With this post, I’d like to begin taking a closer look at Virisai, the first of many constructed languages I created for the Otherworld setting. Along the way, I would also like to justify some of the design decisions I made, but we’ll take that as it comes.
Within the confines of the setting, Virisai is the effective national language of the kingdom of Vistaan. Its speakers, numbering about a million, are genetically similar to modern-day Native Americans, though there are a few changes here and there, owing to the 10-12 millennia of separation. They are, however, fully human; this is not an alien language, as far as that goes. Thus, none of the sounds are impossible for human mouths to pronounce, and the general grammatical concepts are close enough to those of Earth languages to be recognizable.
Externally, I started the language in 2013 as part of the “linguistic playground” that was my original vision for the Otherworld setting. For the most part, I always intended it to be the “base” language for the story, the one that would be met earliest and most often. (At the beginning, I also envisioned a kind of pidgin or creole variant, but I scrapped that as I developed the conlang.) The idea of multiple fantasy-like—yet still human—races inhabiting the same world also arose around that time; Virisai is thus the primary language of the “normal” humans of the main story area. As I have expanded my worldbuilding to encompass other areas, I’ve had to revise my original outline, but the core has remained the same, and this conlang has stayed at its center.
As I have said, I wanted to make something that seems natural enough that it doesn’t strike the reader as obviously constructed, but also simple enough that a group of ordinary American college students could achieve a decent comprehension after no more than 80 days of immersion. Most of them are monolingual, with their only real exposure to learning another language coming in high school, but a few are different. Sara is fluent in Spanish, for instance, and Ramón obviously is as well. Jeff, of course, is the “token” linguist character; his job for most of the early series is that of the translator, the interpreter, and he doesn’t always pull it off.
Everyone, though, is basically starting from scratch. The vocabulary of Virisai bears no resemblance whatsoever to English or Spanish. Or, for that matter, Japanese (Alex likes manga) or even Navajo (Lee’s great-grandfather was a code talker in WWII). That means that, early on, there’s a lot of pointing and grunting, the kind of first-contact stuff that most TV shows and movies gloss over. But the characters eventually get past that, and they start to learn a bit about the speech of their new world.
All told, Virisai isn’t that complex in terms of phonology. It has 31 phonemes in total, which is fairly average. Twenty-one of those are consonants, and only one of those would really be considered “odd” to English speakers. Here’s the whole list in IPA:
Stops: /p b t d k g/ Fricatives: /s z ʃ ʒ h/ Affricates: /tʃ dʒ/ Nasals: /m n ɲ/ Approximants: /β̞ l ɹ j w/
In general, most consonants can show up anywhere, but the palatals (/ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ ɲ/) are mostly forbidden from ending a word. An exception is the “good morning” greeting araj, which is a colloquialism. An English analogy might be yeah, which ends with a vowel not normally found word-finally.
One aspect of Virisai that makes it a little more difficult is the wide variety of consonant clusters it allows. These are no more than three consonants at a time, and at most two at the beginning or end of a word, but there’s an awful lot of them.
Vowels, by contrast, are relatively simple. “Standard” Virisai only has five of them, and they’re the basic five you know and love: /a e i o u/. There is a length distinction, which is tough to master, but I didn’t go with anything outlandish here. Mostly, that’s personal preference, as I find it hard to consistently pronounce about half of the IPA vowel chart; I don’t mind saying the characters have the same problem.
I did, however, add an extra wrinkle. Every language has dialects. One spoken in a pre-industrial society, where mass media is absent, the printing press hasn’t been invented, and 50% is a high literacy rate for adults, is bound to develop them more readily. So it is here. The western part of Vistaan (coincidentally enough, exactly where the story begins) has a slightly altered dialect. There, a set of front rounded vowels has developed from combinations of /j/ + /o/ and /u/, and this is reflected in the orthography. (For example, one native character, Nuelossin, has his name shortened to Niel by those who can’t pronounce [ɲyːˈlosin].) A few words are also different, but this hasn’t really come into play just yet in the story.
All in all, I think Virisai succeeds at the goals I set out for it. We’ll go over the grammatical details in a later post, but just from the phonology, I hope you can see what I was trying for. This could have been something complex, baroque, nigh unpronounceable, but I just didn’t go there. And that’s for multiple reasons.
First off, I don’t really like languages that I can’t pronounce. I don’t like throwing in a hundred consonants and fifty vowels just because they look cool. Give me something relatively simple (though it doesn’t have to be too simple), something that makes sense. If there are weird sounds in there, give them a reason to exist. That’s what I did with the Virisai /v/, which is usually realized as [̞β]. It’s there, and it’s a little odd, but I rationalize that by saying it was lowered from /β/ at some point in the past; at some point, it also merged with /ɸ/, but that came after the language’s script was created. Hence, some words are actually written with an initial f, but it’s pronounced like /v/.
Second, this mundane phonology makes Virisai easier to understand for those who aren’t used to having to listen to an unfamiliar language. I know how difficult that can be, and I know that adding in sounds you don’t recognize only makes it harder. (I’ve seriously tried listening to Arabic, for example, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m hopeless with tones.)
Finally, keeping the phonology of this most common and most important conlang simple makes it easier to write. I did give the orthography a few curveballs, like how the long vowels are written (aa ei ie oo ou) or the way the palatals come out (ci j si zi, except before /i/ or /e/). Sometimes, that even trips me up, and I’ve been playing with this thing for five years now. Story-internally, I handwave that as Jeff being inconsistent; externally, I just wanted something that looked different without resorting to diacritics.
I like to think I succeeded, with that and with the other aspects of this conlang. Later on, though, I’ll start looking at the grammar, and I may revise my opinion.