cave canem

Cave Canem- Beware the Dog

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Conlangs Are Fun!

People say that you should write for yourself, about things that interest you. I have taken these words to heart- one of my favorite parts about writing sci-fi and fantasy is in making new worlds, new cultures, and, of course, new languages.

Many people tend to think that making up a language is incredibly difficult, and, admittedly, it's not exactly easy, but it's sort of a fun challenge, at least to someone like me who is fascinated by languages. So, today I'll be talking about conlangs- what they are, how to make them, and some of my own attempts at making some.

God bless you, Fluttershy.

 The term 'conlang' is short for 'constructed language'. Basically, it's a language that someone made up, usually for use in a work of fiction. Some examples are Klingon, Elvish (Quenya and Sindarin), and Esperanto. 

So, why are conlangs useful? Simple. When writing in a fictional setting, particularly fantasy or some alien culture, you need to come up with names for a lot of stuff- characters, places, tools, foodstuffs, whatever. You could just give them all real-world names, or just make up random names, or something, but it really helps to have a conlang, to have phonemes and morphemes, vocabulary and pronunciation rules to fall back on. (I know, this is starting to sound like work. Just hold on- I'll explain everything.)

So, when writing a conlang, where do you start? Well, first you need to know what sounds you want your language to have. Basically, you have to choose some consonants and some vowels. Want your language to have a 'K' sound? An 'R' sound? An 'A' sound? Remember, too, conlangs can use sounds that aren't in the English language (or whatever other language you happen to speak). In one of my conlangs, Kaerian, I decided to include an alveolar click, which I represented with an apostrophe. (It really pissed off my mom, too, when I was sitting over a notebook mumbling a bunch of nonsense words with odd clicking sounds in them.)
One thing I really like to do with my languages is get rid of letters that are used in English that I think are, frankly, a bit unnecessary. I mean, come on, C, you can't do anything that K or S can't. And what the hell is even up with Q? Why does it need a U after it? Can't we just make Q sound like what QU sounds like now? If not, can't we just get rid of Q altogether and use KW instead?

So, now you've got sounds, right? Now comes the hard part. (Aw.) No, it's okay, guys, really! We can make it fun! Grammar is awesome, right? Come on, Fluttershy, back me up here.

Et tu, Fluttershy?

Quick sidenote: grammar isn't necessary if you're making a naming language, which is basically just a language made up of a bunch of nouns and adjectives used to create names. I made one myself, with some consonant shifts for regional variation. For example, to make a name for a noble family, I used my word for gold (alda), my word for land (terla), and my word for house (vama) and mashed them together to make the name Aldelvam. Naming languages are quick and easy to make, and they're good if you need lots of different groups with distinct names- people from country A can all use sounds like K, G, and R, and people from country B can use sounds like F, L, and P- ta-da, distinct sounds for different cultures! 

Now, grammar. I know, you wanted to avoid it. It's easily the most difficult part of the process. One thing that it's tempting to do is just copy the grammar of either the language you speak, or another language you know well- I know that in my first conlang, Strix, the grammar and much of the vocabulary were basically just Latin with a few minor tweaks. This is bad because it means that you aren't really making the language its own, you're just writing another language in code. 

I'm not going to lecture you on different grammatical structures- if you're interested in that, I will point out this lovely essay, and also this one for a start. Instead, I'm going to tell you a bit about some conlangs I made in the past, and how I got around various problems.

I usually start with parts of speech- rules for nouns, verbs, etc. I sometimes have fun with this- in one conlang I made, Vampyrric, there are no adverbs or adjectives; instead, nouns can be changed to express whatever you want them to express. Instead of saying 'the silver fish', you would say something like 'fishsilver'. If you wanted to say 'the green thing', you would say 'the green'. 

One of the biggest problems with nouns is declension- in English, this is accomplished with word order, context and preposition. In Latin, the ending of the noun will tell you what the declension is. I tend to opt for a more English-based approach, mostly because declining nouns is a headache, as any Latin student will tell you. I still try to make them different, though, by doing things like changing up the word order. In English, you might say 'The boy has a ball.' The subject, 'boy', is first, and the object, 'ball', is last, with the verb, 'has', in between. In Kaerian, the sentence would be reordered to 'Ball boy has', the object first, the subject second, and the verb last. 

Verbs are also tricky. In many languages, they're conjugated by ending, although in some languages they also need a subject to make sense of them. In English, I run, you run, and he, she, or it run. You need the pronoun to make sense of the word 'run'. In Latin or Spanish, the ending of the verb tells you who performed it- 'I run' can be written in Spanish as 'correo', and 'you run' is 'corres'. In Kaerian, my solution was to give the verb a tense ending ('ae' for present, 'y' for past, 'b' for future) and then stick a pronoun after the tense ending. To say 'they love', you would say 'mipa'aeket'. 'Mipa'' means 'love', 'ae' is for present tense, and 'ket' means 'they'. 

Pronouns can be interesting. In English, they express only gender and number, but in Japanese, they can express not only that, but also things like social status, politeness, and how you feel about yourself and the person you're talking to. One of these days, I'm going to make a conlang that has different pronouns for different occupations, emotional states, and ages. Even playing with gender can be fun sometimes- Kaerians have three sexes, and their language has four genders- alpha, beta, delta, and neuter. Every pronoun can express any of the four genders, and there's an entire subculture in their world based upon identifying themselves with neuter pronouns and wearing clothing to disguise their sex and confuse gender perceptions. 

There's more, but I don't feel like getting into it. (You're welcome.) So, now for the fun part- flavor.

Languages evolve as part of a culture, and you can expect to see the culture in the words. Language may not influence thought, but thought influences language, and you can tell a lot about a culture by what they have words for. The famous Eskimo snow example is that the Eskimos had different words for different kinds of snow, because they dealt with snow a lot and needed to distinguish between the different types. Meanwhile, in English, we only need to know that snow is the fluffy white stuff that happens when it's cold outside. In a language I made for a race of werewolves, they had a bunch of different words to describe smells, but less words to describe colors. In Kaerian, because the Kaerians are very concerned with emotions, they have a variety of different words for love- mipa', which I mentioned earlier, refers specifically to romantic love. There's a lot to play around with there, and it can be a lot of fun if you're creative with it.

Anyway, that was absurdly long. If you made it through this far, congratulations, and thanks for reading! Valete!



    Okay, I'm over it. Yeah...that wasn't my favorite class, but I know that if I ever have to make a language for a story, I'll have to dredge up all the info I can. At any rate, thanks for sharing this; at the very least, I'll at least have SOMETHING to guide me if (when?) I give it a shot.

    On an unrelated note, I'm an OG brony -- I watched My Little Pony back when I was seven at my grandma's house. That's how you know who's straight-up legit.

    *flashes gang signs in the shape of tiny horses*

    1. I cede you your brony cred. I was too tomboy to even play with my little sister's MLP toys as a kid.