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Dec 8

Ay, Ra, Co… Counting in Barsoomian!

Posted on Thursday, December 8, 2011 in Conlanging

As mentioned in my last blog post, I’m really hoping for some Barsoomian language in the upcoming John Carter of Mars movie. In that post, I whined about the lack of any conlinguistical features in the movie promos thus far (and the presence of the Martian “Decoder” and Martian Translator.)

Well, I’ve decided to go back to the source material (i.e., the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB)) and try my own hand at puzzling out some basic vocabulary and grammar. This has already been done (most astutely by Jeffrey Henning and David Bruce Bozarth), but I felt there was such a goldmine of opportunity that I couldn’t resist wading in.

I’ve tried to stay as true to the vocabulary provided by ERB as possible, but, truthfully, there really isn’t a lot to go on since he didn’t define a lot of terms. I did take the word lists at Bozarth’s site and broke all the names, places, vocabulary, planets, etc., etc., down into their constituent syllables to get a feel for the sounds. I came up with 329 distinct syllables (and I’m not completely satisfied with them), with over 200 having either an initial stop or a fricative. I’m planning on several posts outlining my work on this. For the most part, it’s just a fun little conlang exercise. I am neither a linguist nor an ERB expert, but I think I can justify and/or rationalize all my choices. Bear with me and enjoy the ride. This first post is going to “teach” you how to count from one to ten and beyond in Barsoomian:

The Barsoomian page at has a run-down of possible numbers, but Henning stays very cautious in his interpretation. I’m going to throw caution out the window and say, “Here is how to count in Barsoomian…”

(Using * in the traditional “this is an unattested form”)

Many of these will look identical to since we’re using the identical source material. Ay is from Ay-mad “first man”. Ov is from the name of the hormad Teeaytan-ov “synthetic man Eleven-hundred-seven”. On the other hand, I have filled in more holes. Let me explain why. As has been pointed out, the bar in Barsoom (ERB’s name for Mars) means “eight”. We also have names for five planets, all ending in soom. I posit that soom means “a body of the solar system” and (at least) the planets (except Jupiter – more on that later) are simply Rasoom “2nd planetary body (Mercury) (the Sun is *Ay-soom “first body of the solar system”), Cosoom “3rd body of the solar system”, Jasoom “5th body of the solar system” (The moons get counted first!, so our Luna could be *Torsoom since tor is attested from Tor-dur-bar “Four-million-eight”), and, and finally Barsoom “8th solar body” (counting Cluros “Deimos” and Thuria “Phobos” as 6 and 7, respectively).

So, that gets us a good ways to filling up the numbers. The hormad names give us 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 100, and a million. The names Il-dur-en and Dur-dan give us pause. What to do with il, en, and dan? My rationalization is that the final syllables in both Teeaytan-ov and Tor-dur-bar are single digits. Il could conceivably be a single digit, but we do have teeay “11” in Teeaytan-ov. Therefore, purely by chance and with no other reason, I decided that en and dan should be 6 and 9 and simply took a 50/50 chance and assigned them.

Now, what do with il? ERB gives us terms for 10 (tee), 100 (tan), 1,000 (dar), 10,000 (mak from umak “a fighting force of 10,000” – compare to utan “a fighting force of 100 soldiers”). So, we’re obviously dealing with some sort of base 10 system with names for pivotal numbers. So, what to do with il? I decided (again, on a whim and flimsy rationalization) to assign il a value of 50. I got the idea simply from Roman numeral L… il, “L”? You be the judge. We can then continue our counting…


We could then provide the current year in the language: ra-dar-teeay “two-thousand-eleven”. A Zodangan or Heliumite may not understand it, but at least it’s internally logically consistent (for the most part).

