One of the hardest parts about creating a language has to be the vocabulary. At least, that’s always the hardest for me. Maybe you’re different, but I doubt it’s easy for anybody, unless you’re doing one of those “engineered” languages where an algorithm does all the work for you.
Anyway, since creating words is so difficult, and since we do have to have them to, well, make a language, it’s only natural that we look for shortcuts. One of those is the random word generator, as you know, and I’ve spoken on that subject before. Today, however, we’ll look at a different method: borrowing. Specifically, I’m talking about borrowing from an existing language, a real language.
Can it work?
Borrowing from natural languages is fairly straightforward, but it’s easy to go wrong. Obviously, if you just take a bunch of English words wholesale, then you’re not making a separate language. You’ll end up with something closer to a pidgin instead: English words stuffed into foreign grammar. And that’s probably not what you want.
So we need a better strategy, but which one you want to use depends on your goal. Which words you want to borrow will go a long way towards defining the “feel” of your conlang. If you’re taking a bunch of old Anglo-Saxon roots, that’s going to create something that looks much different from a language that only borrows modern technical terms like “internet” or “photovoltaic”.
Also, remember that languages don’t always borrow a whole linguistic paradigm. They’ll tend to take only a root (which might not be the actual root) and derive native terms from there. So even if you borrow “computer”, that’s no guarantee that you’ll be borrowing “computers”, “computing”, and “computation”, too. If you do, it’ll look less natural, because that doesn’t often happen in the real world. And you do want this to look realistic, don’t you?
Clearly, the absolute best way of borrowing from natural languages would be to let your conlang stay in contact with the “source” language (e.g., English) for generations, allowing the loans to build up organically. But we don’t have that kind of time. How can we simulate that evolutionary process in a hurry?
Well, there are a lot of ways. For the modest goal of creating a natural-looking conlang backed by a plausible culture, following the guidelines I’ve mentioned in my “Let’s Make a Language” series will help. Rather than send you to read all of those, though, I’ll boil them down to their essence right here.
First, think about how existing languages borrow words. It’s not at random. It’s usually to fill a need, such as an imported food or a new invention. It could be political or religious in nature, as well, as the large number of Latin and Greek borrowings related to Christianity will attest. But it’s not often for things we already have words for. You don’t see common, basic vocabulary items like “sea” or “dog” being borrowed, because there was never any need. Yes, some specific subsets might come from loans (e.g., “maritime”, “canine”), but these are the exception, not the rule.
Second, languages are only going to borrow from those they have contact with. English today is everywhere, but that wasn’t always so. Japanese got most of its loans from Chinese to start, while Quechua (in South America) took mostly from Spanish. Borrowings, especially in pre-modern times, are going to come first from neighbors, second from conquering or conquered peoples, and last from a “lingua franca”. That does require you to locate your conlang in the real world, but it allows for greater verisimilitude, which is why you’re reading this post in the first place.
Finally, the culture of the conlang itself will determine what it borrows. Initially, it will move to fill gaps in its lexicon, and what those gaps are can create a different feel for the language. To create one contrived example, imagine a small culture undergoing a push for equal rights for women. It’s been mostly male-dominated up to now, and the vocabulary reflects that. But it has contact with French, which has gendered occupational titles. So it might borrow a few feminine forms here and there, or maybe even the -eur/-euse distinction as a whole. If the movement goes far enough, the existing (native) masculine words may be reinterpreted as gender-neutral forms, giving rise to a new dichotomy. Then, as more modern occupations become available (to men and women alike), the language would borrow terms for them, then modifying them to fit the new standard.
The same principle works pretty much everywhere. A perceived need is filled by taking from a nearby or well-known language that has already filled them. It works in all fields, under any circumstances. You can even see it at work today, among smaller natural languages. Look around, and you’ll see how many have borrowed, in some form, “telephone”, “television”, “automobile”, and a whole host of others. Of course, they wouldn’t need those words if they didn’t have those concepts, but that’s neither here nor there.
In other wor(l)ds
The same principle works in non-modern settings. You’d have to do a lot more work to come up with plausible borrowings from, say, Sumerian or Etruscan, but we know they provided loanwords to their neighbors. Remember, though, that older times imply less connectivity, less globalism. (Not always, as the Roman Empire proves, but it’s a good rule of thumb.) That also means more dialects, which can provide a bit more variety in your loans.
You can even generalize this to other worlds, though this one’s a lot more difficult. At some point, you’re making a whole “conworld”, rather than just a conlang, and that’s a different article for a different time. Still, the basic principle of “borrowing to fill in the gaps” works anywhere.
For a conlang intended to be spoken by a hypothesized real-world people, take from those languages that are supposed to be their neighbors. A culture hidden in an inaccessible corner of the Amazon isn’t going to start getting European loans until 1492, at the earliest. More likely, it’ll take some time for influence to diffuse that far, possibly even centuries. Likewise, central Africa isn’t going to get much Chinese influence until almost right now.
In a way, this whole process is reminiscent of the creation of an auxiliary language. But it still retains the artistic style, the creative flair of an a priori conlang. It’s almost like an intermediate form, you might say. A happy medium.