Artists like the weird and the wild. Most people do, if you think about it, but only they are in the position to show off their love of the strange to a wider audience. And conlangs can be a form of art, as we know. So as you’d expect, many conlangers want to produce a language that is…weird.
This can take many forms. Some are languages so complex that they are essentially unlearnable, like Ithkuil. Others are minimalistic to the extreme, as with Toki Pona. A few are truly alien conlangs, in that they have some quality that renders them impossible for humans to speak or comprehend. If you’re into that, it can be quite fun. Or so I’ve heard; I’ve never actually tried it myself.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll ignore the alien segment of the weird and focus on what can plausibly be considered a human language. That means sticking to the IPA, not violating (too many) linguistic universals, and so on. Even with those restrictions, we can get something completely out of the ordinary, so let’s see just how weird we can make things.
Eye of the beholder
Weirdness is subjective. We can’t really measure it, but we can feel it. But the threshold for being weird is different for different people. For example, I find Irish orthography to be impenetrable, and I don’t know how anyone can keep the honorifics of Japanese straight. Clicks baffle me, and I want to throw up whenever I try to pronounce some of the sounds of Arabic. But each of those four is considered “normal” by millions of people.
Likewise, it’s tempting to jump straight to the extremes. Yes, an overly complicated phonology and grammar will make a conlang weird, but probably not in a good way. Some of the best satire comes from taking a proposition to its logical conclusion. Weirdness in a language can be accomplished in the same fashion. Instead of throwing in a hundred phonemes and forty cases, it can be better to work with smaller sets used differently. But extremes can be good, too.
Phonology is probably the best place to experiment with the boundaries of human language. A conlang’s phonology determines its “sound”, and what sounds weirder than mouth noises you’ve never heard before?
Every sound or distinction on the IPA chart appears in some human language, but that doesn’t mean they all appear together. Most languages have phoneme series. You’ll have, say, a voiced velar stop and a voiceless one, and then there might be a velar nasal and a fricative. Weirdness can come with an isolated sound, one that doesn’t fit the pattern. Maybe a retroflex approximant, or a uvular trill, or a single vowel that can be nasalized.
You can also get weirdness out of a distinction that doesn’t normally occur with a certain set of sounds. Voiceless nasals are an obvious candidate, as nasals are very weak sounds that tend to assimilate in every conceivable way. Giving them a voicing dichotomy is odd, but it does happen in real life—Icelandic and Burmese are but two examples.
Unfamiliar sounds are another way of making a conlang feel outlandish. Many African languages have consonants that are doubly articulated, pronounced as a labial and velar at the same time. (The Igbo language even has one in its name.) But those sounds are virtually unknown in Europe and North America. Click sounds are probably at the far end of this line of thinking; they’re mostly limited to a single language family, so they’ll sound weird to just about everybody else.
And, of course, what discussion of phonological oddity would be complete without the extremes? Those click languages I just mentioned have some of the largest phonemic inventories in the world, some containing over 100 different consonants. The max for everybody else is 80, a record held by Ubykh, which went extinct in 1992. As if that weren’t bad enough, Ubykh also sets the mark for the fewest phonemic vowels: two, /a/ and /ə/. (Thankfully, that number jumps to ten or eleven if you add in allophones.)
At the other end of the spectrum are Hawaiian (about 13 phonemes, depending on who’s counting), the Rotokas language of Papua New Guinea (11 phonemes and maybe a length distinction in vowels), and the conlanger’s darling Pirahã, a language of the Amazon (10 or 11 phonemes and two tones). All of these are about as low as you can go and still be reasonably human.
For grammar, strangeness comes from making unexpected decisions. We still need a good framework—we’re making languages that could theoretically be learned, remember—but we’re looking for ways to twist it into something outrageous. Fortunately, the real world offers plenty of examples.
Case is the big one here, and look no further than Finnish and its relatives for inspiration. (Conlangers love baroque case systems, and that love is not limited to “weird” languages, even if that’s where it belongs.) Need a case that describes a changing away? A dialect of Finnish has it: the exessive.
Other grammatical categories can similarly be abused. Gender doesn’t have to be masculine-feminine. It could be human-inhuman, or a class system like Swahili’s. Quite a few languages have a dual number, representing two of something. A small number of them also have a special form for three.
On the verbal side, the past, present, and future are the basic tenses, but why not go wild? Maybe your weird conlang has two tenses: “now” and “not now”, a merger of the past and future. Or maybe it has ten, with distinctions for yesterday and tomorrow and whatever else you can think of. That’s not too far out there, and the same goes for aspect and mood and whatever else you can think of.
If you’re the type to like WALS, look for the categories it says are rare, yet still attested. That’s where weirdness—if not madness—lies.
Lexicon is a bit harder to make weird, if only because English has such a huge vocabulary that there’s probably already a word for anything you can imagine. If not, then some other language has it, and you can just borrow that.
Your best bet here might be to try for subtlety. Change the connotations of words so that they align imperfectly with their English counterparts. If your conlang allows any sort of compounding, offer lots of idiosyncratic constructions. Make words with fine shades of meaning that nonetheless seem to pop up all the time. Just be different.
If you like extra work, you can even delve into the odd world of taboo. Some languages, for instance, go as far as having a separate lexicon that must be used in certain situations. In more familiar territory, slang can become standard, obscenity commonplace. Imagine a language where the most widely-known idioms can only be translated as something horribly offensive. (Okay, that one’s not even that far-fetched. I live in the South, remember.) Conversely, a language full of euphemisms for even mundane objects and tasks would sound just as strange to our ears.
The outer limits
Weird languages are all about exploring the farthest reaches of what makes our speech human. Languages are learned, so they have limits, but the linguistic space must be vast enough to encompass every natural language that exists or has ever existed. Conlangs, unconstrained by the need for evolutionary plausibility, can fill any part of that space.
Yet there are lines which cannot be crossed without leaving the realm of human language. For those, you’ll have to wait for future posts.