Friday, February 5, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 1)

I’ve had an idea for a series of posts running through my head for a few weeks now, and they’re sciencey enough that I think I’ll still be fulfilling the Blog Mandate by posting them. Namely, I want to talk about how to create a language, because there is a grand tradition in speculative fiction of making up words. Elvish, Klingon, and Na’vi are the first three to spring to mind, but there are many, many more. And sometimes it’s just single words here and there in the text, rather than a whole language. At some point I’ll be talking about that situation too, but I’m going to start with the whole building-a-language thing.

Let it never be said I don’t bite off more than I can chew.

This first post is going to be mostly grounding with very little goofing off with language. That'll improve over time.

One more thing before I launch into the post proper: I have a degree in linguistics. Hopefully this won’t mean my posts will devolve into unintelligible geek speak. Shout at me if they do.

The lowest rung on the linguistics ladder is phonetics, the science of how sound is produced, heard, and transmitted through the air. Most of what I learned in my phonetics classes can be ignored for our purposes thankfully, but I do want to talk briefly about the vocal tract, because it determines the kinds of sounds that are made.

A human vocal tract consists of everything between the lips and the lungs, including the teeth, tongue, palettes, uvula, epiglottis, voice box, and nose*. By moving the tongue and voice box around while pushing air out of our lungs**, we humans can produce an astonishing variety of sounds.

(I’ll be talking more about that chart in a sec.)

Other species are likely to have different configurations. Insectoids like the Prawns in District 9 have mandibles, so clicks and trills feature heavily in their language. Gills and beaks will need to be incorporated, as will different kinds of teeth or weird tongues. (Or you can just ignore the biology. It's been done.)

How To Read The Chart

  • The box at the top contains the sounds made by blowing out through the mouth. The sounds on the left are made with the lips. The sounds on the right are made by the epiglottis. The sounds in between move progressively backwards in the mouth.
  • Most symbols correspond to the sound they make in English, or something very similar (if there's a funky diacritic thing). For instance, the second row of the top box is for nasal sounds, like m and n, and you'll notice a few variations on those symbols.
  • Labial-dental = put lower lip between teeth. Dental = tongue at or between teeth. Alveolar = tongue touching ridge behind teeth. Retroflex = same as alveolar except curl tongue tip backwards. Velar = back of tongue touching soft palette. 
  • Plosive = airflow temporarily stops. Nasal = airflow routed through nose. Tap/flap = very quick tongue movement. Fricative = slight air obstruction. 
  • Voiced = moving the vocal cords. Voiceless = without moving the vocal cords.
  • Vowels are center-right, and arranged according to tongue location. i has the tip by the top teeth (beet); æ has the tip down near the bottom teeth (bat); u has the body of the tongue bunched up by the soft palette (boot).
  • In vowel pairs, the left one is made with straight lips and the right one is made with rounded ones. To make u and o (boot and boat), you've got to pucker your lips a little.
  • The words beside the vowel chart refer to how wide open the lips are.
  • The middle-left box is for sounds made without the lungs. The sections at the bottom are for detailed linguisticy purposes and can be ignored unless you want to get obsessive or geeky. 
  • You can listen to recordings of the sounds here. You can play with a diagram of the vocal tract here, to get a better picture of what's going on. Saying the recognizable sounds will also help.

Still following? Good. Because that's it for phonetics. I'm moving on to phonology.

Phonology is the study of how sounds get made into syllables, and what they do to each other when they get there***. Linguists have worked out that all syllables in all human languages follow the same pattern.


That's a syllable with three sounds: consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC. The sounds are grouped into an Onset and a Rime, which is made up of a Nucleus and a Coda. You can put as many consonants as you want into the onset and the coda, and some languages can put a consonant in the nucleus instead of a vowel. 'Able', for instance, has an l in that spot. Nucleuses can also be diphthongs.

Some languages have optional or absent codas. Others have optional onsets, but never completely absent ones. CV syllables are incredibly common. The most complex syllable in English is CCCVVCCCC (schtroumpfed).

Now that we have the very, very basics, let's start constructing a language. I'm going to assume the speakers are humanoid, so I can use the chart above.

  1. Consonants: p b t k m n f v s x l *****
  2. Vowels: i e a o u
  3. Types of Syllables: CV CVC CCVC CVCC CCVCC (repeat all with VV)

Good syllables: pa tuk klen mifs snopt bimf plan vlant snaif …

Bad syllables******: *ap *stlu *kipts *fplaxls *foium …

Anyone want to try their hand at making syllables in the comments? The more we have for next time, the better.

My next post in this series is going to be about how sounds change when they're put next to (or near) other sounds. (More phonology.) After that, I'll be talking about making words, making sentences, coming up with meanings and usage, and then I'll probably be wandering into slang and other made-up words. We should have a working language by the time I'm done the posts. Stick around!

*Yes, the nose. Say ‘n’ with your hand in front of your nose, if you don’t believe me.
** And sometimes pulling it into our lungs.
*** Next lesson!
****  Wikipedia
***** x being the sound in loch or the German acht
****** An asterisk in front of a word/syllable/sentence is shorthand for, "NO WRONG BAD STOP UGH". An asterisk after a word/syllable/sentence is shorthand for, "LOOK DOWN HERE".

1 comment:

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