Let’s make a language – Part 1b: Isian Phonology

This will be a much shorter post than the one last week, since we have all the theory bits out of the way. This time, we’re solely focusing on the sound system of our “simpler” conlang, Isian. Rather than just give a list of sounds, though, I’ll try to justify some of my choices as we go.

Isian Consonants

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Stop p b t d k g
Affricate tʃ dʒ
Fricative f s ʃ x h
Approximant w l r j

Isian has a total of 19 consonant phonemes. None of them are too exotic, though monolingual American speakers might have a little trouble with /x/, the “ch” sound in German acht or Scottish loch. Everything else should be familiar. If you don’t know the IPA symbols for the palatal consonants, that’s okay. In order, /tʃ dʒ ʃ j/ are the initial sounds of church, judge, shut, and yet. Also, the /r/ phoneme can be either a tap [ɾ] like Spanish or an approximant [ɹ] like English, though the first pronunciation will be the “official” one.

So why these particular 19 sounds? Well, Isian is supposed to be easy to pronounce, but I still want it to look and sound a little “foreign”. /x/ accomplishes this feat (for Americans, anyway).

English speakers might notice what’s been left out. There’s no /v/ (as in view), /z/ (as in zip) or /ŋ/ (as in *sing). That’s all right, because of allophones. Between vowels, /f s ʃ/ can sound like [v z ʒ] (the last as in French jour or English azure), and /x/ can disappear altogether, instead making the vowel before it sound a little longer. Or it could sound like [h], if the two vowels it’s between are the same. So we might have /taxa/ pronounced more like [taha], but /tixa/ as [tiːa]. Some of our fictitious speakers might instead substitute the voiced velar fricative [ɣ]; we’ll say that this is an older and more formal pronunciation.

In the same way, /m/ and /n/ will assimilate to a following consonant, except approximants and /h/. Before a labial, /n/ becomes [m]. Likewise, /m/ comes out as [n] before an alveolar. Both of them will subtly change to [ɲ] before palatals and [ŋ] before velars.

There are no TH sounds, since those are relatively rare, and Isian is meant to be fairly average. For the same reason, we don’t have any phonemic alterations like palatalization or aspiration going on. Voiceless stops might sound aspirated at the beginning of a word, like English, or not, but this can be explained away as a dialect feature.

Isian Vowels

Front Central Back
High i u
Central e o
Low a

Isian’s vowel system is an average one, with the five cardinal vowels. But we’ll embellish it a little with some allophonic alteration.

First, these aren’t the only vowel sounds possible. We’ll say that any of the three “lower” vowels /a e o/, when followed by a /j/ or /w/ consonant, creates a diphthong, a kind of combination of two vowels in the same syllable. It doesn’t take much math to see that this creates six diphthongs: /aj ej oj aw ew ow/.

  • /aj/ is about the same as the English long-I sound in lie,
  • /ej/ is close to the English long-A sound in lay,
  • /oj/ is pronounced like in English toy,
  • /aw/ can be the sound in English law or loud (we can write this off as dialect differences),
  • /ow/ is the English long-O in low,
  • /ew/ isn’t in English, but it’s the first vowel sound in Spanish or Italian neutro. We’ll say that some dialects pronounce it as [iʊ], like English few.

So, even though we have only five vowel phonemes, thanks to diphthongs, it seems like we have 11.

Second, we’ll say that a few vowels change a little before certain consonants. /a/ becomes [æ] (English ash) before the palatal consonants /tʃ dʒ ʃ/. And we saw above how vowels before /x/ might become lengthened. Finally, although we haven’t discussed syllables and stress, we’ll say that unstressed vowels tend to be “reduced” in fast or colloquial speech. For example, an unstressed /a/ might sound like a schwa ([ə]), like in English about.

Orthography

Orthography is, basically, how a language is written. Isian certainly isn’t going to have its own writing system; we’ll just use the alphabet. But we need a way to convert the phonemes into letters. English, of course, is notorious for being hard to spell, but Isian has far fewer phonemes, so it should be easier to fit into 26 letters.

Most of the phonemes can just be written as the appropriate letters. That works just fine for all the vowels, as well as the consonants /p b m f w n t d s l r g h/. The remaining six sounds need a little more thought. Here’s what we’ll do:

  • /k/ will usually be written as c, but k when it comes before /i/ or /e/. (This is mostly an aesthetic change. There’s nothing stopping us from writing k everywhere.)
  • /tʃ/ will be written ch, like it is in English. The same for /dʒ/ as j, /ʃ/ as sh, and /j/ as y.
  • /x/ can be written as kh. We can’t use ch, like German, since it’s already taken, and x would give English readers the wrong impression. Sometimes, you have to compromise.

