Creating a language from scratch: six questions

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.

  1. What subject-object-verb order are your sentences?
  2. Does your language tend to be head-first or head-last?
  3. Does your language tend to be analytic, agglutinative, or fusional?
  4. Do your nouns have case, classes, number?
  5. What are your verbs like?
  6. What are your pronouns like?

Now, for a brief overview, I’ve done my best to explain each parameter below in 140 characters:

  1. English orders sentences subject-verb-object (SVO) but other langs are SOV, VSO, and rarely, OSV/VOS/OVS. That’s important because…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Some langs have multiple categories of nouns, put their prepositions on the noun, and have duals/plurals/(trials…), so sort that out.
  5. Verbs can do a lot of stuff. Past/present, expressing beliefs and feelings, matching their subject. Decide on your basic verb divisions!
  6. 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!

 

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Linguistics lingo for new language creators

As you translate, you’re often going to come across phenomena that nobody’s ever mentioned to you a word for. It can be hard to know where to even start. If you try to chunk that last sentence for translation you might run into “can be hard to know” and realize…is can an adverb here or what? Why are there so many verbs? How am I supposed to know how my inspiration language handles a phrase like that without even knowing what I’m looking at?

A screenshot of a Google search reading
Turns out this doesn’t work.

I got nostalgic about the words I was so puzzled over when I started creating languages, so here’s my best attempt to define some of them for curious newbies.

Quick look: auxiliary verbcomplementizergerund •  infinitiveindirect objectintransitiverelative clause

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auxiliary verb: First, what you really came here for: the reason there are so many verbs.

One strategy languages use to introduce new meanings is to chain or combo verbs up together. In the very long term, this is the first step in the arduous journey of making new verbal grammar like the -ed in “walked.” In the short term, it just looks like verbs getting stacked together.

All the verbs that don’t constitute the main meaning of the sentence, but just modify it, are auxiliaries. In “can be hard,” can is the auxiliary verb to be. Auxiliary verbs in English include should, would, could, can, will, must, shall…

complementizer:  In the sentence “I hear that Lee loves ducks,” that is a complementizer.

Complex sentences can be very confusing for beginner conlangers because our mainstream schooling in English doesn’t typically get into this level of syntax. A complementizer makes an entire sentence act like an object (or another part of the sentence.) Consider “I believe that Lee has a duck.” “I know that Lee watches Game of Thrones”.

In English, “that” and “how” are possible complementizers, so if you see those, perk up your ears.

gerund: In the sentence “I love grooming my duck,” this use of the -ing suffix makes the verb groom into a noun, so it can be the object of love. Verbs made into nouns by the -ing suffix are called gerunds in English.

As you’ll see below, the other strategy is to make groom a special verb form, “to groom.” We consider that one still a verb because complex linguistics reasons (I think, I actually did no research to confirm.) This one is definitely a noun.

Which is weird because you can say “I love slowly grooming my duck.” …You know what, let’s not talk about gerunds anymore, I’m getting nervous. I think I almost took an advanced syntax undergrad class on this and then dropped out. Damn it.

infinitive: In sentences like, “I know to groom my duck,” the verb groom is in a special form called the infinitive. It’s called that because it has no tense or aspect. It just…is.

A galaxy because I couldn't find a pictorial representation of the infinitive tense.
Pursuing my Google joke, I searched for both “Infinite” and “Infinite, but not the boy band photos you just showed me.” Both search terms showed me exclusively pictures of the Korean boy band Infinite. Looks like the robots ain’t taking our jobs yet, boys.

Verbs with no specified tense or aspect are used for different purposes in different languages and has different formats. But in English, the place where you’ll probably be most confused is in sentences like the one above, where the infinitive signals that the verb phrase that it starts is acting as the object of another verb. Verbs within verbs.

indirect object/oblique: In the sentence “I gave that duck to Lee,” duck is the direct object and Lee is the indirect object or oblique.

“Recipients” are the only type of oblique–you wouldn’t say that in “I dunked the duck in the lake,” in the lake was an oblique. We like having a specific word to talk about recipients because, across languages, they tend to be treated with special grammar for whatever reason. For more try looking up the dative case.

intransitive/transitive/ditransitive: An intransitive verb has no object. An archetypical intransitive verb is something like “Lee sobs.” (Poor Lee!)

That can’t take an object at all–you can’t say “Lee sobs the duck.” What would that even mean? Meanwhile, a transitive verb can have an object, like in “Lee helps the duck.”

I was constantly confused about intransitive/transitive until I learned about ditransitivity, because it makes a good mnemonic–imagine that “trans” as a term for the object of a sentence and you can see that “intrans” has no trans, “trans” has one trans and “ditrans” has two transes! They’re verbs like “I give Lee the duck” that allow two “places” to be filled by two types of objects.

relative clause: This is the whole clause “The person that loves dogs“. The particle connecting “the person” and “love dogs” is called a relative pronoun. It takes a whole sentence and relates it to a noun. In English, “that,” “which”, and “who” are some possible relative pronouns, so if you see them, be on the lookout.

 

Creating your first fantasy language: Inspiration and research

In our outline of our writer’s approach to conlanging, step 1 is Find a language you like the sound of. You probably already have one in mind.  Having two is even better because you can mix and match them. (Based on my anecdotal surveys of beginner conlangers, there’s an 80% chance you just thought of Japanese, Arabic, or Italian. But they’re good choices!)

