Small work update in the midst of Lexember–I made this little video to mess around with some visual, multimedia ways of representing conlang vocab! Clicking the image above will bring you to the Instagram video.
Happy #Lexember everybody! (For you lost SEO pulls, that’s a December event where conlangers create one word each day. It’s fun, go for it!) Here are five language facts for inspiration this month:
5. You might (or might not!) know that many prepositions start out related to body parts. (Consider back, behind, and fore-head.) Many of these are listed in the fantastic 2002 World Lexicon of Grammaticalization by Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva. What’s especially interesting here to me is how you can see how different body parts are more top of mind or central in different languages; otherwise we’d expect to see, like, “back” is always a back, “behind” is always a butt. But instead we get these awesome relationships:
lip > locative. Colonial Quiché gives the example in the text, where the literal translation of ‘They came from Tulan’ is approximately ‘They came (of) Tulan’s lip’.
According to the Oxford Handbook of Case, the Bengali dative case morpheme comes from the word for ‘hiding place’ or ‘armpit’. I mean, really, the armpit is a pretty evocative part of the body; it kind of sucks that it’s so funny to Westerners. Something could definitely be “soft as an armpit”, but I’m never going to write that metaphor because, armpits.
shoulder > up in multiple languages in Africa and Oceania.
breast > front. I’m having a really hard time telling from the text if they mean a boob or “the chest”, but they do distinguish chests from breasts, so if they don’t mean boobs, I don’t know what they mean. This is interesting because it’s a (comparatively rare?) example of grammar that has a “default” female body. Feminism!
4. The vocative is a common case. But when you think about it it, isn’t it completely bizarre? It’s the only common case that has a pragmatic function rather than a semantic or syntactic one. I mean, it would be like if we had a case for whispering, wouldn’t it? Language is weird.
I was especially interested to learn that there are languages where there’s a vocative for a person in sight and a different one for a person out of sight, and that they tend to have weird suprasegmental morphologies even in languages where that’s unusual, like being distinguished only by vowel length or stress pattern. (This, also, from the Oxford Handbook of Case. …Look, I just found out the whole series existed.)
3. Something like 80% of languages have a morpheme that changes verbs to agent nouns (like -er in farm-er.) But, according to work done in Word Formation in the World’s Languages, only something like 60% have a morpheme that changes verbs to patient nouns (like -ee in testee). Other cross-linguistically common noun-creating morphemes are “thing for X-ing” and “place of X”.
2. Here’s one from my own extensive human research (aka eavesdropping): hearing somebody say I couldn’t used to be able to do it blew my mind and made me start deconstructing the English potential can/could, which is an amazing example for us conlangers of how polysemy (multiple meanings) and splitting the paradigm among forms can be useful. Think about what this English paradigm looks like:
Positive present potential: I can do it.
Positive past potential: I could do it.
Negative present potential: I can’t do it.
Negative past potential: I couldn’t do it.
Now here’s the twist. Positive perfect? past potential: I used to be able to do it (but can’t anymore.)
Negative perfect past potential….what is it? Do you have this in your speech? I have some slightly non-standard options: I didn’t used to be able to do it (but now I can), and this speaker’s I couldn’t used to be able to do it. Maybe some people with what’s called “positive anymore” (use of the word anymore in a positive statement to mean “from that point until the present”, I believe) could say I used to be able to do it anymore? My grasp on positive anymore is a bit tenuous. Does anyone have anything else or is this a hole in our English paradigm?
A newer conlanger would probably make each of these its own morpheme, but you can see how English a) appears to use a completely different modal verb as the past tense of can and b) has one option for which there’s a positive but no negative, which itself is formed with a different modal verb (use) and a different form of can (“be able to”). Woof. It’s a lot to handle, but this is the kind of thing natural languages do and it gives so much texture and crunch to a conlang. (Plus makes you look real smart.)
1. There are like, multiple languages where determiners get conjugated for tense. Example from the Oxford Handbook of Tense/Aspect–Chamicuro has na for ‘the’ if the sentence is in the present and ka for ‘the’ if the sentence is in the past. This seems like such a diachronic wormhole.
This is step 5 of our writer’s approach to language creation. It’s the funnest and the hardest part–actually getting your hands into a translation text and learning how language works.