So our full orthography for Isian looks like this:

Written Phoneme Description
a /a/ a in father; a in cash before ch, sh, and j
b /b/ b in boy
c /k/ c in cat; only used before a, o, or u
ch /tʃ/ ch in church
d /d/ d in dog
e /e/ e in Spanish peso
f /f/ f in fish
g /g/ g in go (always a “hard” G)
h /h/ h in hard
i /i/ i in French fini
j /j/ j in jet
k /k/ k in key; only used before i and e
kh /x/ ch in German nacht
l /l/ l in list
m /m/ m in man
n /n/ n in note
o /o/ au in French haut
p /p/ p in pit or top
r /r/ r in run or Spanish cero
s /s/ s in sat
sh /ʃ/ sh in sharp
t /t/ t in top or hot
u /u/ ou in French sous
w /w/ w in wet; creates diphthongs after a, e, or o
y /j/ y in yes; creates diphthongs after a, e, or o

The next post will switch over to Ardari. When we come back to Isian, we’ll make these sounds into syllables, then into words.

Let’s make a language – Part 1a: Phonology (Intro)

The sound of a language is, in a sense, it’s first impression. And first impressions matter. How a language sounds, the spoken noises that it uses, can certainly influence the opinion of a listener (or reader). In the real world, for example, Westerners often perceive Arabic as a “harsh” language because of its series of “guttural” sounds. We might also talk about Chinese as a “musical” language, since it makes use of tone, a quality we’ll come to later. For conlangs, things are no different. The Elvish languages of Lord of the Rings are praised as melodious, while the Klingons of Star Trek speak a tongue that, like them, comes across as abrasive, violent. (Of course, in the case of conlangs, we have to look at things from the other direction sometimes. Elves have “enchanting” words because they’re supposed to. Klingons are a warrior race, and their language reflects this.)

All this is to say that the sound of your language is important. Even if you’re making a purely written language (like for a book), you might need to pronounce it at some point, and many readers will certainly try. After all, Dothraki began as a few words and phrases scattered almost haphazardly throughout the books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Once those books were turned into the Game of Thrones TV series, Dothraki (and Valyrian, which is barely found in the books at all, apart from a couple of fixed phrases like valar morghulis) had to become something more “real”.

To make a language, we need to understand a little about how languages work, and this is one of those posts. Specifically, we’re looking at what’s called phonology, i.e., the sounds that make up a language. Obviously, if your language isn’t spoken, like a sign language, then this post won’t be of much use. Honestly, though, I have no idea of how to even begin to make a sign language, so that’s the last I’ll say about them. (I can’t think of too many signed conlangs, unless you consider ASL a conlang. The closest thing I can come up with is the elaborate gesturing or “posing” of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet series, which is more of an addition to speech than a language of its own.) Also, if you’re making a language for aliens that don’t speak the way we do, then you’ve probably got bigger problems than I can solve.

(Digression: Okay, I had this whole thing planned out where I’d go over all the phonology stuff. But I scrapped it. Why? A few reasons. First, it was about 2,000 words just for the section on consonants. That was way too long for a post. Second, plenty of other people have already done the same thing. So, instead, I’ll leave you with a link to Wikipedia’s page on the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has clickable links for just about every possible sound found in human languages, and I’ll turn this post into something more general and useful for a beginning conlanger.)

The Sounds We Make

Every language in the world has a number of phonemes, which are basic units of sound. Think of them as letters, except we’re not necessarily talking about the ones in the alphabet. English, for instance, has 26 letters, but 40 or so phonemes, depending on dialect. Many of these phonemes, however, can surface as slightly different sounds, or allophones. The P sounds in pot and top are good examples of this. They don’t sound exactly the same, but they’re close enough that English speakers call them the same thing. A language like Hindi, on the other hand, does say they are different sounds: /p/ and /pʰ/.

Which (and how many) sounds you use in your language is largely a matter of style, and that directly relates to what kind of conlang you’re making. For languages intended to be for communication (auxlangs), you definitely want to use the most common sounds, most of which have IPA values of basic English letters: /p/, /t/, /k/, and so on. Adding in fancy things like retroflex consonants (despite being common in the very populous Indian subcontinent) or palatalization (found in Slavic languages and Irish, but not many other places) will only make things harder for the speakers that have to learn not only a new language, but new sounds to go with it.

