🖼🗣 : the emoji conlang, part 4

🖼🗣 is becoming quite the little language. In the first three parts, you saw the basic outline of how we can take the wide array of emoji characters available in Unicode and contort them into a hieroglyphic script for modern times. Now, we’ll take another step by looking into the many ways in which we can construct new words from the building blocks we’ve been given.

Derivation

First of all, we need to make a distinction between the two different types of combining we can do. Derivation is mostly a grammatical process; it turns nouns into verbs, for example. Almost all languages have at least some derivational processes, and they tend to fall into a few major categories. 🖼🗣 is no exception, so we’ll look at these now. Later, we’ll turn to compounding, where we take individual words and combine them to create something new.

All of the script’s derivations are suffixes. We’ve already met a few, but here’s a complete list. (Note that tense markers, the plural and singular markers, and others like those are considered inflectional, so they’re not listed here.)

  • 〰 – This sign converts a word into an adjective. Usually, it’s a “quality” adjective: a 🧒 (child) is young, so 🧒〰 means “young”.

  • ▪ – This sign forms diminutives. These are “small” forms of words (typically nouns or adjectives) that indicate a lesser degree or amount: 🏙 “city” becomes 🏙▪ “town”, and ❄ “cold” turns into ❄▪ “chilly”.

  • ◼ – This sign changes an adjective or verb into a noun representing something to do with them. So we might turn 🍴 “to eat” into 🍴◼ “meal”, because a meal is something you eat.

  • ⬛ – The opposite of ▪, this sign creates superlative or augmentative forms. Linguistically, those are two different things, but they both pertain to an increase of a quality. With adjectives, ⬛ forms a superlative: 💪 “strong” becomes 💪⬛ “strongest”; this is really an inflection rather than a derivation. When used on a noun, however, the connotation is slightly different: 🌧 “rain” can become 🌧⬛ “torrent, flood”.

  • 🔻 – This marks a negative or inverse connotation. Usually, there’s already another word available, but using this suffix means you’re focusing on what something is not. An example might be 👍 “good” becoming 👍🔻 “not good”. It’s not quite the same as 👎 “bad”, but it’s close.

  • 🔺 – This is the counterpart to 🔻. It marks a positive connotation, which you may think has little use, but it can also function as an intensifier, a bit like “definitely” or (in colloquial speech) “literally” in English.

  • ➡ – As we have seen in previous parts, this forms verbs from other words. No examples needed here, because you should already get the gist.

These are the main derivations in 🖼🗣. Others do exist, but they have more specialized meanings, and they’re probably better analyzed as compounds, which we’ll get to right now.

Compounding

Most vocabulary in the script is formed by compounding. This process, much more general (yet also a bit more idiosyncratic) than derivation, allows us to express essentially any concept through a combination of 🖼🗣 symbols. The rules are a little involved, so pay close attention.

General compounding rules
  1. Any lexical symbol can be used in a compound. Those with a purely grammatical function (such as the derivational affixes above) aren’t allowed, except in very specific circumstances. (These form what’s called a closed class of words, and they don’t really concern us here.)

  2. The minimum number of symbols is 2, but the only upper limit is imagination. Realistically, however, most compounds will have at most 4 symbols.

  3. One element of the compound is the head, while the rest are considered modifiers. (Linguists note that the head element isn’t necessarily the semantic head, but it usually is.)

  4. The head determines the part of speech of the compound. Thus, compounds with heads that are nouns will be nouns themselves.

  5. Verb compounds are head-initial, while all others are head-final.

Noun-noun compounds

Compounds of multiple nouns are probably the easiest to understand. Almost all of them tend to denote specificity. In other words, the modifiers define a specific type of the noun represented by the head. We’ve already seen 🐕🏠 “doghouse”, for instance, but here are a few more:

  • 🐦🛁, “birdbath”
  • 🚲🛣, “bike path”
  • ✋🔫, “handgun”
  • 📰📄, “newspaper”

Simple enough, right? These are mostly English-oriented, but the same principles are common across many languages.

Adjective-noun compounds

These are almost the same as the noun-noun compounds above, but the modifier is an adjective instead:

  • 💨🛣, “fast lane”
  • ♨🛁, “hot tub”
  • 🤓☎, “smartphone”

Again, there’s not much to it.

Adjective-headed compounds

When an adjective is the head, the modifiers shift the base meaning toward their own. It’s a little hard to explain in prose, so we’ll try a few examples instead:

  • 🌹🔴, “rose red”
  • 🏛👴, “ancient”
  • 👿🖤, “devilish”

Unlike nominal compounds, these are often less transparent, but that’s okay.

Verb-headed compounds

Verbal compounds are the hardest. For one thing, they’re “inverted”, with the head coming first. For another, pinning down their meaning isn’t easy. In general, more active verbs tend to form compounds whose meanings are related to the head, while “static” verbs function a lot more like adjectives.

  • 🏃💨, “sprint”
  • 🤝💬, “introduce”
  • 👐🆓, “donate”

Moving on

Part 5 of this series will be a chance to pause and take stock. Instead of grammar and word-building, I’ll provide a lot more vocabulary, roots and compounds alike. I hope to see you then!

🖼🗣 : the emoji conlang, part 3

As we have seen, 🖼🗣 is perfectly capable of writing simple sentences using nothing but emoji along with standard English punctuation. In this post, we’ll delve a little deeper into the script, focusing first on verbs.

