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

Let’s make a language, part 28b: Entertainment (Isian)

Isian speakers have a fairly developed art history, including music, performance, dance, and song. Games, sports, and athletic competitions are also common, though they weren’t really organized until modern times and foreign influence came along. Most of the obvious stuff is there, though, from balls to drums to paints.

One linguistic peculiarity is that some of the “agent” terms are actually compounds, and they can be a little funny. The word for “athlete”, esposam, is a slightly altered compound of espot (a borrowing of “sport”), combined with sam “man”. On the other hand, the words for “artist”, dohas, and “musician”, etihas, are constructed from the root has “person”. This is historically significant: while most forms of art have always been open to Isian speakers of either sex, organized sports started as men-only, and the terminology involved reflects this.

Today, of course, there are a lot more borrowed words for entertainment. Telefishon is one such, but Isian has also borrowed terms for movies and much more. Usually, these come from American English, but British English and even French also appear.

Word List

  • actor: satrim (from satri “to perform”)
  • art: do
  • artist: dohas (lit. “art-person”
  • athlete: esposam (lit. “sport-man”)
  • ball: mo
  • bell: ben
  • doll: kedi(r)
  • drum: gon
  • football (or soccer): puscamo
  • game: wana
  • horn: chiran
  • match (game): empe
  • music: eti
  • musician: etihas (lit. “music-person”)
  • song: anli
  • sport: espot (borrowing)
  • story: toyen
  • television: telefishon (borrowing)
  • to defeat: tocore
  • to lose: dos
  • to play: bela
  • to sing: seri
  • to win: gil
  • toy: eney

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

Entertainment, in some fashion, has been around since the dawn of humanity. Though our ancestors may not have conceived of streaming music, photorealistic video games, or 4K movies, they had their own pastimes, their own ways to amuse themselves. Thus, it stands to reason that languages, even those spoken by less-than-modern cultures, will have a wide array of vocabulary related to entertainment.

Having fun

Everyone plays. The idea of play, of games and amusement, may be a cultural universal. We can’t work all the time, even if political forces seem to want to push us in that direction. Different peoples, of course, will have different forms of play. Today, we have a number of sports, as well as video games, toys, and other such diversions, but “play” is a common enough concept that essentially any language will have a native term for it.

What kinds of play can we expect from the speakers of a particular language, though? As usual, it’s a very culture-specific question, with a good dose of technological bias thrown in for good measure, but we can sketch an outline based on those common threads throughout the world.

First off, a lot of the traditional “equipment” of play pops up in various forms. Balls, for instance, appear in most cultures in some form. Depending on what technology a group of people have, they might make them from animal bladders, rubber, wood, ivory, or modern materials like plastic. But they’re always going to start out roughly the same: a sphere. The games will vary wildly, but even then they come down to a few basics. Moving a ball into a goal, for instance, is the chief objective in football (either kind), basketball, billiards, etc. It’s only the ways in which you move that ball that change.

Sticks or bats are also common for “sport” type play; look at baseball and hockey as two examples. Nets, baskets, rings, and other objects may find their way in, too. Sports, though, have a tendency to spread even to neighboring cultures, and they can take their vocabulary with them. Take football, a word that circles the globe in various guises, while also describing no fewer than four distinct variations.

Child’s play is another realm where native terminology tends to arise, because so much of the field is so…basic. Dolls are fairly universal. Kites can appear anywhere the materials are present. And, though some may not approve of it today, older cultures very frequently gave their children mock or training weaponry. All of these can find themselves named with native roots, or words borrowed very early on, and you only have to look at the toy aisle of your favorite store to find other inspiration. (Look for the “traditional” toys.)

On the adult side of things, play tends to reflect the cultural expectations of grown men and women, but gambling is another area where each culture develops its own style. Dice, for example, are a good option for independent invention; making good, fair dice is difficult, and actually takes some knowledge of geometry, but you can get a game going with something rough. Cards are a bit harder—they really need paper or very thin wood, at the least—but well within a pre-industrial society’s means.

