Let’s make a language – Part 4c: Nouns (Ardari)

For nouns in Ardari, we can afford to be a little more daring. As we’ve decided, Ardari is an agglutinative language with fusional (or inflectional) aspects, and now we’ll get to see a bit of what that entails.

Three types of nouns

Ardari has three genders of nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Like languages such as Spanish or German, these don’t necessarily correspond to the notions of “male”, “female”, and “everything else”. Instead, they’re a little bit arbitrary, but we won’t make the same mistakes as natural languages when it comes to assigning nouns to genders. (Actually, we will make the same mistakes, but on purpose, not through the vagaries of linguistic evolution.)

Each noun is inflected not only for gender, but also for number and case. Number can be either singular or plural, just like with Isian. As for case, well, we have five of them:

  • Nominative, used mostly for subjects of sentences,
  • Accusative, used mainly for the direct objects,
  • Dative, occasionally seen for indirect objects, but mostly used for the Ardari equivalent of prepositional phrases,
  • Genitive, indicating possession, composition, and most places where English uses “of”,
  • Vocative, only used when addressing someone; as a result, it only makes sense with names and certain nouns.

So we have three genders, two numbers, and five cases. Multiply those together, and you get 30 possibilities for declension. (If you took Latin in school, that word might have made you shudder. Sorry.) It’s not quite that bad, since some of these will overlap, but it’s still a lot to take in. That’s the difficulty—and the beauty, for some—of fusional languages.


Masculine nouns in Ardari all have stems that end in -a. One example is kona “man”, and this table shows its declensions:

kona Singular Plural
Nominative kona kono
Accusative konan konon
Genitive kone konoj
Dative konak konon
Vocative konaj konaj

Roughly speaking, you can translate kono as “men”, kone as “of a man”, etc. We run into a bit of a problem with konon, since it could be either accusative or dative. That’s okay; things like this happen often in fusional languages. We’ll say it was caused by sound changes. We just have to remember that translating will need a bit more context.

Also, many of these declensions will change the stress of a word to the final syllable, following our phonological rules from Part 1.


Feminine noun stems end in -i, and they have these declensions (using chi “sun” as our example):

chi Singular Plural
Nominative chi chir
Accusative chis chell
Genitive chini chisèn
Dative chise chiti
Vocative chi chi

The same translation guides apply here, except we don’t have the problem of “syncretism”, where two cases share the same form.


Neuter nouns have stems that can end in any consonant. Using the example of tyèk “house”, we have:

tyèk Singular Plural
Nominative tyèk tyèkar
Accusative tyèke tyèkòn
Genitive tyèkin tyèkoj
Dative tyèkèt tyèkoda
Vocative tyèkaj tyèkaj

A couple of these (genitive plural, vocative) are recycled from the masculine table. Again, that’s fairly common in languages of this type, so I added it for naturalism.


Unlike Isian, Ardari doesn’t use separate words for its articles. Instead, it has a “definiteness” marker that can be added to the end of a noun. It changes form based on the gender and number of the noun you’re attaching it to, coming in one of a few forms:

  • -tö is the general singular marker, used on all three genders in all cases except the neuter dative.
  • -dys is used on masculine and most neuter plurals (except, again, the dative).
  • -tös is for feminine plurals.
  • Neuter nouns in the dative use for the singular and -s for the plural.

The neuter dative is weird, partly because of a phonological process called “haplology”, where consecutive sounds or syllables that are very close in sound merge into one. Take our example above of tyèk. You’d expect the datives to be tyèkètto and tyèkodadys. For the singular, the case marker already ends in -t, so it’s just a matter of dropping that sound from the “article” suffix. The plural would have two syllables da and dys next to each other. Speakers of languages are lazy, so they’d likely combine those into something a bit less time-consuming, thus we have tyèkodas “to the houses”.

New words

Even though I didn’t actually introduce any new vocabulary in this post, here’s the same word list from last week’s Isian post, now with Ardari equivalents. Two words are a little different. “Child” appears in three gendered forms (masculine, feminine, and a neuter version for “unknown” or “unimportant”). “Friend”, on the other hand, is a simple substitution of stem vowels for masculine or feminine, but you have to pick one, although a word like ast (a “neutered” formation) might be common in some dialects of spoken Ardari.

  • sword: èngla
  • cup: kykad
  • mother: emi
  • father: aba
  • woman: näli
  • child: pwa (boy) / gli (girl) / sèd (any or unknown)
  • friend: asta (male) / asti (female)
  • head: chäf
  • eye: agya
  • mouth: mim
  • hand: kyur
  • foot: allga
  • cat: avbi
  • flower: afli
  • shirt: tèwar

Let’s make a language – Part 4b: Nouns (Isian)

Keeping in our pattern of making Isian a fairly simple language, there’s not going to be a lot here about the conlang’s simple nouns. Of course, when we start constructing longer phrases (with adjectives and the like), things will get a little hairier.

Noun roots

Isian nouns can look like just about anything. They don’t have a set form, much like their English counterparts. But we can divide them into two broad classes based on the last letter of their root morphemes: vowel-stems and consonant-stems. There’s no difference in meaning between the two, and they really only differ in how plural forms are constructed, as we shall see.


For all intents and purposes, Isian nouns don’t mark case. We’ll get to pronouns in a later post, and they will have different case forms (again, similar to English), but the basic nouns themselves don’t change when they take different roles in a sentence.

The plural (with added gender)

The plural is where most of Isian’s noun morphology comes in. For consonant-stems, it’s pretty simple: the plural is always -i. From last week, we have the nouns sam “man” and talar “house”. The plurals, then, are sami “men” and talari “houses”. Not much else to it.

For vowel-stems, I’ve added a little complexity and “naturalism”. We have three different choices for a plural suffix. (This shouldn’t be too strange for English speakers, as we’ve got “-s”, “-es”, and oddities like “-en” in “oxen”.) So the possibilities are:

  • -t: This will be the most common marker. If all else fails, we’ll use it. An example might be seca “sword”; plural secat.

  • -s: For vowel-stems whose last consonant is a t or d, the plural becomes -s. (We’ll say it’s from some historical sound change.) Example: deta “cup”; plural detas.

  • -r: This one is almost totally irregular. Mostly, it’ll be on “feminine” nouns; we’ll justify this by saying it’s the remnant of a proper gender distinction in Ancient Isian. An example: mati “mother”; matir “mothers”.

As we go along, I’ll point out any nouns that deviate from the usual -i or -t.


Like English, Isian has an indefinite article, similar to “a/an”, that appears before a noun. Unlike the one in English, Isian’s is always the same: ta. It’s never stressed, so the vowel isn’t really distinct; it would sound more like “tuh”.

We can use the indefinite when we’re talking about one or more of a noun, but not any specific instances: ta sam “a man”; ta hut “some dogs”. (Note that we can also use it with plurals, which is something “a/an” can’t do.)

The counterpart is the definite article, like English the. Isian has not one but two of these, a singular and a plural. The singular form is e, and the plural is es; both are always stressed.

These are used when we’re talking about specific, identifiable nouns: e sam “the man”; es sami “the men”.

