Essay: Lynn vs Conlangs

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Lynn vs Conlangs

A while back, I posted one of the drafts for these essays on Patreon and the discussion it sparked made me realise it would be a nice idea to take a look at where I start with conlangs rather than where that conlang ends up.

First of all, then, a disclaimer: While I’ve had a lifelong interest in syntax especially, speak multiple language at least passably well, have taken introductory courses to all linguistic fields (as they pertain to English) at university, and teach English (both literature and language acquisition) I’m not, in fact, a linguist and this post isn’t a 101 on how to create your own constructed language. It’s just an examination of what I, personally, do.

So, before I say anything else, let me offer you a few resources! If you’re looking for a quick introduction to linguistics, especially as the field applies to SFF fiction, I’d recommend Juliette Wade’s The Power of Words course on Teachable. It’ll cover all your bases if you’re just starting out with creating conlangs and is written to be accessible to writers who have no background in or experience with linguistics.

If you have some linguistic background (or already know you want more details than a 101 introduction can provide), I’d recommend David J. Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention. It goes into a lot of depth, especially for such a slim volume, and provide you with ample examples (both real languages and conlangs) to study.

The big difference between the two is that Peterson is writing for people who are interested in the linguistics and process behind conlang creation and Wade is writing for people who just want an overview of things to consider to enhance their worldbuilding.

If you’d like to know more about the history of creating conlangs in general, I recommend Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages which covers the entire history of language creation and focuses on a few languages as highlights.

Anyway! That’s it for the book recommendations, so let’s move on. I grew up multilingually, so it’s probably little surprise that language finds its way into my stories more often than not. (Look, I’m not kidding. I’ve managed to have linguistic comprehension issues in telepathic dinosaur sugar gliders that communicate through pictures[1]. Telepathically. Without, you know, words. And with pictures, things which we consider to be relatively universally comprehensible.) When it comes to creating a conlang, though, for me it really depends on what I want that language to do and how long the story is. Creating an effective and realistic conlang is a lot of work, so I’m not going to invest the time to create one for a short story, for example.

That said, I always start in the same place: names. Whether it’s character names, place names or proper nouns (i.e. ‘nouns that refer to something you can physically point at’), that’s the place I start. If you think that sounds like a good chunk of the story gets written before I start working on my conlangs, you’d be correct. I generally only start working on one when I know I need it later.

You’ll find that the general recommendation to people wanting to create their own conlangs is that you start by determining what sounds are available in your language. This is because if you want to create a convincing conlang, you need to know which sounds you can use and which you can’t, as well as how you want to spell them. Even if you don’t really need grammar for anything, you need this.

Why? Let me illustrate by some often seen writing advice. That advice goes something like this: Make sure your character names match and you don’t end up with a cast like Alryvenna, Wellyan, Inessfré, and Bob.

I mean, if you’re writing portal fantasy and your protagonist Bob falls into a high fantasy world where the other names are their companions, sure! Have at! But if Bob is also a native to your secondary world, you’d better have a pretty good explanation why their name doesn’t look or sound anything like the others. The first three all have more than one syllable and none of them use either a plosive or a sound associated with the spelling ‘o’. Poor Bob would stand out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, that’s why people recommend you start by figuring out what sounds your conlang will have and which it won’t: It’ll give you a general idea of how to make your names and words sound like they’re from the same language. Personally, I tend to work back from names and proper nouns, as I mentioned.

For me that’s all down to the fact that I don’t really like having a completely blank canvas to work with. I like the way names and proper nouns give me a rough framework on which to start building my conlang’s sound inventory and the associated spellings.

You see, there’s a lot names and nouns can tell me about the language in question. Not only will it give me a rough idea of what the sounds (and spelling!) are like, it’ll give me a general idea of how many syllables are common in the language and how many consonants may appear before or after a vowel.

So the first step I take in coming up with a conlang for my stories is to figure out if I need it. Then, I go through the manuscript (insofar as I’ve finished it) and list all the names and conlang words I’ve used to date to help me figure out the sound inventory and, if necessary, standardise spelling issues I’ve run into.

