Facts about Conlangs, or What in Hell Am I Doing

Writers get stuck in creative ruts, just like any other artist. The best way to jump-start your brain is to do something new. You can experiment with form or a different point of view. You can try a new genre. Or you can make up a language!

So you know I’ve finished Book 2 in The Trilogy That No One Wants. The first book, Tunerville, is a contemporary fantasy that involves ghosts. I don’t want to spoil (just in case), but I’ve taken my character a little further than his backyard.

I mentioned in the marshmallow post (I need more of those) that I was creating a conlang. Did I confuse you? Do you have questions? I shall answer them.

Yes, please explain. I know nothing.

Image: gameofthrones.fandom.com

What the hell’s a conlang?

Conlang is short for constructed language, one in which phonology, grammar, and vocabulary have been created rather than developing naturally.

Famous examples include auxiliary conlangs (auxlangs) like Esperanto and Lingua Franca Nova. Most people consider artistic languages (artlangs) created for fictional universes, such as Dothraki and Valryian (Game of Thrones), Klingon (Star Trek), and the various languages J. R. R. Tolkien created, around which he wrote The Lord of the Rings, as the typical conlang.

A priori languages aren’t based on any others. Most artistic languages fall under this category, as do auxlangs. A posteriori languages, like mine, are borrowed from or based on existing tongues.

How in hell do you do this?

I started with some typos from my music friends chat room that weirdly resembled Scottish Gaelic (no, really) and based the structure on Welsh. The latter has very little in the way of exceptions to its pronunciation and grammar rules, unlike English. I don’t speak it, but I looked into it before a trip to Wales, and it’s not that difficult.

Despite what you might think.

Image: Wikipedia / Chris McKenna (Thryduulf)

The double-l in Welsh does not have an equivalent sound in English. It’s hissed a little bit — put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and say “L”. Similarly, a conlang that isn’t based on your native language can lack sounds common to yours or contain some yours doesn’t. If you decide that your fictional speakers aren’t human, it definitely will.

My conlang doesn’t have a name currently because I’m still trying to think up place names for its setting. All the phonemes are in place (unless I change them later), and I’ve left out a couple of letters, so it’s not a carbon copy of either Welsh or English. As for syntax, it’s still a bit iffy yet.

Writer Kristin Kieffer points out in this blog post (see Tip #2) that all the things you think about when worldbuilding will apply to your conlang. A future civilization that grows food exclusively via hydroponics probably wouldn’t have a word for plow. A culture who loves elaborate ritual will have long phrases and lots of modifiers.

David J. Peterson has a great book for conlangers called The Art of Language Invention. Another fantastic resource is Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit. I’ve dropped a companion web page below in links. Both are available at Amazon; the Kindle edition of Mark’s book is the full text.

There’s a program called Vulgar that will create a language for you; I’ve held off, but I might end up using it as an assist because making up root words and all their derivations is harrrrrrd.

Why in hell would you do this?

Tons of reasons. Creators of auxlangs generally intend them to be used by real-world speakers. For example, Esperanto was developed to facilitate international communication. Codes are also conlangs; they provide ways of shortening or encrypting language to obscure communication (cryptography), make it faster (shorthand) or make it understandable when speaking isn’t possible (semaphore). They also let people tell machines what to do (computer languages).

Talk BASIC to me, baby.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Artlangs can lend depth to fictional worlds. For the television adaptation of Game of Thrones, David J. Peterson created the Dothraki and Valyrian languages off the basics in George R.R. Martin’s books.

And for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, they wanted the antagonists to have a full-blown language, so Klingon was developed by Marc Okrand from a few words James Doohan (Scotty) improvised during the original series. It’s comprehensive enough for Treknerds to actually speak it.

As with any kind of research or backstory, you’re better off using it judiciously rather than doing huge expository dumps and risking what I sometimes call the Jean Auel effect (bless her!). Her Earth’s Children series, which began with the Clan of the Cave Bear, had page upon page upon page of explanation of the food, clothing, toolmaking, etc. in the daily life of her prehistoric characters. I personally enjoyed it, but it can bog a story down.

If you bore your readers, you’ll probably lose them on a mountain somewhere.

Interestingly, Auel managed to come up with a highly developed sign language for her Neanderthal characters, which authenticated them according to the known research at the time of writing. Novelist Anthony Burgess and anthropologist Desmond Morris collaborated similarly for the largely non-verbal 1981 pre-historic film Quest for Fire.

While this performed splendidly for those works, some writers and critics don’t find a comprehensive conlang necessary for immersion in a fantasy world and claim it can even be distracting. Perhaps, but if you do decide to include it, it should have more consistency than just random gibberish. A smattering of words and phrases can be enough, although that doesn’t count as a true conlang.

Stephen King’s characters in The Dark Tower spoke a dual dialect known as Low Speech, Mid-World’s common tongue, and High Speech, a ritualized and formal language only used by gunslingers. While King didn’t take the trouble to create a whole language, the lexicon enhances the setting quite well. We know we’re not in Keystone Earth (our world) when people are talking both in the ka-tet’s present and Roland’s past.