More words

That’s all there really is to it, at least as far as the basic noun structure. Sure, it’ll get a lot more complicated once we through in adjectives and relative clauses and such, but we’ve got a good start here. So, here’s a few more nouns, all of which follow the rules set out in this post:

  • madi “mother” (pl. madir)
  • pado “father” (pl. pados)
  • shes “woman”
  • tay “child” (pl. tays)
  • chaley “friend”
  • gol “head”
  • bis “eye”
  • ula “mouth”
  • fesh “hand”
  • pusca “foot”
  • her “cat”
  • atul “flower”
  • seca “sword”
  • deta “cup” (pl. detas)
  • jeda “shirt” (pl. jedas)

Faith and fantasy

Religion is one of those things that, as an author or game designer, you have to treat very carefully. The risk of offense is too great, especially in the politically-correct, offense-first world of today. It’s easy to fall into a trap of pigeonholing real-world religions. “Evil, Arabian-looking bad guys that act like Muslims” is practically a genre trope at this point; two examples that I’ve read include the Fanim of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Krasians of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. “Evil, hierarchical church that looks Roman Catholic” isn’t exactly uncommon, either.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Sure, the popular religions in the world are the way they are, and they’re easy to relate to, easy to understand, because we see them every day. But different cultures, especially in different worlds than our own, are going to have different ways of looking at religion, faith, philosophy, and the supernatural. And their beliefs will shape their society, just as ours, historically, have shaped our own.

Of God and gods

In the West, there are three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In addition, there are a number of others that have significantly less popular appeal. The East, conversely, gives us the trio of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, along with a host of minor faiths. (And by “minor”, I mean they have fewer followers, not that they’re less important or less valuable.) And, of course, we also have the “non-religions” of atheism and agnosticism, as well as a number of systems of belief that might better be grouped under “philosophy”.

Even the largest of religions is not monolithic, however. Christianity has a whole spectrum of sects (“denominations”), and many Americans have become familiar with the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Some can even spot the difference between some of the different sects of modern Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, etc.). We know comparatively far less about the other side of the world, though; most people in the US probably think of all Buddhists as Zen, for example.

In fantasy literature, religion—when it is mentioned at all—usually only gets a passing nod. There might be the occasional oath, prayer, or swear, but a story where the beliefs of the people are not the focus often ignores those beliefs. And that’s fine. If it’s not an important worldbuilding detail, then there’s probably not much reason to put it in.

Conversely, games, especially tabletop role-playing games, make religion an integral part of the story. D&D (and its offshoots, like Pathfinder) has lists of deities, each with their own domain, and these almost always function like the pantheons of old, except with added benefits for certain believers. (In D&D, for example, clerics and paladins usually must follow a deity, and they receive divine blessings and spells in return.) In a way, despite there being a very detailed summary of religion, it’s abstracted away into a game mechanic.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Players shouldn’t be forced to study theology just to play a game. But fantasy, both literature and gaming, has a problem understanding the link between religion and society, and that link was a very real, very important part of the period of history favored by fantasy.

One to many

We all know the “origin stories” of the major Western religions, whether creation, crucifixion, or revelation. But all of these, as well as those less-familiar faiths of the world, had a major impact on the development of society. The Middle Ages, that favorite era of fantasy literature and games alike, was shaped by religion. In many ways, you could even say it was defined by religion.

When fantasy posits a pantheon (like D&D), that actually breaks the world for their other main assumption: the feudal monarchy. Feudalism, serfdom, the divine right of kings, knighthood, and all those other conceits of medieval Europe are based on a thousand years of Christianity.

“The end is coming soon, so get ready,” goes the common Christian refrain, and that’s largely been true since the 30s. No, not the 1930s, but the 30s, as in 30 AD. Christianity has always had a strain of the apocalyptic—the last book of the Bible is, after all, supposed to be a vision of the End of Days—though it has waxed and waned through the ages. In the medieval period, it was mostly waxing. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war were facts of life, especially for the lower classes, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. “The meek shall inherit the earth” was the closest thing to hope for the future that many people had.

If you replace the strict belief in God (whose eternal good was countered by the increasing influence of the Devil) with a nebulous—if effectual—pantheon, then things change dramatically. Get rid of the Church, the Pope, and all the other trappings of medieval Christianity, and all of society will develop differently.

Changing the game

In medieval Europe, the Church had supreme power, and all of it was centered on the Pope. He could make kings (or break them), crown emperors, canonize martyrs, or call crusades. His announcements of doctrine, the papal bulls, were regarded as nothing less than official interpretations of scripture. And he had one ultimate, terrifying weapon: excommunication.

All that it did was ban a person or group of people from Communion, effectively ostracizing them from the Church. But in a world where the eternal soul was seen as infinitely more important than its mortal frame, this was enough to turn even the most hardened of hearts. Rebels, heretics, willful kings, and political enemies all faced the threat of excommunication, and almost every one of them quailed in the face of such a punishment. Rebellions could end entirely once word came from Rome that their leaders had been cast out of the Church, no longer able to receive the blessings of Christ and thus condemned to Hell for all eternity. Even whole cities (such as Florence) were put under that threat simply to scare their rulers into complying with the Church’s wishes or dogma.

Besides the Church’s chief weapon (I’ll spare you the Monty Python jokes) and its total control of doctrine, it also changed Europe by bringing in its own social structure. Monasteries, hermitages, nunneries, convents, and abbeys all had their roles to play, and they were all part of the Church. And these weren’t always what you’d think from movies. Monks could be rich, nuns literate, and hermits not always loners living in caves. One of them even got elected as pope: Celestine V, who quit after a few months. (Every other pope from 1294 onwards ruled until he died or was cast out, until Benedict XVI not long ago.)

The Christian church and faith was the single largest influence on the development of the Middle Ages. Because of it, the Black Death was asserted as a sign of coming Armageddon, as was the famine that preceded it, and the Mongol horde that may have brought it. Without the church, the culture of monasticism wouldn’t have been so prevalent, nor would the orders of crusading knighthood, such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order exist.

Indeed, even the period’s systems of economy and government are indebted to Christianity. Feudalism lasted as long as it did mostly because people were taught that it was the natural order of things. Serfs were born to be serfs, and nobles to be nobles, and there were shelves full of books explaining all the ways you could see how that was true. Nobles, for instance, were taller, heavier, and healthier. Nobody bothered to note that this was because of nutrition and the often harsh working conditions of the peasantry. Rather, it was taken as part of the divine plan.

The realm of fiction

Fantasy likes to take the feudal society of Europe (especially the later, post-plague society where feudalism began to falter) and make it its own, without taking along the religious aspect that made it possible. In essence, you could say that medieval, feudal Europe came about because of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who converted himself and then his empire to Christianity.

Without a strong, central Church, you lose most of the foundations of the setting. If every city or nation can make its own doctrine, then you have very little world unity and shared culture. With more than one deity to worship, with no fixed scripture proclaiming the end of the world and the promise of a utopic afterlife, then there is no motivation for serfdom, for the glory of crusade.

Even technology is affected by the change in faith. Cathedrals, the defining monument of the Middle Ages, were built because of religion. Sure, a polytheistic culture might build great temples, and they would likely come to many of the same discoveries about building, but would they have the same styles? Likely not. They certainly wouldn’t be laid out in the shape of a cross, like the European cathedrals.

Some areas might become more advanced if you lift the strictures of Christianity. Machinery that could aid in work was often overlooked, simply because there were always more laborers to throw at a problem. The science of astronomy was held back by the belief that the stars were the realm of God, thus unknowable to man. And how would banking develop if the Christian constraints on usury didn’t exist to create a niche (and a stereotype) filled by Jews?

Magic, of course, is an obvious addition to any fantasy world, but it also existed (not really, but in people’s minds) in the Middle Ages. It’s something that was well-known, but totally forbidden. Fireball-wielding mages would have to be fit into the religious world-view, and where would they go? The sorcerers of the aforementioned Prince of Nothing series are excommunicated by default, but it’s easy to imagine a setting where the wizards are seen as messengers or even avatars of God or the gods.

