All materials for this class, including those in the reader, to which I (Sai) own copyright are published under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License, version 2.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/. This means that they can be copied and distributed freely, so long as it is for non-commercial use, I get credit (and preferably an email about it), and any derivative works are published under the same license. For all other uses, including ambiguous cases, I reserve all copyright. Contact me if you have any questions about this.
Facilitator: saizai - Sai Emrys / Ilya Starikov (just call me Sai)
4th yr. CogSci
URL: http://www.livejournal.com/~conlangs_decal Office hours: Office? What office?
If you want to talk to me in person outside of class, do so before or after class (hopefully I’ll be there early most days). If that doesn’t work, contact me and we’ll arrange something.
Sponsoring Professor (second year running!): Leanne Hinton, Chair, Linguistics Dept.
Synopsis: Constructed languages (conlangs) - a.k.a. "artificial languages", etc - include a wide variety of languages. Esperanto, Klingon, Quenya, Loglan / Lojban, Signed Exact English, proto-Indo-European, and many many others are all conlangs. Arguably, this list includes Received English, Korean, and Turkish as well.
This class will be about designing your own language, mostly from the bottom up. We will work on a class language together, using ideas from various students, as you create (or continue to work on) your own languages at home (and discuss them in class). The class will not cover the history or theory of conlangs, nor formal linguistics, except as necessary. The main focus will be on actually getting “into it” – starting from day one – and learning what you need as you go.
If you are interested in these more in-depth topics, talk to me. There is plenty of material available, including some videos from the previous year’s class, and books in the library.
No linguistic background is necessary for this class, though it will certainly be useful. Likewise, reading through the reader will be very useful (especially for those new to conlanging), as will be reading the recommended text, though these are both optional.
This class will be run in a manner fairly different from last year’s Conlangs DE-Cal – less intense, and more hands-on. Last year’s was closer in scope to a full Ling 1 or Ling 101 class. Returning students MAY take this class for credit again, but will need to do a new final project, or an expansion to their previous year’s. Talk to me if this applies to you. Timing: This class will generally meet two hours a week. If the enrollment of students interested in taking 2 units is too low, then this will be reduced to one hour a week.
On a side note: I am graduating in May, and obviously won’t be around to teach the class any more after that. If you are interested in taking over from me, please let me know.
If you have knowledge of linguistics or conlangs, you are very much welcome to teach some of the classes in my stead – using my notes if you like (and can decipher them).
Grading: This is a variable-unit, pass / no pass class. There is no difference between the 98 and 198 versions; choose whichever you prefer.
To get 1 unit: Show up most of the time – enough for me to know your name when they ask me whether or not you passed. That’s it.
To get 2 units: Attend class regularly, and do the final project (which you’ll be doing the work for over the course of the semester anyway) at a level that shows effort. Again: simple.
(How to get a NP grade: don't show up to class a lot; don't turn in the final project, or turn in work that's clearly BS; plagiarize; lie; etc. You know how. Don't. I will give a grade of “incomplete” for honest students who simply haven’t finished the work [or want more time to do it]; I will NP you without compunction if you are dishonest.) If, for whatever reason, you want fewer units than you qualify for – e.g. 1 if you’re doing the final project, or 0 for anyone – we can do that. You do need to decide relatively early on in the semester how many units you want (e.g. before the add deadline); it is difficult to change later on.
Goals: What you should get out of this class On finishing this class, you will be well on your way to having your very own language. Obviously, it is not possible to get something that complex “finished” in one semester, but you’ll have started.
If you've done the final project, then you will probably have done even more on your language – complete with its own phonology, morphology, syntax, and all the rest. You will have had some experience translating from English to your new language, including the Babel text.
Now, what other class can give you that to take away from the experience?
Linguistic Background This is not a class on introductory linguistics. However, it *is* a class with no linguistics knowledge prerequisite. If you know nothing about modern formal linguistics, you will probably want to take more time to read up on basics, such as the IPA, the meanings of basic terminology such as phone, phoneme, morpheme, syntax, etc., and anything else you don't understand. We will cover some of this in class, but mainly from a perspective of use and application rather than theory and description.
You will probably find an introductory text on linguistics, such as Language Files or Contemporary Linguistics, very useful. If you don’t have one and aren’t already very familiar with introductory linguistics concepts, get one.
Course Website / LJ Community This course's website is http://www.livejournal.com/~conlangs_decal (same as last year). You will need a LiveJournal (LJ) account; these are free and easy to create - visit http://www.livejournal.com/create.bml to do so. The account under which you post to the community must have your legal name (whatever Cal thinks it is) associated with it. If you already have a LJ account which you don't want to have identified with your legal name, you can post under a different account, or simply identify yourself by legal name only on the (screened) signup form.
If you have any problem with this requirement, please talk to me.
All course material (inasmuch as possible) will be posted to the LJ community, so it would be in your best interests to monitor it. You might also benefit from it as a discussion forum, and a place to have your work peer-reviewed (and give your own rants/raves to others).
Some other useful sites General Conlangs Sites
http://www.livejournal.com/~conlangs - the general-purpose LJ conlangs community
http://listserv.brown.edu/archives/conlang.html - "the" conlang mailing list, hosted by Brown U.
http://www.langmaker.com - Conlang Profiles at Langmaker. Also has a huge amount of other links and resources.
http://www.omniglot.com - Omniglot, a guide to writing systems (natural and onstructed)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conlangs - the Wikipedia entry for Conlangs
Theory & Essays
http://www.eskimo.com/~ram/essays.html - Essays on language creation by Rick Morneau, including Lexical Semantics of a Machine Translation Interlingua (most of these are general-audience; LSoaMTI is a bit more diffiuclt, but doesn't require an excessive linguistics background to understand)
http://www.nkuitse.com/conlang/glosses/ - "How to make good glosses", by Paul Hoffman
http://www.langmaker.com/backissu.htm - Model Languages newsletter, by Jeffrey Henning
http://www.livejournal.com/users/saizai/352316.html - an incomplete list of posts by myself (saizai) about various design ideas, particularly On the Design of an Ideal Language
http://students.washington.edu/jaspax/conlang.htm - Conlanger’s Manifesto, by David Peterson
http://www.valdyas.org/apologia.html - Apologia pro Imaginatione, by Boudewjin Rempt
http://www.rosettaproject.org - the Rosetta Project - a free online database of every documented human language
http://www.ling.hf.ntnu.no/ipa/full/ - a click-to-hear chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
http://cassowary.free.fr/Linguistics/cxschart.png (PNG image) or http://www.theiling.de/ipa/ (text) - how to write the IPA in plaintext (using CXS, the Conlang-modified X-Sampa method)
http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Index.htm - a, um, glossary of linguistic terms. Pretty straightforward.
Specific Conlangs' Sites
http://www.geocities.com/eastonde/conlib.html - a very long (1100+) list of conlangs with links to websites describing them
http://www.uib.no/People/hnohf - Ardalambion, probably the best resource on JRR Tolkein's conlangs
http://www.kli.org - the Klingon Language Institute
http://www.lojban.org - Lojban/Loglan
http://home.inreach.com/sl2120/Ithkuil/ - Ithkuil, by John Quijada
Reader/Syllabus: I'm a student, and like "poet", that abbreviates to "po'". I can't afford to print out syllabi - or other reading materials - for a classful of people. For that matter, neither can the linguistics department. I will make a reader available at one of the copy stores near campus; buy it if you want hard copies. Everything in it will be available either directly from a library book or online at the URL above. (Presumably, if you're reading this, you already know that.)
The online version may will be more current than the printed one, and will always take precedence. I will tell you if I update anything in the reader after its print date, of course.
Texts / Reading materials: I strongly recommend that you have at least one good introductory linguistics textbook. The one I used for Ling 100 was Contemporary Linguistics, 4th ed. There are others. Get one if you don’t already have it.
The reader will have its own table of contents; take a look there. In addition to that, there will be some items I want you to look up online, to read or research or work on. If you’re interested in any of the items we go over briefly during class, I can probably give you some pointers for where to get more. In any case, just Google it.
One more text I strongly recommend for this class is Thomas E. Payne’s Describing Morphosyntax. It is very well written and very useful, but does assume at least a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics. If you know basics, or are up for a challenge, buy it and read it. With some simple translation, it’s practically a manual for how to make a conlang grammar, and gives you a good idea of the breadth of options available just from what natural languages are known to do.
Assignments There is only one – optional for those taking 1 unit, required for those taking 2.
Reminder: Don’t plagiarize. Really. The Final Project / Research Paper You have three standard options, the first being strongly recommended. I am very much open to suggestions if you want to do something different that is substantially similar in difficulty and related to the class.
Do remember to START EARLY. You can do this very easily if you just do it as we go.
If you decide to do a final project, be sure to consult with me *very* early on. Tell me what you intend to do, why, and how. Keep me appraised of how it's going. If you choose something other than Option 1, make sure I approve it FIRST.
Option 1: Create your own language You read that right: you will create an entire language, including all parts of grammar that we talk about in class.
I realize that this is probably an intimidating concept for you. It's really not as hard as you might think, and the work that we'll be doing over the course of the class will go over all aspects of language design; you will essentially be building it as we go. Of course, your early work will probably be revised several times by the time you are ready to submit the final revision.
There are a few boundary criteria for this project. When you are out on your own as a conlanger, even these will disappear, but for now, here are your limits:
Your language must be geared towards human use. Any literate person in the world should be able to learn and use your language. (This does NOT mean that it need be an auxlang!)
Your language MAY NOT BE like either a) English, or b) your native language, if other than English. I *will* push you to break away from your default assumptions about how a language can or should work.
Your language must be a full working language in intended scope (although it need not have a multi-thousand-word vocabulary, etc.), and should NOT be simply a code for another language. (Obviously, it need not be a full working language at the time of writing this paper.)
The phonetic inventory should preferably be drawn from within the IPA, and all aspects should be described in ways any linguist would be able to understand. If you want to make it layperson-understandable, that works also.
You will have to translate a few sample phrases and short samples from English, most prominently, the Babel Text, from Genesis 11:1-9 - more here. This is NOT a "literal" translation; I will be looking for something that translates the essence of meaning into a form that is more appropriate for your language.
Within these five criteria, you will have considerable leeway. Do whatever kind of language you want; choose any typology, morphology, etc., as you like. Create a novel orthography. Create a language that uses a primary modality other than speech. BE CREATIVE!
Option 2: Modular Systems For this variation, you will create only certain parts of a language - e.g., an orthography.
The criteria are the same as above where applicable (minus the translation), however:
You will have to compensate for reduced scope by a major increase in the amount of detail, originality, and creativity you give to those parts you do.
Since they are not in the context of a full language, you will need to make them modular - provide explicit ways for yourself others to use your systems as part of a full language, how they can be integrated with, etc.
Your systems MUST BE ENTIRELY NEW. No rehashes, no slightly-different versions of something you've seen elsewhere. The point of this option for a final project is for use in the case of your thinking up some very new, very original way of doing something. This is a much stronger criteria than for Version 1.
Option 3: Research Project If you have an idea for something else you'd like to do that would be equivalent in scope and amount of work to the previous two, come up with a plan and tell me about it.
This is a fairly open-ended option, but you will have to convince me that it is indeed equal. Possible ideas could include conducting original, scientific research; writing a major paper on a topic of your choosing; etc. Talk to me.
The schedule is TENTATIVE, and listed seperately. I may change things around, add new topics or remove them as time and interest dictate, etc.
One important side effect of this is that You The Student can change the schedule, if you have input on what you'd prefer we talk about, what not, and when. 15 weeks is a fairly long time, yes, but there can be a *lot* of material to cover. Inevitably, we will have to skip or gloss over some topics. Let's try to make the best use of the time we have.
Leanne Hinton, for agreeing to sponsor this class. Yay!
David Peterson, for suggesting Leanne Hinton as my advisor, recommending various other resources, and his extensive collaboration and help on the course design, homework, etc.
ged, for more resources
From the King James Edition.
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
This manifesto was originally written by David Peterson as a defense of the art of Conlanging against those who would degrade the art as frivolous, unimportant, or even dangerous. He posted it to the conlang discussion list, and I liked it so much that I decided to include it on this page until I have time to write my own manifesto. There are a few places where this goes overboard—for example, I don’t seriously see language creation as a path to world peace—but in general this is exactly right:
To me, it seems odd to have to defend language creation, and yet it’s been repeatedly attacked, mainly by linguists (which is the most baffling part about the whole business), and decried as a form of frivolity which should not and cannot be taken seriously by anyone, or even wicked (I’ve heard it). To such claims, I say the following things.