First…setting expectations. Translating takes a really, really, really long time. It’ll be quicker the further on you go, but don’t expect to complete more than a few sentences every hour when you first get started. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the translation text you choose, so here are some thoughts on that important decision:
You might want to pick something shorter and easier so you can have the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing material. But you don’t necessarily want to pick something that’s too short and too easy. I don’t know about you, but I get bored quickly reading, say, children’s books! Plus, if your material is too simple, you won’t learn nearly as much about how sentences are put together. Don’t go trying to translate Godel, Escher, Bach right away, but I do think it’s beneficial to pick something that you are genuinely interested in to look at for the next 20 hours of work.
So what kind of materials are happy mediums between easy and fun? I can only speak for myself, but these are materials I gravitate to when I’m first translating:
Songs and poetry. This might seem surprising, because non-prose forms have such unusual formats. But actually, it can free you to some extent from being trapped in English’s word orders, and the phrases are usually already “chunked” up nice and easy for you, even if the word order is a bit weird. It’s just psychologically easier to focus on translating I know when that hotline bling, even if you have to furrow your brows a bit over how the hell you’re supposed to convey the sense of hotline and bling for an Age of Sails-era conlang based on Dutch, than to focus on translating It’s often interesting to think about how the culture you’re writing would express some of the concepts in songs and poetry….
A similar chunking consideration applies to materials that include lots of dialogue. Especially if you’re interested in developing your conlang’s pragmatics and discourse norms, a play or movie script could be interesting, and also typically gives you the chance to do some fun localization into the culture you’re conlanging for.
Try your own writing! You know what you meant when you wrote it, and a lot of people enjoy re-reading their own prose. Plus, you can engage with your characters and world at the same time as you engage with your conlang.
Once you’ve selected a text, what tactics can you use to make translation work easier? Chunking–I mean the process of separating out the parts of a sentence and handling them one by one–is going to be your number one helper. It can even help to physically print out a page so you can draw lines between the phrases of the sentence.
Sentences are made up of elements like noun phrases and verb phrases (a noun or verb and all its adverbs, adjectives, etc) and adpositional phrases that start with a preposition or end with a postposition and describe a location. Sentences and phrases can both be compound, connected by a conjunction like and, but, or yet in other ways. And soon you’re going to realize that there are a lot of confusing places to chop up your sentences, such as at relative clauses (as in the duck who was mayor) and complement clauses (as in I think that this duck should be mayor).
When you first start translating, it’s going to mean putting into practice a lot of English grammar knowledge you might have only ever applied in theory, and learning about how linguistics conceptualizes these ideas so it can apply them to all types of languages. Don’t get discouraged if a sentence just seems to make no sense! As you research and get familiar with linguistics terms, you’ll soon find texts that looked impossibly complex resolve themselves, like a puzzle falling into place.
And getting familiar with English text in this way comes with a bonus–the clarity this gives to your analysis of your own writing can’t be overstated. It will help a ton to avoid common grammatical errors and make your writing more concise, sensical and vibrant.
We made it all the way to step 4 of the writer’s approach to making your own language! Step 3 was a big one, so let’s take some deep breaths together, and keep that PDF open if you need to review.
Now it’s time to have some fun. What should be on your initial word list? This post will go over some recommendations if you’re not sure where to start. (Hello also to non-beginners–this post might also be useful if you’re thinking of starting a new language and want to approach lexicon generation systematically.)
You can, theoretically, just start with the very first word in your translation text. But this will create some problems for your language:
Some words tend to come in sets, and if you take them one by one, you can’t make nice sets.
Your word list (or lexicon) will be more sophisticated the more you avoid one-to-one correlation. One-to-one correlation is a danger of any method you use to make words for your language, but translation can be especially bad for this. (More detailed suggestions for this problem in a future post.)
You might not get to fun stuff for a while.
In a lot of sentences, the first word isn’t a “content word” but a “grammatical word”, so you might not even need it in your language. (e.g. many languages don’t say the it in “It rains.” That it means nothing.)