Like so many other topics in worldbuilding, a few decisions change the outcome completely. Monotheism, logically speaking, probably leads to one of the same outcomes as it did in our world. Polytheism is reflected in ancient Rome and even modern India, as well as most fantasy. A lot of other ideas require more thought. If God is everywhere, in everything, then who needs temples or churches? If the world is full of spirits that inhabit every living thing, how can you eat and still live with yourself? (Yes, that means an animist world could have even stricter dietary laws than Islam. Think of Hinduism’s sacred cows.)

The length of time that a religion has existed will also play a role in a society’s development. The older something is, the more likely it is to change. Faiths fracture, sectarianism grows, especially if there is no central authority. A polytheistic culture is prone to develop “local” gods; Athena, patron of Athens, is a good example. New religions exist in a state of flux, as everyone vies for the right to be considered orthodox, often with disastrous consequences for those that lose. (How many Gnostics do you know?)

Rituals, prayers, and even the calendar can also be affected. The word “holiday” literally means “holy day”, and that’s where the oldest of them come from. Christmas and Easter are the ones everybody knows, although few know that they’re replacements for “pagan” holidays celebrating the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. But Lent and Ash Wednesday were far more important in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day, another pagan substitution, has become so marginalized that we celebrate the night before it instead: Halloween. Different religions, though, will have their own holy times: Ramadan, Hanukkah, and so on. As for prayers, who do you pray to when you have a hundred gods to choose from? Who is the one to memorize all the appropriate rituals?

End of this day

As always, there’s a lot to think about, and your choice is one of how deep to go. Obviously, if religion isn’t a major part of your world, then there’s not too much you have to do. But religion might be a significant part of your characters’ world, and it might show in the way they act, think, talk.

Faith and logic don’t always have a lot in common, it’s true. This is one place where the latter makes the former possible. It’s not your faith you’re worried about. Presumably, you’ve already decided that, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on your created world. Logically working out the beliefs of your world and their effects, though, can make for a deeper immersion into your story. It might even make some people think.

Let’s make a language – Part 4a: Nouns (Intro)

A noun, as we learned in school, is a person, place, or thing. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Later in our education, ideas and abstract concepts get added in, but the general notion of “noun” remains the same. All natural languages have nouns, and they almost always use them for the same thing. How they use them is where things get interesting.

The Noun Itself

Nouns are going to be words. In fact, they’re probably going to be the biggest set of words in a language, owing to the vast array of people and objects and ideas in the world. The most basic nouns (i.e., the ones we’re discussing today) are represented by a single morpheme, like “dog” or “car”. Later on, we’ll get into more complicated nouns that are built up (derived) from other words, but we’ll keep it simple this time.

So we have a morpheme, which we’ll call the root. This root is the core bit of meaning; if we change it completely, we change the whole noun. We can modify the root a little, however, and some languages require us to do this. In English, for example, a noun like dog refers to a single dog. If we want to talk about four of them, we have to write dogs. Similarly, the Latin word aqua, meaning “water”, becomes aquam if it’s used as the object of a sentence.

Most languages that mark these shades of meaning (subject vs. object, one vs. many) do so via suffixes, like the English plural -s. A few work more with prefixes; these are mostly lesser-known languages in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. English is a little weird in having yet another way of marking the distinction of number: sound change, as in words like goose and geese. (It inherits this from its Germanic roots.) Semitic languages, particularly Arabic, take this a step further, but Semitic morphology is a vastly overused element of conlangs, so I won’t discuss it much here.

Isolating languages, on the other hand, don’t really go in for this kind of thing. Their nouns mostly stay in the same form, but they can still represent the same ideas in different ways. If you’re working with a language like this, then the grammatical categories we’ll see in the rest of this post will likely be formed by additional words rather than suffixes or prefixes.


Probably the most basic (and most common) distinction made for nouns is that of number. Not every language has it—aficionados of Japanese know that the correct plural of “manga” is still “manga”—and that’s certainly a valid possibility for a conlang.

Besides an absence of number, what possibilities are there? First, there’s a division between one and many, singular and plural, with the singular taken as the default. That’s very common, and it’s familiar from English and most other European languages. But it’s not the only way. Some other number markings include:

  • A dual number, representing two of something. Arabic and Sanskrit have this, and there are remnants of it in English, with words like “both” and “either”.

  • Marking both singular and plural, each differently, as in Swahili mtoto “child” vs. watoto “children”. In this case, the singular prefix isn’t part of the root.

  • A distinction between “mass” and “count” (or “uncountable” and “countable”) nouns. Mass nouns like English “water”, logically enough, don’t appear in the plural.

  • A category of number specifically referring to “a few” or “some”. This is called the paucal, and it pops up here and there. Usually, it means anywhere from two to ten or so, probably because people have ten fingers.

Some languages mark for two of a noun, and some mark for a few. Three is an obvious next choice, and there are indeed a handful of languages with a “trial” number, but they only use it in pronouns (which are the subject of a later post), not the nouns themselves. Four is right out.


Gender in language has almost nothing to do with gender in anything else. For many languages, it’s almost completely arbitrary. Sure, the word for “man” might be in the masculine gender, and “woman” in the feminine, but just about anything else is possible. German Mädchen “girl” is neuter, as is Old English wīf “woman, wife”. Irish has cailín “girl” as a masculine noun, while Spanish gente “people” is feminine, no matter what kind of people it’s talking about. Of course, things don’t have to be this confused. A lot of the gender oddities are caused by historical sound changes. Conlangs don’t generally have this problem, although some authors like to add the semblance of such things.

For those languages that have gender, having two of them is common. Usually, that’s masculine and feminine. Some languages instead distinguish between animate and inanimate nouns, though there aren’t too many of these left around. Swedish managed to merge masculine and feminine at some point, resulting in the dichotomy of “common” and “neuter”.

Neuter is a popular third gender; it might be analyzed as an absence of gender, except that some nouns that do have a sex are classified under it, like those examples above. With a neuter gender, sexless items such as inanimate objects often end up there, but they can also fit into one of the others.

Languages can also make more than two or three distinctions of gender. You could have, for example, a language that has four, where every noun is either masculine or feminine, and either animate or inanimate. Some languages (notably the Bantu languages, including Swahili) have a wide variety of categories that might be called gender, though they’re more of a noun “class”.


Anybody who ever took Latin in school knows about case. And they probably hate it. Case is a way of marking the role a noun has in a sentence, such as subject or object. It can also be used to show finer points of meaning, such as those marked in English by prepositions like “in” or “with”.

A lot of languages don’t have case, or only use it in certain places. English doesn’t for its nouns, but does for pronouns (“he”, “him”, “his”), and that’s actually not that rare. Other languages seem to love cases; Finnish has a dozen or so, depending on who’s counting. Generally speaking, it seems that inflectional languages are especially fond of large case systems. Isolating languages make do with something like prepositions. Conlangs can be absolutely anywhere on the spectrum, from caseless languages to the monstrosity of Ithkuil, which has 96. (Granted, Ithkuil is intended to be unrealistic.)

Closing Thoughts

There’s more to nouns than meets the eye, and I’ve only covered about half of it. Wikipedia’s page on grammatical category has a wealth of knowledge about everything above, plus all the stuff I didn’t cover.

What it can’t tell you, though, is which of these categories nouns in your conlang should have. The answer to that depends on a number of factors. For an auxiliary language, you’ll want to be pretty simple. Alien conlangs can (should, even) break the Western mold.