I would hope that many would agree that doing something that neither harms the doer nor anyone else is not wrong. That said, creating languages, to my knowledge, has never resulted in the harming of another human being, or of the language creator (at least, I’ve heard of no reports of a language creator driven insane). Like any other hobby or activity, the only requirement is a requirement of time, and time management has nothing to do with the activity itself, but only with the one performing it. Thus, it can’t be argued that language creation is “a waste of time”, it can only be argued that certain people are wasters of time—how they do it is irrelevant.
The other argument—whether language creation can be taken seriously—is a bit stickier. The main problem I see that people have with language creation is that it’s “weird”—that is, not usual. As such, anything that is not usual will be regarded with apprehension initially; it’s as old as Copernicus—even older than that. If you point this out to the arguer, s/he will usually counter with the argument that language creation is useless, and therefore, frivolous. And, looking only at the utilitarian end of it, if the creator isn’t going to use his/her language for communication, and since language can be viewed only as a means of communication, language creation is pretty useless.
But is this all language is: A method of communication? If so, what is poetry? What is literature? What possible use could James Joyce’s Ulysses have? I suppose if you were on a desert island and needed to smash crabs, it would do the trick—it’s pretty thick, after all. But beyond that? According to them, it would have no use. And why stop there? What good do paintings do anyone? They just sit there, after all, doing nothing for nobody. And along with this goes any other form of visual art: Pottery, jewelry, tapestry, mosaic, sculpture, animationâ€¦ And what about architecture? You just need a roof over yor head; no reason it needs to look fancy. So out the window it goes, too. And music?! My word! There’s not even any functional value in music! So let’s burn all our musical instruments and albums: Goodbye Tchaikovsky, bye-bye Beatles, see ya’ Enya, aloha Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (that’s the “aloha” that means “goodbye”, not “hello”). Pretty soon what you’re left with is a world without art.
At this point, the argument should come to an end. The frivolity and usefulness of art is an argument that has been argued many times but many people much more articulate than I, and by now (I certainly hope), the whole world should have figured out that art really does pull its weight on Earth. So, let’s continue from here. Any university worth its salt is going to have an art department. Millions of people every year study useless, frivolous art. So why not language creation? Nearly every serious subject has an art associated with it that’s also studied: Literature has poetry and prose; computer science has computer graphics and video games (another under-appreciated form of art); functional architecture has artistic architecture; art history has art; music theory has music. If you take this to its natural conclusion, is not language creation the art most closely associated with linguistics?
This is particularly why I find the condemnation of language creation by linguists so befuddling. Aside from art, though, language creation has other uses. First, creating a language allows one to better understand language itself. One who creates an ergative language is far more likely to understand ergativity in natural languages than one who does not, I say. What’s more, this same understanding can ease foreign language learning considerably—not to mention linguistics itself. More importantly, it gets one thinking about the multifariousness and beauty of language, and one who can appreciate this is less likely to misunderstand, deprecate and stereotype those speaking other languages, which is one of the main causes of racism and ethnocentrism. In short, language creation is one of the keys to social harmony and world peace. If one is going to take anything seriously, certainly world peace is it, and if so, shouldn’t language creation be given some credit too?
The Artlanger’s Rant
David Peterson’s manifesto does a great job of justifying conlanging to the non-conlanging public, and as such serves as a wonderful first step towards the legitimization of conlanging. However, I take conlanging a bit more seriously than that—I think of it as a legitimate form of art, and I would like to see it recognized as such. This thought, combined with some bad tendencies I was seeing on Conlang at the time, prompted the following verbal explosion from me, which I posted to Conlang:
From: Jesse Bangs
Date: Mon Mar 11, 2002 8:16 pm
Subject: Lighting Some Flames: Towards conlang artistry
To All Who Care About Conlanging:
The conlang community, both on this list and off, has been growing steadily in the past several years, and it has just gotten another big burst of growth from the release of the LOTR movies in the U.S. We now have a famous, visible patriarch in the person of JRR Tolkien, at least one professional member, Mark Okrand. Quenya and Klingon have entered the common parlance as names of languages, and they have a growing body of L2 speakers, a subculture, and media presence. Add to this the hundreds of conlang websites that may be found in the Internet and the presence of this community itself, and it seems that conlanging may be on the verge of breaking into mainstream awareness and acceptance. The “secret vice” has been out of the closet for a while, and it may soon be into the limelight.
Yet there are still major obstacles to conlanging’s acceptance as an art form, both within the community of conlangers and without. The obstacles from without include prejudices against conlangs as real languages, the “nerdy” perception that conlangers have (and often cherish), and distrust from the linguistic community. These problems have been addressed and rebutted before, so I won’t do it again here. Only time may remove all of those problems. However, the obstacles from conlangers themselves are greater, and can be addressed immediately. Of these problems, the one that I wish to address here is the lack of a critical perspective within the conlang community.
It should not need to be proved that some art is better than others. If we as conlangers wish to gain acceptance for our art, then we need to acknowledge this and allow for the judgement that some conlangs are better than others. We need a serious body of *conlang criticism*. Currently, this is almost entirely lacking on the Conlang list. When someone posts texts or grammatical sketches, the responses are generally entirely congratulatory, or they are concerned only with correcting technical errors or confusions within the grammar. Often there are no responses at all. While technical accuracy and consistency are important, it’s outrageous that this is where our critique stops. We need to move beyond the foundation of technical accuracy and allow for the artistic analysis of our conlangs.
Of course the objection is “by what criteria?” It’s clear that we can’t all agree on one style of phonetic beauty, much less on which syntax, morphology, or vocabulary is best. But this is, in fact, exactly what we expect. The study of the history of art, music, or literature is a long series of redefinitions of what is proper, what is better, and a constant critical re-evaluation of everything that’s gone before. This chronological tension is an essential part of the formation of literatures and arts, and if conlanging is to be an art instead of a hobby, then it must also expect this. The important thing is that conlanging start to have a critical apparatus within which the artistic merits of conlangs can be evaluated and where different schools of thought can define and defend themselves.
The thing to do, then, seems to be to start such a school, and simply get down to the business of evaluating conlangs as works of art. I therefore announce the founding of the Naturalist school of conlanging, which regards the following three things as values:
Naturalness, as the name implies. We prefer languages that resemble natural languages, that could fool a linguist examining them into thinking that they actually existed somewhere on the globe. Auxlangs and philosophical langs are anathema because their very nature goes against this value.
Complexity and completeness. No natural language is completely regular or completely simple, so neither will our languages. Furthermore, we seek to describe and develop our languages as completely as possible. Those who make dozens of half-finished sketches are creating the equivalent of commercial jingles. We seek to create symphonies.
Creativity, defined as difference from your native language. If your native language is Chinese, your target should be Ancient Greek. If your native language is English, your target is Dyirbal (tonal, ergative Australian language). Those who speak Italian and are only interested in Romance-style conlangs earn no respect in this area. Those that seek to challenge themselves and their learners are applauded.
Of course this won’t be popular with everyone, especially not when I start telling people why their conlangs suck. Why should it? If you disagree with me, form your own school. But by all means, we have to start allowing for the critical analysis of conlangs to make them into an actual art form. As a side effect of this, we also have to start taking each others conlangs seriously—putting in the time to understand and evaluate them. Like everyone else on this list, my time is limited and I can hardly take the time to look at every conlang that comes my way. But I intend to start taking time to look closely at the conlangs of others and myself and seeing how well they hold up to the Naturalist values. I also intend to post my critiques to the list. Hopefully, we’re mature enough (as individuals and as a community) to take and give criticism without resorting to whining and hurt feelings. And once again, if you don’t like it form your own school.
Responses, comments, counter-flames?
Originally from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/conlang/message/67563
This was doubtlessly the most controversial thing I have ever posted to Conlang, and it did exactly what I had hoped—generated a huge amount of commentary and opinion, most of it disagreeing with me. The most vehement disagreement that people had was with the suggestion that we form conlanging schools. People found this suggestion worrying, fearing that it would lead to another break-up of the conlang list and would destroy the spirit of camaraderie that makes the list so agreeable now. Jan van Steenbergen had a well-reasoned response typical of the concerns that others raised:
The diversity of our languages is enormous. Some of us are deeply into science-fiction and like to create strange, alien languages for strange, alien beings that sound like: “qipL##53x&p’omn3çyy$fåor/bzzzzz…”, while others rather enjoy creating a latinoid language with some local flavour from elsewhere in Europe. Or try to create a present-day version of Crimean Gothic or Dalmatian. Not to mention the creators of logical and auxiliary languages.
My point is: we have a very small and very diverse community. If we were to follow your ideas, it would soon split up into numerous tiny fractions, part of which would instantly cease to exist. I don’t see what purpose can be served with such developments. Why create tension between those for whom it is art and those for whom it is hobby, or between professional linguists and amateurs?
Originally from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/conlang/message/67578
This objection I completely agreed with, and sort of did agree with all along. I never wished to split up conlang, nor to destroy the positive atmosphere of the list. A little friendly competition wouldn’t hurt anyone, but the serious divisiveness that some people feared was never in my intent. Perhaps, if my rant were fully carried it, it would be inevitable. I don’t think so, but this is still a very valid criticism.
Muke Tever had another angle on the question of conlang-as-art, which several people echoed:
Me personally, I look at conlangs more as craft than art--the things I think make a good conlang first are standard things like that: the quality and readability of the presentation; whether standard notations including but not limited to phonemic/phonetic brackets, X-SAMPA, unicode, etc. are used; completeness [not necessarily complexity or quantity of data, but at least a workable phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and texts]. A conculture per se is not necessary, although a statement of the purpose of the language is always useful (at the very least something along the lines of "used in the ancient scriptures of Martian ringworms in my new book")
Originally from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/conlang/message/67585
It seems to me that conlang-as-craft is not incompatible with conlang-as-art—Christophe Grandsire raised the analogy of architecture, which requires tremendous technical skill but is still doubtlessly artistic. Nonetheless, it turns out that there are a great many people on conlang who think of themselves more as hobbyists than artists. This baffled me at first—who wouldn’t want to see their creations valued as art? Nonetheless, plenty of self-proclaimed conlang hobbyists supported this distinction, so I retreated just a little bit to allow that not all conlangs are art or need to be viewed as such. Still, craftsmanship is essential to good artistry, and a strong community of non-artist conlangers will still be good for those of us who actually view our creations as art.
The final criticism that people had that I agree with was actually one of the strongest—that the entire notion of critical schools is unnecessary and banal. Peter Clark made this wonderful observation:
But if you will permit me to be negative for a moment, setting up “schools” is not the way to do it. I was an English major (Planned Poverty, I call it) in college, and had to suffer through the various “schools.” Let’s see if I can remember all five: Marxist, Feminist, Psychoanalytic, Reader-Response, and...darn, I forgot. You know what? It was all a bunch of bull. You know who ends up in literary schools? The ones who can’t write. They can’t write decent literature to save their skins, so they fill up journal after journal with this phony nonsense. I was so happy to get out of that and into the creative writing classes. There, no one ever said one word about “schools”. We would read each other’s works, try to understand what the author was trying to communicate, and comment on how well the plot structure and devices aided toward the communication of that idea and how successful we felt the writing to be. _That_ is the only “school” I will ever believe in, because it doesn’t limit me to one set of glasses. Getting genuine feedback from others *who knew that they were talking about* was extremely valuable, infinitely more so than trying to read a classic through a Marxist critique, especially when the author predated Marxism!
Ok, enough rant. So, once again, I applaud your instinct, but discourage your solution. If we as a group commit to more in-depth analysis and study of each other’s languages, we would do quite well. If we could figure out a way to dedicate a period of time, say a week, to the detailed examination of one conlang, that would be wonderful, as it would reduce the distraction created by other examinations. Conlanging is an art, but I don’t want it to become “ART” (said with a very nasal tone.) It would suck the life, the fun out of conlanging if we suddenly had to deal with intellectual snobbery. I come from the world of literature, where the snobbery is so thick you can cut it with a knife. That’s not what I want to see happen. We don’t need to be like everybody else. After all, we clearly are not like everyone else. We are practicers of the domestic art, the quiet hobby, the silent symphony. I don’t want my conlang to become a vehicle of some “message.” It is because it is. Critique it for its success in reaching its desired goals, but let’s not seek to turn conlanging into something that it is not.
