Wandering Autumn

Exploring change and the life that comes with it

Conlanging

August 30, 2016 

If I am ever in a geek-off—a competition to see who has an interest/hobby that is the most obscure—my winning entry is that I am a conlanger. That is, I am someone who is working on (/has worked on) a constructed language. Like J. R. R. Tolkien did with his Elvish language, Quenya; and Marc Okrand did with the Klingon language. Or for a more modern take, the Dothraki language that David Peterson made for Game of Thrones.

As far as niche interests go, it’s a pretty small one1, and is a difficult one to do well. Languages (and the cultures they are attached to) are messy, complicated things, and trying to mimic that is difficult. But it’s still fun to dig in and peer into the mechanics of what makes “language” work; it’s a lot like taking apart a bunch of mechanical clocks so you can build your own clock that has 16 hours and 47 minutes per hour, just because it sounds like fun.

Though these days, I’m much less interested in creating a language for the sake of creating a language, and more interested in using it more as a “naming language”. So when I create character and place names in a fantasy setting, there’s actually a rhyme and reason (as it were) for what the names mean and how I generate them. That’s not to say I won’t extend and work on the language beyond just the naming bits, because I do have an interest in it; but that ultimately the part that people will be interested in most is the story that weaves characters and plot together.

But there is a tension with creating a conlang to be used in a fantasy novel. That tension is two-fold: first, with the readership; and second, with me, the author.

The problem with the readership is that they have no idea how to pronounce words. It’s not really their fault; English is especially bad at having a predictable pronunciation,2 and depending on what other languages they know, their default guesses at an unfamiliar word could be radically different from each other. This is why I am eternally frustrated when I see authors come up with a fantasy word and then say “it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled”—that frequently does not actually help unless you happen to have the same educational and dialect background as the author, depending on the consonants and (especially) vowels used.

Certainly, I could provide a pronunciation guide (and probably will), but that can be of only limited use. Too many of them say things like “pronounced like the a in father”, which assumes that all varieties of English pronounce that vowel in that word the same (spoiler: they don’t). But, it’s generally understandable to everyone who reads it, even if it means that Australians won’t use the right vowels at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I can provide the actual IPA characters, but most people don’t even know that IPA exists, much less how to read it.

And that’s not even getting into sounds that don’t exist in English. Certainly, a lot of English speakers are at least passingly familiar with “the ch of loch and Bach” or “German ü”, but who knows if they’re actually able to correctly pronounce those sounds. And then there are sounds that are distinctly not in the set that English speakers are likely to be familiar with, such as ejectives or implosives. I suppose I could provide a text description of how to pronounce it (this is what Suzanne Elgin does for Láadan), but that feels inelegant, especially if I end up with a language with several such sounds. It also gets tiresome for any reader.

Plus, if reading the language gets too difficult, then I’m liable to lose readers. This puts a constraint on just how far from English phonology I can actually get. It means there’s a balance: close enough to English that my readers can attempt to get it right, but far enough away that it’s not just English remixed.

I haven’t even mentioned orthography—a fancy word for “how to spell things”—yet. Whatever language phonetics I decide on, I still need to write it in such a way that people can read it and I can relatively easily type it. So while I could say “% is like the oo in book”, no one is going to really read it that way. Especially people who skip any pronunciation guide I might provide. So I have to pick characters (and in particular, digraphs3) that properly capture what I want to express. This is particularly annoying in English, because we do have digraphs that could possibly collide with other obvious digraphs I’d want to use.4 Or, if I want to introduce a new digraph, what are the chances that readers will actually understand what sound I’m trying to write down?

When it comes to considering what would work best for my readers, this gets complicated quickly.