When I’ve got my nice list of sounds and an exceedingly basic word list of ‘anything I deemed untranslatable’ and I’m happy with how that all looks, it’s time for the next step and the fun[2] bit: basic grammar! Also more vocabulary because you can’t have basic grammar without basic vocabulary.

I mean, you could. If you decided not to translate anything and just focused on the mechanics and left everything in English, but that’s only really useful if you’re doing something absolutely and totally meta. Using this method you could, if you wanted to, create a ‘this is not a native speaker’ feeling simply by analysing where ‘their’ grammar differs from English and how that’s likely to translate grammatically. A native speaker of Dutch or German may use a present simple tense where a native speaker of English would expect a present continuous because their native language doesn’t use tenses that way. So if you want to indicate that a character isn’t a native speaker of English, you can use common grammatical mistakes as a way to signal that. (Note: If you’re planning on doing this for a real language, get someone who speaks the language to look it over for you because if you don’t speak the language – and often even if you do – you will mess it up.) But for conlangs? It’s a subtle way to get in some worldbuilding[3].

Anyway, so that is the next step: creating some basic grammar rules. This is actually a lot of smaller steps rolled into one, but the end result is that I have enough grammar that I could, if I chose to, write a simple picture book or, with enough vocabulary, make myself at least understood enough that I wouldn’t starve[4]. If you want to break it down into smaller pieces, it goes something like this:

First I look at the word order that I want. Do I want it to be Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) like English? Do I want it to be VSO like Irish? Do I want it to be SOV like Japanese? Do I want something else entirely? You can pick an order based on the kind of feel that you’re going for or you can just roll dice. Me, I mostly just look at what conlangs I’ve got and try to make sure that, overall, I’ve got an even mix of common word orders across my works in general. This step is a lot more important if you’ve got more than one language in your setting, especially if you’re going for a sense of realism. Languages come in groups or families. English, for example, is part of the Germanic languages and while it’s changed far more extensively than its cousins Dutch and German a lot (if not most) people would be able to pick out that they’re related[5]. In that case, I’ll also be spending at least some time working out if and how these languages are related and influenced one another.

I don’t need a lot, but I do need something. It’s relatively easy in a situation like A Promise Broken because kerisaoina are ridiculously insular and would actively resist influences from other languages, but even there you run into the question of how to handle dialects of the same language.

Once I’ve got that sorted, I can work out some basic grammar. At minimum, I need to know whether (and how many) cases a language uses, how to make plurals[6] and what those cases look like as well as whether (and how) basic verb conjugation works. Once I’ve got that, all I need is some basic vocabulary – pronouns are nice to have[7] - and I’m all set! Anything else I need, I can create as I go along and it turns out that gosh I actually did need to know which four ways this conlang allows you to render the future tense.

In A Promise Broken, which so far has the most complete of my conlangs because it’s been around the longest, a good part of the plot tension actually stems from language use. It’s not really something that comes up in the book specifically, but a chunk of why Eiryn is upset is linguistic. You see, kerisaoina has two distinct future tenses that can be described roughly as future-promise and future-probable. The first is, basically, only ever used when you’re 1000% sure that you will definitely, absolutely, without question, no doubt about it, keep that promise. So, basically, they don’t use it very often. And that’s fine when you’re dealing with a sensible adult who’s learnt the difference between the two through long years of exposure (and grammar lessons) or you’re that sure the thing will happen. It’s rather less fine if you’re a mother about to give birth, trying to reassure an anxious small child who’s only just learning the difference between “a promise people can and will definitely keep” and “a promise that is contingent in circumstances not messing up one’s ability to keep it”.

But here we are: that’s what she did. She used a tense she really shouldn’t have[8] and Eiryn just doesn’t have the experience to understand why or how. But, you know, the story is in English, which doesn’t have that specific tense difference, and we end up working with imperfect translations.

Anyway! That’s… pretty much it. Once I’ve got that, I’m more or less set. If I’m being extremely thorough, I’d start with something like the Swadesh list or Ogden’s Basic English list to give me a list of basic concepts that I’ll want to see in my conlang. The idea behind these is that they give you a basic inventory to work from because they’re really common words.