Originally from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/conlang/message/67588
The Construction of Laadan, from A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, 2nd ed.
In the fall of 1981, I was involved in several seemingly unrelated activities. I had been asked to write a scholarly review of the book Women and Men Speaking, by Cheris Kramarae; I was working on a speech for the WisCon science fiction convention scheduled for March 1982, where I was to be Guest of Honor; and I was reading – and re-reading – Douglas Hofstadter’s Göedel, Escher, Bach. I had also been reading a series of papers by Cecil Brown and his associates on the subject of lexicalization – that is, the giving of names (words, in most cases, or parts of words) to units of meaning in human languages. Out of this serendipitous mix came a number of things.
(1) I became aware, through Kramarae’s book, of the feminist hypothesis that existing human languages are inadequate to express the perceptions of women. This intrigued me because it had a built-in paradox: if it is true, the only mechanism available to women for discussing the problem is the very same language(s) alleged to be inadequate for the purpose.
(2) There occurred to me and interesting possibility within the framework of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (briefly, that language structures perceptions): if women had a language adequate to express their perceptions, it might reflect a quite different reality than that perceived by men. This idea was reinforced for me by the papers of Brown et al., in which there was constant reference to various phenomena of lexicalization as the only natural and self-evident possibilities. I kept thinking that women would have done it differently, and that what was being called the “natural” way to create words seemed to me to be instead the male way to create words.
(3) I read in Göedel, Escher, Bach a reformulation of Göedel’s Therorem, in which Hofstdater proposed that for every record player there were records it could not play because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. And it struck me that if you squared this you would get a hypothesis that for every language there were perceptions it could not express because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. Furthermore, if you cubed it, you would get a hypothesis that for every culture there are languages it could not use because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. This made me wonder: what would happen to American culture if women did have and did use a language that expressed their perceptions? Would it self-destruct?
(4) I focused my Guest of Honor speech for WisCon on the question of why women portraying new realities in science fiction had, so far as I knew, dealt only with Matriarchy and Androgyny, and never with the third alternative based on the hypothesis that women are not superior to men (Matriarchy) or interchangeable with and equal to men (Androgyny) but rather entirely different from men. I proposed that it was at least possible that this was because the only language available to women excluded the third reality. Either because it was unlexicalized and thus no words existed with which to write about it, or it was lexicalized in so cumbersome a manner that it was useless for the writing of fiction, or the lack of lexical resources literally made it impossible to imagine such a reality.
Somewhere along the way, this all fell together for me, and I found myself with a cognitive brew much too fascinating to ignore, The only question was how I was to go about exploring all of this. A scientific experiment and a scholarly monograph would have been nice; but I knew what the prospects of funding would be for an investigation of these matters, and I was without the private income that would have let me ignore that aspect of the problem. I therefore chose as medium the writing of a science fiction novel about a future America in which the woman-language had been constructed and was in use. That book, called Native Tongue, was published by DAW Books in August 1984. Its sequel, Native Tongue II: The Judas Rose, appeared from DAW in February 1987.
In order to write the book, I felt obligated to at least try to construct the language. I’m not an engineer, and when I write about engines I make no attempt to pretend that I know how engines are put together or how they function. But I am a linguist, and knowing how languages work is supposed to be my home territory. I didn’t feel that I could ethically just fake the woman-language, or just insert a handful of hypothetical words and phrases to represent it. I needed at least the basic grammar and a modest vocabulary, and I need to experience what such a project would be like. I therefore began, on June 28, 1982, the construction of the language that became Láadan.
Because I am a linguist, I have studied many existing languages, from a number of different language families. In the construction of Láadan I have tried to use features of those languages which seemed to me to be valuable and appropriate. This method of construction is often called “patchwork”, and is not looked upon with great favor in the Patriarchal Paradigm that dominates contemporary science. I would remind you, nonetheless, that among women the patchwork quilt is recognized as an artform, and the methodology of patchwork is respected.
My original goal was to reach a vocabulary of 1,000 words – enough, if well chosen, for ordinary conversation and informal writing. I passed that goal early on, and in the fall of 1982 the journal Women and Language News published the first writing in the language, a Nativity story written from Mary’s point of view.
There was one more factor that entered into my decision to construct Láadan, and I saved it for last because it was not there originally but developed out of the work that I was doing. I found myself discussing the idea of the woman-language, proposed need for it, etc., at meetings and conferences and among my friends and colleagues. And I found that it was possible to get the necessary concepts across, if I was patient. (There was, for example, the useful fact that English has no word whatsoever for what a woman does during the sexual act… this generally helps to make some points more clear.) But I got thoroughly tired of one question and its answer. People would ask me, “Well, if existing human languages are inadequate to express women’s perceptions, why haven’t they ever made one up that is adequate?” And all I could ever say was that I didn’t know.1 This became tiresome, and frustrating, and it was a relief to me when I was at last able to say, “Well, as a matter of fact, a woman did construct such a language, beginning on June 28, 1982, and its name is Láadan.”
This book is a teaching grammar of Láadan, with an accompanying dictionary. It is only a beginning, and for all I know, the beginning of a failure, something that will never be of interest to anyone but the collector of linguistic exotica. But because this book exists, it will be very hard to “lose” Láadan in the way that other languages have been swallowed up by the History of Mankind. For that, I am most grateful to the members of SF3, who thought the work was important enough to justify publication.
Suzette Haden Elgin
I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at MIT. His field is hot now and every year he is inundated by applications from would-be graduate students. “A lot of them seem smart,” he said. “What I can’t tell is whether they have any kind of taste.”
Taste. You don’t hear that word much now. And yet we still need the underlying concept, whatever we call it. What my friend meant was that he wanted students who were not just good technicians, but who could use their technical knowledge to design beautiful things.
Mathematicians call good work “beautiful,” and so, either now or in the past, have scientists, engineers, musicians, architects, designers, writers, and painters. Is it just a coincidence that they used the same word, or is there some overlap in what they meant? If there is an overlap, can we use one field’s discoveries about beauty to help us in another?
For those of us who design things, these are not just theoretical questions. If there is such a thing as beauty, we need to be able to recognize it. We need good taste to make good things. Instead of treating beauty as an airy abstraction, to be either blathered about or avoided depending on how one feels about airy abstractions, let’s try considering it as a practical question: how do you make good stuff?
If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that “taste is subjective.” They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it’s ersonc, or because their mother had one, or because they saw a movie star with one in a magazine, or because they know it’s expensive. Their thoughts are a tangle of unexamined impulses.
Most of us are encouraged, as children, to leave this tangle unexamined. If you make fun of your little brother for coloring people green in his coloring book, your mother is likely to tell you something like “you like to do it your way and he likes to do it his way.”
Your mother at this point is not trying to teach you important truths about aesthetics. She’s trying to get the two of you to stop bickering.
Like many of the half-truths adults tell us, this one contradicts other things they tell us. After dinning into you that taste is merely a matter of personal preference, they take you to the museum and tell you that you should pay attention because Leonardo is a great artist.
What goes through the kid’s head at this point? What does he think “great artist” means? After having been told for years that everyone just likes to do things their own way, he is unlikely to head straight for the conclusion that a great artist is someone whose work is better than the others’. A far more likely theory, in his Ptolemaic model of the universe, is that a great artist is something that’s good for you, like broccoli, because someone said so in a book.
Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.
Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.
As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong.
Relativism is fashionable at the moment, and that may hamper you from thinking about taste, even as yours grows. But if you come out of the closet and admit, at least to yourself, that there is such a thing as good and bad design, then you can start to study good design in detail. How has your taste changed? When you made mistakes, what caused you to make them? What have other people learned about design?
Once you start to examine the question, it’s surprising how much different fields’ ideas of beauty have in common. The same principles of good design crop up again and again.
Good design is simple. You hear this from math to painting. In math it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. Where axioms are concerned, especially, less is more. It means much the same thing in programming. For architects and designers it means that beauty should depend on a few carefully chosen structural elements rather than a profusion of superficial ornament. (Ornament is not in itself bad, only when it’s camouflage on insipid form.) Similarly, in painting, a still life of a few carefully observed and solidly erson objects will tend to be more interesting than a stretch of flashy but mindlessly repetitive painting of, say, a lace collar. In writing it means: say what you mean and say it briefly.
It seems strange to have to emphasize simplicity. You’d think simple would be the default. Ornate is more work. But something seems to come over people when they try to be creative. Beginning writers adopt a pompous tone that doesn’t sound anything like the way they speak. Designers trying to be artistic resort to swooshes and curlicues. Painters discover that they’re expressionists. It’s all evasion. Underneath the long words or the “expressive” brush strokes, there is not much going on, and that’s frightening.
When you’re forced to be simple, you’re forced to face the real problem. When you can’t deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.
Good design is timeless. In math, every proof is timeless unless it contains a mistake. So what does Hardy mean when he says there is no permanent place for ugly mathematics? He means the same thing Kelly Johnson did: if something is ugly, it can’t be the best solution. There must be a better one, and eventually someone will discover it.
Aiming at timelessness is a way to make yourself find the best answer: if you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself. Some of the greatest masters did this so well that they left little room for those who came after. Every engraver since Durer has had to live in his shadow.
Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions almost by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion.
Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. It’s hard to guess what the future will be like, but we can be sure it will be like the past in caring nothing for present fashions. So if you can make something that appeals to people today and would also have appealed to people in 1500, there is a good chance it will appeal to people in 2500.
Good design solves the right problem. The typical stove has four burners arranged in a square, and a dial to control each. How do you arrange the dials? The simplest answer is to put them in a row. But this is a simple answer to the wrong question. The dials are for humans to use, and if you put them in a row, the unlucky human will have to stop and think each time about which dial matches which burner. Better to arrange the dials in a square like the burners.
A lot of bad design is industrious, but misguided. In the mid twentieth century there was a vogue for setting text in sans-serif fonts. These fonts are closer to the pure, underlying letterforms. But in text that’s not the problem you’re trying to solve. For legibility it’s more important that letters be easy to tell apart. It may look Victorian, but a Times Roman lowercase g is easy to tell from a lowercase y.
Problems can be improved as well as solutions. In software, an intractable problem can usually be replaced by an equivalent one that’s easy to solve. Physics progressed faster as the problem became predicting observable behavior, instead of reconciling it with scripture.
Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself. Likewise, a painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa.
In architecture and design, this principle means that a building or object should let you use it how you want: a good building, for example, will serve as a backdrop for whatever life people want to lead in it, instead of making them live as if they were executing a program written by the architect.
In software, it means you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish, like Lego. In math it means a proof that becomes the basis for a lot of new work is preferable to a proof that was difficult, but doesn’t lead to future discoveries; in the sciences generally, citation is considered a rough indicator of merit.
Good design is often slightly funny. This one may not always be true. But Durer’s engravings and Saarinen’s womb chair and the Pantheon and the original Porsche 911 all seem to me slightly funny. Godel’s incompleteness theorem seems like a practical joke.
I think it’s because humor is related to strength. To have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one’s sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one’s sense of humor is to be wounded by them. And so the mark—or at least the prerogative—of strength is not to take oneself too seriously. The confident will often, like swallows, seem to be making fun of the whole process slightly, as Hitchcock does in his films or Bruegel in his paintings—or Shakespeare, for that matter.
Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.
Good design is hard. If you look at the people who’ve done great work, one thing they all seem to have in common is that they worked very hard. If you’re not working hard, you’re probably wasting your time.
Hard problems call for great efforts. In math, difficult proofs require ingenious solutions, and those tend to be interesting. Ditto in engineering.
When you have to climb a mountain you toss everything unnecessary out of your pack. And so an architect who has to build on a difficult site, or a small budget, will find that he is forced to produce an elegant design. Fashions and flourishes get knocked aside by the difficult business of solving the problem at all.
Not every kind of hard is good. There is good pain and bad pain. You want the kind of pain you get from going running, not the kind you get from stepping on a nail. A difficult problem could be good for a designer, but a fickle client or unreliable materials would not be.
In art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don’t. We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us. If you draw a tree and you change the angle of a branch five degrees, no one will know. When you change the angle of someone’s eye five degrees, people notice.
When Bauhaus designers adopted Sullivan’s “form follows function,” what they meant was, form should follow function. And if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives.