High Speech also has an alphabet, in a font called Hoefler Text Ornaments Regular, which you can download. If I were to write “Hello my name is Elizabeth” in High Speech, it would look like this:

You don’t have to go this far, although I might because, while complicated, worldbuilding is also FUN.

———-

Will my conlang become a full-blown, usable tongue? Eh, who knows? I’ve never done this before, so it’s a challenge. I’m proud of myself for getting this far. I even invented words for cardinal and ordinal numbers that actually build on themselves and make sense. If nothing else, it forces me to think about setting in a new way, an excellent writing exercise regardless.

If you’re interested in reading more about conlanging, here are a few links.

The Language Creation Society

Web resources for The Language Construction Kit

Conlang: TV Tropes

I Made an E-Book and You Can Help Hurricane Victims With It

So I made a little e-book, y’all!  And you can help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico with it!

Through October 25, I’m donating 100% of all sales I get, no matter how big or small (hopefully big), to the Hispanic Federation’s Unidos program.

Just go to the brand-new Buy Me page on this site to purchase the e-book (click the link, or it’s at the top on the main menu). You get some stories; the Hispanic Federation gets some money to help people in Puerto Rico; it’s all good.

If you like the book or you think someone else will, please share widely! And thank you!

If you want to make a personal donation to help people impacted by the recent natural disasters, you can also choose One America Appeal, a fund set up for hurricane victims in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean by all five living former U.S. presidents. Or donate to Oxfam America, which has stepped up in the face of this administration’s inadequate response. You can also give to earthquake relief for Mexico through the Hispanic Federation’s link.

Cattle Crazing

Here’s a little flash fiction for you, inspired by a typo Redjack Ryan made in chat. Don’t ask me where this came from, because I have NO idea. Sometimes my brain farts out the weirdest stuff.

“Dad!” Terri said, and I slammed on the brakes. “What are those cows doing?”

The afternoon sunlight slanted into the car, and I slipped my sunglasses up on my head and squinted, following her pointing finger.

It was only a herd of cattle in a field, a serenely blue pond some distance behind them. But something very wrong had caught my daughter’s attention. Instead of standing or lying peaceably in the bright green grass, they ran back and forth behind the fence, shaking their heads and bawling so loud I could hear them over the car’s air conditioner.

“I don’t know, but—hey!” I reached out to stop her but she was out of the car and to the fence. Animal lover, couldn’t stand to watch anything in pain. At twelve, she already knew she wanted to be a vet when she grew up. She had more pets than I was comfortable with, but Anne encouraged her. She always let the kids pursue their interests, saying it wasn’t good to stifle them.

The cows kept jerking back and forth. They had begun to shiver. It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. The calves followed their mothers, blatting pitifully. Their knobby legs shook. I was scared they’d all bust through the fence and run Terri down. I got out and went to her side.

“Honey, come on. It’s dangerous to stand here when they’re acting like that,” I said. I tugged at her elbow, but she clung to the fence, fingers laced between the barbed wire.

“Dad, maybe we ought to tell someone.” Big blue eyes, flooded with concerned tears, softened my heart. I patted her shoulder.

“We’ll drive up the road and see if the owner’s home,” I told her. Reluctantly she started back to the car. I looked for just a few seconds more. The cows had stopped leaping and now stood frozen, still shivering.

I became aware of a high-pitched hum, like power lines. It grew more intense, and I wondered if that wasn’t the cause of the cows’ behavior. The hum deepened and my teeth clenched as it threatened to shake my skull apart.

Terri cried out. Her hands were clamped over her ears and she fell to her knees. Before I could get to her, a huge shadow fell over us. The air temperature dropped like before a storm; must have been ten or fifteen degrees in just a few seconds. I looked up and nearly peed myself.

An enormous…thing filled the sky. It stretched as far as I could see, in all directions, shifting blackly over my head. White lights stuttered, blinking, all over it. A patch of night had come alive. It spread out like a hovering oil slick.

A bone-chilling silence descended. Even the locusts stopped buzzing. That scared me more than the patch. When the bugs stop talking, there’s something going down.

The lights brightened, and beams shot out of them, straight down. Each one hit an animal, and they vanished, inexplicably. One minute there, the next gone. Just the calves.

“Terri!” I yelled. “Get in the car! NOW!”

The mother cows bawled louder. I thought, If a cow could scream…

“Daddy, it hurrrts!” she shrieked, and rolled over on her side, still clutching her ears. I ran toward her but before I got two steps, a beam flashed in front of me, blinding me. I covered my eyes, rubbed them and gradually the blue-white cleared. Blinking, I looked at the spot where my daughter lay.

She was gone. Hollow terror drained every ounce of strength from me. My guts were water and my throat exploded at the sky.

“TERRI! OH GOD, GIVE HER BACK!”

The starlit patch shimmied, a ripple passing through it, and then it contracted swiftly, becoming impossibly small in an instant. I could only watch as it hurtled upward. My legs gave way and I fell bawling on the shadow-cooled ground. The sunlight hit my eyes like a blow. All the cows ran, following it, and stood, confused, at the other end of the pasture.

I sat for several hours, crying and muddy, but neither she nor the calves came back. The farmer called the sheriff. I think they’ll drag the pond even though I told them they’d never find her. They don’t believe me. How could they not believe me?

Just the calves.