There you have it! The first installment of my interpretation of what Barsoomian may be like! Stay tuned for more…

Sep 18

St. Hildegard’s Day… Come and gone

Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2011 in Conlanging

St. Hildegard of Bingen

This is my official day-after-St-Hildegard’s post. St. Hildegard’s Day came and went yesterday, and, weekends being very busy affairs around here, came and went with nary an acknowledgement from me (let alone any conlanging-related activities). The counter on the front page of The Conlanger’s Library has reset itself. We now have 364 days until the next St. Hildegard’s Day. I still maintain Hildegard’s Day is a good day to resolve to revive those languishing conlang projects, to polish up those lexicons, to make updates to your conlang or conworld websites, to throw a party and play Glossotechnia, or just to revel in your geeky hobby. Throw caution to the wind and greet someone with a hardy “Mae govannen!” or thank a cashier with “Dankon!”

I’ve decided to make my own a resolution that by next St. Hildegard’s Day, I’ll have my Dritok Primer up on the web for all to see. That’s going to be my only resolution, but I’m hoping that the Primer will be part of my overall new website on Kryslan (my languishing conworld). I continue to play with the various peoples, languages, geography, and all the other facets of the world. In any case, that’s my resolution (posted here to keep me honest). We’ll see. “Free” time is a precious commodity and must be spent with care.

In any case, I hope everyone’s St. Hildegard’s Day was a happy one, that the weather where you were was pleasant, and that your conlanging continues to please yourself (and amazes your friends and family). 🙂

Aug 7

Some Recent Books…

Posted on Sunday, August 7, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, Library Additions, Review

Okay, not recent in the sense of recently published but recent in the sense of “I just recently checked them out of my local library.” I thought I’d get them on the record with some links and brief reviews:

  • Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach by Henry Rogers (2005) Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you
  • Case (2nd ed., Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics) by Barry J. Blake (2001) Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you
  • English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation by Beth Levin (1993) Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you

The icons link to places you can either purchase the books Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore or look for them at your local library through WorldCat Find at a library near you. These icons have also begun to be incorporated into the entries in The Conlanger’s Library as well.

Writing Systems (part of the Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics series) covers a wide range of ancient and modern scripts and should serve as a good source of inspiration for conlangers developing “native” writing systems for their conlangs. While not exhaustive in its coverage, it does provide enough detail on the scripts to give the aspiring con-scripter the ability either to work directly from the information from the book or to begin to dig deeper on the Internet or databases for additional in-depth details on a writing system of interest. Personally, I really liked Rogers’ information in the sections on “Cuneiform”, “Semitic”, “Indian Abugida and Other Asian Writing”, and “Other Writing Systems”.

Blake’s Case is typical of the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics (e.g., cover, layout, etc.). The abundant interlinear translations provide excellent examples of each topic covered. Lots of good inspiration for going beyond the “usual” case systems. The “Language Index” references well over 150 languages used as illustrative examples, from Abaza to Zoque.

Levin’s English Verb Classes has been recommended by none other than David J. Peterson at LCC4. The book is a tour-de-force of (no surprise) English verb classes and their alternations. As David suggested, this is a great source for developing a con-vocabulary.

None of these are cheap. If you can’t afford adding them to your personal conlanging bookshelf, they are well worth checking out at your local (public or academic) library. If they don’t have them on the shelf, don’t forget to request them through the interlibrary loan service. Most libraries will borrow items for you from outside the local area.

Enjoy! And happy conlanging!

(P.S. I almost forgot to add that Sylvia Sotomayor was instrumental in helping me get those icons incorporated into the Library. She did coding and was exceptionally patient in guiding me through the updates needed. lelāñ, Sylvia!)