Good design looks easy. Like great athletes, great designers make it look easy. Mostly this is an illusion. The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.
In science and engineering, some of the greatest discoveries seem so simple that you say to yourself, I could have thought of that. The discoverer is entitled to reply, why didn’t you?
Some Leonardo heads are just a few lines. You look at them and you think, all you have to do is get eight or ten lines in the right place and you’ve made this beautiful portrait. Well, yes, but you have to get them in exactly the right place. The slightest error will make the whole thing collapse.
Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium, because they demand near perfection. In math terms, they are a closed-form solution; lesser artists literally solve the same problems by successive approximation. One of the reasons kids give up drawing at ten or so is that they decide to start drawing like grownups, and one of the first things they try is a line drawing of a face. Smack!
In most fields the appearance of ease seems to come with practice. Perhaps what practice does is train your unconscious mind to handle tasks that used to require conscious thought. In some cases you literally train your body. An expert pianist can play notes faster than the brain can send signals to his hand. Likewise an artist, after a while, can make visual perception flow in through his eye and out through his hand as automatically as someone tapping his foot to a beat.
When people talk about being in “the zone,” I think what they mean is that the spinal cord has the situation under control. Your spinal cord is less hesitant, and it frees conscious thought for the hard problems.
Good design uses symmetry. I think symmetry may just be one way to achieve simplicity, but it’s important enough to be mentioned on its own. Nature uses it a lot, which is a good sign.
There are two kinds of symmetry, repetition and recursion. Recursion means repetition in subelements, like the pattern of veins in a leaf.
Symmetry is unfashionable in some fields now, in reaction to excesses in the past. Architects started consciously making buildings asymmetric in Victorian times and by the 1920s asymmetry was an explicit premise of modernist architecture. Even these buildings only tended to be asymmetric about major axes, though; there were hundreds of minor symmetries.
In writing you find symmetry at every level, from the phrases in a sentence to the plot of a novel. You find the same in music and art. Mosaics (and some Cezannes) get extra visual punch by making the whole picture out of the same atoms. Compositional symmetry yields some of the most memorable paintings, especially when two halves react to one another, as in the Creation of Adam or American Gothic. In math and engineering, recursion, especially, is a big win. Inductive proofs are wonderfully short. In software, a problem that can be solved by recursion is nearly always best solved that way. The Eiffel Tower looks striking partly because it is a recursive solution, a tower on a tower.
The danger of symmetry, and repetition especially, is that it can be used as a substitute for thought.
Good design resembles nature. It’s not so much that resembling nature is intrinsically good as that nature has had a long time to work on the problem. It’s a good sign when your answer resembles nature’s.
It’s not cheating to copy. Few would deny that a story should be like life. Working from life is a valuable tool in painting too, though its role has often been misunderstood. The aim is not simply to make a record. The point of painting from life is that it gives your mind something to chew on: when your eyes are looking at something, your hand will do more interesting work.
Imitating nature also works in engineering. Boats have long had spines and ribs like an animal’s ribcage. In some cases we may have to wait for better technology: early aircraft designers were mistaken to design aircraft that looked like birds, because they didn’t have materials or power sources light enough (the Wrights’ engine weighed 152 lbs. and generated only 12 hp.) or control systems sophisticated enough for machines that flew like birds, but I could imagine little unmanned reconnaissance planes flying like birds in fifty years.
Now that we have enough computer power, we can imitate nature’s method as well as its results. Genetic algorithms may let us create things too complex to design in the ordinary sense.
Good design is redesign. It’s rare to get things right the first time. Experts expect to throw away some early work. They plan for plans to change.
It takes confidence to throw work away. You have to be able to think, there’s more where that came from. When people first start drawing, for example, they’re often reluctant to redo parts that aren’t right; they feel they’ve been lucky to get that far, and if they try to redo something, it will turn out worse. Instead they convince themselves that the drawing is not that bad, really—in fact, maybe they meant it to look that way.
Dangerous territory, that; if anything you should cultivate dissatisfaction. In Leonardo’s drawings there are often five or six attempts to get a line right. The distinctive back of the Porsche 911 only appeared in the redesign of an awkward prototype. In Wright’s early plans for the Guggenheim, the right half was a ziggurat; he inverted it to get the present shape.
Mistakes are natural. Instead of treating them as disasters, make them easy to acknowledge and easy to fix. Leonardo more or less invented the sketch, as a way to make drawing bear a greater weight of exploration. Open-source software has fewer bugs because it admits the possibility of bugs.
It helps to have a medium that makes change easy. When oil paint replaced tempera in the fifteenth century, it helped painters to deal with difficult subjects like the human figure because, unlike tempera, oil can be blended and overpainted.
Good design can copy. Attitudes to copying often make a round trip. A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it’s more important to be right than original.
Unknowing imitation is almost a recipe for bad design. If you don’t know where your ideas are coming from, you’re probably imitating an imitator. Raphael so pervaded mid-nineteenth century taste that almost anyone who tried to draw was imitating him, often at several removes. It was this, more than Raphael’s own work, that bothered the Pre-Raphaelites.
The ambitious are not content to imitate. The second phase in the growth of taste is a conscious attempt at originality.
I think the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness. They just want to get the right answer, and if part of the right answer has already been discovered by someone else, that’s no reason not to use it. They’re confident enough to take from anyone without feeling that their own vision will be lost in the process.
Good design is often strange. Some of the very best work has an uncanny quality: Euler’s Formula, Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, the SR-71, Lisp. They’re not just beautiful, but strangely beautiful.
I’m not sure why. It may just be my own stupidity. A can-opener must seem uncanny to a dog. Maybe if I were smart enough it would seem the most natural thing in the world that ei*pi = -1. It is after all necessarily true.
Most of the qualities I’ve mentioned are things that can be cultivated, but I don’t think it works to cultivate strangeness. The best you can do is not squash it if it starts to appear. Einstein didn’t try to make relativity strange. He tried to make it true, and the truth turned out to be strange.
At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.
The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it. The Northwest Passage that the Mannerists, the Romantics, and two generations of American high school students have searched for does not seem to exist. The only way to get there is to go through good and come out the other side.
Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?
Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can’t have been heredity, because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?
There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.
Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.
At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it’s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you’re too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can’t break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn’t.)
Good design is often daring. At every period of history, people have believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you risked ostracism or even violence by saying otherwise.
If our own time were any different, that would be remarkable. As far as I can tell it isn’t.
This problem afflicts not just every era, but in some degree every field. Much Renaissance art was in its time considered shockingly secular: according to Vasari, Botticelli repented and gave up painting, and Fra Bartolommeo and Lorenzo di Credi actually burned some of their work. Einstein’s theory of relativity offended many contemporary physicists, and was not fully accepted for decades—in France, not until the 1950s.
Today’s experimental error is tomorrow’s new theory. If you want to discover great new things, then instead of turning a blind eye to the places where conventional wisdom and truth don’t quite meet, you should pay particular attention to them.
As a practical matter, I think it’s easier to see ugliness than to imagine beauty. Most of the people who’ve made beautiful things seem to have done it by fixing something that they thought ugly. Great work usually seems to happen because someone sees something and thinks, I could do better than that. Giotto saw traditional Byzantine madonnas painted according to a formula that had satisfied everyone for centuries, and to him they looked wooden and unnatural. Copernicus was so troubled by a hack that all his contemporaries could tolerate that he felt there must be a better solution.
Intolerance for ugliness is not in itself enough. You have to understand a field well before you develop a good nose for what needs fixing. You have to do your homework. But as you become expert in a field, you’ll start to hear little voices saying, What a hack! There must be a better way. Don’t ignore those voices. Cultivate them. The recipe for great work is: very exacting taste, plus the ability to gratify it.
Notes Sullivan actually said “form ever follows function,” but I think the usual misquotation is closer to what modernist architects meant.
Stephen G. Brush, “Why was Relativity Accepted?” Phys. Perspect. 1 (1999) 184-214.
Some questions, excerpted from Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists
Chapter 1: Demographic and ethnographic information Name of the language?
What is the language known as to outsiders?
What term do the people use to distinguish themselves from other language groups?
What is the origin of these terms (if known)?
What is the dominant economic activity of the people?
Briefly describe the ecosystem, material culture, and cosmology (these will be intimately related).
Where is the language spoken, and how are the people distributed in this area?
Are there other language groups inhabiting the same area?
What is the nature of the interaction with these language groups? Economic? Social? Friendly? Beligerent?
In social/economic interactions with other groups, which groups are dominant and which are marginalized? How so?
1.4 Genetic Affiliation
What language family does this language belong to?
What are its closest relatives?
1.5 Previous Research
What published and unpublished linguistic work has been done in this language and/or its closest relatives?
1.6 The sociolinguistic situation
1.6.1 Multilingualism and Language attitudes
What percentage of the people are monolingual? (Treat men and women separately.)
What language(s) are people multilingual in, and to what degree?
As far as you can tell, what is the attitude of the speakers of this language toward their language, as opposed to other languages they may know? If possible, give evidence for your claims even though it may be anecdotal.
1.6.2 Contexts of use and language choice
In what contexts are multilingual individuals likely to use the language described in this sketch? When do they use other languages?
Are children learning the language as their first language? If so, how long do they remain monolingual?
What pressures are there on young people to (a) learn another language, and (b) reject their own language? How strong are these pressures?
Are there partially competent speakers?
1.6.4 Loan words
Does the lexicon of this language contain many words from other languages? If so, in what semantic domains do these tend to occur? Give examples.
Is there significant dialect variation? What kinds of differences distinguish the dialects? Give examples.
What dialect is represented in the sketch?
Chapter 2: Morphological typology 2.1 Traditional morphological typology
Is the language dominantly isolating or polysynthetic?
If the language is at all polysynthetic, is it dominantly agglutinative or fusional?
Give examples of its dominant pattern and any secondary patterns.
2.2 Morphological processes
If the language us at all agglutinative, is it dominantly prefixing, suffixing, or neither?
Illustrate the major and secondary patterns (including infixation, stem modification, reduplication, ersoncllyls modification, and ersoncl).
2.3 Head/dependent marking
If the language is at all polysynthetic, is it dominantly “head-marking,” “dependent-marking,” or mixed?
Give some examples of each type of marking the language exhibits.
Chapter 3: Grammatical categories 3.1 Nouns
What are the distributional properties of nouns?
What are the structural properties of nouns?
3.1.1 Types of Nouns
What are the major formally distinct subcategories of nouns?
3.1.2 The structure of the noun word
What is the basic structure of the noun word (for polysynthetic languages) and/or noun phrase (for more isolating languages)?
3.1.3 Pronouns and/or anaphoric clitics
Does the language have free pronouns and/or anaphoric clitics? (these are distinct from grammatical agreement. Agreement will be discussed later. Also, the functions of pronouns and clitics will be discussed later.)
Give a chart of the free pronouns and/or anaphoric clitics.
What are the distributional properties of verbs?
Describe the order of various verbal operators within the verbal word or verb phrase.
Give charts of the various paradigms, e.g., person marking, tense/aspect/mode etc. Indicate major allomorphic variants.
Are directional and/or locational notions expressed in the verb or verb phrase at all?
Questions to answer for all verbal operations:
Is this operation obligatory, i.e, does one member of the paradigm have to occur in every finite verb or verb phrase?
Is it productive, i.e., can the operation be specified for all the verb stems, and does it have the same meaning with each one? (Nothing is fully productive, but some opertations are more productive than others.)
Is this operation primarily coded morphologically, analytically, or lexically? Are there any exceptions to the general case?
Where in the verb phrase or verbal word is this operation likely to appear? Can it occur in more than one place?
3.2.0 Semantic roles
3.2.1 Verb classes
What are the major subclasses of verbs?
3.2.2 Verb structure
What are the structural properties of verbs?
3.3.1 Descriptive adjectives
If you posit a morphosyntactic category of adjectives, give evidence for not grouping these forms with the verbs or nouns.
What characterizes a form as being an adjective in this language?
How can you characterize semantically the class of concepts coded by this formal category?
Do adjectives agree with their heads (e.g., in number, case, and/or noun class)?
What kind of system does the language employ for counting? Decimal, quintenary?
How high can a fluent native speaker count without resorting either to words from another language or to a generic word like many? Exemplify the system up to this point.
Do numerals agree with their head nouns (e.g., in number, case, and/or noun class)?
What characterizes a form as being an adverb in this language?
