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.


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.


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

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