Preliminaries

Before we get started, let’s add in a few more simple words. All of these are verbs that represent actions, and I’ve tried to choose those best suited to “dynamic” phrasing.

  • 🛬 – to come
  • 💃 – to dance
  • ✈ – to fly
  • 🛫 – to go
  • 👊 – to hit
  • 🤗 – to hug
  • 😆 – to laugh
  • ⛹ – to play
  • 🏃 – to run
  • 💺 – to sit
  • 🏊 – to swim
  • 💼 – to work
  • ✍ – to write
  • 🔥➡ – to burn
  • 🚗➡ – to drive
  • 💕➡ – to love

Of course, most nouns can be “verbalized” by adding the ➡ suffix. In most cases, the resulting word can be interpreted in one of two ways. It’s either an action that uses the root noun (e.g., you drive a car), or one that is caused by the root (fire burns).

Adjectives can also take ➡, but their meaning is a lot simpler. Most of the time, the verb created is one that represents being in a specific state. Thus, 😃➡ translates as “to be happy”. Those are far more regular than verbs derived from nouns, but not nearly as flashy, so we don’t really need a list yet.

The usual suspects

🖼🗣 verbs express actions. As in English, they can also express when an action occurs. In other words, verbs have tense.

You’re probably expecting a table showing the different tenses in the script, because that’s what most language-learning texts offer right about now. But hold on just a minute. This is a little different. We don’t just have a simple three-way distinction, because 🖼🗣 combines tense and the linguistic notion of aspect into a single marker. So let’s slow down and take these things one at a time, since they can trip you up if you’re not careful.

First off, the present tense is simply the lack of any other marker. It’s the default. (Linguists can argue the point that non-finite verbs are also unmarked, but we’ll ignore them.) Also, the present tense here is best interpreted as the “imperfective” or “progressive” kind. That’s more in line with typical English speech, which is what 🖼🗣 tries to follow. Thus, a phrase like ♂ ✍ should read as “he is writing” rather than “he writes”. Obviously, that’s not set in stone, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

Next up, we have your basic past and future tenses. These are ◀ and ▶, respectively, and it’s not hard to get the symbolism. As opposed to the present, you can assume both of these are “perfective” by default: ♂ ✍◀ “he wrote”, ♂ ✍▶ “he will write”.

Here’s where it gets tricky. If you’re familiar with both English and Romance languages such as French or Spanish, you’ll also know the perfect tenses. They’re the “have” forms of an English verb, or the separate conjugations in Latin, or however you like to look at them. They’re hard to explain without resorting to linguistic nastiness, so I’ll keep it simple. A verb in a perfect tense refers to an action that took place before the time it’s talking about. It talks about something that, from the point of view of the verb, has already finished.

For 🖼🗣, we’ve got a trio of perfect markers. Each simple tense has a corresponding perfect form, and they look similar enough to the basics that you can almost imagine they fit. ⏯ marks the present perfect (“he has written”), ⏮ the past perfect (“he had written”), and ⏭ the future perfect (“he will have written”).

Last are two linguistic aspects that English doesn’t mark in a simple way. Other languages do, however, and two emoji perfectly fit the bill for them. Rather than use the technical terms, I’ll describe them more informally. ⏺ marks an action that is beginning (“he is starting to write”), while ⏹ says that an action is ending (“he isn’t writing anymore”). As you can see, these aren’t easy to translate, but the concepts aren’t too hard to grasp.

Combining the tense and aspect markers works just fine. You can use one of each, and the order doesn’t matter. Add in the adverb 🚫 “not”, and you can express some fairly complex ideas in just a few symbols. 🤳 🚫 ✍⏭⏹ “I will not have stopped writing”. Wow.

Back to pronouns

About that last example, though. You’ll notice I used 🤳 as the first-person pronoun. Last time, as you may recall, I mentioned that this is an acceptable substitute, and now it’s time to explain why.

Any 🖼🗣 pronoun can take 🤳 as a suffix meaning “-self”. (Get it? Because it’s a selfie.) Most of the time, you’d use this as the object of a phrase: ♀ 👀 ♀🤳 “she sees herself”. But that’s a little repetitive, so there are other ways. Placing this “reflexive” pronoun as the subject lets you say the same thing in a more concise way: ♀🤳 👀.

So far, so good. But the other meaning for 🤳 is as an “intensifier”. Those of you who know Spanish may recall that subject pronouns are optional in that language. Indeed, using them regularly is one of the hallmarks of beginner speakers. But when they do appear, it’s usually to indicate emphasis. In effect, they say that I’m doing this, not somebody else.

While our emoji script doesn’t allow omitting most pronouns, the emphatic use of 🤳 works just fine. And that’s our loophole to let us use 🤳 as an acceptable alternative to 👁️‍🗨. Language geeks rejoice.

We’ve also got a few other pronouns to cover before we go. These are the indefinite sort, and they’re all formed as compounds using 🔳 “some”. Thus, you have the following:

  • 🔳◻ – something
  • 🔳👤 – someone/somebody
  • 🔳📍 – somewhere
  • 🔳⌛ – sometime
  • 🔳〰◼ – somehow

Moving forward

So that about wraps it up for this one. Next time around, I promise we’ll get more into making actual sentences. We’ll also go a little deeper into what makes up words, including some of the more regular compounding constructions. 👀▶ 💮 🔜!

🖼🗣 : the emoji conlang, part 2

In the previous article, I showed that it is possible to create a kind of modern-day hieroglyphic script using the ~1200 emoji characters available in Unicode. Now, let’s expand on that.