For every other type of conlang, you might think you can just go wild with phonemes. Obviously, you can. I’m not stopping you. But something intended to sound natural should fit the patterns of natural languages. Otherwise, you end up with what I’ve heard called “shotgun phonology”. You may as well throw darts at an IPA chart. So, instead, let’s take a look at what linguistic evolution has come up with, and see if we can make something to match it.

Consonants

We’ll start with consonants, both because there’s more of them and because that’s where some of the most interesting possibilities lie. English has about two dozen, which is pretty much average in the world, according to Chapter 1 of the World Atlas of Language Structures. (By the way, bookmark that site; we’ll be going back to it a lot. I’ll usually refer to it as WALS from here on out.) The minimum is about 6 or so, found in a few Pacific and Amazon languages like Rotokas and Pirahã. The high end goes up to around 80 in the Caucasian language Ubykh, and the click languages of Africa can have even more if you count the combination of click and stop as a single phoneme.

So, anywhere from 6 to 80. That’s quite a range, but we can narrow it down once we start looking for patterns. That’s the key to making a conlang seem natural in its phonemic inventory. Take English as an example, since we’re already using it. English has a set of labial consonants (/p b m f v/), a set of dentals (/t d n s z θ ð l r/), some post-alveolar or palatals (/ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ j/), and a few velars (/k g ŋ w/). /h/ is the odd one out, but it’s like that in a lot of languages, so that’s okay. Looking at it from the other dimension, English has stops (/p b t d k g/), nasals (/m n ŋ/), fricatives (/f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h/), affricates (/tʃ dʒ/), and approximants (/r l j w/). Any way you look at it, essentially every consonant is related to another. There’s not, say, a uvular stop out by itself.

Any language you can think of works the same way. Spanish has a palatal series (/tʃ ɲ ʎ j/), Hindi has a set of retroflex consonants. The languages with smaller consonant inventories have broader distinctions. Rotokas, with its half a dozen consonants, divides them up in two dimensions: voiced or voiceless, and labial, alveolar, or velar. The enormous systems of the Caucasus come about similarly, but making finer distinctions. The 58 consonants of Abkhaz illustrate this. Labialized and non-labialized consonants are different in that language, and there is a set of ejective stops. Both of these combine to increase the inventory while avoiding outliers.

That’s not to say you can’t have outliers. You just need a good reason for them. If you’ve got /p/, /b/, and /t/ already, you’ll probably have /d/, too, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Especially as you go “down” the phonetic chart, from stops to fricatives to approximants, there are a lot more opportunities to add wrinkles to the system. You can have /s/ and /k/ without having /x/, like English. Or /r/ without /l/, like in Japanese.

The same is true for “rare” sounds. Conlangers tend to over-represent two of these in particular: the English “th” sounds /θ ð/. (I’m guilty of it myself, with my language Suvile.) These sounds are comparatively rare (about 1 in 10 languages have them), but they’re far more common in conlangs. The same is true for some of the more outlandish distinctions, and the reason why is simple. A conlanger sees a sound he likes, and he builds the language specifically to have it, whether it fits or not. Again, if that’s what you like, go for it, but the result might feel “fake”.

Vowels

Vowels have a bit less in the way of possibilities, and vowel systems tend to fall into a few basic categories. Here, English is on the large end of the scale, with up to 20 or more vowel sounds, depending on dialect. A few languages have only two vowel phonemes (Ubykh, mentioned above, is one of these), though these may take on different qualities at different points in a word. Five is the most common, though, according to WALS Chapter 2, and those five are usually the cardinal vowels /a e i o u/. Six is also common, with the addition usually being a schwa (/ə/) or a high central vowel like /ɨ/, though something like /æ/ isn’t out of the question. Systems with four vowels drop one of the cardinal quintet, usually /o/ or /u/. Three-vowel systems are almost always /a i u/, as these are maximally distinct.

Like with consonants, the key here is regularity, at least at the start. The common five vowels can be split into high (/i u/), middle (/e o/), and low. Or you could divide them into front (/i e/), central (/a/), and back (/o u/). Larger vowel systems become that way because they add dimensions. If you have the front vowels /i/ and /e/ and the rounded vowels /o/ and /u/, it’s not that much of a stretch to add in the front and rounded /y/ and /ø/. Similarly, a quality like length or nasalization tends to “spread” through the vowel system, multiplying the number of phonemes.

