Any future children of mine will be raised as first-language speakers of English, at least two other prominent languages, and - of course - the family conlang.
- 1: What natural languages inspire you?
- 2: How many conlangs have you made?
- 3: Do you tell people about your conlangs in real life?
- 4: Why do you conlang?
- 5: What are some of your favorite words from your conlang(s)?
- 6: Are you proud to be a conlanger, why or why not?
- 7: Has your conlangery gotten you into any weird situations?
- 8: How long have you been conlanging?
- 9: Do you have a specific goal for the future of your conlang(s)?
- 10: Have you integrated your conlang(s) into any other artistic practices?
- 11: What conlang(s) do you admire, envy, etc.?
- 12: Would you ever teach children your conlang(s) as a thought experiment?
- 13: What's the most bizarre sentence you can create in one of your conlangs?
- 14: How does one of your conlangs represent you?
- 15: What really perplexes you about natlangs or conlangs?
- 16: How have people reacted when you tell them you conlang?
- 17: Is there anything that irks you about conlanging in general?
- 18: Do you have linguistic pet-peeves in conlangs?
- 19: What are some qualities that your conlang(s) just MUST have?
- 20: If you could make one of your conlangs the official language of a country (extant or not), would you?
- 21: Are you a member of any conlang communities online?
- 22: Have you ever been to a conlang event in real life?
- 23: If you could construct an aspect of a real natlang, what would you do to it?
- 24: Do you have any fears about conlanging?
- 25: Are there any natlangs that you find to be especially conlang-esque?
Anonymous said: Okay, so I know this is probably a frequently asked question, and one that is probably hard to answer, but I wanted to know where the best place to start is in constructing a language. I'm relatively new to the conlang scene, speak English fluently, some French (including a hobbyist's understanding of romance language trends), and I have an unusual love of German. I study language history as a hobby, and I was curious if you had any resources or tips I can use.
While it’s true that your question is frequently asked, there’s nothing wrong in asking it again. Conlanging is still a little known craft, despite the surge in popularity it has enjoyed these last years. There are no schools or courses to turn to to learn language construction, and while sources of information exist online, they can be difficult to find for the newcomer who doesn’t know exactly what to look for. And languages are intimidating beasts: how can a single person create such complex systems? Turning to a seasoned conlanger for advice is then exactly the right thing to do :).
This said, as you surmised, your question is a hard one to answer. As an act of creation, conlanging is a particularly personal one, and everyone has their own way to approach the craft. There are similarities, naturally, but also many differences. What I can do, though, is explain how my approach to language creation is like, as well as point out other resources for alternative points of view.
Keep in mind, though, that I am squarely an artlanger, i.e. I create languages for fun and for the beauty of it, and my languages are mostly naturalistic. My approach may not work with other types of conlangs.
I’ll start with two simple tips. One is to learn at least some basics of linguistics, if only to understand the vocabulary used to describe languages. It’s much easier to create a language when you know your declensions from your conjugations and understand what a circumfix is ;). My second tip is to learn about as many natural languages as possible. Notice that I did say to learn about them. You needn’t be a polyglot to be a good conlanger (though it helps ;) ). In any case, try to read grammatical descriptions of as many languages as you can find. Languages are systems (well, systems of systems to be exact, complex structures), and to understand those structures, to understand how different languages are alike, but also how they differ so much from each other, there’s no better way than to read about as many languages as possible. Try especially to read about non-Indo-European languages. Languages are a very diverse bunch, but you’d never notice if you focus only on languages related to English.
For those two tips, one of the best resources I have found is simply Wikipedia. It’s a great place to start, contains many good linguistic articles that are relatively accessible for newbies, and it contains many language descriptions. And if you need more depth, you can always check the references in those articles. But let’s now go on to language creation itself.
When I create a language, I usually go through the following steps:
- The very first thing I do is ask myself the question: “what do I want to do with this language?” In other words, what are my goals for this creation? Even if you just want to create a language for fun, you need a clear goal to guide you at every step. Without one, your creation will lack unity and cohesion. Goals needn’t be testable or measurable. They may not even be that clear when you start. But you need some kind of guiding principle to help you focus. Examples of goals can be like “I want to try my hand at an ergative language with lots of head marking”, “what if Latin had displaced German as the main spoken language of the Holy Roman Empire”, “can a language work without nouns” or even simply “I want to create a language the expresses my thoughts better than the languages I already know”. Just think up your own!