Rather than go through a formal grammar, we’ll work our way up from a few simple phrases and sentences, much in the same way as a student learning a new language. 🖼🗣 is, after all, a bit like it’s own language.

Preliminaries

First off, let’s define a few very simple words. These are all “content” words, as you’ll see; grammatical particles (what few we truly need in 🖼🗣) can come later.

  • 👨 – man
  • 👩 – woman
  • 👤 – person
  • 🧒 – child
  • 🐕 – dog
  • 🐈 – cat
  • 👁 – eye
  • 👄 – mouth
  • ✋ – hand
  • 👣 – foot
  • 🍴 – to eat
  • 🥤➡ – to drink
  • 👀 – to see
  • 👂➡ – to hear
  • 🧠➡ – to know
  • 🚶 – to walk
  • 💧 – water
  • 🌬 – air
  • 🔥 – fire
  • 🌐 – earth
  • 🌞 – sun
  • 🌝 – moon
  • ⛅ – sky
  • 🔴 – red
  • 💚 – green
  • 🔷 – blue
  • ◻🌈 – white
  • ◼🌈 – black
  • ♨ – hot
  • ❄ – cold
  • 😃 – happy
  • 😢 – sad
  • 💪 – strong
  • ⬜ – big
  • 🧠〰 – smart

For most of these, the meanings should be fairly obvious. Some, however, are compounds. As an example, the color terms for white and black, ◻🌈 and ◼🌈, combine their first glyphs (ordinarily simple nominal particles) with 🌈, a regular derivation that makes color terms. Similarly, the numerous verbs with ➡ are derived from nouns; the second symbol here acts as a verbalizing suffix. And for adjectives, you can often use 〰, as we did with “smart”: 🧠〰.

Simplicity

The simplest sentences are those with nothing more than a subject, verb, and object. And, to make things even simpler, we’ll start with the most basic verb of all: “to be”. In 🖼🗣, that’s 👉. No need to worry about agreement suffixes or anything like that, though. For our purposes here, 👉 is all we need. (We’ll get to tenses in a later part.)

Here are a few examples to show what I mean:

  • 🧒 👉 😃. – The child is happy.
  • 👩 👉 🧠〰. – The woman is smart.
  • 👨 👉 💪. – The man is strong.
  • 🔥 👉 ♨ – Fire is hot.

Note that we don’t need any special word for “the”, either. It’s understood. (If you really think you need it, you can use 👇, though its meaning is closer to “this”.)

Our other verbs aren’t quite as easy to work with, but we can manage. The principle’s the same, after all:

  • 🧒 👀 🐕. – The child sees a dog.
  • 👨➿ 🚶. – The men are walking.
  • 🐈 🥤➡ 💧. – The cat drinks water.

Once again, don’t worry about the difference between English simple and progressive forms. 🖼🗣 doesn’t bother distinguishing the two.

You, me, and all the rest

Today, everybody’s worried about pronouns. Well, I’ve got you covered there, because 🖼🗣 has plenty of them.

Most languages make a distinction between persons: first, second, and third. To some extent, that’s what we’ll do here, but modern communication, especially on the Internet, is more geared towards a distinction between speaker, audience, and others. (Technically, that’s all the three degrees of person represent, but bear with me.)

A speaker’s solo pronoun is 👁️‍🗨. If they’re including others (whether inside or outside their audience), then this becomes 🤲. These are like “I” and “we”, respectively:

  • 👁️‍🗨 👉 🧠〰. – I am smart.
  • 🤲 👉 😃. – We’re happy.
  • 👁️‍🗨️ 👀 🔷 ⛅ – I see the blue sky.

(Important note: Some systems are not able to display or input the “compound” emoji 👁️‍🗨️. If yours is one of them, don’t despair. You can use 🤳 instead. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing, as we’ll see in the next part, but it’s close enough.)

But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re only speaking of yourself, there’s really no reason to need that cumbersome pronoun. It’s implied, because you’re the one talking. So that first sentence can become “👉 🧠〰.” instead, and it’ll mean the same thing.

Only the singular speaker pronoun can be dropped like this, which is far different from most spoken languages which allow such things.

The listener pronouns are much simpler. In fact, they’re not even pronouns at all, because there’s only one of them: 💮. Example:

  • 👁️‍🗨️️ 👀 💮. – I see you.

As with English “you”, this works for both singular and plural.

Last are what most languages call the third-person pronouns. Here, 🖼🗣 has a wide variety to choose from, so let’s take a look.

  • For talking about people in general: singular 👤, plural 👥
  • For talking about anything not human: singular ◻, plural ◻◻
  • For talking about only men: singular ♂, plural 👥♂
  • For talking about only women: singular ♀, plural 👥♀

Mostly, the first two pairs should be preferred, and the “general” form is required when you’re referring to mixed groups. And, of course, using the “non-human” pronouns when you want to talk about people is just wrong.

Some examples using these pronouns:

  • 👥 👉 😃. – They are happy.
  • ♂ 👉 ⬜ 👨. – He is a big man.
  • 👀 ◻. – I see it.
  • 👥♀ 👂➡ 💮. – They (i.e., those women) can hear you.

Possessed

Last in this little lesson, we’ll discuss the possessive form. As with many parts of 🖼🗣, that’s a little different from what you might expect. In fact, it’s one of the few cases where the script recycles English punctuation.