Apr 2

A Little Lexical Inspiration

Posted on Saturday, April 2, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, Natural Languages, Nonfiction

I recently picked up the book Pacific Languages: An Introduction by John Lynch from the library and was leafing through it. Lots and lots of food for thought from languages from Adzera to Yukulta. This evening, as I was looking over Chapter 11 (Language, Society and Culture in the Pacific), and found some good lexical inspiration. I’ve read a number of times on various conlanging listservs and boards about looking for different ways to split up concepts that may be lumped together in one’s own language. Well, from this book, it appears Yidiny does a good job of illustrating this:

dalmba – sound of cutting
mida – the noise of a person clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, or the noise of an eel hitting the water
maral – the noise of hands being clapped together
nyurrugu – the noise of talking heard a long way off when the words cannot quite be made out
yuyurunggul – the noise of a snake sliding through the grass
gangga – the noise of some person approaching, for example, the sound of his feet on leaves or through the grass — or even the sound of a walking stick being dragged across the ground

I for one would not have thought of assigning lexemes to those concepts.

Additionally, Pacific Languages: An Introduction provides a reminder that even different stages of a coconut’s growth can be assigned different words: a coconut fruit bud (iapwas), young coconut before meat has begun to form (tafa), nut with hard well-developed meat (kahimaregi), etc., etc., etc.

Hmmm, all these languages have me thinking about my own Elasin after a looong hiatus. Might be time to go back and start “reconstructing” the work of Paiwon Lawonsa on the Uhanid languages.

Mar 22

Conlanging and Conworlding Are &%$#@ Hard!

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 in Conlanging, Rant, World-building

The first reaction of most everyone who reads this will most likely be "Duh!" To this, I’d add "I know, but sometimes it just hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks." And by hard I don't simply mean difficult. What I'm specifically referring to is the urge to be original or unique in one's conlanging/conworlding efforts.

Over last weekend, I was out at our local Borders buying some gifts for my son's birthday. I was picking up the Strategy Manual for the new Pokemon Black and White game for him when I noticed the manual for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm on the shelf nearby. I'm not a WoW player, but I can appreciate good artwork and fantasy-type creatures so I picked it up and started looking through it. When I got to the Tauren, I have to admit my heart sank. I’ve been aware of them, but their general resemblance to my Tylnor was suddenly much more disheartening than previously felt. (Oh, and the resemblance between the names Tylnor and Tauren is coincidental. The word Tylnor actually had a voiced stop at the beginning, but I liked the sound of the unvoiced one after all.) You be the judge on looks. Here are some images of Tauren; here is an early version of one of my Tylnor. The Tylnor originally (literally almost thirty years ago) began as my world's gnomes or dwarves and evolved since then into the horned critters you see here. The most recent version came about, originally, when I thought it would be cool to have them with horns, sort of built-in (stereotypical) vikings. Turns out there’s lots of fantasy creatures with horns, so that’s not that original after all. Okay, I thought, no problem. I thought some more and thought maybe I’ll pattern them after my favorite animal: the muskox. So, recently, I’ve added a large, hair-covered boss on their heads from which their horns sweep down on either side. Tylnor arms, legs, and backs also have long, shaggy guard-hairs. I haven’t decided if they’d need to be combed annually. That might set up some interesting cultural features. In any case, the Tylnor are humanoids patterned off a bovine or caprine form (muskoxen are actually related to goats), and that picture of the Tauren just made me think %$#@&! Do I have to entirely revamp the Tylnor? I’ve even gone so far as to investigate Tylnor skeletal structure, and I think I’ve determined they have a characteristic natural hump on their back from something that might be considered kyphosis in humans along with some spines on their thoracic vertebrae to hold up their massive heads and horns. Anyway, that’s all in the planning stages. Plus, of course, the Tauren themselves aren’t even original: Minotaur anyone?

Additionally, a year or so ago, I posted an image of my Drushek on ZBB and someone astutely noted "That looks like a Bothan." And, sure enough, if it didn’t, which led me at the time to say %$#@&! So, I’ve also gone back and redesigned those guys a bit, too. They now have a different hair-style, ears, and long thing tendrils on the corners of their mouths and chin. I haven’t decided whether their hair is more cilia-like or actual hair. They’re still hopping creatures though. I’m keeping that.