It’s not as simple as just keeping the meanings and correlations the same as in English, though. Languages change over time. Certain word meanings become obsolete, other meanings get split over different words because suddenly that difference between a creek and a stream really, really matters. Depending on the history of your world, you may find even stronger influences stemming from foreign languages. English is a perfect example, since its pronoun[9] ‘they’ is an Old Norse borrowing that won out over the original Old English pronoun ‘hie’ sometime during the period Middle English was spoken.

If you want a language that feels natural and alive, those are things your language will have to emulate. I rarely, if ever, do more than I absolutely need at this stage because I’m not really a conlanger. Ultimately, I want the languages to work for the duration of the story most of all. That said, this is usually the fun part, though, because this is where you really get into the world-building aspect and get to try and puzzle out how words got from A to B and whether there were any great linguistic shifts. (Hint: If you’ve got a civilisation of, say, post-medieval technology, they’ve probably had at least one linguistic shift that affects your conlang’s spelling and pronunciation. Before that… Well, it may be in the middle of one and you probably don’t really need to worry about it unless it matters to your story.)

Anyway! That’s basically what I do when I need a conlang for a story. I see what words and names I’ve got and what they tell me about the language rules. I use that to set up a basic sound inventory and poke at spelling options, and… If I need more, I’ll sit down to work out some basic grammar and basic words. It’s not necessarily glamorous, but it works for me.

There’s just one more thing I might do if I need even more than this: translation. Yes, it’s the ultimate geekery of conlang creation, but it is incredibly valuable. It doesn’t just give you whole conlang sentences you want characters to overhear and not understand. When in doubt, translate. Working out how to make your conlang say the equivalent of an English sentence will help you notice what your conlang still needs and what aspects you need to work on or create.

And those are all the steps I go through when I’m working out how to make my own conlang.

[1] Seriously. That’s what happens in To Sleep for a Season: linguistic differences between two telepathic species of the same genus are a fairly big part of the narrative since Sun is from a very different part of the world and doesn’t, necessarily, use the same visuals everyone else does as a result.

[2] Disclaimer: Your Mileage May Vary.

[3] That said, please note that this is a pretty time-consuming approach. You’ll need to know a substantial amount about your conlang’s grammar and you may find it’s not worth the effort you’re putting in.

[4] You know. In theory. If I got sucked into a portal fantasy where everyone around me spoke it and no one spoke any other language I could understand.

[5] The similarities are even more pronounced if you look at, say, Old English. Crudely put: Old English is what the language looked like before Old Norse and Old French got smushed into it. Since neither German nor Dutch were influenced by other languages to the same extent, their modern day, ah, variants still look recognisably similar to Old English. How similar? Let me put it this way: If you’re a native speaker of German or Dutch, are average at learning languages and all you care about is passing your undergraduate Old English courses, you probably don’t need to study. At all. You can breeze your way through pretty much any test without ever opening your book on Old English grammar or attending any lectures. They’re that similar.

[6] Another quick way to give your novel some worldbuilding is not localising certain types of suffix to the language you’re writing in, but allowing your conlang’s rules to take over the spelling for those word. So, for example. Let’s assume your setting has, say, magically enhanced rats that are common enough to be distinct from non-magical rats and your conlang for ‘magically enhanced rat with X characteristics’ is “pleranop” and its plurals are Latin-inspired. It’ll make a difference, albeit not always a large one, to phrase things as “They faced a horde of pleranopi” or “They faced a horde of pleranops”. You can do it with different fantastical nationalities as well.

[7] Speaking of pronouns, this is a good time to ask yourself how your conlang choices affect how your society may see gender and gender expression because this is definitely an area where the language we use affects the way we think and how we shape society.

[8] In her defense, if kerisaoina society was not as dysfunctional as it is, everything would’ve been totally fine because she’d have had the medical case she should have had in the first place. (And then I wouldn’t have had the story I do, but that’s a different topic.)

[9] Pronouns are so-called ‘function words’. On their own, they don’t really mean anything and, as such, are highly resistant to language change. They can change, but it takes a long, long time and the right conditions (such as, say, several centuries of conquest and a lack of centralised, accepted ideas on How This Language Works).