Our key here is the apostrophe, or single quote mark: ‘. When put between two nouns (pronouns included), it indicates that the first possesses the second. So we might say 🧒’🐈 for “the child’s cat” or ♂’✋ for “his hand”.

These aren’t exactly compound nouns, but they can function much like them, fitting into sentences with ease.

  • 👁️‍🗨️’👁 👉 🔷. – My eyes are blue.
  • ♀’🧒➿ 👉 😃. – Her children are happy.
  • 👀 ⬜ 👨’🐕➿. – I see the man’s big dogs.

In the last example above, you can see a difference between the script and English, as far as word order is concerned. The possessive “attaches” to the head noun, even if there are modifying adjectives before it.

Also, you can “chain” possessives, as in ♂’🧒’👁➿ “his child’s eyes”.

Moving forward

Now that you’ve seen a little bit more of this experiment, does it still seem so outlandish? Stay tuned, as this series will delve even deeper into the weird world of emoji, and the strange things we can accomplish when our language is allowed to use nothing else. 👀▶ 💮 🔜!

🖼🗣 : the emoji conlang, part 1

I talked about this a while back, but now it’s for real. Today, I introduce to you a new conlang: 🖼🗣. Or, to put the name in something pronounceable, Pictalk. Yes, the glyphs making up the name are emoji. Yes, so are all the characters used in the entire language.

Strictly speaking, Pictalk isn’t a full-fledged conlang. It’s written-only, first of all. There is no true spoken form. Instead, it should be considered something closer to a conscript, an artificial writing system, modeled after hieroglyphic and ideographic scripts. But that’s enough to encode ideas, thoughts, sayings, and anything that might need to be written in this modern, digital age.

Glyph inventory

The hardest part about making Pictalk is the very restricted set of available glyphs. True, there are over 1200 emoji characters available, and they cover a wide variety of concepts, from animals to emotions to transportation and more. But I don’t have control over which symbols the Unicode Consortium adds to the list. While that list will grow (they add more each year, it seems), there’s little rhyme or reason to which new characters come in.

But that’s okay. We can do this. English only needs 26 letters, right?

Even with the wide array we have, it’s safe to discard quite a few right off the bat. First, I’ll drop the “cat face” group, such as 😸, because they really only repeat the normal human smileys. Next, toss out the handful of CJK ideographs in circles or squares, like 🈹—I’m an English speaker, and even Unicode gives up on giving them reasonable names. The skin tone modifiers (🏻 and friends) don’t make sense in the context of language; Pictalk thus won’t give them meanings, but will allow them to modify other symbols as a kind of synonym.

Likewise (and here’s where we start getting into the grammar bits), gendered forms like 👩‍🏫 or 👨‍⚕️ are synonymous with their “base” forms. With many languages, particularly in the West, where there is no neuter form, masculine is considered the default. Pictalk, however, is gender-neutral. That’s not out of some misguided idea of social justice or diversity, but simple expedience. Unicode has neuter forms for most of what we might call agentive glyphs. Where it doesn’t, we can use either, and that’s fine.

Last, flags. These take up a good chunk of the emoji list (about 15%, all told), and they’re mostly country flags. Well, for Pictalk, those flags represent their countries, and that’s that. Unlike most other characters, they don’t really participate in the construction processes we’ll see later on.

Non-emoji characters

Before we get to that, let’s go over the rest of Unicode. Obviously, since the whole point of Pictalk is to create a hieroglyphic script using the emoji characters, they’re the focus. But we’ve got a few other options available. One I won’t use is Latin letters. Or, for that matter, any other alphabetic script. In earlier versions of the language, I did utilize them for derivation and some small grammatical particles, but I’ve since removed the need for them. Only proper names use alphabetic characters; these are written as they would be in either the speaker’s or the audience’s preferred language.

Numbers, on the other hand, are perfectly usable. They’re already a little bit ideographic, after all, so it wouldn’t destroy the purity of Pictalk to include them. So 0-9 work exactly as they would in English: as the numerals zero through nine. And you can build on that as you do in English. (Pictalk is base-10, by the way.)

Punctuation works the same, as it’s very difficult to design a conlang that doesn’t need it. So sentences can end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. Quote marks work for, well, quotes. Commas aren’t as necessary, but you can still use them to mark off clauses. Colons, besides having their normal English function, are used as attention-getters, in a sense, following the intended recipient of a statement or question. And we’ll see the other “special” characters as they come up.

Building words

Quite a few emoji work as words by themselves. Think of 🐕, 😄, or ✈, for instance. In Pictalk, that’s the most basic sort of word, and most symbols can function alone. Some are considered nouns, others adjectives or verbs, but there’s always a way to convert them.

Other symbols are “bound”, in that they can only occur fixed to others. An example here would be the (optional) plural marker ➿. By itself, it has no meaning. Suffixed to a root, whether a single symbol or a string of them, it gains meaning: 🐕➿ “dogs”.

More complex are the compound symbols that make up the bulk of the lexicon. In general, nominal compounds are head-final, as in 🐕🏠 “doghouse”, while verbal compounds are often head-initial, as with 📖🏫 “study”, from 📖 “read”. I’ve tried to refrain from being cute with meanings, striving instead for transparency, but some compounds remain idiosyncratic in meaning.

Last, a form of word-building that English doesn’t often employ comes into its own in Pictalk. Reduplication is productive for many basic words. For nouns, it can create a kind of collective sense: 🏠🏠 “neighborhood”. Verbs instead use reduplication as an intensifier: 💭💭 “to contemplate” (or possibly “to overthink”).