Number is a fairly easy choice, but there’s a hidden complexity in there. (Just look at all the plural exceptions in English!) Gender has its problems, some of them even political, but it also has the potential to make things truly interesting. A matriarchal culture, for instance, might take offense at the idea that “masculine” is the default gender in a language. Cases make a language harder to learn, I would say, but they do feel like they add a “precision” to meaning. It’s possible to go overboard, though. (Actually, studying Finnish grammar isn’t the worst idea for a budding conlanger. It worked for Tolkien.)

The next two posts are going to cover basic nouns in Isian and Ardari, along with a bunch of added vocabulary. Those, combined with the pointers in this post, should be enough to stimulate your own imagination. After that, we’ll move on to verbs, so that we can make our nouns do things.

On magic as technology

I’ve previously written about the idea of magic and technology coexisting, and I touched briefly on some of the ways that a world would be different from our own, if magic truly did exist the way it’s often described in fantasy literature. This week, I’m taking it to 11. We’re going to look at what happens when magic doesn’t just live alongside technology, but either replaces or supplements it.

A world with magical technology shows up in the occasional mainstream setting. Many Final Fantasy games, FFVII and FFXII for example, have a heavy emphasis on magic working as or with technology. D&D’s Eberron setting has a high-magic world where magical implements take the place of technological devices. And, most familiar of all, the Harry Potter series has a number of “industrial magic” instances: messenger owls, phantom quills, etc.

The core conceit

The first thing we have to ask about a magic-as-technology setting is this: how common is the magic? If only a certain few can wield magic at all, it won’t form a major function of the technological progression. But if objects that use magic can be made and then used by those without magical talent, then you have the basis for a “technomancer” guild, where mages can create enchanted objects for the general public. Give everybody the capability for techno-magic, and many people will use it to make things. Some won’t, though, and magic-based “factories” could spring up, offering production lines and volume discounts. It might be a bit like today’s PC market, where most people buy a computer from a big name like Dell, but a select few learn how to build their own. They might pay a little more, but they get a level of customization not possible for the “big boys”.

Knowing how many magically-aware people we have, we can move on to the second question: how does magic work? I don’t mean in general, but only in comparison to science. If magic and technology work in basically the same way, and they can affect one another, then you have a “magitech” setting where the two almost merge (e.g., Final Fantasy). “Technomancy” is more of a situation where magic replaces tech (e.g., Harry Potter). Both of these have their ups and downs, but we’re not here to debate them today. They both have one thing in common: the notion that magic works in a predictable, testable, repeatable fashion. In other words, magic is scientific.

Branching off

When, in the course of history, was “scientific” magic discovered? The farther back you put this defining event, the less the final result will look like our world. Humans have an amazing capability to adapt new things to their use, and magic would be no different.

Take our own world, for instance. If magic had come into being, say, on December 21, 2012, the world as we know it would be largely the same. (I actually had an idea for a story based on this very topic, years ago, but I never got around to making it.) Three years isn’t that much time, after all. We’d probably just be seeing the first stirrings of a magical revolution right now.

Move the magical zero-hour back, though, and things begin to happen. Anywhere within an average lifetime, and the world doesn’t change enough to be unrecognizable, but you get lots of fun what-if questions. What if Osama bin Laden had access to magic in 2001? What if NASA had magical air-recycling in the 70s? What if the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were magically-enhanced? Or, for that matter, what if the Japanese had magical defenses against them?

Beyond a lifetime, the possibilities start to get too much. World War I is just now at the edge of living memory, but imagine if it was the first magical war. The body counts might have been even higher, the damage to the land far worse. Or things could have been changed for the better. Who knows? Wars are the easiest to speculate about, but any historical event could have gone differently if magic had been involved. And then everything would change.

Once you go back far enough, and once magic gets powerful enough, civilization itself turns out differently. If you have magical means of sending messages across miles, who needs radio? Magical copying can eliminate the need not just for electronic copiers, but for the printing press, too. If running water can be provided by a spirit of a river that anyone can tame, then why would you ever invent the aqueduct?

Not just invention, but every facet of life can be changed through the proper application of magic. Travelers could move about at night with magical illumination sources. A “ray of frost” spell is going to be a big boost to the study of heat transfer. “Flesh to stone” can take the place of mausoleum statues. The list goes on ad infinitum, because there’s nothing that wouldn’t be different in a world full of verifiable, technical magic. Even literature wouldn’t be immune. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy in such a world would probably be more of a satirical, comedic genre, or maybe a stylized look at the real world. The true literary heroes might become those who did great deeds without magical help.

How much do you need?

This is a rabbit hole that goes on forever, and it’s easy to get lost in it. For somebody trying to create the illusion of a techno-magic world, I can only offer a little advice.

First, decide on answers to the two questions above. Figure out where magic changes the “natural” order of history (even if you’re making a fantasy world). Work out what kind of magic the people would have access to, and how many of them can use it. The decisions you make here affect everything else, so they’re the most important.

Second, you can “cheat” by saying that just about everything that happened before magic matches up with our world. The precise details won’t be the same, but a world where magic was discovered in Roman times would probably have something resembling a Stone Age and a Bronze Age before that. Basically, any invention from before your branching point gets in for free, and you can work from there.

Third, think about what you need. Sure, it’s fun to explore the different possibilities, the different paths of the butterfly effect, but you do need to remember the needs of your story. Magical, oceangoing ships without sails might be interesting, but people living in a landlocked city-state probably won’t care about them, so a story set there might only mention them in passing, such as a brief phrase dropped in a traveler’s tale.

Fourth, use logic. That’s the whole point of technological magic, that it works the same as science. Wands of magic missile can replace guns, sure, but if they’re easy (and cheap) enough to make, then they would replace guns just about everywhere. Probably bows, too. Hunters would use them, and so would assassins. If that changeover is far enough in the past, society might completely forget how to make guns. (And that could make an interesting story hook, if I do say so myself.)

Finally, resist the urge to stagnate. If magic replaces technology, that doesn’t mean that progress stops. No, it just starts going in a different direction. It’s humanity’s unspoken desire to evolve, and the history of civilization is that of people coming together to change their environment to better suit them. That won’t stop simply because magic becomes involved. In many cases, industrial magic might cause things to speed up. If we can make things fly using magic in the High Middle Ages, then Da Vinci, the Montgolfiers, and the Wrights never need to design or build gliders, hot-air balloons, and airplanes. Magical airships, ornithopters, or the like would be a common sight to them, so why bother making something less powerful, less efficient, and more dangerous?

Going deeper

In case you couldn’t tell, I really like these thought experiments. I want to do more of them. I want to follow the rabbit hole deeper. Maybe it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Maybe you’re satisfied with Generic Medieval Europe With Wizards. That’s fine. I understand that, and sometimes it’s just what I need, too. But I definitely want to keep exploring the intersection of magic and science. I can’t promise it will be a regular, weekly thing, but I’ll put them in every now and then.

Let’s make a language – Part 3b: Language Types (Conlangs)

On the 2D “grid” of languages we saw last week, where do our two conlangs fall? We’ll take each of them in turn.


Since Isian is intended to be simple and familiar, I’ve decided to make it similar to English in this respect. Isian will have a lot of isolating features, but compound words can be made through agglutination. However, there will be a few fusional bits here and there. We might consider these “legacy” aspects of the language, something like how English still distinguishes subject and object, but only in pronouns.

Most of the morphemes in Isian will be free. Bound morphemes will be a fairly restricted set of affixes, mostly grammatical in nature, but with a few “learned” compounding affixes, analogous to English’s Latin borrowings: pre-, inter-, etc. Owing to Isian’s smaller phonology, a lot of morphemes will be two or even three syllables, but the most common are the most likely to be short.