Vowel harmony is another of those ideas that conlangers get carried away with. The canonical example is Turkish, with its eight vowels /i y ɯ u e ø o a/. This makes a kind of 3D grid, where each vowel is either front or back, either high or low, and either rounded or unrounded. Turkish grammatical suffixes come in different forms, depending on which type of vowel they need, and a word must have its vowels all front or all back. This has an appealing symmetry of the kind that conlangers tend to love. Like the consonantal rarities above, though, there needs to be a reason, even if that reason boils down to “because it sounds cool”.

In my opinion, if you have no other pressing needs (like fitting in with names you’ve already made, for instance) then you should probably start with the basic five vowels. If you’re making an auxiliary language, then I’d strongly suggest stopping there. (Volapük used front vowels, because its creator was German. Esperanto went with the basic set instead. Which one’s more popular?)

Everybody else probably needs more, though. Still, start with the basics. If you add vowels, make sure they fit. More than consonants, vowels have a tendency to shift around in speech, almost like they’re floating. They like to be as distinct as possible. Sure, it might sound fun to have a language whose vowels are /i y e ø ɨ ʉ ɛ ɔ ɜ ɑ/, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. A couple of generations of real language evolution would turn it into something like /i ɪ e ə æ u ʊ o/.

Tone

Besides consonants and vowels, we have one more thing to add to our study of phonology. Tone is probably the most popular in conlangs, simply because it isn’t found in many languages Westerners would be familiar with, making it seem exotic. (And the one major tonal language group is Chinese, further reinforcing that stereotype.) But tone is actually quite common in the world’s languages, especially in places of high linguistic concentration like Africa and the Amazon.

Tone itself can be divided into two varieties. Mandarin Chinese is an example of the first, which uses relative changes in pitch: level (called “high” in studies of the language), rising, dipping (falling from a low pitch to an even lower one, then sometimes rising again), falling, and a fifth, neutral tone found in weak syllables. Other languages have more or less complicated systems, but the idea remains the same: it’s the change in pitch that is important.

The alternative is a system where the tones themselves are steady, but at different levels. This is found, e.g., in Bantu languages of Africa. These are usually languages with two tones, a high and a low, or three, adding a middle tone. Four or more tones of this kind are rare, and it’s easy to see why. I mean, you could make a language with seven tones, each corresponding to a note on the major scale, and such a thing has indeed been done, but it would be awfully hard to speak. For speakers of such a language, singing lessons might be an integral part of grammar classes!

Obviously, an international auxlang likely won’t have tone, although one intended solely for communication in places where most languages are already tonal wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. For the more artistic conlangs, do whatever you want! In terms of numbers of languages, about half are tonal, though this is skewed by the large concentrations of tonality I mentioned above. (On a personal note, I’ve made one serious attempt at a tonal language, Lyssai. It’s for a race of elf-like forest dwellers in a story I’ll eventually write.)

Flavor

Note: If you’re making an auxiliary language, you can probably skip this section.

A lot of the flavor of a language comes from its sound, and that sound comes largely from the phonemes used in the language. (Some of it comes from the syllable structure and stress patterns, which we’ll get into next time.) Guttural sounds from the back of the throat grate on American ears, while the liquid sounds of approximants and trills feel soft. Palatalized sounds have a “slurring” quality, while dentals make us think of a lisp.

For fictitious cultures, this stereotyping becomes useful. Tolkien puts into the mouths of his elves words full of fricatives and approximants and voiceless stops, all phonemes perceived as soft. In sharp contrast, orc speech is full of aspirated or voiced stops, both “uglier” types of sounds, a subtle way of confirming their status as the enemy.

Of course, if you’re making a language meant to be spoken by actors, you need to take that into account, too. That’s why Dothraki, for example, has such a relatively simple phonology. (The exception is the lone uvular stop [q], which goes against what I said earlier about phoneme sets, but he’s getting paid, and I’m not. Oh well.)

So, the lessons we can learn here are many:

  1. If you’re making an auxiliary language, choose sounds and sound distinctions that are fairly common. Esperanto arguably screwed up by including a palatal series. Volapük did the same with front rounded vowels. Of course, French was once the lingua franca (it’s right there in the name), and it has a pretty complex phonology, so there are always exceptions.

  2. Artistic languages can have whatever sounds you can pronounce. But remember your audience. Americans probably aren’t going to be able to pronounce pharyngeals. Japanese speakers might not be able to manage [θ] and [ð].

  3. Phonemes, especially stops, tend to be connected. A distinction made on only one phoneme feels unnatural. It’s not impossible, mind you, just less likely.

  4. Vowels are like a gas. They expand to fill their space, and they spread out. The fewer you have, the more guises they can take. A language with only /a i u/, for example, can still have [e o] as allophones.

