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!

Let’s make a language – Part 1c: Ardari Phonology

Okay, the last time wasn’t so bad. But Isian is supposed to be simple. Ardari, on the other hand, will be a little bit different. Again, I’m going to try to explain some of the reasoning behind my choices as we go.

Ardari Consonants

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop p pʲ b bʲ t tʲ d dʲ k kʲ g gʲ q
Fricative ɸ β s z ɬ ɕ ʑ x ɣ ʁ
Approximant w l j ʎ ɫ
Tap ɾ

Instead of the relatively few 19 consonants of Isian, Ardari has a total of 33, slightly above the world average. And some of them are…well, you can see the table. The main features of Ardari’s consonant system are as follows:

  • A set of palatalized stops (all the ones with a ʲ). Note that there aren’t any actual palatal stops or affricates. Maybe they merged with the alveolar or velar stops at some point in the language’s history.

  • The uvular stop /q/ and fricative /ʁ/. These don’t quite fit in, but we can say they developed from earlier glottal stops or something. /q/ doesn’t have a voiced counterpart (nor does /ʁ/ have a voiceless one), but allophonic alteration will likely fill in the gaps. (By the way, WALS Chapter 6 has info on uvular consonants.)

  • A full set of fricatives, including bilabials (instead of the labiodentals of English), alveolars (the familiar /s/ and /z/), palatals (technically alveolo-palatals as found in e.g., Polish), and velars (voiceless and voiced).

  • More lateral consonants. We have the basic /l/, the “dark” velar /ɫ/, the palatal /ʎ/ (like ll in some Spanish dialects), and the voiceless fricative /ɬ/. The last is rare in Europe, with the exception of Welsh, where it is written ll. (WALS Chapter 8 is all about laterals.)

  • Two different kinds of “r” sound: the /ɾ/ from Spanish pero and /ʁ/, which is more like the French sound.

To add to this, some of the consonants will change at times. The most important point here is that palatalization and voicing change consonants in clusters. In pairs of consonants, the first takes on the voice quality of the second, while the second takes on the palatalization of the first. As an example, the cluster /sgʲ/ (assuming it’s possible) would be pronounced as if it were [zg], while /dʲs/ would come out as [tʲsʲ]. This only happens for stops and fricatives, though, since they’re the only ones where voicing and palatalization really matter.

As you can see, Ardari’s consonants are quite different from Isian’s. Still, even though some of them might be hard for you to pronounce, they still aren’t quite as outrageous as some of the real world’s languages. Be glad I didn’t add in implosives or clicks or something else completely weird.

Ardari Vowels

Front Central Back
High i ɨ u
Mid-High e o
Mid ə
Mid-Low ɛ ɔ
Low æ ɑ

The vowel system is more complex, but it’s still a system. Ardari has 10 vowel phonemes, and we can divide them into three groups: front (/i e ɛ æ/), middle (/ɨ ə/), and back (/u o ɔ ɑ/). The two middle vowels are most likely reduction vowels that gained full phonemic status at some point. /ɛ/ and /ɔ/, on the other hand, probably represent a lost length distinction.

The Ardari vowels, since there are so many of them, don’t show too much variation. In unstressed syllables, some vowels might be pronounced as [ɨ] or [ə]. There is one rule that will stick out, though: /i/ and /e/ are never found after a non-palatal stop. /ɨ/, conversely, can’t follow any palatal or palatalized consonant. (A similar constraint can be found in Russian, for example.)

There will still be diphthongs in Ardari, though we’ll postulate that most of them have been converted into pure vowels over time. The four that remain visible are /aj æw ej ou/ (phonetic [aɪ æʊ ɛi ɔu]), corresponding to English lie, how, say, and low. Most other combinations of vowels followed by glide consonants (/j/ and /w/) will end up being pronounced as one of these. For instance, the sequence /eu/ would become [æʊ], and /oj/ would turn into [aɪ].

Although the table looks ripe for it, Ardari doesn’t have vowel harmony. Sure it’d be easy to add it in, and I’ve done just that with a conlang that has these exact phonemes. But not this time. We’ll keep it simple for now, saving the complications for the grammar, which will come soon.


With a total of 43 phonemes (not counting diphthongs), it’s clear that fitting Ardari into the English alphabet is going to be a challenge. We have two options. We can opt for digraphs, which are strings of multiple letters standing for one phoneme (like English and Isian sh), or we can use diacritics, those funny little squiggles above letters in foreign languages. For Ardari, a combination of both might be our best bet.