And then we come to language. This is a conlanging blog after all. The shorthand for this urge to be unique/original but you’re not, is ANADEW as used on CONLANG-L. For those who don’t know, ANADEW stands for “A natlang’s already dunnit, except worse” (See here.) Even my own Dritok has parallels in reality (whistled languages, sign languages, etc.). My only claim to fame may be that I insisted on including the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill as a regular phoneme. Even those who try to create an a priori conlang are often constrained by what their own mouths can produce. Notable exceptions to this are Rikchik and Fith. I’m in the process of formalizing Dritok and Umod (the Tylnor’s language) and eventually Elasin (another race’s language living in the same conworld), but it gets disheartening sometimes. I’m toying with the idea of using a bilabial trill in Umod. This is a stereotypical sound a horse or cow makes, so I felt it would fit the physiology. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to go too overboard on the exotic phonetics. But, on the other hand… Well, you get the idea.

In some ways, I’m hoping my having concerns like this makes me a better conlanger. At least, I’m thinking.

Thanks for listening. Whine-fest over. Back to the notebooks and drawing pad!

Mar 2

The Stone Dance of Ice and Fire: A Double Review

Posted on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, World-building

I’ve recently been reading two fantasy series that, on reflection, have both parallels as well as sharp contrasts. The two series are:

  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
  • The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto

I’ve read all four extant volumes of Martin's (unfinished) series (beginning with A Game of Thrones) and the first volume of Pinto's work (The Chosen) and just picked up the second.

What I found interesting right away is that both are concerned with what Martin calls "the game of thrones," the intrigue and political maneuvering (not to mention bloodshed) that goes with the choosing of who will have power in a certain time and place. I like both series, so let's take a look at them.

A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely a ripping yarn full of fully-rounded characters, lavish set pieces, and enough detail to provide a reader with page-turning enjoyment. Martin's strength is, without a doubt, his ability to engage the reader emotionally, to make him or her care about the fictional characters. This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that fans are so passionate about Martin "finishing" the series. They care what happens to Arya, Brandon, Jaime, Cersei, and the rest of them. Did Sandor Clegane survive? Does Daenerys get to ride her dragons? What becomes of Brienne the Beautiful? I’d like to know, too.

On the other hand, as a world-builder, Martin is a little less successful. One person I know described Westeros as the perfect stereotype of what a fantasy world should be. Granted, the idea of winter lasting years is an intriguing fantastical feature, but the idea of why this happens is always nagging at me. No satisfactory (or any) explanation is ever given. It just is. Also, Martin insists on providing measurements for at least two edifices that would be better served by just saying they’re really, really big. First, The Wall is always 700 feet tall. Second, one of the pyramids that Daenerys rules over is 800 feet tall. For comparison, the Arc de Triomphe is 164 feet tall, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet tall, and Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall. Just imagine the sheer volume of structure like the Wall that is 700 feet tall and miles and miles long. From the description in the book, it would appear that The Wall has been extremely tall for ages and ages, and the pyramid Daenerys sits on is even taller than the Hoover Dam? I like my fantasy’s fantastical, but sometimes less detail is more.

Another nitpicky pet peeve (Yes, I realize I'm being nitpicky) is Martin's insistence on detailing many of the meals people eat. For example, "They broke their fast on black bread and boiled goose eggs and fish fried with onions and bacon…" Lampreys seem to be popular fare in Westeros as well. Dany nibbles "tree eggs, locust pie, and green noodles…" In some ways, it appears Martin wants to avoid the clichéd non-descript stew of some fantasy worlds, but, from my perspective, veers a little too far in the opposite direction.