Win, lose, or draw

Competition is the impetus behind most kinds of play. Sports are, like warfare, clashes involving strategy and tactics. So is a game of chess or go. Winning and losing are such fundamental concepts that it’s hard to imagine a language not having native terms for them. A draw or tie may not provide the same satisfaction as the others, but it could be common enough for a culture to give it its own word, too.

Depending on how a culture’s style of competition develops, a number of other terms can arise. If the speakers of a language prefer games involving, say, moving a ball towards a line or goal zone, then “score” and “goal”, among others, will likely become important concepts. And sports and games can become so ingrained into the social fabric that these words then find themselves in idioms, metaphors, and other phrases throughout the language. We speak of a “home run” in America with the assumption that everyone understands it, and the same goes for “touchdown”, “three-pointer”, and a number of other sports-related terms. (Cricket, on the other hand, is impenetrable to most Americans—including myself—which is why some British figures of speech referencing it don’t quite translate.)

Other competitions can also fall under this same banner. We don’t often consider, say, weightlifting or horseback riding to be sports (outside of the Olympics), but they can offer their own contribution to the vernacular. And many games are so generic (in the sense that they have little “specialization”) that they can use existing terminology, yet give it new connotations. “Pawn”, to give one example, refers mostly to the chess piece, but that definition only arose when chess began to use a word indicating a low person moved about by another.

Art for art’s sake

Another form of entertainment is art. Now, art is a huge topic, easily worthy of its own set of posts, but we’ll stick to the highest level here. And we’ll include music, song, and theater, as well as the visual arts like painting or sculpture. All of these are possible in a culture, and all those that culture develops on its own will likely spawn a host of vocabulary. Much of that will then find its way into the common tongue: “backdrop”, “broad strokes”, etc.

Again, the types of art most likely to be described by native terms are specific to the culture, but also specific to an era. English music theory borrows heavily from Italian, for instance, because of that language’s influence in classical and later music, but modern inventions like “riff” and “EP” also exist, spread by American cultural influence.

Most kinds of art, however, are universal, or so close to it that you can freely develop a sizable list without worrying about outside influence. Singing is older than humanity—birds do it—and some of our oldest man-made artifacts are paintings. Sure, the more technical terms might be imported, especially if there’s a rich, vibrant culture right next door that already worked it all out for you. But the basics are everywhere, and everyone will call them by something different.

Playtime’s over

With this part, I think the Let’s Make a Language series has run its course. Most other parts of a language can be better handled by more specific posts that don’t focus on illustrating with our example conlangs, and I’ll be doing that sometime in the coming months. Otherwise, I believe you can take it from here. Over the next two weeks, I’ll put up the Isian and Ardari words for this particular topic, and I’ll try to do another long-form translation early next year. Until then, have fun with your own creations, and I hope to see you soon.

Borrowing from natural languages

One of the hardest parts about creating a language has to be the vocabulary. At least, that’s always the hardest for me. Maybe you’re different, but I doubt it’s easy for anybody, unless you’re doing one of those “engineered” languages where an algorithm does all the work for you.

Anyway, since creating words is so difficult, and since we do have to have them to, well, make a language, it’s only natural that we look for shortcuts. One of those is the random word generator, as you know, and I’ve spoken on that subject before. Today, however, we’ll look at a different method: borrowing. Specifically, I’m talking about borrowing from an existing language, a real language.

Can it work?

Borrowing from natural languages is fairly straightforward, but it’s easy to go wrong. Obviously, if you just take a bunch of English words wholesale, then you’re not making a separate language. You’ll end up with something closer to a pidgin instead: English words stuffed into foreign grammar. And that’s probably not what you want.

So we need a better strategy, but which one you want to use depends on your goal. Which words you want to borrow will go a long way towards defining the “feel” of your conlang. If you’re taking a bunch of old Anglo-Saxon roots, that’s going to create something that looks much different from a language that only borrows modern technical terms like “internet” or “photovoltaic”.