Some of the phonemes can take their letter values, just like we did with Isian. Here, we’ll let the consonant phonemes /m p b w n t d s z l k g q/ and the cardinal vowels /e i o u/ all be written as they are in the IPA (/ɑ/ is close enough to a that we can say they’re the same). But that doesn’t even get us halfway!

If you look at the chart above, you can see that the palatalized stops are a big component. Let’s write them as the regular stops followed by y. That’ll take care of six more. Then, we can do the same for the palatal nasal and lateral: ny and ly. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ll write /j/ itself as j, though, and you’ll see why in a moment. For the palatal fricatives, we’ll use the digraphs ch and zh. (We could also use Slavic diacritics and type them as š and ž. We can call that an alternate standard.)

The bilabial fricatives are pretty close in sound to their labiodental counterparts, so we’ll use f and v for them. The velar nasal is almost everywhere written as ng, so we’ll do that, except when it comes before another velar sound, when it will be n. Since nasals will assimilate, that’s okay.

We have two “rhotic” sounds /ɾ/ and /ʁ/. Either one could lay claim to r, but I’m going with /ɾ/ for that. For /ʁ/, we’ll use rh. That helps signify its “rougher” quality, don’t you think?

That leaves two laterals, two velar fricatives, and five vowels. For the velars, we can use the digraphs kh for /x/ and gh for /ɣ/. The laterals are a little tougher to figure out, but I’ll choose lh for /ɬ/ and ll for /ɫ/. It’s an arbitrary choice, to be sure, but I’m open to suggestions.

For the vowels, the best bet is usually diacritics, because the English alphabet simply doesn’t have enough vowel letters. Sure, you can use clever digraphs and trigraphs, but that way lies madness and Irish orthography, which are pretty much the same thing. Squiggles it is, then. We’ll use familiar European standards where we can, like a German-style ä for /æ/. French gives us è for /ɛ/, and we can extend this by analogy to ò for /ɔ/. That takes care of all but the two central vowels, which turn out to be surprisingly difficult. For /ɨ/, we can use y, since we already said it can’t appear after palatal consonants. (In other words, there’s no way to get yy.) For the schwa, we’ll go with ë or ö. Which to use depends on the previous consonant: ë after palatals, ö otherwise.

Whew. There we go. Let’s look at all this in a format that’s easier to read.

Written Phoneme Description
a /ɑ/ a as in father
ä /æ/ a as in cat
b /b/ b as in bad
by /bʲ/ palatalized b
ch /ɕ/ something like sh in show; more like Polish ś
d /d/ d as in dig
dy /dʲ/ palatalized d
e /e/ e as in Spanish queso
è /ɛ/ e as in bet
ë /ə/ a as in about; only after palatals
f /ɸ/ f as in Japanese fugu
g /g/ g as in got
gh /ɣ/ g as in Spanish amigo or Swedish jag
gy /gʲ/ palatalized g
i /i/ i as in German Sie
j /j/ y as in yet
k /k/ k as in key
kh /x/ ch like in German acht
ky /kʲ/ palatalized k
l /l/ l as in let
lh /ɬ/ ll as in Welsh llan
ll /ɫ/ l as in feel
ly /ʎ/ ll as in million (American English)
m /m/ m as in may
n /n/ n as in no
ng /ŋ/ ng as in sing
ny /ɲ/ ñ as in Spanish año
o /o/ au as in French haut
ò /ɔ/ o as in hot
ö /ə/ a as in about; only after non-palatals
p /p/ p as in pack
py /pʲ/ palatalized p
q /q/ q as in Arabic Qatar
r /ɾ/ r as in Spanish toro
rh /ʁ/ r as in French rue
s /s/ s as in sit
t /t/ t as in tent
ty /tʲ/ palatalized t
u /u/ ou as in French sous
v /β/ b as in Spanish bebe
w /w/ w as in wet
y /ɨ/ like i in bit; closer to Polish or Russian y
z /z/ z as in zebra
zh /ʑ/ like z in azure; closer to Polish ź

Wow, that’s a lot of letters! Next time, it’s back to the theory, where we’ll discuss all the things that we can use to make these sounds into words.

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 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.


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 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/.


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.)


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!