If you posit a distinct class of adverbs, argue for why these forms should not be treated as nouns, verbs, or adjectives.
For each kind of adverb listed in this section, list a few members of the type and specify whether there are any restrictions relative to that type, e.g., where they can come in a clause, any morphemes common to the type, etc.
Are any of these classes of adverbs related to older complement-taking (matrix) verbs?
Chapter 4: Constituent order typology 4.1 Constituent order in main clauses
General questions for all units of structure:
What is the neutral order of free elements in the unit?
Are there variations?
How do the variant orders function?
What is the pragmatically neutral order of constituents (A/S, P, and V) in basic clauses of the language?
4.2 Verb phrase
Where do auxiliaries occur in relation to the semantically “main” verb?
Where do verb-phrase adverbs occur with respect to the verb and auxiliaries?
4.3 Noun phrase
Describe the order(s) of the elements in the noun phrase.
4.4 Adpositional phrases (prepositions and postpositions)
Is the language dominantly prepositional or post-positional? Give examples.
Do many adpositions come from nouns or verbs?
Does the language have one or more grammaticalized comparative constructions?
If so, what is the order of the standard, the marker, and the quality by which an item is compared to the standard?
4.6 Question particles and question words
In yes/no questions, if there is a question particle, where does it occur?
In information questions, where does the question word occur?
How does this language compare in its constituent orders to universal expectations, as represented by Greenberg (1963), Hawkins (1983), or some other well-known typology?
Chapter 5: Noun and noun-phrase operations 5.1 Compounding
Is there noun-noun compounding (e.g., windshield)?
How do you know it is compounding?
Is there noun-verb (or verb-noun) compounding that results in a noun (e.g., pickpocket, scarecrow)?
Are these processes productive (like noun-verb-er in erson can-opener)?
How common is compounding?
Are there any processes (productive or not) that form a verb from a noun?
An adjective from a noun?
An adverb from a noun?
Is number expressed in the noun phrase?
Is the distinction between singular and non-singular obligatory, optional, or completely absent in the noun phrase?
If number marking is “optional,” when does it tend to occur, and when does it tend not to occur?
If number marking is obligatory, is number overtly expressed for all noun phrases or only some subclasses of noun phrases, such as animates?
What non-singular distinctions are there?
Do nouns exhibit morphological case?
If so, what are the cases?
5.5 Articles, determiners, and demonstratives
Do noun phrases have articles?
If so, are they obligatory or optional, and under what circumstances do they occur?
Are they separate words, or bound morphemes?
Is there a class or classes of demonstratives as distinct from articles?
How many degrees of distance are there in the system of demonstratives?
Are there any other distinctions besides distance?
How are possessors expressed in the noun phrase?
Do nouns agree with their possessors? Do possessors agree with possessed nouns? Neither, or both?
Is there a distinction between alienable and inalienable possession?
Are there other types of possessions?
When the possessor is a full noun, where does it usually come with respect to the possessed noun?
5.7 Class (including gender)
Is there a noun class system?
What are the classes, and how are they manifested in the noun phrase?
What dimension of reality is most central to the noun class system (e.g., animacy, shape, function, etc.)? What other dimensions are relevant?
Do the classifiers occur with numerals? Adjectives? Verbs?
What is their function in these contexts?
Does the language employ diminutive and/or argmentative operators in the noun or noun phrase?
Questions to answer for all nominal operations:
Is this operation obligatory, i.e., does one member of the paradigm have to occur in every full noun phrase?
Is it productive, i.e., can the operation be specified for all full noun phrases and does it have the same meanings with each one? (Nothing is fully productive, but some operations are more so than others.)
Is this operation primarily expressed lexically, morphologically, or analytically? Are there exceptions?
Where in the noun phrase is this operation likely to be located? Can it occur in more than one place?
Chapter 6: Predicate nominals and related constructions 6.1 Predicate nominals
How are proper inclusion and equative predicates formed?
What restrictions are there, if any, on the TAM (Tense/Aspect/Mode) marking of such clauses?
6.2 Predicate adjectives (attributive clauses)
How are predicate adjectives formed? (Include a separate section on predicate adjectives only if they are ersonclly distinct from predicate nominals.)
6.3 Predicate locatives
How are locational clauses (or predicate locatives) formed?
How are existential clauses formed? (Give examples in different tense/aspects, especially if there is significant variation.)
How are negative existentials formed?
Are there extended uses of existential morphology? (Provide pointers to other relative sections of the grammar.)
6.5 Possessive clauses
How are possessive clauses formed?
Chapter 7: Grammatical relations 7.1 Systems for grouping S, A, and P
7.2 Functional explanations for grouping S, A, and P
7.3 Split systems
7.3.1 Split intransitivity
7.3.2 Split ergativity
184.108.40.206 Split ergativity based on topic-worthiness of A and P
220.127.116.11 Split ergativity based on tense-aspect
18.104.22.168 Summary of split systems for organizing grammatical relations
7.4 “syntactic” ergativity
Exemplify some simple intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive clauses. Three-argument clauses may not unequivocally exist.
What are the grammatical relations of this language? Give morphosyntactic evidence for each one that you propose.
There are basically four possible sources of evidence for grammatical relations:
morphological case on NPs;
person marking on verbs;
some pragmatic hierarchy.
Is the system of grammatical relations in basic (affirmative, declarative) clauses organized according to the nominative/accustative, ergative/absolutive, tripartite, or some other system?
Is there a split system for organizing grammatical relations? If so, what determines the split?
Is there split intransitivity? If so, what ersonc or discourse/pragmatic factor conditions the split?
Does the system for pronouns and/or person marking on verbs operate on the same basis as that of full NPs?
Are there different grammatical-relation systems depending on the clause type (e.g., main vs. dependent clauses, affirmative vs. negative clauses)?
Are there different grammatical-relation assignment systems depending on the tense and/or aspect of the clause?
Are there any synthetic processes (e.g., conjunction reduction, relativization that operate on an ergative/absolutive basis?
How are causatives formed in this language? There are basically 3 possible answers to this question:
Morphological: die + cause
Analytic/periphrastic: cause to die
Give examples of both causatives of intransitive verbs (e.g. He made Shin Jaa wash the dishes).
What happens to the erso in each type of causative?
Does the causative morphosyntax also serve other functions (e.g. permissive, applicative, benefactive, instrumental, etc.)?
Are there any interesting or unusual facts about causatives in the language?
Are there any operations by which a participant which has a semantic role normally expressed in an “oblique” phrase can “advance” to direct object status?
What semantic roles are subject to these operations and how common are these constructions?
8.1.3 Dative shift
Is there a dative shift construction?
What semantic roles can be dative shifted?
Is dative shift obligatory?
8.1.4 Dative of interest
8.1.5 Possessor raising or external possession
8.2 Valence decreasing operations
8.2.1 reflexives and reciprocals
How are reflexives expressed?
Are reflexives and reciprocals formally identical?
Are there any “unusual” uses of reflexive/reciprocal morphosyntax? For example, does a reflexive marker appear in a noun phrase to indicate that the possessor of the noun phrase is the subject of the clause?
Does reflexive/reciprocal morphology ever indicate interclausal coreference?
Are there other “extended” uses of reflexive or reciprocal morphosyntax?
Which type(s) of passive construction does the language have? Exemplify each type, and describe its function or functions.
Are there “impersonal” passives, i.e., passives of intransitive verbs, or passives where there is not necessarily an Agent implied?
Is a passive construction obligatory in any particular environment, e.g., when a Patient outranks an Agent on some pragmatically defined hierarchy?
Are there other types of passives?
Does the language have a grammatically instantiated inverse construction?
If so, what type is it?
8.2.4 Middle constructions
Are there grammatically instantiated middle constructions?
Are there grammatical structures that specifically function as antipassives?
Is some other structure used to express transitive concepts when the P is very low in topicality?
8.2.6 Object demotion or omission
8.2.7 Object [noun] incorporation
Does the language have object demotion or omission constructions (as distinct from antipassives)?
Chapter 9: Other verb and verb-phrase operations 9.1 Nominalization
9.1.1 Action nominalization
9.1.2 Participant nominalizations
22.214.171.124 Agent nominalizations
126.96.36.199 Patient nominalizations
188.8.131.52 Instrument nominalizations
184.108.40.206 Location nominalizations
220.127.116.11 Product nominalizations
18.104.22.168 Manner nominalizations
Describe the processes (productive or not) that form a noun from a verb. Include at least:
Is there a distinction between agent nominalizations that refer to characteristic activities (e.g., teacher) and those that refer to specific events (e.g., the one who is teaching)?
Describe any other participant nominalization strategies (e.g., instrument, location, prodict, or manner nominalizations).
9.2 Compounding (including incorporation)
Can subject erson, and/or other nouns be incorporated into the verb?
Are there verb-verb compounding processes that result in a verb?
9.3 Tense/Aspect/Mode (TAM for short)
Is there a tense system? How does it operate? Future/non-future, past/non-past, past/present/future, or other? (You may want to treat these separately or group them, depending on how the language works.)
How is aspect expressed
Is there a clear dividing line between test/aspect and mode (probably not)?
What are the modes?
Is the case-marking pattern influenced at all by TAM?
Does the language employ verbal affixes, or verb-phrase grammatical functors that specify the spatial orientation or grounding of the situation?
9.5 Participant reference
Does the language mark the person and/or number of verbal arguments or speech act participants on the verb?
Provide charts of the various paradigms.
9.6 Evidentiality, validationality, and mirativity
Are there any grammaticalized indicators of evidentiality, validationality, or mirativity
lexical time reference (as opposed to tense) e.g., yesterday, tomorrow.
Distributive, i.e., “all over the place,” “with a back-and-forth motion.”
Environmental, e.g. “at night,” “over water” (on motion verbs).
Speaker attitude, e.g. “complaining,” “frustration,” “disgust.”
does the language have any other “miscellaneous” verb or verb-phrase operations?
For any such miscellaneous operations, argue for why you have not treated them as TAM or location/direction marking.
10.1 The morphosyntax of focus, contrast, and “topicalization”
Are ther special devices for indicating pragmatic statuses in basic clauses, e.g., special constituent orders, left- and/or right-dislocation, affixes, or particles indicating referentiality, specificity, topic, focus, contrast, etc.?
Describe cleft constructions. If possible, give a characterization of their discourse functions.
What different types of pragmatic status is the grammar of this language sensitive to?
What is the standard means of forming a negative clause in this language?
What secondary strategies are there? When are they used?
Is there constituent negation? Derivational negation?
10.3 Non-declarative speech acts
How are yes/no questions formed?
How are information questions formed?
How are imperatives formed?
Are there “polite” imperatives that contrast with more direct imperatives?
Are there “first person” imperatives (e.g., Let’s eat)? If so, how are they used?
Chapter 11: Clause combinations 11.1 Serial verbs
Does the language have serial verbs (or “co-verbs” in the East Asian tradition)?
Which verbs are most likely to occur in serial constructions?
Are there any that are losing their semantic content and becoming more like auxiliaries, adpositions, or tense/aspect/mode markers when they occur in serial constructions?
11.2 Complement clauses
What kind of complement clause does the language have?
Are particular complement types common for particular classes of complement-taking verbs?
Does the language allow subject and object complements, or just object complements?
11.3 Adverbial clauses
How are adverbial clauses formed?
What kinds of adverbial clauses are there, e.g., time, manner, purpose, reason, consequence, sequence, conditional?
Can adverbial clauses occur in more than one place in a clause?
If so, are there any differences in meaning associated with the various allowable positions for any given adverbial clause type?
Among the conditionals, are there any subdivisions, e.g., contrafactual (If I had done it differently, that wouldn’t have happened), hypothetical (If I were you, I’d do it differently)?
What restrictions are there on the tense/aspect/mode marking of the conditional clauses?
11.4 Clause chaining, medial clauses, and switch reference
Does the language have any grammaticalized device that explicitly indicates whether a participant in one clause is the same as or different than some participant in another clause?
If so, answer the following questions:
What direction does the dependency go? That is, does a marker signal coreferentiality with a yet to be mentioned participant, or an already mentioned participant? (Maybe both, depending on other factors.)
What can “antecede” one of these markers? That is, coreferentiality always with respect to a “subject” participant, or can non-subject AGENT, or nominals of other grammatical relations also antecede a coreference form?
On what categories of elements can these markers go, e.g., verbs, nouns, conjunctions, etc.?