- With your goal in mind, it’s time to start actually building the language. Everyone goes through it their own way, but the key is to take it slow, one step at a time. Focussing on spoken languages right now, a language consists basically of a phonology, a morphology, a syntax and a vocabulary (those categories tend to bleed into each other, but such a classification is good enough for a beginner). I tend to go through these in that order:
- The phonology is not just an inventory of the sounds that appear in a language, but also a description of how syllables are formed and where which sounds can appear in a word (what is called phonotactics). The phonotactics of a language are just as important as its phoneme inventory, as they have a big influence on how the language will sound like. Look for instance at how English can pack many consonants within the same syllable, as in the word strength. Japanese, on the other hand, is much more restricted in the shape of its syllables, and a Japanese speaker without knowledge of English trying to pronounce the word above would end up with something like suterengusu! The phonology and phonotactics of the language you create will have a great influence on the look and feel of your language (an its sound), so they are worth taking your time working on. And while it is likely that you will need to revise your phonology as time goes on and you understand better how your creation works, I typically advise to have a good sound inventory set up early, as you will need words to test the grammar rules that you are going to invent, and it’s difficult to create those when you don’t know which sounds your language uses and which it doesn’t. An invaluable tool when it comes to phonology is the International Phonetic Alphabet, so It’s a good idea to learn to use it.
- Once you have the phonology in place, it’s time to work on the meat of the language, its grammar. Typically, you will start with the morphology of your language, i.e. the form, structure and type of its words. This is the place where you will decide which parts of speech your language has. Most natural languages have nouns and verbs, for instance, but not all languages have a separate class of adjectives, or if they have them, they may only have a few. It’s also the place where you decide whether you’ll have noun classes (in European languages those are usually called genders), verb groups, and what, if anything, is marked on these parts of speech. Do nouns change form for number, for function in the sentence (case), do verbs have marking for tense, aspect, mood, which ones are marked, etc. Do adjectives agree with the nouns they complete? Do verbs agree in person, number, noun class, etc. with the subject, the object, both, or neither? Or do they do all kinds of different things? (I heard of one language spoken on an island where verbs have a mandatory marking for whether the action took place on the seashore or inland! :) ) But you’ll quickly need to make decisions about the syntax of your language before you can make all the decisions about its morphology, so let’s go to the next point.
- The syntax of a language doesn’t only refer to word order, but it’s a big part of it. Basically, what is the word order in a standard sentence? (typically described by ordering a combination of the letters V, S and O, i.e. verb, subject and object) Do other types of sentences or clauses have a different word order? (your beloved German, for instance, is V2 for main clauses, but verb-final in subordinate clauses) Do adjectives precede or follow the noun they complete? Another important question is your language’s alignment: is your language nominative-accusative, ergative-absolutive, split ergative, or something different (the Austronesian alignment, for instance, is especially cool ;) ). Morphology and syntax interact a lot with each other (that’s why people often speak of morphosyntax), so you’ll often go from one to the other as you build up your language. Here again, take your time, build your language step by step, and revise often, especially at the beginning when things are still fluid. Later it will become more difficult to change things.
- Once you have a phonology and a working grammar, as well as some embryo of a lexicon, with words you created to test your grammar rules, it’s time to start making that language grow. That means creating its vocabulary. Now, this is my least favourite part, so I have only little advice to give here. What I can tell you, however, is that the way not to do it is to get a vocabulary list in English and invent a word for each entry. Languages differ in everything, including in which meanings they encode in which words. In other words, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the vocabularies of two different languages. Not even to two closely related ones! Because of that, you’ll need to be just as careful when creating your vocabulary as you were when you created the phonology, morphology and syntax of your conlang. And remember, languages are systems of systems. Even in a language’s vocabulary, there are structures to find, systems, connections to exploit. Try to discern your language’s spirit, and don’t forget your goal! If you’re creating a language for a fictional people, think about their culture. The interaction between language and culture is complicated, but a nice principle to remember is that people will generally only name what is relevant to them. And that includes not only their environment, but also their feelings, belief systems, theories, etc.
And that’s it. Now, I realise that I used a lot of words and still only scratched the surface of what language construction is, but hopefully you can use this as a first poke in the right direction :).
As I wrote above, this is only my approach to conlanging, and it may not fit your preferences. There are others. People like David J. Peterson, for instance, favour a more historical approach, where they create a proto-language, and derive the language they actually want to create via sound changes (and other fun historical stuff like grammaticalisation). This is a great way to create believable systems and especially believable exceptions and irregularities, but it’s a lot of work and you need to have a good handle on historical linguistics. However much I admire that method, I know it isn’t for me. But if you study language history, it might be fit for you.
Another tip I have is to look at the Language Construction Kit. While it contains some things that I will politely refer to as “inaccuracies”, it is a good guide for a beginner. Just don’t take it at face value and use it more as a guideline, and you’ll be fine.
You can also look into joining existing conlang communities. My preference goes to the Conlang Mailing List (for its civility and level of knowledge) and naturally to the Language Creation Society, which can for instance help you set up a website to showcase your creations, and has a lending library if you want to consult linguistics books but cannot afford to buy them (and don’t have a university library in the neighbourhood).