With Ardari, we can be more ambitious. We’ll make it a more polysynthetic language, leaning agglutinative, but with some fusional aspects, too. In other words, Ardari will have a lot of word-making suffixes and prefixes, and plenty of grammatical attachments. Some of those will have a single meaning, while others will come in a fusional set.

Like Isian, though, those bits will tend to be older, even antiquated. It’s a common theme in natural languages: fusional aspects tend to disappear over time. Look at Latin and its daughter languages. Sure, Spanish (and Italian, and French, and…) kept the verbal conjugations. But noun case is all but gone, and French shows us that spoken verbs aren’t exactly untouchable. The same thing happened with English, but long ago. (If you don’t believe me, look up some Old English. We lost our cases, too, but our cousin, German, still has them.)

Since we have more sounds to work with, Ardari will have quite a few more morphemes of a single syllable, but two will still be common, and three won’t be entirely unheard of. On the whole, though, an Ardari text will tend to be shorter than its Isian equivalent, if harder to pronounce and translate.

The Words

Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Here’s the first basic vocabulary list for both of our conlangs, including an even dozen words. Obviously, these are going to be loose translations, but we’ll say that they cover the same ground as their English glosses. Also, these are simple nouns and verbs. No pronouns or adjectives yet, because we don’t really know what form they’ll take. (If you’re wondering, the Ardari verbs end in dashes because those are only the roots. We haven’t yet seen how to make the inflected forms.)

English Isian Ardari
man sam kona
house talar tyèk
dog hu rhasa
sun sida chi
water shos obla
fire cay aghli
food tema fès
walk coto brin-
see chere ivit-
eat hama tum-
live liga derva-
build oste moll-

Next Time

In the next post, we’ll take a break from our methodical, studious approach and digress into the wonderful world of nouns. We’ve already got seven of them up there, but we’ll come out with plenty more. After that, we’ll do the same for verbs, and then we’ll start to look at how we can take both of them and combine them into sentences.

Let’s make a language – Part 3a: Language Types (Intro)

The sounds a language contains can go a long way toward giving that language a specific “feel”. But the very structure of the words themselves creates another kind of feel. Think of German, with its immensely long words full of consonants. Compare that to Chinese words, short and to the point, but combined in numerous ways to make new phrases. Latin has tables of declensions, as any student knows, while English gets by with only a few variations in its word forms.

All of this comes under the field of morphology, which is, in essence, a parallel to phonology. Where phonology is concerned with a language’s sound inventory, morphology goes up to the next step: the building blocks of words. Not necessarily the words themselves, as we shall see. But first, we need to meet the morpheme.

The Morpheme

A phoneme, as we know, is the most basic unit of sound distinguished in a language. By analogy, then, a morpheme is the basic unit of grammar. This may surprise some people. After all, aren’t words the smallest part of grammar?

Well, sometimes. Words can be made of a single morpheme, and English has plenty of examples: dog, walk, I. These are called free morphemes, because they can stand alone as words in their own right. In contrast, the English plural ending -s and the past tense suffix -ed can’t be alone. They have to be attached to other morphemes to create a legitimate word, so we call them bound morphemes. Thus, the English sentence I walked the dogs has four words, but a total of six morphemes.

Languages can divide up their morphemes, free and bound, in numerous ways, but they can all be defined in two dimensions. First, how many morphemes are there in a word? Or, to put it another way, what’s the ratio of free to bound?

Isolating vs. Polysynthetic

This distinction is an easy one to think about. Look at English words like predestination or internationalization. They’re big words, and they have a lot of morphemes. “Internationalization”, as an example, has the free (“root”) morpheme nation surrounded by the bound morphemes inter-, -al, -ize, and -ation, for a total of five.

Not every language is like English, though. Many, instead, only really allow one or two morphemes per word, preferring to build their larger “words” as phrases constructed from multiple free roots. The Chinese languages are well-known examples of this style. They, and those like them, are called isolating languages, since their words are “isolated”, or able to stand alone.

The other extreme is exemplified by languages such as those of the Eskimo and Inuit peoples. Here, words can be constructed to mean entire sentences, and they are full of bound morphemes. Not only is the marker for tense stuck to the verb, but verbs and nouns themselves are welded together, and the whole thing becomes a single word. To demonstrate, I’ll copy Wikipedia’s example, the Yupik word tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq, meaning “He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.” Wow. (By the way, this is one reason for the linguistic urban legend that the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. Sure they do, if you count something that means “it’s going to snow tomorrow morning” as a word. But they certainly don’t have that many free morphemes that convey the meaning of “snow”.) Languages like these, where there are often many morphemes in a word, most of them bound, not allowed to stand by themselves, are called polysynthetic languages.

Of course, a language can be in the middle of this spectrum. Isolating versus polysynthetic isn’t a binary choice. English, after all, has plenty of cases of both isolation and (mild) polysynthesis. Indeed, most of the more common languages of the world fall near the muddy center of the continuum. Chinese, of course, is very isolating. English is kind of right in the middle. Turkish and Finnish are quite polysynthetic, though more of a type that we’ll see below. French manages to put one foot in either world, with a highly isolating written language that’s often spoken like it’s polysynthetic.

Conlangs tend to follow their authors’ leanings. Some like the exotic allure of polysynthetic languages, while others choose the stark simplicity of the isolating. Most, though, are somewhere in between, like the native tongues of their creators. Certainly, an auxiliary language shouldn’t be nearly as polysynthetic as Inuktitut. But that same style can definitely give an alien vibe to an otherwise simple language. An isolating style, on the other hand, could conjure up images of the East, or of Pacific pidgins and creoles.

Agglutinating vs. Fusional

For those languages that have them (purely isolating languages need not apply), bound morphemes are often used to indicate grammatical relationships. Again, we can look at English: plural -s, past tense -ed, etc. Most of these have a specific meaning, but not all. On verbs, -s marks the third person, but only the singular version: compare “he walks” and “they walk”. This is the second “dimension” of a language, and it asks, “How much meaning does a bound morpheme have?”

Like above, there are two paths we can choose. With a few exceptions (like verbal -s), English takes the “one morpheme, one meaning” approach. Thus, it’s fair to say that English is an agglutinating language. Turkish is a popular example of taking this to the extreme, as Turkish verbs can have a string of suffixes: one for person, one for tense, and so on. German’s interminable compounds are much the same, but with more “meaning” for each morpheme beyond mere grammatical marking.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the fusional languages including, for instance, the Romance family. Take the Spanish word amó, which we can translate as “she loved”. We’ve got a root am- (amar in its dictionary form) and a suffix , and that’s it. But we know that it’s in the third person, past tense, and singular. (Spanish doesn’t distinguish gender in verb conjugation, though, so it could equally mean “he loved”.) Three separate meanings “fused” into a single suffix. And we know this by looking at a Spanish conjugation table. Change the person to first, and the word must become amé. Plural instead of singular? You have to say amaron. Want it to be in the future, rather than the past? It’s now amará. Alter any one part, and you need a whole new morpheme.

Like in the first case above, few languages fall on the absolute extremes of the agglutinative/fusional spectrum. English is mostly agglutinative, Spanish mostly fusional, but both have exceptions. The fusional type, though, seems a bit more popular in Europe (as you can see from the number of languages with declensions and inflections and make it stop), meaning that it’s better represented at the top of the chart. But even Europe has its agglutinative sect: English and Finnish, among others. Elsewhere, it really depends.

For conlangs, it still depends. Westerners are familiar with fusional languages, but agglutinating has a mechanical appeal, and it’s definitely a lot easier to work with. Auxiliary languages might be best served by a hybrid approach, where there are mostly agglutinative elements, but a few fusional aspects added where they can simplify things (like English’s verbal -s). (And if you’re making a purely isolating language, you can completely ignore the whole thing!)

