Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

World Building: Conlanging

Hello and welcome to the bonus World Building installment on Conlanging! Huzzah! What is a conlang, you ask? It’s simply a mashup of Constructed Language. That’s it. It’s a made up language. You can probably already think of a few right off the top of your head. Klingon, Na’vi, Dothraki, Esperanto.

Maybe you’ve dabbled in it, maybe you have an idea and just don’t know where to start, maybe you have no clue what I’m talking about. That’s okay. We’re going to start at the very beginning. I’m not a professional linguist. I don’t know all the fancy terms. Hopefully that will help those of you who don’t know the fancy terms either.

We’re going to start with a simple question: How far do you intend to take your conlang? Do you just need a few names and phrases? Do you need a couple sentences, maybe a short dialogue? Or do you intend to write out whole novels and compose grand epics and ballads? If all you need are a few names and phrases, something to spice up a story, then you can probably get by with a notebook or simple document on your computer. If, however, you want more than one complete sentence, dialogue of any length, and especially if you want whole paragraphs and stories, you may need a few more things. You’re going to need a couple of notebooks or a couple of documents, and I would also recommend the program Lexique Pro. It’s a free dictionary-making tool, very simple to use. If you’re a debian Linux user, you can run it seamlessly through PlayOnLinux. Or there is also SIL Language Explorer. It has a lot more bells and whistles and can log an entire grammar construct and parser, but it only runs on Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu (I tried it on Mint and it’s a no-go).

Once you’re organized, move on to the second part: What do you already have? Anything that you already have, write down in your notebook. This means that every word, name, and phrase gets written down. Why? Because those things exist in your language. If you have the ability to change them (such as an unpublished draft), now would be the time to do so. Otherwise, those things exist. When I first started TKC, I had nothing for the Borelian language. In Time to Kill, all I had was two names: Isthim, a particular Borelian, and Brelix, the name of the home world. Borelian itself is not a Borelian word, just the English rendering. The actual Borelian word to describe itself is Bral, as the noun (a Borelian), and Bralar (the adjective, Borelian).

Once you have all of that written out, start organizing it. Arrange them into rough groups. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. Maybe you only have a couple words like I did, or maybe you have some disjointed phrases. Maybe you have a ton of words that you’ve randomly thrown together and want to make something from it. Once they’re arranged, try to see if there are any similarities. Do all your nouns end in “n”? Do all your verbs have “ilv” in the middle? Do your adjectives have an “a_a_i” vowel pattern? If you can find patterns like this, write them down. If you can’t find any patterns, does your current crop of words have any unique features that you could use to make a pattern down the road?

For example, Borelian verbs that end in “-oa” usually have two associated nouns. One is a standard “-k” derivation, and the other is a unique, expansive “-en” derivation. So the verb “mitoa” (dig, burrow) has a generalized noun, “mitok” (hole), and an expanded noun, “miten” (tunnel). Similarly, “sildoa” (visit) has the standard “sildik” (visit) and an expanded “silden” (extended stay, vacation).

Also, some nouns have an aggrandized “-vi-” infix. So “medik” (love, general) becomes “medivik” (romantic love). And “mathik” (party) becomes “mathivik” (festival).

These features came about, largely, on accident. I wasn’t paying attention when I was making a particular word, realized I needed, wanted, or intended something else, so I added something to make it true.

So let’s say that you have everything written down and organized to the best of your abilities. You now know what you have. Let’s see about making more. To that end, we’re going to move on to step three: Sounds.

When all I had was “Isthim” and “Brelix” in my Borelian lexicon, I had a lot of information about it actually.

I knew that it had short I, and I decided that all I’s are short. I also had the sounds s, th, m, b, r, br, (short) e, l, and x. I knew that words could start with a vowel, and consonants could combine. I knew that stress would be primarily on the first syllable for two-syllable words.

First problem: is “th” like “this” or “thin”? I decided that it could be either. Also, it was going to be represented the same way.