Finally, since this is a conlanging blog, we come to language. Martin himself freely admits that "I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will." (Of course, now we can thank David Peterson for breathing life into Dothraki.) So, we really can't fault Martin for not creating an entire Dothraki or Valyrian language and including it in Appendices. He acknowledges that particular shortcoming. However, my beef with him is his sometimes completely random-seeming choice of names for characters and places, even within the same family: Cersei and Jaime; Robert, Stannis, and Renly, etc. Martin also has an annoying habit of combining a first-rate fantasy name with an English-sounding one: Davos Seaworth, Balon Greyjoy, Robert Baratheon, etc. The "almost" names and titles are somewhat annoying as well: Eddard = Edward, Joffrey = Jeffrey, Ser = Sir, Maester = Master, Denys = Dennis, Walder = Walter, Yohn = John, etc. He has somewhat better imagination with the Targaryens and when he gets out of Westeros (although his non-Westerosi names can appear a little unpronounceable): Xaro Xhoan Daxos (I ended up pronouncing x as [S] and xh as [Z] in my head), Jaqen H’ghar, the Dothraki names and words, Illyrio Mopatis, Mirri Maz Duur, etc. Those names sound and look consistently exotic and fantasical.

In the end, I don't have HBO making a TV series of anything I've ever written, and Martin's books have sold millions of copies; so who am I to pass judgement on the above shortcomings. I will say that for all their high-quality entertainment value, A Song of Ice and Fire does exhibit a lot of the tropes of fantasy literature (See the TV Tropes entry for the series here). I'm just sayin&#39.

Martin's series is interesting to see in juxtaposition with Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Where Martin's Seven Kingdoms and beyond are in many ways very familiar with their kings, knights, lords, and ladies, Pinto paints a thoroughly-detailed completely new creation for us: The Three Lands. This is not a thinly-veiled medieval European setting, but a world full of unfamiliar places and cultures where the simple act of forgetting to don one's mask can result in the deaths of scores of people. While Pinto cannot match Martin for sheer page-turning lively action, he does outmatch him for sheer ingenuity and attention to detail in world-building. Where Martin's sers ride horses, Pinto's Chosen mount saurian aquars and ride along horned huimurs. Where cloth-of-gold is popular in Westeros, it's usually cut into a tunic, doublet, or elaborate gown. In the paradisal seclusion of Pinto's Osrakum, the Chosen dress in elaborate court-robes, stilt-like shoes, and utilize slaves whose eyes have been replaced by precious stones. Pinto's website testifies to his detailed world-building when you see images from his notes with captions like "Detail from Notebook 18, Page 22". He even gives credit to someone in the acknowledgments for helping him with "the equations to calculate the lengths and directions of shadows." Whew!

Of course, all this planning and detail sometimes get in the way of telling a good story. Carnelian, the viewpoint character of the novels, is often staring, marveling, being overwhelmed, and having other superlative experiences while we're provided with a litany of detailed descriptions of the wonders Pinto has devised for us. It (usually) stops just short of being tiresome, and then the story resumes.

In one way, Martin and Pinto do have something in common in some of their naming practices: the "almost" names. For Pinto, they're based on gemstones or other precious materials: Osidian = obsidian, Jaspar = jasper, Aurum = gold (Latin), Opalid = opal, Molochite = malachite, etc. I believe I read that Pinto had at first almost used names in Quya but later decided against it.

Quya? What is this Quya? Here is where Pinto and Martin firmly part company. Pinto has an entire language and writing system for his world although, sadly, this does not show up very much in the books themselves. For those interested, he has extensive notes and a grammar on his website. According to the Acknowledgments, he had help with the language from David Adger. The writing system obviously has a debt to pay to the Mayan glyphs but has a beauty all its own and provides chapter heading glyphs from the first two books. There is only one extended text example, so it's a shame we don't see more of the language in the books themselves given Pinto's love of dazzling the reader with details.

Both series have something to offer and are well worth reading. If you like fast-paced storytelling, well-rounded characters, and cliffhanger endings, you can’t go wrong with A Song of Ice and Fire. If you like a more leisurely reading experience, very interesting characters, first-class worldbuilding (with (online) Appendices), try The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. See you in Westeros and Osrakum!

Nov 22

Catford’s Phonetics: An Essential Resource!