Next Time

In the next post, we’ll look at Isian and Ardari and how they fit into the two-dimensional world of isolating and fusional and agglutinating and polysynthetic. The results may shock you! Oh, and we’ll also start making actual words in our two conlangs. Yes, finally.

On magic and technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Clarke’s third law. But the reverse is true, too, especially in fantasy. It’s a staple of the genre that magic exists (at some level), but there are few authors who take the time to truly illustrate that fact. If magic exists in any predictable form (not just, for example, as the powers of capricious gods), then it can and will be predicted, if human evolution is any indication. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from hunters and gatherers to spacefarers, and we’ve used everything at our disposal to get there. Why wouldn’t we use magic, too, if we could?

Fantasy, particularly high fantasy, apparently doesn’t work that way. Magic is often seen as a natural force that can’t truly be harnessed, even by those mages who wield it. Very rarely are its effects on society shown, and then usually as something like an evil wizard overlord terrorizing his subjects or a land made inhospitable by a magical explosion.

But we can do better. Indeed, some authors do go to the trouble of working out the consequences of their world-building. (Whatever your opinions on his writing and stories, Brandon Sanderson is certainly one of these, and he’s only one of the most popular.) Fantasy doesn’t have to be restricted to the generic European Middle Ages setting, nor should it be. In science fiction, it’s common to take a single development (the invention of faster-than-light travel, say) and write a story around the fallout of that development. My argument, then, is that fantasy authors should do the same kind of world-building, even if it’s only for background, because it creates a deeper, more immersive world.

So, we’ll assume that we all agree that fantasy needs world-building, too. And fantasy’s replacement for advanced technology is magic. Thus, it stands to reason that magic is the focal point for our world. Now, we can ask a few questions about that magic, and we can follow a logical path to a magical world.

How many mages?

First, just how common is magic? Are there only a few mages in the world? Or even a single one? Lord of the Rings, for instance, only has a handful of magic users in all of Middle-Earth. Although they’re pivotal to the plot, they don’t really affect the world all that much. By contrast, a series like Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera has a world where essentially everybody uses magic, and it’s a whole different place.

If magic is all-powerful (or even just plain powerful), and there aren’t that many mages, then those lucky few are probably going to be in positions of power. There’s no real reason they won’t be. Think of Watchmen, but imagine that they’re wizards instead of superheroes. For that matter, think of Sauron. If there are only, say, a dozen wizards in the world, but they can call down the wrath of the gods, they won’t be advisors to kings. They’ll be the kings. You’ll need some serious contrivances to make a realistic case that a handful of powerful mages won’t be the leaders of the known world. Gandalf, for example, is truly good, but even he admits he can be tempted by the power of the One Ring. The same for Galadriel, with her “in place of the dark lord, you would have a queen” speech.

Give the world more magic users, and things begin to change, as long as their power is “diluted” by numbers. One mage in every city, easily killed if you can get the jump on him, might still lust for power, but he won’t be able to get as much of it. Put a low-level mage in every village and town, and it becomes just another craft like smithing. This is the default assumption of the sword and sorcery genre, especially that based on tabletop RPGs.

With magic slightly uncommon (somewhere on the order of one wizard for every thousand people), users will be respected, but not deified. And that’s a lot of mages: that same ratio would give us seven million magic users today. In other words, everybody in Hong Kong is a wizard. Somewhere around this point, the medieval/D&D assumptions go out the window. Sure, you’d probably have magical schools and guilds, but the world would change drastically.

Go to the extreme, let everybody tap the power of the arcane, and the world is a totally different place. At this point, you’re not really writing about the human race anymore. You’re writing about a race of mages that look human. If magic is that common, it won’t live alongside technology at all. Instead, it might entirely take technology’s place. Why invent a lighter when a fire spell works even better? If you can concentrate energy into a tiny ball of lightning, then who needs electricity? Working out the specifics of a “ubiquitous magic” setting is a topic for a later post, but you should try to imagine the repercussions of giving magic to the whole world.

What kind of magic?

What does magic do? Can it be used to create, or only destroy? In Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series (and its sequels), it’s an overriding theme that sorcerers can only mar the world’s perfection, like a child’s scribbles across a painting. They can’t make things truly beautiful. They can’t remake things. Magic is, to a first approximation, only destructive. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the general idea.) D&D’s Dark Sun setting is another take on this “creation and destruction” dichotomy.

In a world like this, where magic can only be used to harm, not help, it will certainly be weaponized. That’s just human nature. We’re always looking for better ways to kill (and to protect ourselves). But destructive magic will also have use outside of warfare, just like guns today. Destructive magic could still be used for the benefit of society. Think building demolition, clearing weeds from a field, mining, and even simple hunting.

If you allow for creative magics, then a whole new world opens up. Magic can become an art form, a craftsman’s tool, in addition to being a weapon of conquest or defense. In a “binary” world of creative and destructive magic, users of either side might actually work together, each using their own specialties. After all, building a house takes more than a construction crew. Sometimes, you need bulldozers.

With a magic system that divides the arcane into smaller pieces (elements, colleges, or whatever you want to call them), you start to get a rich background ripe for factional conflict. But there will also be knock-on effects in society at large. Fire mages would be awfully popular in the frozen wastelands of the north, while water or weather wizards could take the place of irrigation systems in arid regions. Magic then becomes a trade, and therefore subject to economic forces like supply and demand. (Again, the full ramifications can wait until a future post, but feel free to speculate.)

Other ideas

There are so many “what if?” questions one could ask about magic that a single post can never answer them. I couldn’t even begin to try. But here are a few that I feel are worthy of note. What if…:

  • …magic is technology? Namely, it’s the machinery of a long-lost civilization. This neatly ties back into Clarke’s law by making magic and advanced tech equal, instead of merely equivalent.

  • …magic is new to the world? If we discovered magic next year (i.e., 2016), then the world in, say, 2066 would be far different than if magic was first found in 1066.

  • …magic is religious? Honestly, I don’t see that changing much. Clerics and wizards aren’t that different. As long as it’s predictable and testable, it doesn’t matter whether magic comes from God, the earth, ley lines, or solar radiation.

  • …our enemies obtain magic? It’s no different from any other weapon of mass destruction, really. Sure, the idea of ISIS with guns and fireballs might be terrifying, but, unless magic makes them invincible, there’s only so much they can do.

  • …magic changes you? Plenty of authors have tried this one. (Hopefully, I’ll be guilty of it by this time next year.) The use of sorcery–since it’s usually called such in those settings–taints your soul, destroys your mind, or wrecks your body. In that case, yeah, mages might limit the use of their power, but that would actually serve to make magic seem more…magical. Fireworks would lose their luster if they weren’t limited to the Fourth of July and New Year’s. Plus, magic that can only be used so many times would be saved for the times when it’s really needed, and that sounds like an interesting story to me.

The end…?

I’ll write more on this subject later. An idea I have (that I may not actually do) is a whole constructed culture, similar to the “Let’s make a language” series, but exploring the ways a culture is shaped by its environment, its history, and itself. That’s for later, though. For the next post, I want to take our idea above–magic as technology–and run it to its logical conclusion: “magitech”.

Let’s make a language – Part 2b: Syllables and Stress (Conlangs)

Okay, last time we ran a bit long. This one should be fairly short. Today, we’ll look at the syllable structure and stress patterns of our two conlangs, Isian and Ardari. There’s no sense wasting time; let’s get right to it!