But I needed more letters and sounds. Depending on how much you already have, this is a good point to determine your conlang’s cadence. Do you want your language to be breathy and flowing? Then you probably don’t want a lot of stop-consonants like k, d, j, p, and so on. Do you want it to sound aggressive and menacing? Gutturals and stops are your friend. For Borelian, I decided that the cadence would be a bit disjointed. In the overall scope of language, most sounds have two variations. F and V for example. In Borelian, I typically picked out only one sound from these pairs, and I also left out other sounds that one might expect from the scale of language. Coupled with rules on how sounds may change in speech, and other elements, Borelian does sound a bit disjointed, like a speaker is constantly tripping over himself to find the right words and sounds.

To that end, consider, too, how some sounds may change depending on the sounds around it as well as the intent of the speaker. How do words and cadence change depending on whether the situation is formal or informal, if the audience is prince or pauper?

If you’re writing about an alien species, consider how unique physiology may influence their language. Imagine a people with really long noses; their language may have a whole range of nasal sounds which humans can’t replicate. Or long necks may see a new range of gutturals. Consider other sounds which we may not normally consider to be linguistically significant. Clicks, tones, and other such things.

Before you go any further into any serious development, you should have your alphabet and sounds pretty well locked in, at least 95% I’d say. As you get into serious development, you may find that you just really want a certain sound to exist, or maybe another sound isn’t working out like you’d hoped. Early stages you can get away with minor changes. The further you go, the harder it is to change. For example, after I’d already crossed 500 words and most elementary grammar, I decided that I really wanted to combine “t” and “j” and get a “ch” sound. It existed nowhere in my dictionary or elementary grammar and its sudden appearance was a little strange. It’s more developed and used now, but I consider the “elementary phrasebook” to be my benchmark of things that should already be done.

Now then, there may be an exception to this, and it depends on the ethnic and linguistic diversity of your people and the surrounding peoples. How interactive are different cultures and different languages, how active are language exchanges? For the Borelians, they choose to isolate themselves, putting themselves as the kings of the universe and all else beneath them. Others bend to them, but they bend to no one. Therefore, they would assimilate far less into their language and culture than other peoples who may be more open-minded, such as the Turitians who have a very vibrant language and active language exchange.

With all of this locked in pretty well, it’s time to consider your first words. Return to your list and groupings of words that already exist, if you made one. Any words that are similar, for example, a verb “to celebrate” and a noun “celebration,” or an adjective “strong” and a noun “strength,” group together. Study them. How are they different? Did one word come before another? Which one came first?

If I look at the Borelian words “dub” and “dubik,” I know that the latter is a noun derived from the former which is a verb. Similarly, the verb “disti” comes before the noun “distaim,” and that the noun “jezik” comes from the adjective “ezik” which comes from the noun “zik” which comes from the verb “zi.”

Therefore, Borelian is built on verbs first, then nouns, then adjectives. Many words can be traced to a verb root, although there are plenty of root nouns as well. Root adjectives are linguistically rare. Contrast this with Turitian which only has twelve verbs and whose nouns are built around adjectives.

Also consider in which order your people place their words. English uses an SVO structure, where the subject comes first, then the verb, then the object, if applicable. I ran. Subject-Verb. I hit him. Subject-Verb-Object. Certain styles of prose or axioms may use different forms (Money does not a rich man make), but in everyday conversation it’s SVO. There are plenty of languages that use SOV. French Je t’aime. Je, I, subject. Tu, you, object. Aime, love, verb. On the SVO paradigm, there are six different structures. Then you have languages like Cherokee which is a “news-based” structure, that is, new or important information typically comes first. So if you’re reading a story about the tortoise and the hare, tortoise and hare may come first in the first sentence, but their position gradually gets pushed back as new information about their adventures comes in during the story.

The style with which you build your language may be reflective of your people’s culture. Are they gungho giterdone people? Things may be based on verbs, actions. Are they more observant of the world around them? They might prize nouns. Are they more artistic or abstractly involved in the world? Adjectives, then. Or it may be something else entirely. Maybe there is no rhyme or reason to your people’s language because they have picked up so many elements from surrounding languages.