You don’t have to speak the language you’re inspired by. You don’t even have to be very familiar with how the language actually sounds–you’ll get that through research too. What’s important is that you have a solid foundation to get started with and something specific to research when you can’t figure out what some pesky adjective in your translation text is doing.

Tips to pick great inspiration langs, for happy and healthy conlangers:

  • For your first language, you’ll want something that has a lot of popular resources. Languages that are often learned as a second language–Italian, German, Japanese, Mandarin–have lots of resources for laypeople and learners. No technical vocab necessary!
  • Prepare to do more work if you pick a language that’s very differerent from your own. Some languages are more the same than others; English is in a family called Indo-European that many people have done a lot of easily available research about. If you pick a language from a family you’re familiar with, you’ll get off the ground faster.
  • BUT, if at least one of your inspiration languages is very different from yours, in the long run you’ll learn more. It’s always a balance! Learning about a beautiful language that might be unfamiliar to you, like Nuxalk, Igbo, Hmong or Inuktitut, is its own reward and will teach you more about the limits of language.

Do you have your inspiration in mind? I’m putting together a resource list to help you get researching. In the meantime, get excited about your inspiration language! If you start researching and suddenly feel the linguistic electricity going down your spine–“Nuxalk has an anti-passive voice? What is that?!”you’re in the perfect mood to start conlanging.

 

Language creation for your novel: the basic plan

Or think of it as a functional approach. Basically, we’re going to do the bare minimum before we start translating…and then we’ll start translating, and you’ll learn on the job.

As ever, huge props to Mark Rosenfelder, whose amazing Language Construction Kit was an enormous influence on all of us in our intermediate phases. But key word? Intermediate. For many beginner language creators, phonology, meaning the inventory of sounds in a language, is already too technical. We want to start having fun with language right away. (If you love phonology, you’re still going to be a great conlanger, but the LCK is definitely a better resource for you because Mark Rosenfelder is better than me. Read it and then come back later and see me, okay?)

The functional approach lets you get started on the fun part. Later you’ll learn how to create a consistent phonology, and you’ll do beautiful things with it. But for now, here’s an outline of a slightly different way to create your own language for your novel.

  1. Figure out what languages you like the sound of.
  2. Research to get a feel for what words in those languages sound like.
  3. Decide some basic parameters of your grammar using your research.
  4. Start a word list.
  5. Find a good translation text.
  6. Go!
  7. ???
  8. Profit!

Just kidding, there’s no money in this. We do it for the love of the game.

In future posts, we’ll go through each part of the outline step by step. Then we’ll talk about how to step up to the next level–once you’re comfortable with how to find the answers you’ll need. Start with some suggestions for how to pick great inspiration languages here.

 

 

 

How much linguistics do you need to know to start conlanging?

Way less than you think.

Here’s the thing. As you conlang, you will learn linguistics naturally. Yes, really! I was in my third year of a linguistics degree before anything major was presented to me that I hadn’t already learned “on the job” through conlanging. Upcoming blog posts will outline the functional approach I and others took to get from “curious writer” to “constantly infodumping about conlanging and linguistics at inappropriate times.”

You won’t learn theoretical models and frameworks unless you’re into that kind of thing, but you’ll learn the empirical facts, linguistic universals, and grammatical structures that make those models possible, with the help of many scholars and the bountiful conlanging community, through your own research.

Let’s assume you know nothing about linguistics or grammar. Here’s three basic facts about language that you do want to think about before you start:

  1. You know way less about your mother tongue than you think.
  2. Language is way weirder than you think.
  3. Languages are more different from one another than you think…but also more the same, in ways you don’t know yet.

Think about it–linguistics findings are everywhere around you, and trivially accessible, but most people don’t have the vocabulary or intuition to accurately talk about them. Imagine if most people couldn’t even tell you what an element was, but they were doing complex experiments with hydrogen every single day without even realizing it!

That maps exactly onto linguistic elements like sounds and sentences. Humans have unbelievable intuitive abilities with language, which many linguists believe are coded in your brain before you’re even born. That coding would produce the “limits” of language that give all languages similar underlying structure. For instance, all languages have pronouns, which I’m sure sounds right to you.

At the same time, a natural error to make is unconsciously assuming your mother tongue, say English, is the most normal language. In your mind, you might calibrate your idea of what’s strange, what’s normal, and what’s impossible in language based on how English is put together. But in reality, there is no normal language, and the actual limits of language encompass a lot of possibilities that seem completely off the wall to people who only speak English. For instance, not all languages have adjectives!

Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Greenberg. Grandpappy!

Linguistic universals like pronouns are constantly being catalogued and studied. The big grandpappy of linguistic universals is Joseph Greenberg, and his seminal texts are available online. 

If you open that link and immediately break into a cold sweat…don’t worry, you don’t have to understand any of that yet. One day it will be super helpful to you. Right now it’s probably just confusing. That’s fine.

The main point of our three facts is that as you’re starting your conlanging journey, you’ve got to remember to stay open to the insane creativity of language. Until you develop an intuition for cross-language structures, don’t assume that anything is the same in your language as it is in English–or that you really know what’s going on in English! The best way to start honing your language intuition is to research like a conlanger. I’ll talk about how to research for conlanging in the post coming up. Always stay curious!