Conlanging for Writers, Part 2

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Issue 63

The Quick and Dirty Guide to

Conlanging for Writers, Part 2 

by Alexis Carter

If you read the first part of The Quick and Dirty Guide to Conlanging for Writers, then you will know that determining the word order and word formation of a constructed language is just the beginning. This article, part two in the series, will introduce some ideas to consider when deciding which sounds should be present in your conlang.

Different sounds create different impressions. For example, many native English speakers consider German to be harsh because of the heavy presence of guttural (made in the throat) sounds. This is partly because most English dialects lack guttural elements (which are also found in Hebrew, Arabic, and even in French). When you're creating your constructed language, you will need to choose the sounds you want. The perceptions of those sounds (assuming an English-speaking audience; this may differ in other markets) can help to evoke the specific impression that you want your language to convey.

 

 

Some authors choose to base their languages on something that many readers are already familiar with. David Eddings did this in his Belgariad and Mallorean series. The Chereks, who are analogous to Vikings, have a language heavy with Gs and Ks. To many readers, it sounds like it could be related to a real Norse language.

 

 

Eddings does something similar with the Nyissans, although they do not equate quite so easily with a single real-world culture. The Nyissans are snake people, and, as expected, the names (for both people and places) that we see in Nyissa are filled with the letter S (e.g., Salmissra, Sthiss Tor, etc.).

 

 

However, not everyone wants a language that has a real-world counterpart. You may have another idea about how you want your language to sound. You may want it to be completely unlike any language you (or the majority of your readers) are familiar with. One of the ways to do that is to include sounds not found in your native language, or the native language of many of your readers. No two languages have the exact same set of consonants, and even when a sound is transliterated a certain way it may not actually be pronounced the same; the English and French Rs sound very different, and both of them in turn are different from the Hindi and Mandarin Chinese Rs.

 

 

The sounds of a spoken language depend on the movements of the tongue, lips, and air flow through the mouth and nose. Let's take a look now at how a human mouth produces sound.

 

 

Consonants

When you speak, you use different parts of your mouth to form different sounds. When you say the letter P, for example, you use your lips but not your tongue. The letter D, on the other hand, requires touching the tongue to a part of your mouth; in Spanish, the tongue typically touches the back of the upper teeth, while in English it often touches the roof of the mouth. These different areas are called places of articulation; the place of articulation for P would be your lips, while for the Spanish D it is the teeth.

 

 

Your vocal cords also, of course, have an impact on your speech. But they are not required to produce every single speech sound. The F and V sounds, for example, are both produced by the same mouth movement. What differentiates them is the use or non-use of the vocal cords; V is vocalized, while F requires that the vocal cords remain still. Other consonant pairs similar to this include P and B, K and the hard G, and T and D.

 

 

There is another difference that only comes up very rarely in English: aspirated and unaspirated consonants. Holding your hand close to your mouth, say the word "chain." If a small breath of air hits your hand when you say the CH sound, then you have aspirated it (as is common with native English speakers). If not, there is no effect on the listener's ability to understand what you mean. However, this is not the case in all other languages. In Hindi, aspiration can sometimes be the only thing that distinguishes two different words. The word for hair, "baal," and the word for forehead, "bhaal," are exactly the same, except that the B at the beginning of the word for forehead is aspirated. This is typically transliterated, as it is here, by adding an h onto the end of the aspirated consonant.

 

 

Vowels

Vowel sounds are affected by the shape of your lips and by the location in your mouth from where the sound is produced. For example, the ah sound is produced at the back of the throat. When you try to produce this same sound from a location more forward in your mouth, the sound becomes closer to aw or uh. The oo sound comes from puckering your lips (similar to but less extreme than the shape they make when you whistle), while making the ee sound often results in a slight widening of the lips.

 

 

This is not, however, the only way to create distinctions between vowels. Sometimes vowels can be nasalized, while other times they cannot. French and Hindi have both nasalized and non-nasalized vowels. These differences rarely lead to comprehension errors, but in a few cases they can. In French, the words "beau" ("handsome") and "bon" ("good") are distinguished in speech only by the vowel nasalization in the latter. In Hindi, the same is true for "saas" ("mother-in-law") and "saaNs" ("breath"), with the capital N being one the traditional ways to represent this nasalization. Even though there is not a very strong tradition of this in many languages here on Earth, it is an idea that could certainly be taken further.

 

 

Even though this may be difficult to represent for an English-speaking audience, you could also try to include tonal elements in your conlang. Chinese is the first example that many people think of when tones are mentioned, but it is not the only one. Thai, Vedic Sanskrit, and ancient Greek are some other languages that have tonal elements. Mandarin has four tones, along with a fifth "neutral" tone. The different tones can be represented in pinyin (the currently preferred method for transliterating Mandarin Chinese) as diacritical marks over the vowels. To listen to the different Mandarin tones, you can go to http://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/chinese-dictionary.php or http://www.mandarintools.com/chardict.html.

 

 

The Cantonese dialect of Chinese has more tones than Mandarin does. To listen to recordings of Cantonese words, you can go to http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?page=chardict. Both the "Yale" and "Jyutping" columns in the results will provide Cantonese pronunciations. This site also shows the Mandarin pronunciation of different words.

 

 

Listening to Language

In order to become more familiar with the sounds of your native language, take a little time now to read a page or two of a book out loud, paying attention to which parts of your mouth you use to form various sounds.

 

 

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) reflects the differences in consonants and vowels in great detail, including sounds that may only be present in a very few languages. Now that you have spent some time exploring the sounds present in your own language, you can take the opportunity to listen to the IPA and discover new sounds that you may want to include in your conlang here: http://www.phonetics.ucla.edu/course/chapter1/chapter1.html.

 

 

In the previous article, I mentioned that I would be creating a constructed language of my own, Ozadai, to use as an example for this series. To keep it simple, I'm going to use many of the consonant sounds found in English (B, D, hard G, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, and Z) while adding aspirated varieties of the letters B, G, K, and P, with the aspiration to be indicated by adding the letter H after. Not all readers may be aware that BH is pronounced differently from B, but it is still something that I as the writer must be aware of when I move to creating my own Ozadai words.

 

 

Ozadai will have nine different vowel sounds. The following will be allowed: a (uh), aa (ah), ai (eye), ao (as in cow), ei (as in hay), i (ee), o (oh), u (ugh), and uu (oo). These vowels can all be nasalized, which can sometimes result in two separate words that differ only in the nasalization (or lack thereof) of a particular vowel.

 

 

You may have noticed that every single sound I'm planning to include in Ozadai only has one representation. This is not a requirement, and in some cases you may want to include the possibility of allowing different letters to represent multiple sounds the way that the letter G does in English. This is for simplicity's sake, both within this series of articles and a way to help me remember how to spell everything.

 

 

The third part of this series will discuss the structure and building of individual words. It will focus on root words, prefixes and suffixes, verb endings, and tense indicators.