19 December, 2014

A Fox's Guide to Conlangs (Part 2)

Languages can generally be divided into “Subject – Verb – Object” languages (“SVO”, such as English and most European forms), and “Subject – Object – Verb” languages (“SOV”, such as Japanese, Hindi and Korean). An SVO language might state that ”I (subject) run (verb) to the house (object)”, while the same concept described by an SOV language might be that “I (subject) to the house (object) run (verb)”. As long as the verb comes after the object, it generally works in an SOV language…it sounds a bit awkward to say “To the house (object) I (subject) run (verb)”, and only slightly less natural (and slightly pretentious) to say “To the house (object) run (verb) I (subject)”. I’m pretty sure these last forms are referred to as “sentences in the passive voice”, because the object comes before the subject. They’re still fully understandable, but a bit awkward when too many of them are strung together. These are important structural concepts that we’ll work around later in the series.

(…and yes, I’ve been referred to as a grammar Nazi).

For the purposes of a constructed language, we need subjects (the agents of action), we need verbs (the types of action that occur), and we need objects (the targets of those actions). We don’t really need prepositional terms or adverbial forms (in the previous sentence examples, these were “to” and “the” respectively), but they do make conversation in a language flow cleaner and clearer.

To get the basics of this new language, we’ll focus in order on…
  1. Core Sound Forms (the basic mouth shapes that define the language)
  2. Nouns (objects and subjects)
  3. Verbs (actions)
  4. Adjectives (which describe and refine noun forms)
  5. Adverbs (which describe and refine verb forms)
  6. Participles, Prepositions, Phrase Forms, and Infinitives
  7. Punctuation (which will come as a function of combining word forms into phrase forms and sentence constructs)
  8. Pronouns (as distinct from nouns because they are specific names of people, places and conceptual ideas). You can create an entire language without pronouns, and this says something very distinct about the culture using such a language, but this might be a bit too alien for most people to play with.

(We won't necessarily go through posts in order according to this list. As normal my posts will probably bounce all over the place and the development of the conlang will be organic rather than regimented, but the priority list should hopefully remain intact.) 

There are plenty of theories about how language actually started, and linguistic anthropologists are coming up with new theories all the time. Perhaps the earliest forms of language began like the mimicry of lyrebirds, perhaps certain tonal screeches took on specific meanings, and eventually the screeches were pulled back while the tonal information remained, there are certainly claims that the whole thing started as a result of divine inspiration…but let’s not go there for the moment.

Most languages have onomatopoeic forms in them. In English we have words like “Crash”, “Boom”, “Crack”, “Meow”; these are words where the Spoken form sounds vaguely like the actual noise when it occurs in nature. Most other words have assigned meanings, and those meanings don’t necessarily convey the meaning of the related term specifically through the sound shapes of the word. We attach our own meanings to terms, and those meanings change over time.

Consider the word “pineapple”, used in English to describe a specific form of tropical fruit. The fruit is not related to either pine trees or apples. Arguably, the fruit does look a bit like a pine cone, but what is there about the sounds making up the term “pine” that gives reference to this particular shape? The designation of the word for the object being described is fairly arbitrary, and from a linguistic and semantic perspective the term “arbitrary” means exactly that; a made-up connection between a symbol (in this case a word) and the notion being symbolised. This can be reinforced by the simple fact that most other languages around the world use the word “ananas” to describe the fruit that the English language calls a “pineapple”.

Some people might say that terms aren’t arbitrary, they link back to the terms used in previous languages, English leads back with German and a few other tongues to a “Germanic” root language, which then links up with other languages further back in time such as Greek and even Sanskrit to an “Indo-European” and “Proto-Indo-European” language. But even this far back in time, the original symbolic meanings and the symbolised forms had some kind of arbitrary connection that started the whole thing off.

What if you started with a blank slate, where you could assign the meanings to the combinations of sounds? That’s one of the two places where I’d start a conlang.


The second place I’d start a conlang would be the mouth shapes used to speak the language. In recent years, mouth shapes have generally been used to modify a language, forming variant dialects from a core tongue, but somehow languages had to be formed in the first place this way. Grunts, groans, howls and screams, gradually turning into words, syntax and grammar. That’s where we’ll head with the next post.
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