Also, remember that languages don’t always borrow a whole linguistic paradigm. They’ll tend to take only a root (which might not be the actual root) and derive native terms from there. So even if you borrow “computer”, that’s no guarantee that you’ll be borrowing “computers”, “computing”, and “computation”, too. If you do, it’ll look less natural, because that doesn’t often happen in the real world. And you do want this to look realistic, don’t you?


Clearly, the absolute best way of borrowing from natural languages would be to let your conlang stay in contact with the “source” language (e.g., English) for generations, allowing the loans to build up organically. But we don’t have that kind of time. How can we simulate that evolutionary process in a hurry?

Well, there are a lot of ways. For the modest goal of creating a natural-looking conlang backed by a plausible culture, following the guidelines I’ve mentioned in my “Let’s Make a Language” series will help. Rather than send you to read all of those, though, I’ll boil them down to their essence right here.

First, think about how existing languages borrow words. It’s not at random. It’s usually to fill a need, such as an imported food or a new invention. It could be political or religious in nature, as well, as the large number of Latin and Greek borrowings related to Christianity will attest. But it’s not often for things we already have words for. You don’t see common, basic vocabulary items like “sea” or “dog” being borrowed, because there was never any need. Yes, some specific subsets might come from loans (e.g., “maritime”, “canine”), but these are the exception, not the rule.

Second, languages are only going to borrow from those they have contact with. English today is everywhere, but that wasn’t always so. Japanese got most of its loans from Chinese to start, while Quechua (in South America) took mostly from Spanish. Borrowings, especially in pre-modern times, are going to come first from neighbors, second from conquering or conquered peoples, and last from a “lingua franca”. That does require you to locate your conlang in the real world, but it allows for greater verisimilitude, which is why you’re reading this post in the first place.

Finally, the culture of the conlang itself will determine what it borrows. Initially, it will move to fill gaps in its lexicon, and what those gaps are can create a different feel for the language. To create one contrived example, imagine a small culture undergoing a push for equal rights for women. It’s been mostly male-dominated up to now, and the vocabulary reflects that. But it has contact with French, which has gendered occupational titles. So it might borrow a few feminine forms here and there, or maybe even the -eur/-euse distinction as a whole. If the movement goes far enough, the existing (native) masculine words may be reinterpreted as gender-neutral forms, giving rise to a new dichotomy. Then, as more modern occupations become available (to men and women alike), the language would borrow terms for them, then modifying them to fit the new standard.

The same principle works pretty much everywhere. A perceived need is filled by taking from a nearby or well-known language that has already filled them. It works in all fields, under any circumstances. You can even see it at work today, among smaller natural languages. Look around, and you’ll see how many have borrowed, in some form, “telephone”, “television”, “automobile”, and a whole host of others. Of course, they wouldn’t need those words if they didn’t have those concepts, but that’s neither here nor there.

In other wor(l)ds

The same principle works in non-modern settings. You’d have to do a lot more work to come up with plausible borrowings from, say, Sumerian or Etruscan, but we know they provided loanwords to their neighbors. Remember, though, that older times imply less connectivity, less globalism. (Not always, as the Roman Empire proves, but it’s a good rule of thumb.) That also means more dialects, which can provide a bit more variety in your loans.

You can even generalize this to other worlds, though this one’s a lot more difficult. At some point, you’re making a whole “conworld”, rather than just a conlang, and that’s a different article for a different time. Still, the basic principle of “borrowing to fill in the gaps” works anywhere.

For a conlang intended to be spoken by a hypothesized real-world people, take from those languages that are supposed to be their neighbors. A culture hidden in an inaccessible corner of the Amazon isn’t going to start getting European loans until 1492, at the earliest. More likely, it’ll take some time for influence to diffuse that far, possibly even centuries. Likewise, central Africa isn’t going to get much Chinese influence until almost right now.