Then there’s me. I am fairly well bound to the experiences I know. And if you take something like phonology, as a native English speaker, I have particular things I’ve learned phonetically. And it occurred to me that I haven’t formally studied (in particular, with a native speaker able to correct me) any language with a phonology that different from English.5 Yes, French t’s and Japanese sh’s are just a little different, but the English consonant is enough of an allophone6 that I can get by without losing comprehension. This is contrast to a language like Russian or Arabic, in which relying on the English sound would possibly have me say the wrong word.

Some of these sounds I find very difficult to make, myself. After all, I haven’t had years of growing up in a language where they were regularly used. And while I can read descriptions of them in books and on the Internet, or listen to audio files or videos, nothing quite compares to having a native speaker correct your pronunciation or try to explain things a little differently. So I’m never quite sure I’m pronouncing things correctly when I try.

The other effect is that when I play with babble-like sounds to make up names or words, I don’t generally consider using those sounds.7 For example, if I create a language with the German ü sound—which appears in quite a lot of languages—then I have to very much remind myself to use that vowel from time to time. That, combined with my general uncertainty of pronouncing it correctly in the first place, means I shy away from it just kind of naturally. So no matter how different I want to make things sound, they still seem to normalize against English.

All told, it’s a little frustrating.

On one hand, I don’t want to create anything I find too difficult to pronounce, because I know my readers will, too. But on the other hand, I do want to create something that comes across as different enough so I’m not just doing “English with lots of x’s” or something, as some authors are wont to do. I want to create something that is reasonably believable as a natural language, but also accessible to me and my readers.

I don’t have a particularly good answer to this.8 Ultimately, I just have to keep reminding myself that while the language and world might interest some people, what really matters is the characters that inhabit the world, and the story I tell with them. The rest is just window-dressing.

But I still don’t want to think about what to do if my work ever gets translated to another language.

  1. Though it’s getting larger. Back in my halcyon days of youth there was almost nothing except the Language Construction Kit and the Conlang Mailing List. Now there’s multiple online communities and podcasts and so on all centered around the hobby. 

  2. From my observation, this is often because contra most other languages, when English borrows words, it tries to match the English orthography to the source orthography, rather than adopting it to English phonetic rules of orthography. What this means is that if you know how a word is spelled and how it is pronounced, you can take a pretty good guess at what language we borrowed it from; it’s also why etymology is a thing you can ask after in spelling bees: pronunciation plus etymology gets you a long way towards correct spelling. 

  3. A digraph is two characters that represent a single sound. English tends to use “h” to make them: “sh” and “th”, for example. 

  4. One example is the name “Siddhartha”, which most English speakers want to pronounce with a [θ] (the th of thin) at the end, instead of the aspirated t [tʰ] that it really is. 

  5. I am a native English speaker (Midwestern American dialect), and I took classes in French in middle and high school with a non-native speaker, and then in college I took classes in Japanese with a native speaker and Spanish with I’m pretty sure a native speaker (but come to think of it, I’m not 100% certain). I also took a college class in Latin, which effectively has no native speakers, but we did cover the basic reconstructed phonology of Classical Latin, which is what I default to when reading Latin. 

  6. Allophones in a language are two sounds that are technically different, but a native speaker wouldn’t generally be able to tell them apart, and the difference doesn’t carry meaning. The example I like to give for this is that the two p’s in “purple” are technically different sounds: if you put your hand in front of your mouth, you can tell that you aspirate the first p ([pʰ]) but not the second p ([p]). However, English considers them equivalent. There are languages in which those are discrete sounds with different characters, such as (I am given to understand) Western dialects of Bengali, in which they are প for [p] and ফ for [pʰ]. 

  7. Fun fact: when people in churches are “speaking in tongues” (a phenomenon known as glossolalia), they pretty much just use the sounds of their native language. You can generally tell when someone is speaking a foreign language when it actually sounds different, as in rhythm and phonemes, as opposed to when it’s just native language sounds put together in novel ways. 

  8. This seems to be a common theme in my blog posts, where I just want to talk about things I’m feeling, rather than come to an actual argument or conclusion. 

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