Can one clause be inflected for the erson/number of the subject of some other clause?
Do the markers of interclausal coreference also carry other information, e.g., tense/aspect or semantic relations between clauses?
How extensive is this phenomenon?
11.5 Relative clauses
What kind or kinds of relative clauses does the language have?
What positions on the following relativizability hierarchy can be relativized?
What relative clause type or “case recoverability strategy” is used for each postion?
How are the following kinds of logical relations between clauses typically expressed?
Conjunction (a and b)/(neither a nor b)?
Disjunction (a or b)?
Exclusion (a and not b)?
Chapter 12: Conclusions: the language in use
What are the discourse functions of the various referential devices? That is, which code highly continuous referents, and which code highly discontinuous referents?
Related questions: how are referents introduced into narrative and/or conversational discourse?
Are referents introduced differently depending on whether or not they are “destined” to figure prominently in the following text? (That is, does the language clearly distinguish introductions of “discourse manipulable” referents?)
Are there different coding devices used to introduce referents that have some honorific status?
How is tense/aspect marking deployed in discourse? (Answer will probably vary according to genre.)
What morphosyntactic devices are used to signal the “events” in a narrative discourse? What about “non-events,” i.e., collateral descriptive material?
What devices are used to ascribe special prominence to portions of texts?
Can you isolate the kinds of prominence that the language is sensitive to?
Are there special morphosyntactic devices characteristically used at the climax or peak of a narrative?
Is there a recognizable peak in other genres?
Are rhetorical questions and/or negation used as “highlighting” devices in discourse? Give examples.
What discourse genres are demonstrably distinct in this language? Exemplify and discuss the significant characteristics of each.
Does the language make extensive and productive use of sound symbolism?
What are some common ideophones?
How is the phonological system of ideophones and sound symbolism different than that of the rest of the language?
How is the morphology different? How is the syntax different?
What are the features of this language that are particularily interesting?
What typological surprises does it present?
How does this work to contrinute to our understanding of the notion “possible human language?” What directions for further research do you recommend and/or plan to undertake yourself?
Can you qualitatively describe the “character” of this language? What are its dominant features?
What are the characteristics of a skilled orator in this language?
Can you provide some explicit examples that will contribute to the reader’s sense of how this language is used? Some possibilities might be jokes, prayers, metaphorical expressions, or other culturally relevant discourse samples.
This how-to guide is based on a newsletter I wrote in 1995 and 1996. This is the original introduction. -- Jeffrey, 6/30/01
One of the reasons I've started the newsletter is to increase awareness of the hobby of model languages and to provide a banner for language enthusiasts to rally around. There is little awareness about model languages as a hobby; in fact, no one is quite sure what to call it, with Tolkien referring to it as private languages; and others calling it constructed languages or imaginary languages. I've chosen to call it model languages because models are not intended to be full-scale replicas, but miniaturized versions that provide the essence of something, even if certain details have to be skipped over; in the same way, no one can construct a complete language, but a model of a language can be very useful. Additionally, as much of the joy is in building the languages as in actually using them; one of my colleagues is into model airplanes, and he and his son spend more time building them than flying them, a passion I understand completely.
Language modelers do not gather together in local clubs or display the results of their craft. Many look at their model languages as private experiments that they would be too self-conscious to discuss with others. Inventing model languages is an unusual hobby, though really it is no different than hobbies of those who write poems or short stories.
The hobby has a disparate group of adherants that do not communicate with one another. Model languagers or language modelers can be found among writers, game players, computer game designers, science-fiction and fantasy fans, professional linguists and teachers. The community of hobbyists is a large one, with approximately 40,000 people in the United States having invented their own languages and some 250,000 having used model languages such as Esperanto, Quenya and Klingon.
It is my personal goal to increase public awareness of model languages as a legitimate hobby. One day, when somebody asks me what my interests are, I'd like to be able to say model languages and have them know what I'm talking about. I also have this fantasy where there is enough interest in the topic to be able to publish a small monthly magazine dedicated to it.
To help achieve these goals, I encourage you to spread the word about model languages. Please feel free to post sample issues of Model Languages to groups, forums or mailing lists that you think would be interested; myself, I've posted the newsletter to the TOLKLANG and CONLANG Internet mailing lists and to RPGAMES, WRITERS, FLEFO, SFMEDI and SFLIT on Compuserve. Please forward issues to friends, and mention this newsletter to writers, gamers, linguists, science fiction lovers, and anyone else you think might share your interest in model languages.
Feel free to drop me a note at any time to discuss questions you might have or issues you might like to see covered, or stories or knowledge you would like to share with other subscribers. If you want to start general discussions for others to join in on, I suggest you join CONLANG (CONstructed LANGuages).
What range of accomplishment there is among these hidden craftsmen, I can only surmise - and I surmise the range runs, if one only knew, from the crude chalk-scrawl of the village schoolboy to the heights of palaeolithic or bushman art (or beyond). Its development to perfection must none the less certainly be prevented by its solitariness, the lack of interchange, open rivalry, study or imitation of others' technique.
from the essay "A Secret Vice", J.R.R. Tolkien
We were listening to somebody lecturing on map-reading, or camp-hygeine, or the art of sticking a fellow through without (in defiance of Kipling) bothering who God sent the bill to; rather we were trying to avoid listening, though the Guards' English, and voice, is penetrating. The man next to me said suddenly in a dreamy voice: 'Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!'
from the essay "A Secret Vice", J.R.R. Tolkien
Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.
Volume I, Issue 1 -- May 1, 1995
An introduction to the hobby of model languages
Different types of model languages
This newsletter's goals An introduction to the hobby of model languages
Some people build model airplanes, some craft model trains and some... well, they invent model languages. Model languages can be everything from a few words of made-up slang to a rigorously developed system of interrelated imaginary tongues. It is not a hobby many people know about, since model languages cannot be flown in the park like a model airplane or displayed in full glory in the basement like a model railroad. Model languages exist on paper or in computer files and may be shared only with a few close friends or may be used to give depth to imaginary worlds read or watched by millions.
Millions of people have created model languages of some small scope. Many children invent their own secret vocabularies to share with friends, while teenagers may develop their own private slang to talk about the opposite sex. If few adults seem to create model languages, it is only because schools teach us that language is a formal structure, not a casual, informal world to be explored. The teaching of rigid dictionary definitions, sentence parsing and grammar dry up our interest in the wellspring of language.
Model languages demystify and demythologize the study of language. For too often, our desire to learn to express ourselves with language, to create new words, has been suppressed in favor of rigid conformance to the norm.
People now regard creating new words as a magical and distant process, yet it is something that we all engage in, though we may not even realize it at the time. While working as a market researcher, my boss once told me to "take the executive summary and bulletize it," offhandedly inventing the word bulletize to describe the act of paring paragraphs down to phrases preceded by bullets. Over breakfast one morning, my wife asked me if I wanted an English, inadvertently inventing a new, shortened form of English muffin. During her pregnancy, we adopted the word soogob (bogus pronounced backwards) to describe how she was feeling. After our twins were born, we used the word mouthies, as in "Alex is making mouthies," to refer to the sucking motion each of the boys would make with their mouths when hungry.
Not one of these words will end up in the dictionary, but each serves a purpose and each demonstrates that we are all constantly inventing words, in a more carefree fashion than we might imagine. Lexicographers might decry the creation of many of these barbarisms, but it is from such coinages that the English language adapts to our times and needs. Millions of speakers provide a check and balance to ensure that only the most useful or needed of these coinages gains wide currency.
Different types of model languages
Why invent a model language? Someone might craft a language as a personal code, shared with a few compatriots. A fiction writer might want to add depth to an imaginary place or world, creating a language for inventing character names and place names or even for translating a few key proverbs or poems. A person who designs their own setting for a role-playing game might create a language for the same reason, or a person might invent a language to gain a better understanding of how true languages are structured and evolve. For a few, creating a language can be an almost spiritual effort, intended to close the gap that separates man from the Word of God. People create model languages for a myriad of other reasons -- to create a universal language, to create a language for programming computers, or to simply learn more about how real languages work.
Even as a model railroad can vary in complexity from a simple loop to a switching yard to a railroad empire, a model language can be small or large. At its smallest, a model language might consist of a few coined words used in a short story. For instance, a science-fiction story I once wrote used the words reconsat, moby and etlang to describe a reconnaissance satellite, a cetacean alien and an extraterrestrial language, respectively.
A larger model language might be an entire dialect or slang, based on English. In "A Clockwork Orange", Anthony Burgess writes the entire book in Nadsat, a slang used by teenagers in a post- modern Britain. A sample:
Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right. The reader finds herself learning the language as she reads each page -- learning by immersion. Nadsat has about 300 words.
Even more ambitious is the creation of a unique language, to add verisimilitude to a world. Harry Harrison in his book "West of Eden" had a linguist, T.A. Shippey, create a language for his saurians, the ruling race of an alternative earth where the dinosaurs evolved into sentient beings. An example:
Enge hantèhei, agatè embokèka lirubushei kakshèsei, hèawahei; hevai'ihei, kaksheintè, enpelei asahen enge.
To leave father's love and enter the embrace of the sea is the first pain of life -- the first joy is the comrades who join you there.
Shippey did not create an entire language, of course, but outlined a structure and then created a simple grammar and skeletal lexicon to give the impression of a full language.
More ambitious still is a model language that is actually meant to be used to communicate. Such a language requires a vocabulary of at least 1,000 to 2,000 words and a detailed grammar. The most famous such language is Esperanto. Dr. Zamenhof invented Esperanto as a universal language to enable everyone to communicate with having to use any one social group's language. Esperanto was seen as perfect for a country like India, which has over 150 languages, with speakers of different languages separated by centuries-old hatreds.
Finally, the most ambitious language involves the creation of an entire diachronic language system -- an imaginary language descended from other real or imaginary languages, based on principles of sound change and semantic shift. J.R.R. Tolkien, in "The Silmarillion", created an entire language system with two primary languages and five secondary languages descended from a common root tongue. Thus primitive galadaa, "tree", became alda in Quenya and galadh in Sindarin. Such a system is so detailed that it can enthrall someone for a lifetime, and Tolkien never finished his system (though completion was not one of his goals).
This newsletter's goals
The Kings Heath house backed on to a railway line, and life was punctuated by the roar of trains and the shunting of trucks in the nearby coal-yard. Yet the railway cutting had grass slopes, and here he [a young J.R.R. Tolkien] discovered flowers and plants. And something else caught his attention: the curious names on the coal-trucks in the sidings below, the odd names which he did not know how to pronounce but which had a strange appeal to him. So it came about that by pondering over Natyglo, Senghenydd, Blaen- Rhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar, he discovered the existence of the Welsh language.
Later in childhood he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed past him he knew that here were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered, a language that was old and yet alive.
"Tolkien: A Biography", p. 28, Humphrey Carpenter If you've read this far, model languages intrigue you, and you might even try your hand at creating your own. Alternatively, perhaps language in general fascinates you, and you want to understand better how languages work. In either case, this newsletter will introduce you to the basic principals that undergird real languages and will show you how to create your own languages, whether of a few words or a complete historic system.
The purpose of this newsletter is to teach you just enough about linguistics to be able to create your own model languages. It is not meant as a formal survey of the entire field of linguistics. Linguistics is too often presented in a dry manner, when it can be a source of endless wonder. It is no coincidence that a linguist created one of the most amazing novels of the twentieth century (Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings). This newsletter is meant to evoke the playfulness of linguistics and to give us an opportunity for hands-on training, as it were.
Issues of this newsletter will discuss how languages use sound and sound representation, how they form words, shapes meanings, and represent grammar. It will also outline how each of these characteristics of a language change over time. It will provide practical guidance on how to create your own languages, how to coin words and how to use language to add verisimilitude to imagined worlds. Model Languages will also examine published model languages and critique their effectiveness.
This newsletter is for those who want to learn more about language. You may have a fascination with words, wondering where they came from and how they ended up in today's most natural sounding forms. This newsletter is intended for writers, for entry-level linguistic students, for word lovers and for role-playing game players.
One of the great advantages of model languages as a hobby is that it requires so little investment. Unlike model railroading, which requires costly equipment and paraphernalia, model languages require little more than pen and paper... and imagination.
Subscribe to Model Languages, and soon you will be combining sounds into new words, like an engineer hitching up the cars of a train to an engine. Soon you will be laying the track of a linguistic system.
Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved
A Naming Language
Volume I, Issue 2 -- June 1, 1995
Inventing a language for naming people and places
"My name is Alice, but-"
"It's a stupid name enough!" Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently; "What does it mean?"
"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name means the shape I am -- and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."
from Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"
Despite Humpty Dumpty's comment, Alice could not be just any shape -- her name actually summons forth an image of someone who is simple and proper, according to surveys conducted to determine the impressions people have of different names. All names have perceptions attached to them.
Etymologically speaking, Alice's name is from the Greek for "truth". Most American and European names have become simple labels, their original meanings forgotten. How many people realize that a name like Jeffrey Henning, if translated literally, means "Godfriend Meadowlark"? Meanwhile, Indian names like "Dances With Wolves" (to take a bad example) wear their etymologies on their sleeves.
If you are fascinated by the origins of names, then you will be happy to learn that a naming language is one of the most useful types of model languages to create -- and one of the easiest, making a great first language for the hobbyist. A naming language can be less complex than other model languages, since it does not need a detailed grammar and since it can get by with a small vocabulary: with just 150 words (revealed below), you can generate millions of names for imaginary people and places. Once you've read this issue, you'll be able to create two or three naming languages in as little as a half hour, though you'll end up fascinated by your creations and will spend many more hours on them.
To begin creating any type of model language, you must be able to create words in that language. To create words, you need to understand sounds, meaning, sound change and so forth. This issue will introduce you to the basic aspects of language; subsequent issues of Model Languages will explore each one in more depth.
The vocabulary of languages is constantly changing, as technology changes and as our understanding changes. Twenty years ago no one talked of faxes, PCs or being on-line. No one had heard of perestroika. Things were still groovy, nizza, happening. Besides adding and retiring words, languages put new spins on old words: gay now primarily refers to "homosexuality", not "happiness"; liberal now is almost a curse, referring to "favoring governmental power" when it once meant "favoring governmental power to promote social progress". These word changes are not surprising. Any of us can look over the linguistic landscape of our lives and see how the terrain has changed. If you project this forward a thousand years, it is easy to see how the shape of a language's vocabulary will go through major upheaval.
It's harder to see that the grammar of the language, the way we put words together, will change too. While saying hopefully is still frowned upon, it is no longer viewed as completely ungrammatical. The pronoun them is often used to refer to one person, rather than the plural it is formally meant to refer to; in casual conversation and writing, them is now the gender-indifferent alternative to he or she (incidentally, as it was four hundred years ago, before pedantic grammarians -- yes, them -- stepped in). Looking a thousand years out, other grammatical distinctions will have been leveled, revealing new horizons behind them.
Finally, it can be hard to realize that the very sounds we use for words change. It's not hard to believe the occasional word changes, such as knowing that cup board is now pronounced cupboard, the [p] sound having assimilated to the following [b]. It is harder to believe that English words that now begin with [p] and date from Indo-European all began with [b] in Indo-European times. Such systemic changes, where a sound changes throughout the entire vocabulary, happen gradually.
To imagine how it happens, think of a dialect, such as the Bostonian's "idear about whether the cah is pahked in Hahvahd yahd". Sound changes systematically when these dialectal differences become emulated and become the new accepted pronunciations. Imagine an alternate universe where JFK served out 8 years as the U.S. President, and was succeeded by 8 years of RFK, who was followed by 8 years of Teddy (it had to happen in some universe!). No doubt in that universe the Bostonian accent became American English's new standahd.
Basic sound changes do not happen suddenly like earthquakes buckling the landscape, but gradually like water eroding a shoreline. Language change is for the most part slow, since change is on the whole discouraged. The whole point of language is for people to be able to make themselves understood to each other, and this happens best in an environment where the language changes no faster than the land at the water's edge.
Language change is important because it shows the best way for you to invent a model language -- by making changes to an existing language (whether natural or a model).
An ancestral language -- the grandmother tongue
Every person alive today has or had a mother. Similarly, every mother tongue spoken by all these people had an ancestral language that it evolved out of. Even Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor language of hundreds of European and Indian languages, had an ancestral language it evolved out of: Nostratic, which some linguists hypothesize was also the ancestor to five other proto-languages. Since Nostratic itself is most likely descended from another language, records of the first language are no more knowable than records of Adam.
The ramifications for the language modeller are that the language he or she creates should not spring fully armed from the head of Zeus like Athena, but should derive from its own parent language. Most model languages are unknown orphans, when a pedigree would not have been hard to provide. Tolkien is one of the few modelers to actually create an ancestor tongue, which he used to derive many different Elvish languages for The Lord of the Rings, of which the best known are Quenya and Sindarin.
"Wait a minute," you might be thinking, "are you saying that to create a model language I first have to create another model language? Where does that language come from? When does it end?" Tolkien again provides the best example; he created root words in a proto-language; he imagined that the elves would have reconstructed their ancestral language, much as Europeans reconstructed Indo-European. Proto- languages are elaborate hypothetical constructions and, as hypotheses, are fuzzy around the edges: nothing but the bones of an extinct dinosaur, while the exact color of its flesh can never be known. A proto-language, therefore, can be a simpler form of model language.
The benefit of creating a proto-language is that it makes it easier to create sister languages to the model language you are chiefly interested in (what, more languages?!), enabling you to formulate new words based on regularly sound changes (more on this in it a minute). It also makes it easier to coin words in your desired model language, providing a rich system of root words to use to derive new words. So creating a proto- language can save you time.
The easiest way to save time on your first model language is to use an existing language as the proto-language. I once worked on a science fiction story set aboard a colony whose original settlers had been 20th- century Italians and Spaniards, who -- through centuries of living together -- had created a new, simpler language. By using Italian as the ancestor language, with many borrowings from Spanish, I not only made it easier to create a new language but I taught myself some Italian and Spanish as well!
If you are writing about a story that has taken place in the last 10,000 years and is set in Europe or India, you might even use Proto-Indo- European as the ancestral language for your languages. Check out The Roots Of English by Robert Claiborne for an easily readable discussion of Indo-European roots, or check out the appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published by Houghton Mifflin; both works are biased in emphasizing those roots from which English words descended, but make good starting points for devising a language.
To create your language, you need to decide which sounds you want speakers to distinguish. Basically, while it would be easy to think that the sound [t] is exactly the same, [t] actually describes a range of sounds, all closely approximating one another. The way you position your tongue when saying [t] will vary depending on what other sounds you say before or after it, but we both articulate [t] similarly enough to recognize it as the same thing.
There is no objective reference that says a language must have any particular sound. For instance, Old English did not distinguish between the sounds [f] and [v] or [s] and [z]. The plural of [hoof] was pronounced [hoovz] but it was not until later times that speakers treated the \f\ sound in the singular as different from the \f\ sound in the plural. In Old English times, there could be no word [vat] different from [fat] -- such a distinction was just not made. Gradually, the sounds came to be heard as distinct.
So when creating the sounds of your language, you need to realize that they will only approximate English sounds, not exactly match them, and might not reflect distinctions currently made in English. The [hw] sound in whale might be regarded by your speakers as the same as the [w] sound in wail (yes, they are different sounds, but you might have to listen closely as you pronounce them to tell the difference).
You can certainly include in your language sounds that are not part of English, say the French vowels, typically pronounced with the lips rounded, or the expectorating [kh] of Hebrew and Yiddish, let alone the clicking sounds of the Hottentots and Bushmen. However, you should refrain from having too many unusual sounds in your language; you want your readers to be able to pronounce your words without too much difficulty. Simply having regular sounds combined in unique ways (e.g., sretan, or tsedet) will be enough to convince them it is a unique language anyway.
Languages are very strict about how sounds are combined. English, for instance, allows words to begin with [sn-], but never [zn-]. The rules English uses could fill pages, but as a modeler you want to just hint at complexity. You may want to have a combination that is unusual in English and make it frequent in your language: for instance, have some words begin with [sr-], [kn-], [kth-], [tl-], but here again restraint is the order of the day.
As you specify how sounds can be combined, you may want to outline valid syllables. Your language might only allow syllables of CVC (Consonant+Vowel+Consonant) or just CV or VC. Some languages, like Japanese or Korean, have very strict limits on how syllables can be formed, making it possible to list all the valid syllables of the language. But where Hawaiian allows just 162 different syllables, Thai has 23,638 syllables.
Two languages can have the exact same consonants and vowels and yet sound very different, depending on the syllable patterns and on the frequency of the consonants and vowels. You may want to list the sounds that occur most often. By paying rigorous attention to this when developing the proto-language, you can relax a little more during creation of the descendant language, which will carry on many of the same frequency patterns, though applied to different sounds as the sounds change.
Many languages have very simple vowel systems. Eskimo-Aleut has just three vowels (the smallest number ever observed), while Spanish and Japanese each has five vowels. The typical language has between 5 and 7 vowels, but Indo-European languages usually have more; English has 12, and German has 14. The African language Khoisan has the record with 24 vowels.
Languages have been observed to have anywhere from six consonants (Rotokas) to 95 (Khoisan), with an average of 22.8 consonants. The typical language has twice as many consonants as vowels. The most common consonants include [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g], [gh], [f], [s], [sh], [m], [n], [ng], [gng], [w], [l], [r], [j] and [h].
For a great discussion of the sound structure of languages, check out The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal.
Over time, sounds gradually change in certain circumstances. John F. Kennedy, like many Bostonians, would drop his last [-r] from words like [car], while adding an [-r] to Cuba [cubar] and idea [idear]. As alluded to before, had enough Americans adopted this, it would have been considered a regular sound change and many other words might have undergone this change. Or listen to the dialect of Brooklyn, where [bird] becomes [boyd], for instance; someday all English speakers might pronounce [ir] as [oy]. No doubt, through the rise of one dialect in Old English, the sound [sk] was gradually becoming [sh].
Over great periods of time, these changes become more pronounced. Literally and figuratively.
Here are some common ways consonants evolve into one another:
b <---> gw
b <---> p
b <---> v
ch <---> kw
d <---> g
d <---> t
d <---> th
f <---> p
f <---> v
g <---> d
g <---> k
g <---> w
g <---> y
g <---> z
gu <---> gw
gw <---> b
gw <---> d
gw <---> g
gw <---> gu
gw <---> k
gw <---> ku
gw <---> kw
gw <---> v
gw <---> y
gw <---> zh
h <---> hy
h <---> k
h <---> s
h <---> y
hv <---> hw
hw <---> hv
hw <---> kw
hw <---> p
k <---> g
k <---> gw
k <---> h
k <---> kw
k <---> s
k <---> th
kh <---> kw
ku <---> gw
ku <---> kw
kv <---> kw
kw <---> ch
kw <---> gw
kw <---> hw
kw <---> k
kw <---> kh
kw <---> ku
kw <---> kv
kw <---> p
kw <---> sh
kw <---> t
l <---> r
p <---> *-
p <---> b
p <---> f
p <---> hw
p <---> pf
pf <---> p
r <---> l
s <---> h
s <---> k
sh <---> kw
t <---> d
t <---> th
t <---> z
th <---> d
th <---> k
th <---> t
v <---> b
v <---> f
v <---> gw
v <---> w
w <---> g
w <---> v
y <---> *-
y <---> g
y <---> gw
y <---> h
y <---> z
z <---> g
z <---> t
z <---> y
zh <---> gw
This list is not meant to be all inclusive, just representative of changes that occurred in Indo-European.
Likelihood Of Sound Change
# Of IE Languages Where IE Initial Consonant Changed
You can use the above table as a rough guide to determine which consonants are more likely to undergo change. It is not representative of all languages, being an analysis of 12 languages descended from Proto-Indo-European and showing the number of languages where the consonant in the word-initial position changed. The languages analyzed were Armenian, Avestan, Common Germanic, Greek, Hittite, Latin, Lithuanian, Old Church Slavonic, Old Irish, Old Persian, Sanskrit, and Tocharian.
The nasals, [n] and [m], are fairly stable, as are the liquids [l] and [r]. The stops [p], [t] and their voiced counterparts [b] and [d] change in only a third of the languages. All aspirated consonants changed in every language analyzed, being markedly unstable; [k] and [g] and their glide forms [kw] and [gw] were also more likely to change than not.
Sound changes actually vary by position, with a sound change applying to different places -- the [s] might become [h] at the beginning of a word, [k] in the middle of a word and [z] at the end of a word (though this is an extreme example). For simplicity's sake, you may just want to apply the same changes regardless of position.