Because of sheer linguistic diversity, it can be hard to make a list of things that must be accomplished when creating a brand new language, pieces to include or not include. If you study any other language besides your native tongue, you’re bound to find things in the new language that you never considered important, and you may find some things missing that your native language has that you can’t imagine speaking without.

For example, English has an almost ridiculous range of verb tenses and aspects that can render incredibly precise meaning in a verb. Other languages may only have past, present, and future, and that’s it. And it’s frustrating to try and discern meanings, translate back and forth, and what have you. But because English tends to be a rather flamboyant language, it can be difficult to grasp tonal languages where our casual inflections of a single word that never changes can mean ten different things in, say, Cherokee or Chinese. And it’s hard to tell a pun joke in German because of their sentence and verb structures giving away the punchline halfway through the tell.

So instead of going through every possible way to build a language, I would encourage you instead to study existing languages, pick out things you like, and see if you can’t fit them together with what you know about your people, their history and culture. To help you out, I’m going to include a list of conlang test sentences. I did not come up wth it; you can do a quick internet search and find it just as easily. They’re intended to get you thinking about how you want to say certain things and cover certain grammatical elements. Maybe some things will look and sound the same. That’s okay.

I’m also going to pick out a few of the sentences that I’ve translated into Borelian. I’ll read them, then pick apart the grammar a little to show you how things fit together.

  1. The sun shines.

    1. O in thia walum o.

Borelian is a SOV style language, but it uses phrasal circumfixes to denote basic tense, past, present, and future. For present tense, it’s “O-o.” The definite article “in” must come before all subject nouns regardless of definiteness in order to separate it from the circumfix. The word “thia” is a root noun meaning “sun.” Because there is no object, it goes straight to the verb. “Alum” means “shine” but is grammatically worthless. “Wa” is the habitual aspect, thereby validating the verb, creating a sense that something happens regularly. Because the verb starts with a vowel, “wa” drops its “a” and combines with the verb. It would also be possible to add “-it” at the end as the third-person inanimate pronoun suffix, but because there is enough information in the rest of the phrase, it is unnecessary and can be left out.

  1. The sun is shining.

    1. O in thia ixalum o.

The different between this sentence and the former is the prefix “ix-” which is the incomplete aspect, meaning that something is incomplete or ongoing.

  1. The sun shone.

    1. Et in thia kalum et.

“Et” is the past tense circumfix, meaning something happened in the past. The “ko-” prefix indicates completeness, that an action has been completed and everything is in the past.

  1. The sun will shine.

    1. Oth in thia ixalum oth.

“Oth” is the future circumfix. Because something in the future has yet to be completed, the “ix-” prefix is called for. Therefore, this sentence could also be translated as “The sun will be shining.”

  1. We arrived at the river.

    1. Et kovemiturb in lith mian evi et.

“Et” is the past circumfix, and “ko” is the completive aspect. “Vemit” is the verb, and “urb” indicates the subject without needing an isolated pronoun (although it can be added for emphasis). There is no “at” in Borelian. Location is rendered using “in the place of X.” “Lith” is place. The genitive, or relational aspect between nouns is done simply be putting two nouns together. Thus, having “mian” (river) after “lith” makes it “the location of the river.” Borelian also uses postpositions, making “evi” the metaphorical “in.”

  1. Were you born in this village?

    1. Et kokatheniniv canit inca et?

Finally, the passive, indicated by the infix “-ni-.” There are different rules regarding the placement of the passive infix. The suffix “-iv” indicates the second person. Proper grammar would see the use of “lith,” the location of the village, but colloquial speech may eliminate this.

Conlanging really is a creative endeavor, and as long as you slow down and think things through, it’s really hard to mess it up, even if you’re not a professional linguist.

And that does it for the series on World Building. Thank you for joining me and I hope to see you next time.

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