Moving on

All in all, I think this just might work. We can make words using only emoji characters. Next up, we’ll see how far we can go in making a language.

A mad experiment

Today, most of the world uses alphabetic scripts, or something fairly close to them. With the major exception of Chinese (and the writing systems derived from it, such as those in Japan and Korea), alphabets, consonantal scripts, and the like reign supreme. They’re easier to learn, obviously, and far more suited to computers, so it’s only natural. Simple scripts, in the vast majority of cases, work just fine, so that’s what we use.

But it wasn’t always this way.

If you look back at the history of writing, you see that alphabets were not the original form of script. Indeed, assuming current theories are correct, writing developed first as pictorial representations of people, animals, etc. Abstractions came in later, as did the practice of using glyphs to represent spoken language, rather than as something closer to an aide mémoire.

The oldest evidence of writing we have all points in the same direction. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, and ancient Chinese symbols share the common feature of being, at least in some part, logographic scripts. The same may be true of other, mostly undeciphered writing, such as the Proto-Elamite script of that of the Indus Valley—given their age, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. While China kept its style of writing through the millennia, occasionally simplifying but never throwing away, the rest have mostly died out, replaced by Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, the various scripts of India and Southeast Asia, and so on.

Enter madness

But wait. Anyone with a cellphone (which is to say, well, anybody) has at their disposal a vast and growing collection of bona fide ideograms: emoji. Can we use those as the basis for a modern-day hieroglyphic script?

I know what you’re thinking. “Michael, you’ve gone completely crazy!” you probably shouted at your computer screen.

You’d be right, but hear me out. I am being totally serious. Think about it. As of 2018, there are over 1000 emoji symbols in the Unicode standard, and they’re adding more with every update. Granted, most of the new ones are gender-specific versions of older ones, but you still see a genuine emoji every now and then. (“Lobster” was in the newest batch, I think.)

Most emoji fall into one of two categories. One is clearly nominal in nature: animals, vehicles, people, and so on. The other is the emotional set: grinning faces, smilies, and the like. Those can be considered adjectives, if you look at it the right way. Verbs, now, those are harder, but not impossible.

So here’s what I propose. Take the emoji, minus a few that aren’t really all that useful to English speakers (think the “cat faces”, or the numerous symbols containing Japanese writing), and construct a script. Or, if you will, a written-only conlang. Technically speaking, it would be something more akin to a pidgin. It would have no vocabulary of its own, and the grammar would necessarily be very stripped-down.

The limitations are severe, but operating under limiting conditions is the time-honored path of the hacker (in the original sense of the word). Here, we have no control over the inventory of symbols, no convenient way of even typing them, much less pronouncing them. And there’s no real payoff, either. If I did this, it would be for fun, not for glory.

Yet none of that ever stopped me before, so why should it now?

If you’re interested, stick around. I’ll post something more about this mad scheme in the coming weeks.

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai grammar overview

I don’t really want to get too deep into grammatical minutiae in this series, so I’ll instead make this post more of a high-level overview of the grammar of Virisai, the most central language of my Otherworld setting.

How it looks

As I’ve previously stated, I didn’t want this conlang to be anything too extreme. It’s spoken by humans, even if those humans aren’t from Earth. And while some parts of this world (the Americas, Australia, etc.) do indeed have some hideously complex languages, that isn’t necessarily a given. Especially with a literate language, there’s definitely a tendency to simplify. So Virisai doesn’t go overboard on the weirdness, and that’s by design.

Word order is about like you’d expect, broadly similar to, say, Spanish. Nouns come before most adjectives, verbs tend to sit between subject and object, and you’ve got a series of prepositions. But that doesn’t mean it’s a typical Indo-European language. Oh, no.

Virisai has no case for most nouns or adjectives, yet it does have different case forms for gendered nouns and pronouns. In the latter, it’s a bit like English: the triad of maa/maare/mei, for instance, essentially matches I/me/my. Gender, however, is only marked on nouns that represent humans and certain animals, typically those that have been domesticated. (Due to the timeline, Vistaan doesn’t have animals brought from the Old World, but it does have those that existed in America prior to the Quaternary extinctions at the end of the Ice Age, such as the American horse, faal, or even the saber-toothed cat, oceigal.)

Technically, Virisai recognizes four cases, but the accusative and dative are often merged, especially in the western dialect. The fourth case, the genitive, is even weirder. Instead of being marked on the possessor, as is normal for languages like Latin, the genitive marker -es appears as a suffix on the possessed, head, noun: he roun “the house”; he rounes vira “the man’s house”. Possessive pronouns don’t change this, either (rounes mei, “my house”), which points to it being a later development.

On the verbal side of things, there are a few other wrinkles. Virisai has no real progressive aspect (as in English “I am walking“); those cases where I write native speakers using it should be understood to use the more basic present—rather, non-past—tense instead. Concord exists, much to the dismay of students, and it comes in two forms, subject and object. The object concord markers aren’t strictly necessary, and are completely absent in the third person, but they’re considered a mark of formality.

Beyond that, I’ve got a mostly complete sketch of Virisai grammar, including a number of different derivational affixes, rules for adverbs, numerals, and prepositions, as well as much more. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’ll give you an example of text in the conlang, and what better text than the one everybody uses?

