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.
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!
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
So you’re all ready with the inspiration for your constructed language and you’re raring to go? In this post, step 2 of our writer’s approach to conlanging, I’ve linked some of the best research resources you can consult to get started on a new or first-time conlang. The number of crosses (✚) beside each resource, up to four, indicates how technical and difficult to read they are so you can be prepared. Your aim is to have a resource available that will help guide you through the most important parts of your grammar’s “sketch” before you can tuck in to some sweet, sweet translation, and which you can consult when the going gets tough.
Wiktionary is awesome for its indexes of every word in every language it knows, which are often an amazing source for vocab inspiration, and its translations. (Did you know the Nahuatl word for ‘fish’ is michin? Now you do.) It’ll help you learn non-English ways to arrange meanings with words, which is a really important element of conlanging. More on this in an upcoming post on growing your word list. ✚
Laypeople’s “learn to speak X” websites. Finding a good one of these for your inspiration language is like gold when you first start out. Eventually, though, you’ll outgrow them and want the technical explanation for the phenomenon they talk about. ✚
Wikipedia grammar explanations are sometimes relatively very technical and confused, but Wikipedia is also a guaranteed source of vocab for inspiration languages that are less present on the web, e.g., Winaray. ✚✚~✚✚✚
Other conlangers’ websites. These are especially good resources for first-time conlangers who want to present their language to other people someday so you can see how others do it. David J. Peterson and Mark Rosenfelder are two well-known conlangers with pretty accessible websites. ✚✚ ~ ✚✚✚✚
The World Atlas of Language Structures is, literally, my favorite site on the Internet. Info on linguistic elements from a cross-linguistic perspective that will give you a great sense of what is possible and what’s common in language. ✚✚✚
University libraries. If you don’t go to a university, it might seriously be worth it to buy a library membership from the nearest university if you really get into conlanging. Local libraries typically don’t carry the kind of academic info you’ll need when you get up in the four-cross difficulty range. ✚✚✚✚
Google Scholar is also a good source of academic linguistics! Some of the articles you really want are going to be locked behind a paywall, though. It’s gonna hurt. ✚✚✚✚
Academia.edu is another place you can find academic linguistics for free on the Web. ✚✚✚✚
And don’t forget about other conlang guides! Each of these takes a different tack on how to conlang, but they can all be helpful:
Language Construction Kit is really powerful for people who have a good grasp already on some linguistics terminology and for people who do want to get on their sound system early. (The way I approached conlanging when I started used no sound system at all, and I think it’s a good way to go for beginners who just aren’t that into phonology yet.) ✚✚~✚✚✚
The Conlang Wikibook is very effectively and concisely organized and provides good scaffolding for “leveling up”. If you would rather get to know your language better before you start translating, or if you want to start another language with more complex grammatical concepts, this is a good place to start. ✚ ~ ✚✚✚✚
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.
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.
Figure out what languages you like the sound of.
Research to get a feel for what words in those languages sound like.
Decide some basic parameters of your grammar using your research.
Start a word list.
Find a good translation text.
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.