One last tip: do not rush in to translate texts in your conlang. While translations are a great way to test your language and increase its vocabulary, if you start doing translations before the language has solidified into its own thing, the source language of your translations will tend to seep in your own, with its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities finding their way into your conlang. It’s just so easy to just copy the structures and idioms of the language you’re translating from, when your own conlang has not matured enough to produce its own idioms. So while translations are great exercises, they are counterproductive early in the game. Only start working on translations once your conlang has a solid basis and a big enough lexicon.
So, I hope this answer will help you. Sorry, it has been long in the making, and it may be a little too wordy for Tumblr, but I hope it’ll be useful. Don’t hesitate to send more asks if you need clarification or have other questions!
The premise of this session was to learn about linguistics by creating a conlang (constructed language), an idea that has been applied with success to undergrad courses (for example, here’s Christine Schreyer’s conlang course, and I know there are others although the names escape me for the moment). To my knowledge, conlanging has not been tried with a 9-14 aged group before, although I know individual conlangers who have started making languages at a young age. But if anyone has examples that I’ve missed, feel free to let me know!
Final note: the individual days aren’t as dense with activities as in How Does Language Work?, because I wanted to allow a lot of free time for the students to work on their languages. (I’m not assigning homework for summer camp!)
Anonymous said: I want to create a fantasy lamguage for my novel (and I really thank you for all the things I can find in the language tag), but I don't know which words to translate in that language and how many. Suggestions?
Translate as many as you need, but I can give you some tips that can help you a lot when writing sentences and phrases.
Here is what you should definitely translate to have on hand:
- Verb endings
- Common words
One thing you should do is create pronouns and how they work with verb conjugations. Let’s say that mwi is the pronoun she. The verb tinolit means to run. Now let’s say we want to write “she runs”. You can do a lot with this depending on your language:
You can write a literal translation without conjugating the verb:
- Mwi tinolit
You can conjugate the verb and get rid of the pronoun due to the verb already implying the pronoun:
You can add something to the verb without conjugating it to show the pronoun:
Of course with different tenses, you might have to further conjugate the verb depending on the culture’s perception of time. If we wanted to say “she ran”, it could be:
- Mi’tinoliten or (looking at example 2)
- En’tinolam or (looking at example 1)
- Mwi tinoliten
You should also make a list of verb endings. In our word tinolit, the -lit is the ending and this is what we modify when conjugating the verb. We can make -lit a regular verb ending, along with a few other endings. Let’s choose three common verb endings: -lit, -let, -lot. We can also introduce irregular verb endings, but you don’t have to do that.
Once you’ve got your basic verb endings, you should come up with verb endings for certain tenses. Make a list of all of these. When it comes time to create a sentence with a verb you don’t have, all you need to do is pick a verb ending, make up a prefix, and, if needed, attach your pronoun.
Common words would include articles, prepositions, interjections, determiners, and conjunctions. Coming up with words for these beforehand can cut down a lot of time on making up full sentences in another language.
The syntax (word order) is something that you should determine right away. Here is an example of how to keep track of it:
- Fictional Language: [insert a fictional language with Yoda’s syntax]
- Literal Translation: Luke, when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be.
- Modified Translation: Luke, when I am gone, you will be the last of the Jedi.
Keeping tack of literal translations can help you practice with the same syntax and you can refer to other sentences you have created to keep consistency. Look at the syntax of various languages to get some ideas. They don’t always have to follow the syntax of the language you write in.
Bonus: Untranslatable words can be a fun little addition to your world and can add to realism. A lot of people use words from other languages in their everyday speech to convey feelings succinctly. They can be used as interjections too. If you use untranslatable words, just one (or two or three) will do. Creating too many will confuse readers or reduce their effect. You need to explain what these words mean at one point in your story so that readers are aware of what they mean.
Above all, translate all words and sentences that you use in your story.
When it comes to translating fictional languages to the reader, there are a few things you can do.
- Greetings: You don’t always need to translate greetings or farewells. If two characters meet, bow, and say “Lito” to each other, the reader will assume it is a greeting based on context. They don’t need the literal translation.
- Full sentences: If you use full sentences in another languages, you don’t have to translate them if the reader isn’t meant to know what it says. If you want to translate them to the reader, you can use a character as a translator or you can write the translation in dialogue (usually in italics) if the POV character understands the language.
- Glossary: Some writers include a glossary of their language at the end of the story. This works best when you only use a few words and phrases of your made up language. A glossary isn’t going to allow an accurate translation of full sentences if you use them because the reader doesn’t know conjugations and syntax.
- Common Phrases: You can find lots of ways to translate simple phrases to the reader. You only need to do it once. After that, you can use this common phrase and variations of it without needing to translate it.
- Mention in Narration: You don’t have to write out the language all the time. If the POV character can understand the language, mention within narration that they are speaking a different language and write the dialogue in whatever language you write in.