Here’s some stuff you could choose to do for your initial word list:
If you’ve gone through step 3, you should know how you’re going to handle your nouns and verbs. Doesn’t have to be too complex–it’s just so you have somewhere to start. If you have agglutinative or fusional paradigms, I recommend coming up with at least four or five different “test words” and running them through your paradigms. This test drive will ensure the paradigm you make is sturdy and doesn’t break if you put a noun in it that, say, ends with a vowel. I also often find that paradigms that sound good with the first noun I come up with sound awful with the third one and I decide to change them, so don’t be afraid to make sweeping changes to suit your aesthetic preferences.
You may have finished step 3 by creating your pronoun set. This is worth doing early; non-personal pronouns tend to be a tough part of speech for English speakers when they first tackle translation. The primary pronouns we discuss in step 3 are:
The next step will be to start translating. Tips and tricks will be upcoming, but if you decide you’re good to go right now, best of luck! You should have all the tools you need to try your hand. There’s no minimum number of words you need to have in your word list before you start translating.
Or, since it’ll be a while until that post, we can have a little fun. What’s a semantic domain you’re interested in? To get a taste for how your language feels and sounds, and to test your ability to research words in your inspiration languages with tools like Wiktionary, you could try making a word list of, say, 10 words (this will be harder than you might think) from a domain that interests you. These are some classic semantic domains I often start with that are interesting cross-linguistically:
Sex and romance
Animals and plants (what animals and plants are in your region?)
Any traditional vocabulary your culture employs (knots? papermaking? animal husbandry?)
Words used as names, especially the names of your characters!
Your fantasy or sci-fi world probably has its fair share of situations where groups with different languages have had to learn how to live together. Something like D&D’s Common is the most…common…solution that I’ve seen. All the groups involved learn to speak a new, universal language. Nobody seems to have any hard feelings that they coincidentally chose the human language. World peace.
Why is “Common” iffy? This scenario never seems to play out IRL the way D&D would have you believe. The good news is, instead of that single one, there are many ways that groups in the real world settle on what language to use when they collide. So when this happens in your novel, you have lots of interesting techniques to choose between. And because language is political, the technique you choose for your language worldbuilding can also tell your readers about the history of your world.
In this post, we go over just a few options that are miles more interesting than “Common.”
Adopt a lingua franca.
This is closest to the “Common”-related strategies. In some cases both groups will indeed adopt a lingua franca that neither group speaks natively. But big caveats: The lingua franca has to come from someone, and the group it comes from are usually the past or present owners of economic and social power. Native speakers of a lingua franca have a big advantage. This pattern isn’t just about English–Nahuatl/Aztec was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, and they were pretty strong dudes; the lingua franca of the Philippines is a standardized version of Tagalog, and Tagalog was the language of Manila.
Plus, remember that new speakers are constantly repurposing and altering language for their own use in reference to their mother tongue. Even if you designate one language as “Common” because that group took over the whole continent and made it Common, if it’s been a few hundred years, there’s probably still a Mountain Common and a Plains Common and a Marsh Common, just like we have Singlish, Hong Kong English, and Indian English.
Another option is to adopt an ancient or literary language both groups know.Hebrew was not spoken as anybody’s mother tongue–or, as modern language revitalizationists sometimes say, it was sleeping–for hundreds of years. But when Israel was formed, Jewish people who moved there from all over the world could understand one another with the liturgical language.
I know of one circumstance where a sign language has been adopted as a trade language–Plains Sign Talk was used by 30 or more nations in the Americas to communicate.
Assimilate to one language.
If group A has much more power, they might try to get group B to assimilate to their language. Settler-colonial practice was to uproot children, interrupting language transmission in communities by literally forcing children to speak English.
Assimilation can also come “from below” under economic and educational pressure. Even if group A takes over group B’s area and mostly leaves group B alone, or if group B chose to move into A-land, group B could still decide to use group A’s language because it’s the only way to become a lawyer or whatever. Then, especially if they’re immigrants to an A-dominated area, their children may end up not learning language B.
In other cases, the situation stabilizes with one “high” language and one “low” language. Such a situation is known as diglossia. Group B will speak language A at work and school while continuing to speak language B with close friends at the pub.
Make a new, blended language.
When two groups meet that have no shared language, they can also create a new language from bits and bobs of their old ones.