Posted on Monday, November 22, 2010 in Books, Conlanging, Library Additions

Catfor'd's Intro to Phonetics

Although J.C. Catford’s A Practical Introduction to Phonetics has been part of The Conlanger’s Library for some time, it was only recently that I sought it out in the library to take a look. I have a recent (Nov. 4, 2010) posting of a glowing recommendation of the book on the CONLANG listserv for bringing it back to my attention. Luckily, my day job is at a large public library, and it was on the shelf just waiting for me to pick up.

The brief biography on the cover of the book states simply that J.C. Catford is “widely regarded as the leading practical phonetician of our time.” According to his obituary posted online, he was also “famous for his amazing ability to repeat speech backwards” and recorded Jabberwocky in this way (backwards and forwards) for the BBC. In his retirement, Prof. Catford worked on Ubykh, “a language of 80 consonants and just two vowels!” So, maybe it’s no wonder that lists as one of the “Customers Who Bought This Item [i.e., A Practical Introduction to Phonetics] Also Bought” Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit.

His work itself is absolutely essential for conlangers who wish to include “exotic” (i.e., non-English) phonetics in their works. Catford takes the reader step-by-step through initiation, articulation, phonation, co-articulation, and much, much more. What is so valuable about the book is Catford’s Exercises (over 120 in all) throughout where he clearly shows how to pronounce every sound he discusses. I personally knew I may have to end up owning a copy of this when I found the following exercise clearly explaining how my own Drushek pronounce their “ejectives” (which I now know are actually pronounced by a velaric initiatory mechanism):

Say a velaric suction [|\ [in X-SAMPA, a dental click]]. Now immediately after the sucking movement of the tongue and the release of the tongue-tip contact, remake the contact and reverse the tongue-movement — that is, press instead of sucking — then release the tongue-tip contact again. The result should be a velaric pressure sound, for which there is no special symbol, so we shall represent it by [|\^ [again, in X-SAMPA]]. Continue to alternate velaric suction [|\] and velaric [|\^]: [|\], [|\^], [|\], [|\^] . . .

All this must be done without ever releasing the essential velaric (k-type) initiatory closure. We will now demonstrate that velaric initiation, whether of suction or pressure type, utilizes only the small amount of air trapped between the tongue-centre and an articulatory closure further forward in the mouth. To carry out this demonstration make a prolonged series of velaric sounds, for example [|\], [|\], [|\], and while continuing to do this, breathe in and out rather noisily through your nose. The experiment should be repeated with hum substituted for breath. Make a series of [|\] sounds while uninterruptedly humming through the nose. This proves that the velaric initiatory mechanism is completely independent of the pulmonic air-stream — it uses only the air trapped in the mouth in front of the velaric closure.

And this is just one of the exercises. I’m considering a voiced bilabial trill for one of my other languages and had never even considered a bidental fricative before now. Granted, one has to be careful to not make a kitchen-sink phonology, but a careful choice among the myriad sounds offered by Catford’s book can go a long way to giving one’s conlang any Sprachgefühl one wishes.

Oct 19

Through the Language Glass: A Conlanger’s Perspective

Posted on Tuesday, October 19, 2010 in Books, Conlanging, Nonfiction, Rant

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, the most recent book by Guy Deutscher, is a thought-provoking, highly-readable romp through some of the more unexpected realms of language. Deutscher is more than happy to take on with relish those ideas considered orthodox or “common sense” and to defend his own views, backing them up with facts and research. A number of very positive reviews of Through the Language Glass can be found online (such as here, here, and here, just to note a few), but what does the work have to offer conlangers? Being primarily an artlanger, I apologize ahead of time if this review strays too far in that direction. Deutscher’s book examines three main areas in-depth: color terms, grammatical gender, and spatial orientation. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

