only has 5 vowels, instead of English’s 14 or so. Mushed together grammar gets broken out into separate words. Hawaii Creole English’s past tense is “wen kick” (went kick) instead of kicked. Instead of kicking, it’s stay kick (I think). Etc. So prefixes and suffixes are dropped or made more transparant. Grammatical words like “an” are also more transparent. The word “one” is used. (This is where the word “an” comes from in the first place: an/un/one.)

    Anyway, looking up the sounds and grammar of common creoles will give you ideas on how people actually solved the problem of taking all sorts of earthlings and finding a way for them to communicate quickly. My guess is that our aliens won’t allow us to borrow tons of words from an existing human language, so the end result won’t sound much like a creole, but you can use the underlying structure of creoles as a model.

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