The usual process is the development of a pidgin -> creole. I use the arrow because these terms are two stages of the same process. To create a pidgin, two language communities with different mother tongues hash out common vocabulary from what they’ve got on hand. When children start to learn it as their first language, it’s a sign that it’s developed to the point of what we call a creole.
Maybe you’ve heard “pidgin English” as a derogatory term, but this is misguided. It’s true that pidgins, the first stage of language blending, tend to be “simpler” because they’re created ad hoc. They have to be easy to pick up by their nature. But by the time they’re creoles, they have all the hallmarks of a full-on language–consistent internal logic, expressive lexicons, and linguistic innovation. Jamaican Patois might sound to some people like “bad English”, but it’s not any kind of “imitation” or “failure” of English. It’s a different language with its own consistent grammar and a lot of words that kind of sound like English. Remixing a song isn’t a failure to play the original song!
Now, there is another niche option. Unfortunately, I can’t really communicate how bizarre this phenomenon is until you have about two years’ worth of linguistic intuition. But let’s give it a shot; you can come back to have your mind blown again in a few years. We call themmixed languages. (I know the nomenclature is vague, but nobody asked me.) These are languages where one part of the grammar is lifted completely, without simplification, from one language, and another part of the grammar is lifted completely from another language.
The most well-established example of this is Michif, which is spoken by Metis people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Michif has pretty-close-to-French grammar, but then, for unknowable reasons, all its verbs are Cree. Some linguists think this is what happens when, rather than having no shared language, everyone in a community speaks two languages equally. If this happens, and the community members are always switching between them, the process could become fossilized around certain aspects of the grammar.
And there we have it–broad strokes of possibilities for language contact.
But don’t forget that real-world language systems are chaotic, with lots of factors and lots of moving parts. The number of people involved, the parts of society they participate in, how well-respected each group is, the grammar of each language, whether the mother or the father is the member of the minority group…all these things might influence a language contact situation. So if you’re interested in using something like this, dig in to some research! (And say, don’t be afraid to reach out to the humble blog owner for possible sources.)
In my research binges, I still run into stuff that people do with language that I would never have guessed. But…often I forget they exist if I don’t write them down. So here were my top five “What the heck, language?” moments this month:
5. Legge romanization. Let he who is without sin, etc.–I have personally used <r> to represent /x/. If you don’t yet have the transcription experience to cringe here, just trust me that it’s an iffy choice motivated only by my own arbitrary aesthetic preferences. I’m not trying to make a functional romanization that somebody’s actually going to use!
And I guess in that spirit I shouldn’t judge James Legge too bad for his attempt to romanize Mandarin, because he certainly wasn’t trying to make a functional romanization that somebody would actually use. (Cue shock jock #owned airhorn please?)
Legge has a distinction between K and K. No, I mean literally italicized K. It’s a different sound. Also a Z that’s just Z again but in a blackletter font.
Listen, my conlang motto has always been that you should do whatever appeals to you and nothing is objectively bad. But…you shouldn’t do that.
4. The expression to the bitter endcomes from rope vocabulary. The bitter end is the end of the anchor rope that you tie to….the bitts, which is the the ship accessory that exists purely to tie an anchor rope to. Somehow this all feels so cosmic and fractal.
3.Interrogative verbs. Rather than subbing in a WH-word or adding a question particle, in some languages you can switch in a verb that contains interrogative-ness.
So if you want to make “You do X” into a question–“What do you do?”–you might use a verb that literally means “do what?” Other meanings interrogative verbs sometimes cover are “happen what?” “say what?” The examples of this grammar are in the paper at the link, from several North American and Central American languages and language families (Chickasaw, Tongva, Cupan).
2. Some languages, like Kannada (India), distinguish between people known to the speaker and people not known to the speaker in their indefinite pronouns. One version of “somebody” for people you recognize; one version for people you don’t recognize.
1. This one’s a bit unfair because it’s an exonym. But I do just need to get it off my chest that there’s a language spoken in Vanuatu that linguists still call Port Sandwich.
This post deals with step 3 of our writer’s approach to language creation. You don’t need to have a 200-page grammar before you start having fun with your conlang, but you will want to decide on some basic facts about your language if you’re starting from scratch and you’re a beginner. Here’s the scoop on how to do that.