  5. Tone is nice, and it can be interesting, but you need to study up on how it’s used. (Actually, this can go for anything else in this gigantic post.)

  6. There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your language. The conlang community has a saying known as ANADEW: a natlang (natural language) already did, except worse. Almost every concept that a conlanger thought he came up with, some real language spoken somewhere has it.

That’s it for now. (Finally!) Next time, we’ll get into the sound systems of our two languages, Isian and Ardari.

Let’s make a language – Introduction

On the surface, the title of this post sounds ludicrous. Make a language? How could anyone do that? But people have done it. I’m one of them. And this series will (I hope) help you to do the same. In the end, you should have all the knowledge needed to make your own constructed language (or conlang).

Why Make a Language?

I know, it doesn’t exactly sound like something a normal person would do, but there are reasons. They might not be good reasons, but they’re still reasons. So, why would you want to make your own language? Let me count the ways:

  1. Worldbuilding. You’re an author (or a screenwriter or game developer) and you need something more than just gibberish. Sci-fi has aliens, fantasy has elves, and even Hollywood action movies might want to have the bad guys speak in something other than obvious Arabic or Russian. This is, in my opinion, the most important reason, and the one that will be the main focus of this series of posts. Examples of “worldbuilding” conlangs include Tolkien’s Sindarin (as seen in Lord of the Rings), Avatar‘s Na’vi, and the Dothraki language of Game of Thrones.
  2. Communication. The earliest attempts at created languages were mostly made to ease communication between speakers of multiple, indistinct tongues. In effect, they were trying to make their own lingua franca. That sort of thing still goes on (now usually called an “auxiliary language”, sometimes shortened to auxlang). Esperanto is the most famous example of this class of conlang, but it also includes Lojban and older efforts such as Ido and Novial.
  3. Art and philosophy. Some languages are created purely for their artistic effect, or specifically engineered to some ideal. Either way, they aren’t necessarily intended to be spoken. Rather, they’re more to be admired. The language Toki Pona fits into this class, as it was specifically designed as a kind of experiment in minimalism, while Ithkuil forms an almost perfect counterpart of extreme complexity.
  4. Secrecy. Writing down your thoughts in a form only you can understand certainly has its uses. After all, if you’re the only one who can read the language, then it’s effectively not much different from a one-time pad, right? (Well, not exactly. First, it probably won’t be much better than a cryptogram, since you’ll want something that’s easy for you to learn. Second, your notes will be as good as a key. Still, it might be fine for a diary or journal or something like that.) Obviously, there aren’t any good examples of a language like this.
  5. Fun. We don’t always need a reason to do things. Most conlangs are made because their creators wanted to make them. That includes most of my early efforts, for example. (I’d link to them, but they were never online to begin with.) Plus, it’s a good way to learn. Case in point: I hated English in school. Absolutely loathed it. Didn’t really care too much for Spanish in high school, either. Now, I’m writing this post, and I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t tried to make a language a long time ago. In the past 15 years, I’ve probably learned more about things like phonology, language evolution, and grammar in my spare time than many college graduates would pick up in a university setting (excluding those that major in linguistics, obviously).

What Are We Going To Do?

Well, the way I’ve planned it, the title of this post is a bit of a fib. We’re not going to make a language. We’re going to make two of them, running in parallel.

Language #1 is going to be the simpler, more familiar one. It’ll be a bit like English, with a lot of other influences, especially the top languages of Europe. There won’t be much here in the way of weird grammar or sounds that make you feel like throwing up when you try to pronounce them. We’ll call this language Isian.

The second language will be a bit more…advanced. Here, we can throw in odd sounds, strange words, and concepts that might boggle the mind of the average speaker of American English. It won’t be too far out there, and it won’t hold a candle to some of the real-world languages found in remote parts of Africa, the Amazon, or New Guinea, but it will be unlike any of the choices you probably had in high school. This language will be called Ardari.

For both languages, before we do anything, we’ll start with a little bit of theory for the bit of creating that we’re doing. For example, the first part of the series will be about phonology, so I’ll make a post that delves into the science of phonology and talks about how that relates to conlangs in general. That will be followed by a post where we create the sound system of Isian, then another that does the same for Ardari. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly small bit of info, I’ll combine both languages into a single post.

The Home Game

At any point along the way, comments are welcome, as are corrections and (constructive) criticism. This will be a bit of a democratic effort. (In other words, I’ll take all the help I can get!) And, of course, you’re perfectly welcome to play along at home, making your own conlang as we go. If you do, I’d love to see it, so don’t be afraid to post!