In a way, this whole process is reminiscent of the creation of an auxiliary language. But it still retains the artistic style, the creative flair of an a priori conlang. It’s almost like an intermediate form, you might say. A happy medium.

Let’s make a language, part 27c: Religion (Ardari)

Although I’ve been intentionally vague on the whereabouts of Ardari, it’s definitely less attached to European culture than Isian. To that end, it has few true borrowings for religious terms, instead relying on reinterpreted roots from the native belief system. Angels and devils, for instance, are firar and ghemar. A priest is an ekòna—but modern reformation has led to the creation of a feminine variant for what was once a masculine-only term: ekòni.

The Ardari priesthood might not have been a bastion of equality, but the faith itself was. Most supernatural beings in the old polytheistic system came in male and female forms, so there are pairs like tsora and tsori, or fira and firi, and these stand alongside the neuter terms used as the default.

That’s not to say that Ardari doesn’t import religious terms from other languages. It does, but it uses native words for most of the basic concepts. The sole loan in the list below is tyorymat “religion”, a conceptual term that only came in once Ardari speakers of eras past needed to talk about religion as distinct from faith. Other borrowings are made instead to describe concepts specific to one religion, such as santös “saint” (from Latin sanctus), èklecha “church” (from Latin ecclesia), or mazhid “mosque” (from Arabic masjid).

Word List

  • angel: fir (or gendered fira/firi)
  • devil: ghem
  • fairy: lyun (or gendered lyuna/lyuni)
  • faith: mitraz
  • ghost: qoj
  • god: tsor (or gendered tsora/tsori)
  • heaven: èlyas
  • hell: uldall
  • holy: mirs
  • magic: bräz
  • priest: ekòna (also modern feminine form ekòni)
  • religion: tyorymat (distant borrowing from theo-)
  • ritual: plan
  • sacred: grès
  • soul: jull
  • to bless: konye-
  • to curse: dakya-
  • to pray: nyes-

Let’s make a language, part 27b: Religion (Isian)

Isian, as we have seen, has borrowed more than a few terms from European languages. That shows up again in the matter of religion. Its speakers are mostly Christian, thanks to an earlier period of conversion and reformation. Before that, however, they had a polytheistic faith similar to many of their neighbors.

Remnants of this still show through in terms like alam “god”, which stands alongside the Latinate loan Domo “Lord”. The latter refers specifically to the God of Christianity, while the former, native, word can be used for any deity. It’s also more amenable to derivation, such as alanchi “demigod” or alamel “godly”. Domo on the other hand, is essentially fixed in form.

Other borrowings include engel “angel” and sacrel “sacred”, though the second is more of a calque. The word helin, meaning “ghost” or “spirit”, may also be related to the Germanic root underlying English “holy”. And it’s clear that priests have always been considered “holy men”, as the Isian word for them is a direct compound: chisam.

Word List

  • angel: engel (borrowed, possibly from Germanic)
  • devil: nukh
  • fairy: su
  • faith: sahe
  • ghost: helin
  • god: alam (Christian God usually trans. as Domo)
  • heaven: timiro
  • hell: hasilo
  • holy: chi
  • magic: ampen
  • priest: chisam (lit. “holy-man”)
  • religion: caltir
  • ritual: ronden
  • sacred: sacrel (borrowed from Latin/Romance)
  • soul: mit
  • to bless: leya
  • to curse: murgo
  • to pray: barda

Let’s make a language, part 27a: Religion (Intro)

As with the last part, we’re going to delve into a topic that may be a bit controversial. This time around, it’s the other half of church and state: religion.

For some languages, the whole subject is unnecessary. Quite a few, even among fictional conlangs, won’t need too many words for religious concepts. Auxiliary languages can likely get by with borrowing the needed terminology. And a far-future sci-fi setting might consider religion to belong to an earlier era.

On the other hand, even if the hypothetical speakers of your conlang don’t need to talk about their religion, that doesn’t mean they won’t want to talk about any religion. So it helps to have a bit of vocabulary specifically tied to the subject.

