Let’s pronounce 7 days of Lexember!

I’ve been plugging away on Twitter doing Lexember words, but played around with Audacity a bit tonight and decided to see if I could pronounce my Lexember words. I absolutely cannot!

Click the second version if you hate ladies swearing  proud, patriotic Canadian English as used at our traditional place of congregations such as hockey rinks, or if you love ducks.

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The lip of Tulan and 5 other November language facts

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.

Beyond Common: fantasy language worldbuilding

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.

esperanto_melono
“But Esperanto–” When was the last time the U.N. held a summit in Esperanto? Do you speak Esperanto? (Dammit, this blog’s demo definitely speaks Esperanto.)

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 them mixed 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.

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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.)

Italic K, and four more amazing October language facts

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!

James Legge looking proud of himself.
Hey, James Legge. “Oh, I didn’t see you there!” Listen, can we have a talk? “About what?” Well…

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 end comes 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.

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!

 

What’s with the brackets?

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?

Dialect cage fights: worldbuilding, language policy, and social power

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.

megaphne
“No language is wrong” is not actually a secret. We’re so obnoxious talking about this that we’ve been blanket banned from every Applebee’s in seven states since 1972.

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?

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.