First, we examine color terminology. Deutscher examines how different languages split up the spectrum, and it turns out that my *blue* may not necessarily be your *blue*. In explaining the history of color terms, the author reaches back to W. E. Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, Volume 3, and its section entitled Homer’s Perception and Use of Colour and continues all the way up to the World Color Survey. The idea of slicing up the WCS-Munsell Color Chart or the CIE Color Space in novel ways to highlight the alien-ness or foreign-ness of a conlang’s speakers appeals to me. As Deutscher points out clearly, there are a number of interesting variations on the theme of how colors are designated in the world of natural languages. Even a language as familiar as Russian has "синий" and "голубой" whereas English simply has "blue". Granted, we English-speakers have shades of blue (light, dark, navy, baby, sky, etc.) and blue-related colors (turquoise, azure, indigo, etc.). Is purple a kind of blue? These are all concepts that can be played with in a conlang.

Next, let’s look at grammatical gender. Personally, I think this is a largely untapped field for conlangs to play in. Some of the African and Australian gender systems are very tempting to riff on. Deutscher talks about the “Bantu languages such as Swahili [which] have up to ten genders, and the Australian language Ngan’gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders.” Of the 319 languages which specify use of grammatical gender in the Conlang Atlas of Language Structure database, over half (175 or 54.8%) use no gender at all. More interestingly, 84 conlangs use the familiar sex-based gender system and only 60 are non-sex-based. Another thing to consider is that it might be fun to determine how gender is assigned to words in one’s lexicon. One of my favorite stories related by Deutscher (in both Through the Language Glass as well as The Unfolding of Language) is how the Gurr-goni word "erriplen" (English "airplane") ended up in the vegetable gender category. It makes perfect sense when the history is known (or surmised), but, on first glance it makes no sense at all. Of course, if one is attempting to streamline or simplify language, gender is probably first on the list of things to excise. Alternatively, a conlang that attempts to be akin to natural languages would be more than likely to have grammatical gender. Why not have fun with it?

Finally, what about spatial orientation? This is the area that made the most impact on me. I really want to come up with a novel (or one that at least doesn’t have too many ANADEWisms) orientation system now. Deutscher provides several excellent alternatives to simple left-right-front-back. One is Guugu Yimithirr which uses an east-west-north-south system all the time. Another is Tzeltal (a Mayan language) which uses a downhill-uphill-across (in the direction of X). On the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, one finds mountainward-seaward-east-west. Depending on the geographical location of one’s conlang-speakers, I can see these or other systems being a lot of fun to create. Is there a specific location of historical/spiritual/geographical significance to your speakers? Orient towards that. This would also have some interesting connotations within a story as well (as well as lots of opportunity for misunderstandings… which could be a positive plot device).

These are just a few of the highlights in Deutscher’s new book. His The Unfolding of Language is one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books on language. (Arika Okrent‘s is, of course, another.) His new one is well worth the read, and has some great quotes, intriguing points, and enjoyable prose. Whether you buy it, check it out from your local library, or borrow it from a friend, make sure to put it on your conlang reading list.

Oct 15

Explorations in the Library

Posted on Friday, October 15, 2010 in Books, Conlanging, Rant

After the mind-numbing tedium of sorting out the situation shared in my last post, I felt I needed something more uplifting. And so…

Over the last couple months, I’ve had the opportunity (as part of my day job) to visit the libraries at Kent State University (KSU) and The Ohio State University (OSU). Having some free time available before or after my official duties were completed, I decided to visit the PM8001 to PM9021 areas of the Library of Congress Classifications hanging out on the open shelves. For those less-versed in bibliographical arcana, those are the areas dedicated to artificial, universal, picture, and secret languages. I was curious what would be represented in my favorite subject on the open stacks of the two universities.

KSU had only a couple shelves dedicated to the PM8001 to PM9021’s; however, it was not all dedicated to what one would expect. What I expected was a lot of Esperanto, which I got; however, they also had several more esoteric volumes sitting there waiting for the eager conlanger to pick them up. These included a facscimile copy of Francis Lodowyck’s Common Writing from 1647 (PM8008 .L59 1969).