Gotta have faith

Religion and spirituality, in some form, have been around since the earliest days of humanity. Even if it’s nothing more than simple ceremonial burial, you can find evidence of the practice from the Stone Age, and some of our oldest human creations are religious in nature. It stands to reason, then, that a few basic ideas are going to be universal. The specifics might be wholly different even between two neighboring cultures, but they’ll both likely have some common ground in the fundamentals.

According to those who study the field (I don’t), religion of any kind probably started when someone first asked, “Why?” Why is the world like it is? Why do the seasons change? Why do people die? Maybe they begin as simple answers to those questions and more, or a shared set of stories, myths, and legends that only increase in popularity as they are told and retold over the generations.

This bare summary already gives us fertile ground for linguistic roots. The concepts most common to all religions are very likely going to be represented by native terms: faith, prayer, blessing and cursing, gods (or a monotheistic God, such as the case may be), an afterlife. Depending on the culture, you can also add in those placed in charge of religious matters, whether priests, shamans, or something else entirely. The ceremonies, rituals, and rites will also be in this field; they’ll likely be too specific to translate directly, but the words describing them won’t be.

As the folklore surrounding a religion grows, it necessarily gains a bit of verbal cruft. Even in Western Christianity, you’ve got quite a lot of vocabulary, from saints to bishops to crusades. (Note that many terms associated with Christianity, like “crusade”, tend to be related to “cross” or its analogues in Latin, Greek, and the Romance languages. That’s certainly not a requirement, but more of a historical quirk.)

Not only does a growing religion gain more words, but it also spreads across the lexical space, as it envelops closely related fields. Western faiths might all be monotheistic, but they each have a collection of supernatural beings, including (to use Christian-specific terms) angels, devils, demons, and ghosts.

This is where the twin forms of borrowing come into play. First, a highly organized religion will be able to spread its message far and wide, sending its specific terms to new places on the lips of its priests. So many English religious words come from Latin and Greek for this very reason. Similarly, Arabic loans related to Islam pop up everywhere from the western coast of Africa to the farthest reaches of Indonesia.

The second bit of borrowing comes when a new religion overtakes an old one. Here, it’s not so much that new words are borrowed, but the old ones may be reinterpreted, then spread in their new connotations. An example might be English ghost, which seems to have spent the last thousand years or so cycling between referring to a malevolent supernatural entity, the haunting spirit of the deceased, or even a kind of supernatural essence (as in the word spirit, itself a Latin loan). Fairies got their own bit of folk reinterpretation, while possibly-wise daemons became always-evil demons.

No matter what your conlang’s speakers believe, they’ll have a number of words specifically for their religion. The native terms will be made for that. If, along the way, the people were converted to some other faith, then they’ll likely take it in one of those two ways. Either they’ll import the words they need (spirit, bible, angel) from the “official” language of their church, or they’ll take some of their own and remake them to fit the new worldview: ghost, holy. Coinages tend to come about for new ways of thinking about the religion, and even then they aren’t made from whole cloth.

Discourse particles in conlangs

Speech is a funny thing. It really is, if you think about it. Compared to written language, it’s a lot less fixed in form. When we talk, we don’t speak perfect English (or whatever your language is). The words we say sometimes bear little resemblance to those we write.

One of the ways the two forms of language differ is that spoken language tends to include a lot of “filler” words. Writing doesn’t need them (unless you’re recording dialogue, obviously), but they come into our speech naturally, because we can’t talk as fast as we can think. It’s common to stop speaking while we come up with the next words we want to say, but silence is uncomfortable and ambiguous, so dropping a meaningless syllable or two here and there helps keep the conversation moving.

Filling the gaps

Pretty much any language meant to be spoken is going to have filler syllables or words. They won’t always be the same, but they’ll be there. For English, we’ve got a sizable collection, ranging from neutral syllables (“er”, “uh”, “um”) to entire phrases lacking in actual content (“you know”, “you see”, “I mean”).