Isian, remember, is going to be the simpler of the two, so we’ll start with it. Isian syllables, for the sake of simplicity, will be of the form CVC. In other words, we can have a consonant on either side of a vowel. We don’t have to, of course. Syllables like an or de are just fine. CVC is the “maximum” complexity we can have.

Obviously, the V can stand for any vowel. (It’d be kind of silly to have a vowel you couldn’t use, wouldn’t it?) Similarly, the first C stands for any consonant. For the second C, the coda, that’s where things get a little more complicated. Two rules come into effect here. First, h isn’t allowed as a final consonant. That makes a lot of sense for English speakers, who find it hard to pronounce a final /h/, although it might upset speakers of other languages. Again, simple is the name of the game.

The second rule concerns diphthongs. If you’ll recall from Part 1, Isian has six of them. Here, we’ll say that /w/ and /j/ (written w and y) can only be the final consonant if they follow a, e, or o. This matches our phonology, where /ij/, /iw/, /uj/, and /uw/ aren’t allowed. Thus, diphthongs can be neatly analyzed as nothing more than a combination of vowel and consonant.

Moving on, we’ll give Isian a fixed stress: always on the penultimate syllable. So a word like baro will always be pronounced /ˈbaro/, never /baˈro/. Words with three syllables follow the same pattern: lamani is /laˈmani/. Since a diphthong is just a vowel plus a consonant, they don’t affect stress at all: paylow will be /ˈpajlow/.

In longer words, we’ll extend this stress in the same way. Or, to put it another way, every other syllable will get some sort of stress. A hypothetical word like solantafayan would have a secondary stress: /soˌlantaˈfajan/.

There won’t be any vowel reduction in Isian. Like Spanish, every vowel will be sounded in full, and each syllable will take up about the same time. This, combined with the regular stress, will probably give the conlang a distinct rhythm. (The dominant form of poetic meter, for example, will definitely be trochaic, and Isian musicians would probably find Western 4/4 rhythms very appealing.)


As usual, Ardari is a bit more complicated. For this language, syllables will have the structure CCVCC, and each of the four C’s will have a different set of possibilities:

  1. The first C can be any stop consonant, /m/, or /n/.
  2. The second C can be any fricative or liquid except /ɫ/, except a fricative can’t follow a nasal.
  3. V, of course, stands for any of the ten Ardari vowels.
  4. The third C is restricted to four liquid sounds: /w j ɫ ɾ/
  5. Finally, the fourth C can be any consonant except those four liquids.

Now, in addition to these definitions, Ardari syllables have a few rules about which clusters of consonants are available. In the onset, there are three broad categories: stop + fricative, stop + liquid, and nasal + liquid. The last is the smallest, so we’ll deal with it first. For that combination, there are eight possibilities: /mw mj ml mɾ nw nj nl nɾ/. Of these, we’ll say that Ardari doesn’t allow a nasal followed by /l/. Also, /nj/ isn’t that much different from /ɲ/, so we’ll say that those two sounds merge, allowing a syllable that starts with /ɲ/, but nothing else. The remaining five clusters can go in as they are.

For the combination of stop and fricative, things get trickier, because of Ardari’s rules about voicing and palatalization. Rather than a system, it might be best to show precisely which clusters are allowed:

  • Bilabial + fricative: /pɸ bβ pʁ bʁ/
  • Alveolar + fricative: /ts dz tɬ tʲs dʲz tʁ dʁ/
  • Velar + fricative: /kʁ gʁ kʲɕ gʲʑ/

For stops and liquids, we’ll do the same thing:

  • Bilabial + liquid: /pl pɾ pʲʎ pw bl bɾ bʲʎ bw/
  • Alveolar + liquid: /tw tɾ tʲɾ dw dr dʲr/
  • Velar + liquid: /kw kl kɾ kʲɾ kʲʎ gw gl gʲɾ gʲʎ/

At the end of a syllable, the clusters /ɫʁ ɾʁ ɫl ɫʎ wʎ ɾʎ ɫɲ ɾɲ/ aren’t allowed, but any others that fit the syllable structure are. (This is mainly because I find them too hard to pronounce.)

Ardari stress is free, but predictable. Syllables that have coda consonants other than just /w/ or /j/ are considered heavy, while all others are light. For most words, the stress will be on the last heavy syllable. (Secondary stress will fall on any heavy syllable not adjacent to another one.) Words with only light syllables are stressed on the penultimate, as are all words with exactly two syllables. For all of these rules, there is an overriding exception: /ɨ/ and /ə/ can never be stressed. If they would be, then the stress is moved to the next syllable. So, examples of all of these, using hypothetical words:

  • Basic stress pattern: sembina /ˈsembina/, karosti /kaˈɾosti/, dyëfar /dʲəˈfaɾ/.
  • Secondary stress in long words: andanyeskaro /ˌandaˈɲeskaɾo/.
  • Two syllables: meto /ˈmeto/, kyasayn /ˈkʲasajn/.
  • All light syllables: taralèko /taɾaˈlɛko/.
  • Stress moved because of vowel: lysmo /lɨsˈmo/, mönchado /mənˈɕado/.

Because of the vowel reduction, Ardari will likely be a more free-form language than Isian, poetically speaking. Indeed, it will probably sound a lot more like English.

Next Time

With this post, we now have enough information to start making words in both our conlangs. That may even be enough for some people. If all you need is a “naming” language, you don’t have to worry too much about grammar. That said, stick around, because there’s plenty more to see. Next up is a theory post where we begin to give our words meaning, and we find out just how many words the Eskimos have for snow. See you then!

Let’s make a language – Part 2a: Syllables and Stress (Intro)

The syllable is the next logical unit of speech after the phoneme. It’s one or more sounds that follow a pattern, usually (but not always) centered around a vowel. These syllables can then be strung together into words, which we’ll cover in the next part. For now, we’ll see what we can do with these intermediate building blocks.

The Syllable

Most linguistic discussions divide a syllable into two parts: the onset and the rhyme. That’s as good a place as any to start, so that’s what we’ll do. The rhyme part is further subdivided into a nucleus and a coda, again a useful distinction for us to work with. As the rhyme is often the more important, we’ll look at it first.

The nucleus is the center of the syllable, and it’s usually a vowel sound. Some languages, however, permit consonants here, too, and these are known as syllabic consonants. In English, these are the sounds at the ends of words like better, bottle, bottom, and button. A few languages (e.g., Bella Coola, some Berber languages) go even farther, to the point where the dividing line between syllables becomes so blurred as to be useless. By and large, though, vowels and the occasional syllabic consonant are the rule for the nucleus.

The coda is everything that follows the nucleus, and it’s a part that is, strictly speaking, optional. Languages like Hawaiian don’t have syllable codas at all, while Japanese only allows its “n” sound, as in onsen. A slightly more complex scheme allows most (if not all) of the consonants in the language to appear in the coda. Beyond that are languages that allow clusters of two, three, or even four consonants, with English a primary example of the last category, as in the words texts and strengths. (We’ll come back to that one later.) An important distinction we can draw is between open syllables without a coda and closed syllables with one. That will come into play later on, when we discuss stress.

Moving to the onset, we see another opportunity for consonants. This can range from nothing at all (though languages such as Arabic do require an onset) to a single consonant to a cluster of two or three. Again, English is ridiculously complex in this regard, at the far end of the scale in allowing three: split and (once again) strengths. Of course, this complexity is tempered by the fact that the first of those three must be /s/, which brings us to the topic of phonotactics.