The Babel Text

  1. Gyor, et graaten peis tei heis radvet ai et croin aat.
  2. Asta a besaalsar jaastal, hein danyetel he brel am e’taante Shinar, e sialanel trate.
  3. Asta hein radel almedenta a, “Jaasi! Vecrettei rouzin e peissar paitei heire.” E hein tei verouz mid vecaal, ai ciobren mid hamet.
  4. Asta hein radel a, “Jaasi! Esdeire sauteltei he tiran, ai h’alettis, vos mieses oos am et nin, e esdeire vecrettei he caar, a andeser deire fin kecoolit cie et damises et graaten peis.”
  5. A fied re virisin sauteleste e’tiran ai et alettis, et Laton ducselal.
  6. Asta et Laton radal a, “Fiesi! Hein saa heis mal, e tai heis radvet; asta heid pries saa et ilbares re yeten det h’id. Re raacen mos, gyor saa molyoris heire.
  7. Jaasi! Ducseltei, asta trate gulgortei et radvetes heiz, a hein mu cormenen ket et alrades almedin.”
  8. Hegis et Laton trate kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis, e syukenel a sautel e’tiran.
  9. Hebal, oore fin carir Babel, ebra trate et Laton gulgoral et radvetes et graaten peis, e trate et Laton kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis.

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai Phonology

With this post, I’d like to begin taking a closer look at Virisai, the first of many constructed languages I created for the Otherworld setting. Along the way, I would also like to justify some of the design decisions I made, but we’ll take that as it comes.

The speakers

Within the confines of the setting, Virisai is the effective national language of the kingdom of Vistaan. Its speakers, numbering about a million, are genetically similar to modern-day Native Americans, though there are a few changes here and there, owing to the 10-12 millennia of separation. They are, however, fully human; this is not an alien language, as far as that goes. Thus, none of the sounds are impossible for human mouths to pronounce, and the general grammatical concepts are close enough to those of Earth languages to be recognizable.

Externally, I started the language in 2013 as part of the “linguistic playground” that was my original vision for the Otherworld setting. For the most part, I always intended it to be the “base” language for the story, the one that would be met earliest and most often. (At the beginning, I also envisioned a kind of pidgin or creole variant, but I scrapped that as I developed the conlang.) The idea of multiple fantasy-like—yet still human—races inhabiting the same world also arose around that time; Virisai is thus the primary language of the “normal” humans of the main story area. As I have expanded my worldbuilding to encompass other areas, I’ve had to revise my original outline, but the core has remained the same, and this conlang has stayed at its center.

As I have said, I wanted to make something that seems natural enough that it doesn’t strike the reader as obviously constructed, but also simple enough that a group of ordinary American college students could achieve a decent comprehension after no more than 80 days of immersion. Most of them are monolingual, with their only real exposure to learning another language coming in high school, but a few are different. Sara is fluent in Spanish, for instance, and Ramón obviously is as well. Jeff, of course, is the “token” linguist character; his job for most of the early series is that of the translator, the interpreter, and he doesn’t always pull it off.

Everyone, though, is basically starting from scratch. The vocabulary of Virisai bears no resemblance whatsoever to English or Spanish. Or, for that matter, Japanese (Alex likes manga) or even Navajo (Lee’s great-grandfather was a code talker in WWII). That means that, early on, there’s a lot of pointing and grunting, the kind of first-contact stuff that most TV shows and movies gloss over. But the characters eventually get past that, and they start to learn a bit about the speech of their new world.

Sounds

All told, Virisai isn’t that complex in terms of phonology. It has 31 phonemes in total, which is fairly average. Twenty-one of those are consonants, and only one of those would really be considered “odd” to English speakers. Here’s the whole list in IPA:

Stops: /p b t d k g/ Fricatives: /s z ʃ ʒ h/ Affricates: /tʃ dʒ/ Nasals: /m n ɲ/ Approximants: /β̞ l ɹ j w/

In general, most consonants can show up anywhere, but the palatals (/ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ ɲ/) are mostly forbidden from ending a word. An exception is the “good morning” greeting araj, which is a colloquialism. An English analogy might be yeah, which ends with a vowel not normally found word-finally.

One aspect of Virisai that makes it a little more difficult is the wide variety of consonant clusters it allows. These are no more than three consonants at a time, and at most two at the beginning or end of a word, but there’s an awful lot of them.

Vowels, by contrast, are relatively simple. “Standard” Virisai only has five of them, and they’re the basic five you know and love: /a e i o u/. There is a length distinction, which is tough to master, but I didn’t go with anything outlandish here. Mostly, that’s personal preference, as I find it hard to consistently pronounce about half of the IPA vowel chart; I don’t mind saying the characters have the same problem.

I did, however, add an extra wrinkle. Every language has dialects. One spoken in a pre-industrial society, where mass media is absent, the printing press hasn’t been invented, and 50% is a high literacy rate for adults, is bound to develop them more readily. So it is here. The western part of Vistaan (coincidentally enough, exactly where the story begins) has a slightly altered dialect. There, a set of front rounded vowels has developed from combinations of /j/ + /o/ and /u/, and this is reflected in the orthography. (For example, one native character, Nuelossin, has his name shortened to Niel by those who can’t pronounce [ɲyːˈlosin].) A few words are also different, but this hasn’t really come into play just yet in the story.

Justification

All in all, I think Virisai succeeds at the goals I set out for it. We’ll go over the grammatical details in a later post, but just from the phonology, I hope you can see what I was trying for. This could have been something complex, baroque, nigh unpronounceable, but I just didn’t go there. And that’s for multiple reasons.

