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!