Loosely speaking, phonotactics is a set of constraints on which sounds can appear in a syllable. It’s a different system for each language. They all have a few things in common, though. First, there’s a distinction between consonant and vowel. The simplest systems allow only syllables of CV, where C stands for any consonant, V for any vowel. An alternative is (C)V, where the parentheses around C mean that it’s optional.

The next step up in complexity comes with a coda or an onset cluster: CVC or CCV. (We’ll assume the parentheses indicated an optional consonant are implied.) These two are the most common, according to WALS Chapter 12, but they’re also where phonotactics becomes important. Which consonants can end a syllable? Which clusters are allowed? Although the first question has no universal answer, the second does have a trend that we can (or should) use.

Most languages that allow consonant clusters follow what’s called the sonority hierarchy. For consonants, it’s kind of a ranking of how “vowel-like” a sound is. Semivowels such as /w/ or /j/ are high on the list, usually followed by approximants like /l/ or /r/, then nasals, then fricatives, then stops. The rule, then, is that the allowed syllables have sonority that falls outward from the nucleus. In other words, it’s incredibly common for a language to allow a syllable onset like /kɾ/, but rare for /ɾk/ to be permitted. In the coda, that’s reversed, as the sounds with higher sonority come first. English bears this out: trust is the sequence stop – approximant – vowel – fricative – stop. /s/ (and /z/, for that matter) is special, though. Many languages allow either sound to appear in a place where the hierarchy says it shouldn’t go, like in stop or tops. That’s also how English gets three consonants in an onset: /s/ is always the first.

And, of course, there are the combinations that aren’t allowed by a language despite the sonority hierarchy saying they’re fine. In English, these are mostly combinations of stops and nasals. We don’t pronounce the k in knight or the p in pneumonia, but other languages do. Conversely, those other languages have their own rules about what’s forbidden.

For a conlang, there’s really no best option for syllable structure. CV is simple, true, but it’s also limiting, and it creates its own problems. Generally, less complex syllables mean longer words, since there aren’t that many permutations that fit the rules. On the other hand, something too complicated can devolve into a mess of rules about which phoneme is allowed where.

Auxiliary languages, then, should probably stick with something in the middle of the spectrum, like CVC or a very restricted form of CCVC. Conlang artisans can go with something a bit more bizarre, especially if they’re never intending their languages to be spoken by mere mortals. And, of course, an alien race might have a different sonority hierarchy altogether, and the idea of “syllable” might make as little sense as it does for the Nuxalk of British Columbia.

Stress and Accent

However we chose to make syllables, whether CV or CVC or CCCVCCCC, we can now put them together to form words. Some words need just one. (Like every word in that sentence!) Many will need more, though, and some people find joy in hunting down the longest possible words in different languages.

Once we have more than one syllable in a word, there can be a battle for supremacy. Stress is a way of marking a syllable so that it stands out from those around it. Stressed syllables are typically spoken louder or with more emphasis. (An alternative is pitch accent, where the emphasized syllable is spoken with a different tone. This can happen even in languages that don’t actually have phonemic tone, including Japanese and Swedish.)

There doesn’t have to be any special meaning attached to stress. Many languages fix the position of the stressed syllable, so it’s always the last, the next to last (penultimate), or the third to last (antepenultimate). Others go in the opposite direction, stressing the first (initial), second, or third syllable from the beginning. In any of these languages, the stress falls in a specified place that doesn’t change, no matter what the word is. Examples (according to [WALS Chapter 14])(http://wals.info/chapter/14) include:

  • Final stress: Persian, Modern Hebrew
  • Penultimate: Swahili, Tagalog
  • Antepenultimate: Modern Greek, Georgian
  • Initial: Finnish, Czech
  • Second syllable: mostly smaller languages such as Dakota and Paiute
  • Third syllable: almost no languages (the only example in WALS is Winnebago)

Conversely, a language can also have stress that doesn’t seem to follow any rules at all. This free stress occurs in languages like English, where (as usual) it is weirder than it looks. In fact, English stress is phonemic, as it can be used to tell words apart. The canonical example is permit, which is a noun if you stress the first syllable, but a verb when you stress the second. In languages with free stress, it must often be learned, and it can be indicated in the orthography by diacritics, as in Spanish or Italian. Free stress can even vary by dialect, as in English laboratory.

It’s rare that a language has completely unpredictable stress. Usually, it’s determined by the kind of syllables in a word. This is where the distinction between open and closed syllables comes into play. Closed syllables tend to be more likely to take stress (i.e., they’re “heavy”), while open (“light”) syllables are stressed only when they are the only option. (Some languages consider long vowels and diphthongs to be heavy, too, but this isn’t universal.) It’s entirely possible, for example, for a language to normally have penultimate stress, but force the stress to move “back” to the antepenultimate if the final two syllables are light.

Stress in conlangs might be entirely unpredictable. All types are represented, in similar proportions to the real world, although pitch accent is one of those things that conlangers find fascinating. Auxiliary languages tend to have stress that’s either fixed or easily predictable; Esperanto’s fixed penultimate is a good example. Artistic languages are more likely to have free stress, though some of this might be due to laziness on the part of their creators. Fixed is easier, of course, since it’s mechanical, but free stress has its advantages. (An interesting experiment would be to create a language with free, unmarked stress, then come back to it a few years later and try to read it.)

Rhythm and Timing

Rhythm is kind of a forgotten part of conlanging. (I’m guilty of it, too.) It’s most closely tied to poetry, obviously, but the same concept creeps into spoken language, as well. For this post, the main point of rhythm is secondary stress. This kind of stress is lighter than the main, primary stress we discussed above, and it mostly occurs in long words of at least four syllables. Now, some languages don’t need (or have) a rhythmic pattern, but it can make a conlang feel more natural.

Generally, a heavy syllable is going to be more likely to get secondary stress, especially if there is a single, light syllable between it and the main stress. (In which direction? Whichever one you use to find the primary stress.) Languages without heavy syllables (such as pure CV languages) will probably have a pattern of stressing alternate syllables; in a penultimate-stress language, this would be the second to last, fourth to last, and so on.

Somewhat related to rhythm is timing, another under-appreciated aspect of a language. In languages such as Spanish or Italian, unstressed syllables are treated essentially the same as those that are stressed, and each syllable sounds like it takes the same amount of time. In others, including English, an unstressed syllable is spoken more quickly, and its vowel is reduced; here, it seems to be the amount of time between stressed syllables that stays constant.

For the most part, conlangers don’t need to worry much about rhythm and timing. However, if you’re writing poetry (or song) in your language, it will certainly come into play. Any post I do about that is a long way off.

The Mora

Some languages don’t use the syllable as the basis for stress and rhythm. Instead, these languages (including Japanese and Ancient Greek, to name but two) use the mora (plural morae). This is, in essence, another way of looking at light and heavy syllables. Basically, a short vowel in a syllable nucleus counts for one mora, while long vowels or diphthongs are two. A coda consonant then adds another mora, giving a range of one to three. Thus, a syllable that has one mora is light, and two morae make a heavy syllable. Three morae can make a “superheavy” syllable, though some languages don’t have these, and four seems to be impossible.

In a moraic system, stress (or pitch, if using pitch accent) can then be assigned to heavier syllables. Rhythm, too, would be based on the mora, not the syllable. The distinction can even be shown in writing, as in the Japanese kana. The end result, though, can be explained in the same terms either way. It’s just another option you can look into.


That was a lot to cover, and I only scratched the surface of syllables. But we can now make words, and that was worth a long post. Next up is a combination post for both Isian and Ardari. Since the theory’s out of the way, the implementation won’t take much explanation, so I’ve decided to cover both languages at the same time. After that, we’ll actually start diving into grammar. See you next week!