First off, I don’t really like languages that I can’t pronounce. I don’t like throwing in a hundred consonants and fifty vowels just because they look cool. Give me something relatively simple (though it doesn’t have to be too simple), something that makes sense. If there are weird sounds in there, give them a reason to exist. That’s what I did with the Virisai /v/, which is usually realized as [̞β]. It’s there, and it’s a little odd, but I rationalize that by saying it was lowered from /β/ at some point in the past; at some point, it also merged with /ɸ/, but that came after the language’s script was created. Hence, some words are actually written with an initial f, but it’s pronounced like /v/.

Second, this mundane phonology makes Virisai easier to understand for those who aren’t used to having to listen to an unfamiliar language. I know how difficult that can be, and I know that adding in sounds you don’t recognize only makes it harder. (I’ve seriously tried listening to Arabic, for example, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m hopeless with tones.)

Finally, keeping the phonology of this most common and most important conlang simple makes it easier to write. I did give the orthography a few curveballs, like how the long vowels are written (aa ei ie oo ou) or the way the palatals come out (ci j si zi, except before /i/ or /e/). Sometimes, that even trips me up, and I’ve been playing with this thing for five years now. Story-internally, I handwave that as Jeff being inconsistent; externally, I just wanted something that looked different without resorting to diacritics.

I like to think I succeeded, with that and with the other aspects of this conlang. Later on, though, I’ll start looking at the grammar, and I may revise my opinion.

Languages of the Otherworld: Philosophy

The main storyline of Chronicles of the Otherworld follows a group of eleven college students who are transported from an archaeological site in Mexico to a planet inhabited by descendants of the original settlers of the Americas. Over the course of eight books, 64 chapters, and some 400,000 words, they learn to live in this new world, and one of the primary barriers they run into is that of language. For this land is not Mexico, and the speakers use a language wholly unknown to our world.

Let’s talk

As the Otherworld setting originated as a linguistic playground, it stands to reason that I would place heavy emphasis on the speech of its natives. And I did. The first native words appear almost as soon as the first native shows up, in Chapter 8 of Out of the Past. (That’s the main reason why Jeff, the linguist character, has the perspective for that chapter.) As I write this, I’m a couple of weeks removed from finishing the 19th story in the setting, and new words and phrases are still popping up.

This is by design. It’s not that I’m trying to make the story hard to read, but it follows my preference for limited-perspective narration. The characters don’t always know what these words mean, so I leave them untranslated. Once they start gaining comprehension, the fake language slowly shifts to English. As the books progress, the native terms become fewer and farther between. Entire conversations can pass without them, but the reader is aware that the Earthlings are talking in a decidedly unearthly tongue.

Sometimes, they mix in Americanisms, and I’ve made this a plot point on a few occasions. “Okay” is such a common word that college-aged men and women use it liberally, and the dialogue reflects that. As they use it, though, the natives begin to pick it up, and the same goes for words for other concepts they wouldn’t have, like “phone” and “science”. (In the few cases where I’ve had native points of view, this gets a bit trickier, I’ll admit. There, the only words left untranslated are mostly those that don’t easily map to English equivalents.)

Speaking the truth

To make this somewhat more believable, the primary language of the setting—at least in the area where our story is concerned—couldn’t be too complex. Indeed, it has to be fairly simple, which led me to a conundrum. As you may know, the indigenous languages of the Americas are widely regarded as some of the most complex on the planet. They use unfamiliar sounds, unusual grammatical categories, and distinction that Indo-European languages either ignore or gloss over. Even if I did know enough about them (and I don’t), I doubt I could create something derived from, say, a Mayan language, let alone something a few kids in their twenties could pick up in less than three months.

Fortunately, that’s where the backstory helps me. The languages of the Otherworld don’t have to be derived from existing Amerind languages. They don’t even have to come from their ancestors. Because I placed the divergence point so far in the past, I consider myself to have almost free reign. After all, the last connection between our world and that one was at the end of the Ice Age (as confirmed in A Peace Shattered, Chapter 7). That’s about twice as much time as you need to evolve the whole Indo-European family.

Given that many centuries, anything can happen, so I felt comfortable creating something entirely from scratch. And thus we have what the natives call Virisai, the speech of the Virissea. In the next post, I’ll start going into greater detail about the language itself, but I’ll finish this one with a bit more philosophy.

First off, I’ve been adamant that the conlangs I make for Otherworld need to be written, and written easily. These are books, novels, and I feel that throwing in a cacophony of diacritics is just going to turn people completely off. (Yeah, because the story wouldn’t.) Also, I want something that isn’t too hard to pronounce, both for the characters’ benefit and because I imagine Chronicles as a TV series. Media conlangs aren’t complex, unless they’re Klingon.

So Virisai doesn’t have a horribly baroque phonology. As a matter of fact, it’s quite tame, especially compared to its supposed relatives in our world. There’s no /f/ sound, but that’s not too unusual; actually, my oldest active conlang, Suvile, has the same restriction, so maybe it’s a personal thing. The main /r/ sound is more like that of American English rather than, say, a Spanish-like trill. About the only real sticking points are the long vowels—it’s a proper length distinction, one of quantity rather than quality—and the odd realization of /v/, which does come out closer to Spanish ([β̞], in case you were wondering).

Grammar-wise, it’s also nothing too out there. I could have thrown in antipassives or some other bizarre (compared to Europe) ideas, but I didn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t oddities. Virisai does have a case system. Its genitives are head-marked, which is fairly weird. There’s a suffix -te used for things like naming, and that can catch the unwary.