Grammatically, these words and phrases add nothing to a sentence. They don’t really have a part of speech, even if their constituent parts normally would. Nor do they have semantic content, though some can indicate by their presence a very subtle difference in mood. Beyond that, they serve no purpose but to fill a gap. In short, they’re just…there.

Curiously, filler syllables, like English “er” and “uh”, do tend to have a few things in common across linguistic boundaries. It’s by no means universal, but there are patterns to be found.

For one, these syllables tend to have “neutral” vowels: unstressed, short, lax, central. Middle of the road, if you will. Even those closer to the corners of the vowel space, like “ah” (/a/), won’t be emphasized. In five-vowel systems, /e/ seems to be the most common filler phoneme. Seven-vowel systems often use /ɛ/ or /ɔ/. If there’s a schwa phoneme (or even allophone), you’ll likely find it here.

The consonants used in filler syllables also show a slight pattern. Whatever they are, they don’t tend to have a lot of “force”. Like vowels, they’ll tend to be the lighter, weaker type of phone. Something like /h/ is common in languages that have it. (Probably the weakest filler of all is /hʌ/, “huh”. Amazingly enough, recent research suggests that it might be universal among human languages.) Other “weak” consonants, like /ɹ/, /l/, /j/, etc., can also show up, but you’re probably not going to find too many voiced stops.

For both vowels and consonants, it’s also possible that a filler syllable uses an allophone that isn’t normally found in the language. Languages with smaller vowel systems that lack reduction might still have fillers with a schwa. A consonant inventory lacking /h/ might still have “huh”. The sounds would be analyzed by speakers as variants of something else, of course, but filler doesn’t even have to follow the normal phonotactics: English “yeah” and “nah”, which have filler uses, both show a final /æ/, a combination of phone and position that occurs nowhere else in the lexicon.


Moving on from syllabic filler, we come to the broader category of discourse particles. These include the fillers we saw above, but also a set of language-specific words that have meaning in other contexts, but lose it when used in this manner.

For English, we’ve got a good collection: “like”, “well”, “so”, and many, many more. All of these are actual words, and we use them often in other places, but they become meaningless filler with ease. Overused, they, among others, tend to indicate something amiss with the speaker; “like” and “you know” are stereotypical markers of low intelligence or immaturity, for instance.

Other languages have their own sets of discourse particles. Like filler syllables, these words and phrases do show some patterns. They tend to be made from utterances that already have little semantic content, or that don’t add appreciably to a sentence. “Like”, in translation, is very common, though this may be English influence showing up.


Discourse particles and other forms of filler are perfectly natural in spoken language. In writing, of course, they should be avoided, with the exception of recording actual speech, but they are not, in themselves, harmful. And if they are natural, then a conlang made to look natural might want to consider having them.

How best to make them? For filler syllables, it’s not too hard. “Huh” is possibly universal, and it can be used as an interrogative with nothing more than the proper intonation. Others are slightly harder, but look for the most neutral sounds your conlang has, and start with those. Central or mid-open vowels, approximants, nasals, nothing that requires much mouth effort. You might even think of a filler syllable as a kind of glide between words—like glide sounds, there’s simply not a lot of friction involved.

Actual words and phrases are a bit tougher. Again, look for those that already don’t do too much. Your conlang’s word for “like” might be a good start, as are simple demonstratives like “this” and “that”, colloquial forms of “yes” and “no”, and generic confirmation phrases such as “right”, “you know”, or “I said”. Here, the type of language you’re making will have some influence: isolating languages might be more likely to have longer filler phrases, especially if they have restrictive phonologies—in this case, all the “good” words are already in use.

However you do it, remember that the point of filler words is to be, well, filler. They don’t mean anything, not really. But that’s not to say they’re truly meaningless. They serve their purpose, and that purpose is to give us time to think about the “real” words we want to use.