These six parameters are, I think, the essential basics for what we call your language sketch before you can start translating. First of all, let’s just scan the parameters and see how much of this even makes sense. Some of it will be familiar if you’ve studied other languages or English grammar.
What subject-object-verb order are your sentences?
Does your language tend to be head-first or head-last?
Does your language tend to be analytic, agglutinative, or fusional?
Do your nouns have case, classes, number?
What are your verbs like?
What are your pronouns like?
Now, for a brief overview, I’ve done my best to explain each parameter below in 140 characters:
English orders sentences subject-verb-object (SVO) but other langs are SOV, VSO, and rarely, OSV/VOS/OVS. That’s important because…
Phrases have main words, “heads”. Some langs like heads to go first in a phrase, others, last. VSO likes head-first; SOV likes head-last.
Langs make new meaning by 1. adding new words, 2. adding extra to a word, or 3. changing a word. 1: analytic; 2: agglutinative; 3: fusional.
Some langs have multiple categories of nouns, put their prepositions on the noun, and have duals/plurals/(trials…), so sort that out.
Verbs can do a lot of stuff. Past/present, expressing beliefs and feelings, matching their subject. Decide on your basic verb divisions!
Not just I/you/she: someone/everyone and what/where/who. Lots of small, confusing bits of sentences, and the beginning of your word list!
But that won’t be enough if you’re ready to begin your language sketch! To start absolutely mainlining grammar facts, download the PDF. It’s eleven pages long and contains explanations, resources, and terminology to help you answer these six questions pretty confidently. But it’s dense, and I don’t want you to feel intimidated. If you just skim the PDF and feel like you kind of got the gist but don’t remember all the weird jargon, that’s perfect. Your next step will be to make a word list and get translating!
Top things linguists love: #owning prescriptivists. Categorizing stuff. Trading linguistics facts like baseball cards. Baby-talking to infants: “awwww, you can still distinguish every human phoneme can’t you, you’re so cuuute”. Brackets.
But for us writers-turned-conlangers, brackets can be endlessly confusing. When you start reading linguistics and conlang grammars, you’ll see these brackets getting thrown around, but nobody will define why they use the brackets they use. In this post: descriptions and mnemonics for the punctuation that just wants to give good hugs.
As a beginner, I used my brackets willy-nilly. Brackets looked professional so I just figured they should be there. But linguistics brackets have very specific, defined meanings. When you see them around an IPA letter, they’re giving you information about the kind of symbol you’re looking at:
/x/ – represents phonemic-level transcription. This essentially means sounds as they’re held in your brain, and contrasts with sounds as they’re pronounced.
Think of the word “ladder”. How do you think it should be said? Odds are good when you actually say it you say something in that D-slot that’s…not actually D. Or T. If you really put your mind to saying “ladder” with a D or T you’ll hopefully be able to hear the difference. That sound is actually a completely different R-like sound called an alveolar flap, which we represent in IPA as ɾ. ladder is the phonemic word, but laɾer is the phonetic word.
[x] – its counterpart, representing phonetic-level transcription.
I always had a hard time remembering this until I started thinking of the square brackets as chomping teeth, like the sound is literally in your mouth. Om nom nom. (And teeth begins with t so you can remember it’s phone-t-ic.)
<x>- This represents literal letters. In this case, the letter X. <– That letter. Not a sound, not a thing in your mind, but just the humble letter. So for instance, you can say, the IPA letter /j/ is represented in English by <y>.
We call these graphemes. Think of it as the triangular tip of a pen that writes out the letter.
(x) – In variationist sociolinguistics, grandpappy William Labov used this to symbolize a variable. That’s a part of a language where two or more different options can be used by speakers. So for instance, we sometimes say “having” and sometimes say “havin’“, and we might then call this a new variable, the (ng) variable.
This is a bonus round–I don’t see a lot of sociolinguistic notation among conlangers. But maybe we could start a movement?
Alternate title: Macrosociolinguistics: the vitamin you didn’t know you needed.