One surprise at KSU was a little volume entitled Enterprises of great pith and moment : a proposal for a universal second language by Elmer Joseph Hankes (PM8008 .H34). Published in 1982, the subtitle of the work named this “universal second language” Em Sigh Ay or the “language called please or Polite Language”. The book is “dedicated to the promotion of politeness and consideration in all of our relationships with each other.” I did not have the time to see how this high-minded goal was carried out in detail. For those interested, the title of the work comes from Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Yesterday’s visit to OSU turned up many more volumes residing in the latter PM’s on the open shelf. This is to be expected, as OSU is one of the major universities in the country. Even so, they fit on about one-and-a-half shelving units total. They had the requisite volumes on Esperanto, David Salo’s Gateway to Sindarin, and some other fairly-well-known languages. Some surprises, to me at least, were aUI: the language of space; for the first time represented and adapted to the needs of this planet by John W. Weilgart with illustrations by Elisabeth Söderberg (PM8008 .W4). This was published in 1968 by Cosmic Communication Company. Another surprise was The complete dictionary of Guosa language: 106,962 head words from traditional Nigerian and West African languages : a 20th century evolution by Alex Ekhaguosa Igbineweka (PM8368.Z5 I359 2007). It appears that Igbineweka also has a website with video on his proposed Nigerian and West African lingua franca. Finally, there was also A Moroccan Arabic Secret Language : the x…xinCa family by Nasser Berjaoui (PM9001 .B47 2007). I’m not quite sure if the language described by Berjaoui is a conlang or not, but it certainly is in the right LCC area. In any case, it was very interesting to see languages from Africa represented on the shelf.

While these titles were new to me, I have subsequently seen some of them listed in both Arika Okrent’s list and Rick Harrison’s comprehensive bibliography. Just goes to show, no matter how much you think you know about invented languages, there’s always more to learn.

Fiat lingua!

Sep 19

New Conlanging Book!

Posted on Sunday, September 19, 2010 in Books, Conlangers, Conlanging

Israel Noletto has published a new book examining the world of constructed languages entitled Glossopoese – O Complexo e Desconhecido Mundo das Línguas Artificiais. As you might guess from the title, the book is written in Portuguese, Noletto’s first language. He has graciously supplied The Conlanging Librarian with an English translation of the book’s description:

Many have probably already seen, heard or read something about languages like Esperanto, Quenya and Sindarin. Maybe some have seen films or read pieces of literature full of exemplars of the artificial languages. Yet, when people hear anything related to this, they frequently react out of total surprise, and ask questions like: That language was invented by an individual, how so? Is it a mixture of other languages? Is it a code? In Glossopoesis – The Complex and Unknown World of the Artificial Languages, the author researches the available literature and the various communities throughout the world and the Internet. As a result, the answers to the forementioned questions have been found, and a new scientific perspective on the Glossopoesis has been developed.

When asked if he plans an English translation of Glossopoese, Noletto replied “I definitely plan on translating my book into English, although I don’t see it happening any time soon, since I’m already involved in a number of other conlanging related researches to make our secret vice more well-known and scientifically respected in my own language right now.” An extremely admirable goal! Glossopoese definitely has the potential to spread the word to the Portuguese-speaking world about the art and science of language creation. In the meantime, Noletto’s important new work should spur those English-speakers with an interest in conlanging to brush up on their Portuguese.

Israel Noletto is well-qualified to pen a book on conlanging. On January 26, 2009, he was the first person to host a “conlang event” in the Brazilian state of Piauí. Actually, this was his final essay defense for his degree in “‘Letras/Inglês’, a University course focused on the English Language and Literature.” (Click here for his posting in Portuguese.) It would also appear that conlanging runs in his family. (Click here for a rough English Google translation of that page.)

So, Parabéns! on publishing the book and Obrigado! for the efforts on behalf of conlanging. (Note: I’m hoping those mean “Congratulations!” and “Thank you!” respectively. I had to look them up online.)