All in all, though, I’ve endeavored to make this a beginner-friendly conlang, something that wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up. The vocabulary is entirely unlike anything anyone on Earth knows, but that’s probably the hardest part.

Later on, we’ll delve more deeply into that, as well as the other languages of Otherworld. For now, enjoy “The Code Breaker” and the rest of A Bridge Between Worlds.

Languages of the Otherworld: Introduction

In this new year of 2018, I think my “Let’s Make a Language” series can be retired. Maybe it’ll come out of retirement at some point down the line—that’s all the rage these days, isn’t it?—but it’s at a good stopping point, in my opinion.

But that means I need something else to write about, something to do with constructed languages. Well, since I’ve been writing so much on my own fiction, and one of my main settings involves heavy use of conlangs, why not use that? So here we are. This is another one of my sporadic post series, and it will focus on the languages I have created for my Otherworld setting. So far, I’ve put out 8 short novels (or long novellas, if you prefer) over at my Patreon, with another 6 shorter novellas coming this year. All told, I have plans for a total of 50 stories in the “main” course of this setting, and the languages are a key element. They’re pretty much the reason I started Otherworld in the first place. (That, and because Stargate Universe got canceled. The one thing I can thank Comcast for, I guess?)

So here’s how this is going to work: I don’t know. Seriously. I’m just going to write, and we’ll see what happens. I do want to talk about the creation of languages in general, using my own as both inspiration and example. I want to show off a little, too, and I hope you don’t mind. Most of all, I want this to be a kind of “behind the scenes” set of posts, a producer’s commentary for one element of the Otherworld.

Lay of the land

For this introductory post, I won’t go into too much detail about the languages themselves. Instead, I’ll give a broad overview of my thought processes going into the creation of the Otherworld setting.

First off, when I started Otherworld back in 2013, I had a goal in mind: to create a believable world. I’m not opposed to the kind of generic fantasy that gives no thought to its own backstory, but my preference is verisimilitude. I like a “realistic” world, one that I can imagine myself visiting, living in.

Thus, when making the languages of Otherworld, I didn’t set out to create anything too outlandish. The core conceit of the setting is that the fictional world is inhabited by a parallel development of humans that branched off from the first inhabitants of the Americas at the end of the Ice Age. Given the time and distance differences separating them from our familiar Old World languages, I felt comfortable creating those of the Otherworld from scratch. Too little is known about the protolanguages of America to disprove me, but that also means I didn’t really have much to work with. No matter. I prefer the a priori approach.

Early on, one of my ideas was a multiracial world, though one where the races were superficially similar to those of fantasy literature. So I needed at least one language for each race, because we’re dealing with a pre-modern world that wouldn’t have the normalizing elements of TV, radio, and other mass media. To preserve my sanity, though, I’m only fully detailing the most prominent examples of each. I justify this in text by simple expediency: the protagonists are too far away from other examples. They’re placed in an area that sees members of other races, but doesn’t always recognize their internal differences. So they consider the “Arassea“, for instance, to have a single language, and they name that language after its only known speakers.

My main concession to bias, I suppose, would be the mild stereotyping I’ve done with some of these languages. The Fassea race, to take one example, inhabits islands and coastal regions, and I drew heavily on Polynesian grammar and phonology for them.

All told, Otherworld has nine living races, and thus nine main conlangs. The tenth belongs to the Altea, mythologized forebears that, I must admit, are heavily inspired by the legends of Atlantis. They were human, but highly advanced, and they were the ones who originally colonized (and, for that matter, terraformed) the Otherworld itself. The timing just barely works, based on current archaeological evidence and theories.

So that’s our jumping-off point. Next time, we’ll get to looking at “Virisai”, the common tongue of the main story area. It’s by far the most well-developed of the Otherworld set, so it’s only natural that it gets top billing. Later on, I’ll work the others in where possible.

Let’s make a language, part 28c: Entertainment (Ardari)

Ardari, as usual, prefers creating native terms rather than borrowing. We see this in jevikön “television”, literally a “far seeing thing”, a fairly straightforward loan translation. (German does the same thing.) This process also shows up on the word list below in allgarògh “football”.

With the other words, you can see a lot of the derivational processes at work. Some words, such as rògh “bell” and rhòma “horn”, are onomatopoeic. A few, including drakön and tylyankön, are agents. The word for “match”, as in a single playing of a game, is rejnyn, which more literally translates as “a thing that is played”.

The “native-first” approach of Ardari extends far beyond this small set, as well. In some cases, however, there are matched pairs. A speaker of Ardari might talk about a kompyutör, but another could instead refer to his dätyekön. Both words mean the same thing, but the first is obviously borrowed (it would be used in, for example, advertisements), while the second is native-born.

Word list

  • actor: drakön (from dra “theater”)
  • art: käpi
  • artist: käpikön
  • athlete: avilkön
  • ball: rògh
  • bell: dola
  • doll: nanyi
  • drum: nang
  • football (or soccer): allgarògh
  • game: bynèr
  • horn: rhòma
  • match (game): rejnyn
  • music: tylyan
  • musician: tylyankön
  • song: azalli
  • sport: bynèrölad
  • story: gard
  • television: jevikön (from je-ivit-kön “far-seeing-thing”)
  • to defeat: tòve-
  • to lose: gru-
  • to play: rej-
  • to sing: ajang-
  • to win: twè-
  • toy: bèb