Spec Tech: Conlanging 2 – Sounds and Words
This is the second 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. You can read the first post here.
From our discussions last time, it seems that we’re all in agreement that the language we’re constructing needs two things: first, sounds that are common to as many languages as possible; and second, words that are made from those sounds using relatively straightforward patterns.
For our consonants (Cs), then, I’m going to propose the following:
As was mentioned in our previous discussions, not every language has all of these sounds, and this isn’t a perfect system—Arabic, for example, lacks a distinction between /p/ and /f/, Hawai’ian doesn’t have /s/, etc.—but we’ve avoided some common problems. We only have /l/, for example, and not both /l/ and /r/, which is a problem for speakers from a variety of language backgrounds.
All of these sounds are relatively common throughout the world, and since we obviously can’t accommodate every possible linguistic background in designing this language, I feel that this is a good compromise.
We also need to consider how these consonants are to be pronounced. I’m going to propose that these consonants be pronounced essentially as in English, but with room for variation, since we’ll have individuals of different language backgrounds learning the language. For example, Spanish /p/ and English /p/ aren’t pronounced in exactly the same way, but for our purposes, I think we should say that either is fine in this case. After a few generations, I’m sure our descendants will settle on a preferred way of pronouncing these sounds, but until then, some variability should be fine.
As for the vowels (Vs), it’s a bit easier to come up with sounds that are found in a large number of languages. The most common vowel system in the world, by far, is one which has the following five vowel sounds:
/i/ as in “bead”
/e/ as in “bed”
/a/ as in “bod”
/o/ as it “boat” (in most languages, this vowel lacks the off-glide of the English sound)
/u/ as in “boot”
However, there is always a trade-off between the number of sounds in a language and the length of the words in said language, with lower numbers of sounds leading to longer words. Because of that, I’m going to propose that we also have four diphthongs—a vowel which changes from one vowel sound to another during the course of its pronunciation.
/ai/ as in “bite”
/ei/ as in “bait”
/oi/ as in “boy”
/au/ as in “bout”
Adding in these extra vowels will help us to keep our words relatively short, while also keeping the structure of those words simple.
Speaking of, we need to decide how these sounds can combine with each other to form words. The most common type of syllable, cross-linguistically, is a consonant followed by a vowel — CV — so I propose that we use that as the basis of our words. However, with such a small number of consonants and vowels, we’ll have to have words that are more than just CV. Therefore, I think our words should have the structure CV(CV)(N), which is to say, a CV syllable which is followed optionally by either a nasal (m, n, or ng; represented as “N”) or another CV syllable, which can then also be followed by a nasal. This gives us four forms for words: CV, CVN, CVCV, and CVCVN. Note that, although nasals are a distinct category in that they can occur at the ends of words, they still count as consonants, and can also appear anywhere you see a “C” in the forms above.
Examples might help clarify a bit; all of the following are possible words:
And that’s it! Four basic word forms, without groups of consonants that can cause problems for speakers of a large number of linguistic backgrounds. Using these templates for our words, with the consonants and vowels presented above, we get 32,760 possible words, which is more than enough for any language.
However, I’m going to propose that we might return to these word templates later and modify them slightly by considering the possibility that the sounds /f, s, l/ might also be able to occur at the ends of words in some circumstances (namely as case markers—we’ll talk about what that means when we get to talking about verbs).
One other thing: in human languages, the grammatical machinery of a sentence that holds everything together, words like the, and, he, what, etc., tend to be shorter than words with more meaning, like computer or derby. Therefore, I think we should keep the CV words in our language for grammatical machinery-type meanings, drawing from them as needed when we start developing our vocabulary.
None of this is set in stone just yet, so if you have comments about any of this, please do chime in!
Now that we have our sounds and our templates for how to put those sounds into words, we can start thinking about assigning some meanings to certain strings of sounds—which is to say, start making our vocabulary. I’m going to hold off on this for the moment, though, in case any of your feedback changes these sounds or our templates.
We’ll have to start coming up with words soon, though, as the task at our next meeting will be deciding how nouns work, and that will certainly be easier if we have some nouns to work with. In thinking about nouns, there are a lot of dimensions to consider:
Number — Does our language have singular and plural forms? Plurals are pretty common in European languages, but unheard of in much of the world. There are also more fine-grained distinctions than can be made—dual for two things, trial for three things, etc.
Articles — English the and a, Spanish la and el, un and una, etc. Again, we see these all over Europe, but they’re pretty rare elsewhere. The exact circumstances of when to use which article is pretty complicated, although we could simplify it somewhat. Simplify too much, though, and there isn’t much of a reason to have articles in the first place.
Gender — Spanish, French, German, etc. have different classes of nouns, called genders, which affect various aspects of the grammar. Is this something we want in our language? Note that the distinction doesn’t have to be one based on biological gender, as human languages have a number of other distinctions along the same lines. We might have, for example, human, non-human animal, and inanimate (which is a fancy of way of saying “not human or animal”).
Possession — How do we show that a house belongs to someone, as in the English Mike’s house?
Adjectives — Do adjectives go before or after nouns? Or somewhere else entirely? Does our language have adjectives at all? I’m personally rather partial to a system where adjectives are a special subset of verbs; instead of a word red, then, you get a word that means “is.red“. This might lead to some interesting things when we have adjectives modifying nouns directly, as in phases like the red car.
Putting nouns together — Is there any special marking if we have one noun modifying another, as in computer paper or house cat? If so, what does it look like?
Alright, I think that’s enough to think about until next time. If you have comments, either about the sound system presented here, or about what to do with nouns, speak up! We’re well on track to give the Qu’ssh!rrians what they’re looking for, but we still need as much input as possible from all of you.