If you’re writing large-scale stories about political intrigue and pretenders to the throne and so on, the way your societies relate to their language–and how they think those other, terrible people, who they dislike, relate to their language–could be a relevant part of your worldbuilding. Even if your stories are small-scale, the way your characters think about their own dialect and the dialects of others can be revealing of power dynamics in a subtle, useful way.
Sociolinguistics is the combination of sociology and linguistics. Obviously. I was going to go search for a “Duh” gif to fit in with the kids here, but you’re probably making the right face anyways. But the topic is really interesting! So let’s talk a bit about the principles behind large-scale language and dialect shift. At the end of the post, I added some worldbuilding questions I often ask myself to explore how linguistic power dynamics work in societies I write.
Macrosociolinguistics is interested in how whole groups and nations use and abuse language. In order to understand sociolinguistics, one of the things we have to understand is power relationships between groups. Who has political power? Who gets laughed at on TV? Who gets their language taught in schools? Who is right, and who is wrong?
Because here’s the biggest secret in linguistics: No language is wrong. No language is ungrammatical. Just like a biologist would never say a bird was singing “wrong,” you’ll never catch a linguist saying that somebody’s speaking “wrong.” In fact, you can often tell who’s in power by who’s getting to say what’s grammatical and what’s not.
A lot of social work language does is distinguishing one group of people from another. You speak like the people who you want to be seen to be like, and not like the people you don’t want to be seen to be like.
So aspirational middle-class people try to speak like the high classes. Often they do it even harder than the high classes, because the high classes have got nothing to prove.
On the other hand, groups that are discriminated against often form their own dialect because like, screw you guys. (Also because the originators of this group may have come from another place with another language and features of their language may have become mixed in.) But then this dialect becomes cool to people outside the group because it signals you’re not trying too hard, not like those squares in government. So then the people who actually speak that dialect start changing their speech so it’s clear they aren’t like those posers. Inter-language dynamics are really complicated.
Language is also a common site where governments and institutions try to covertly regulate who’s “good enough.” If you have a group that’s discriminated against, and they all speak a particular dialect, it sure is convenient if that dialect is considered really bad and funny and ungrammatical, so none of them can conceivably get a job in government until they’re willing to assimilate to your standard.
A lot of the time, these are subtle ingroup/outgroup effects. People can pick up on very small cues about how others talk and factor it into their judgements of those people. Or, because they’ve been taught that their way of speaking is the only “grammatical” way, they’re under the very false impression that anyone who got enough education would naturally talk like them instead.
But….it definitely does happen overtly in other cases, especially when we’re talking about a state machine dominated by a single ethnolinguistic group. Australia and Canada both literally took away generations of Indigenous children from their families and made sure they wouldn’t be able to speak the language of their parents. Now dialects of English spoken by Indigenous people are also devalued and considered “uneducated” or “funny”–even pathological–when they, like all dialects, are actually beautiful, complex and shifting expressions of community.
And there are many other places around the world where a single language imposed in schooling, for both logistical and ideological reasons, starts to edge out local languages. There’s also places where everyone speaks one language at work and one language at home. There’s places where everyone knows who the Language A families are and who the Language B families are, and where all grandparents speak Language A and all children speak Language B….any time that people want to distinguish themselves from another group, language starts getting rolled in.
If you’re trying to construct a society with a lot of power dynamics, a lot of the time language will factor into how groups distinguish themselves from one another, as well as how they enforce power over one another. I’ll leave you with worldbuilding questions you could ponder on:
Who’s in power in your society? What languages do they speak?
What language gets taught in schools? What languages are spoken at home? In church? What language are books and laws printed in?
How is the “correct” dialect enforced, socially, legally, politically?
Whose dialect/accent is funny?
Whose dialect/accent is considered “incorrect”?
Whose dialect/accent is sexy?
How do women talk in your society as opposed to men? (Women tend to adopt linguistic innovations sooner and men in power devalue them. See: vocal fry, uptalk, “like.”)
Are there “tells” or shibboleths for the dialects in your society? Does everyone know if you can’t say th you’re part of that religious group from the mountains?
What dialects do your characters speak? What do people think of them because of it? Have they had to try to learn other dialects? Were they disciplined in school for the way they talk, or socially sanctioned, or have they never thought about the way they talk? How do they feel about the way they talk?