Besides these phonetic changes, there are often "environmental" changes in words, where sounds change because of the sounds they are near. The following examples illustrate the major types of sound change.
Regressive or anticipatory, a sound is influenced by the following next sound: English [cupbord] became [cubbord]; the word assimilation is itself an example: Latin adsimula-re became assimula-re, since [ad-] regularly assimilated to [as-] before the [s] sound.
Progressive, a sound is influenced by a preceding sound
Coalescent or reciprocal, when two neighboring sounds influence one another: don't you becomes pronounced [donchu]
sound moves away from the pronunciation of neighboring sound: French marbre became English marble as the second [r] became dissimilar from the first.
a sound becomes regarded as two distinct sounds, such as Old English \s\ compared to Modern English \s\ and \z\ (Old English's failure to distinguish between the sounds is one of the reasons many Modern English words are written with 's' when [z] is pronounced)
two sounds change places, third from Old English thridda
sounds are omitted (elided) in rapid speed, often dropping a consonant from a cluster of consonants: [cubbord] became [cubord]; elision specifically refers to loss of an unstressed vowel or syllable: elementary becomes pronounced [elementry] when the final schaw sound is elided.
a sound disappears from the language altogether, as the velar fricative, a variant of /h/ (and the final sound of Scottish loch), did in English, with only a vestige remaining in English spelling: the common silent 'gh' of English words like light, night, sight, which were once pronounced [likht], [nikht] and [sikht].
the loss of a sequence of sounds because of similarity of neighboring sounds: should this ever be called haplogy it will have undergone haplology itself.
the loss of medial sounds, as boatswain lost the [t] sound as it was shortened to bosun ([bosun] is the correct pronunciation of boatswain, by the way, never [bo-tswa-n]).
the loss of final sounds, as in the silent 'e' in words like love and hate; of course, the silent 'e' used to be pronounced.
introduction of a sound between words, as in French when the silent final consonant of a word is pronounced when the next word begins with a vowel.
introduction of an extra initial sound, as occurred in Spanish and Old French, which frequently inserted an [e] sound before an initial [sp]: for instance, Latin specia-is became Old French especial.
introduction of extra medial sound, as Old English bre-mel became Old English braembel.
You can quickly generate more than one language by inventing different sound change rules for each language. So perhaps the Dilbertian [d] becomes [t] in Dogbertian, whereas it becomes [th] in Dinobertian. Or take a look at how the names James, John and Katherine have evolved in seven different languages:
Source: Webster's Third New International Dictionary
Names vary idiosyncratically and do not always evolve according to the regular sound changes that affect other words. Thus the English towns of Luton and Leyton are -- despite their differences -- both derived from the same word, Lygetun, "farm by the river Lea" (the river Lea, incidentally, may either mean "bright one" or may represent the name of a river god, Lugus).
Names get shortened frequently; for instance, Johann, Giovanni and Yohan all indicate that there used to be an [a] sound after before the [n] in John and that the silent [h] in John used to be pronounced, and still is in German, Swedish and Yiddish.
When inventing your own language, you can go all out -- inventing your own alphabet or even hieroglyphs to accompany it. You can have spellings that represent scholarly thinking about how the word derived, so that the word sounding like [gramilt] is actually spelled 'kramillid', for instance, because lexicographers believe the word [gramilt] used to be pronounced [kramillid]. You can invent new symbols or use old symbols to represent sounds, so that 'pra@t!so>r' is pronounced... oh, never mind.
Or, you can spare users of your language a lot of difficulty; you can strive for a system of spelling that is phonetic. Since learning a new language is difficult enough, this is the course I recommend. Yes, I'm hooked on phonics.
Be warned, however, that even a phonetic representation can present difficulties, if you yourself are mistaking English spellings and conventions for actual pronunciations. For instance, if you were representing English phonetically, you might think that you could specify that the plural was regularly formed by adding [-s] to the end of a word. While this is true for [cat], it is not true for [dog], whose plural is actually pronounced [dogz]; [church], for its part, has a plural of [churchez]. So make sure your phonetic spelling really describes the sound you want.
One problem with phonetic spelling is that words are pronounced differently in different circumstances: the word a can be pronounced [ei] or as [@] (schwa), and can be pronounced [@nd], [@n] or [n], depending on whether or not the speaker is placing emphasis on them.
While you can use special characters for sounds, it will be easier on your readers if you transcribe them using conventional letters. The letter 'h' is great for forming digraphs; you might say that 'rh' represents a trilled [r] sound, or that 'mh' might be an aspirated [m] (sounding similar to [v]), or that 'dh' represents the voiced th in then, while 'th' represents the unvoiced th in thin.
Your spelling may even reflect a regular sound change of the language. For instance, in German, the final 'b' in a word sounds like [p], the final 'd' like [t], and the final 'g' like [k], so 'Korb' is pronounced [korp], 'Band' [bant] and 'Tag' [tak].
Once you have created sounds, you can begin generating words. Words are nothing more than sounds arbitrarily linked to meanings. Onomatopoeia refers to sounds that are imitative, such as arf, bark or bow-wow for the sounds a dog makes. Most words are not onomatopoetic. Tolkien once remarked that he found cellar door to be an incredibly beautiful series of sounds, though the meaning was not worthy of it. So don't slave over matching sounds to words. If you spend all your time thinking about the exact sound each word should have you'll never flesh out your vocabulary.
It can make learning new words somewhat easier if they have to follow specific patterns depending on parts of speech. Your language might require the root form of all verbs to end in [-r] and all nouns might end in a vowel.
A naming language does not need a complex grammar. The only grammatical decision you really need to make is how to form compound words: should the modifier proceed or follow the word being modified. Assume you have a language with the word kwan for "dog" and kooz for "house". Does the phrase kwan kooz, then, mean "doghouse" or "house dog"?
Many common names were formed from surprisingly few elements. If you coin just 150 words in a model language, you will be able to generate millions of distinct names.
I analyzed about 300 common English and European names to come up with the following tables of common meanings underlying these names.
Adjectives for proper names
Nouns for proper names
You can use these tables to generate names in the following ways:
adjective1: "Pure" (Katherine)
adjective1 + adjective2: "Noble and Shining" (Alberta)
You can use these tables to generate almost all the names you need. Theoretically you could use these tables to generate 6.3 million names.
Feel free to use a few elements that you like in many different names; for example, "famous" in Anglo-Saxon was represented by hroth and is contained in the following names: Rodney ("famous"), Robert ("famous brightness"), Roland ("most famous of the land"), Roderick ("famous ruler"), Rudolph ("famous wolf") and Roger ("famous spear"). Roger, incidentally, was spelled Hrothgar in Old English, and is the name of the beleaguered king in Beowulf.
You can easily flesh out the above tables to better represent the culture of the people who will speak your model language. For instance, islanders would not name people after wolves and foxes, but after predators peculiar to their locale, such as sharks and octopuses. Their names would reflect people's relationship to the sea: sailors, divers, swimmers and beachcombers. The tools they would refer to would not be swords and spears, but tridents and hooks. The adjectives they would use would likewise reflect their environment: unsinkable, seaworthy and foamy.
If you want to add additional words to these tables, check out the etymologies of real names; one good source is The Baby Boomer's Name Game by Christopher Andersen, which includes a basic etymological dictionary of 2,500 common names.
The names of people and places are intimately related. For instance, Winslow (a town in Buckinghamshire, England) is named after Wine (an Old English name meaning "friend") and means something like "Wine's hill", "Wine's burial mound" or perhaps even "Wine's estate at the burial mound". In turn, Winslow is a man's first name and means "from Winslow". Many place names become first or last names in this way, and these in turn might inspire new place names; some other town of Winslow might be named after a fellow named Winslow -- and so it goes.
Most names refer to a natural feature, such as a river, a hill or a forest, or to a man-made construction, such as a fort, a road or a burial mound. Place names are very seldom taken from an event that may have happened there, such as a battle or a coronation, but do sometimes take names from recurring events -- a field where people are regularly executed or married (I'll refrain from comparing these activities!) might have a name like the Hangingfield or the Weddingfield. For instance, the village of "Kingstone" is not likely to be so named because some king drew a sword from a stone there, but rather because many monarchs have been coronated there (or stoned there, depending on the kingdom's traditions!).
Place names in the British Isles tend to be formed from 50 basic root meanings, which are given below. These 50 meanings can be combined to give 2450 different names, and can be combined to form millions more when combined with names involving people (e.g., Boston, "Botwulf's stone"; the ending is not -ton, "town", but -ston).
Source: Adapted from Dictionary of Place Names in the British Isles, by Adrian Room
English/irish/welsh word element
Eccle(s)-, Kil(l)-, Kirk-, Llan-, -church
Lis-, -wardine, -worth
Caer-, -b(o)rough, -burgh, -bury
Bryn-, Dun-, -don
-stead, -stede, -stow
Bally-, -ham(stead), -hampstead
Aber-, Bel(la)-, Inver-, -mouth
-stock, -stoke, -thorpe
Glen-, Strath-, -dale
Rhos-, Ros-, Ross-, -wood
wooded angle of land
-ley, -le, -leigh
Place names can be formed from combinations of the affixes listed above and from other place names and proper names:
affix1 + affix2: "New Town" (Newton)
affix1 + affix2 + affix3: "New Town on the Moor" (Newtonmore)
affix1 + affix2 + placename: "New Town in Mearns [a county]" (Newton Mearns)
Often when you analyze a place name, you will find that a river runs through it: Exeter (from Exchester) means "fortification on the river Exe", Exmoor is "moorland along Exe", Exmouth is at the mouth of Exe, while Exwick is a "farm by the Exe".
Exe itself means simply "water", from the British Celtic isca. (This may seem boring, but isca is part of "the water of life" that entered English -- through Scottish Gaelic -- as whiskey!) Many names of rivers, mountains and other features of the landscape come from general words. Imagine an Englishman pointing to a river and asking, "What do you call that?" The native Celt might have simply said teme, "river", since to him or her it was "the river", the prominent river in the area and hence not in need of its actual name in typical conversation. And thereby a noble river such as the Thames would have been christened.
To create the name of a city on a river then, you'll have to name the river first -- and that name might derive from another language, as the Thames shows.
Place names often incorporated terms from other languages. For instance, the Celtic city of Eborakon -- meaning "place of Eburos (the yew man)" -- had its name Romanicized to Eburacum. This name was meaningless to the invading Saxons, who Anglicized it as Eofor ("boar", which had a similar sound) and appended wi-c ("dwelling place"), to give it the name of Eoforwi-c. When the Vikings invaded, they misconstrued wic as vi-k (which meant "bay" and was inappropriate to the inland city but stuck anyway); since Eofor was meaningless to them, there was no pressure to keep the first syllables recognizable, and the name was gradually shortened to Jarvik. This in turn was later shortened to York, the name as it stands today and as it may stand until the city is invaded again. York's name was not directly affected by the fall of England to the Normans, the only conquerors not to leave their mark on it. If the Normans' ancestors, the Vikings, had had as little effect on the city's name, York's modern name might very well be Everwick.
The history of the name York reveals five waves of occupation (Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Viking, English) and so tells a lot about the fortunes of the city. While you do not want to go into as much detail for each name in your own imaginary world, this history is worth creating for the most important place names. To rival the history of York, you'd have to invent five model languages!
In the same way you're best prepared to write a poem if you studied a lot of poems, you're best prepared to coin a place name by studying how other people have coined place names. To this end, I definitely recommend reviewing an etymological dictionary like Dictionary of Place Names in the British Isles, which covers over 4,000 place names. Each name tells a story, as the name of York shows.
Example - quickly create your own naming languages
The following quick sketch of three languages -- Nagada, Makata and Negasi -- will show you how you can quickly create your own naming systems.
The consonants of Nagada are [b], [d], [g], [s], [m], [n], [l], [r] and [h]. The vowels are [a], [e] and [u]. The vowels differ greatly in frequency: [a] is used about twice as often as [e], which is used slightly more often than [u]. All syllables in Nagada follow the form CV (Consonant+Vowel).
The language of Makata is descended from Nagada and showed the following sound changes: [b] > [p], [d] > [t], [g] > [k], [m] > [n] and [n] > [m].
The language of Negasi went through different changes from Nagada. The only consonantal change was that of [d] > [t] > [s]. Vowels changed depending on the syllable they appeared in:
Final syllable (if more than 1 syllable)
For instance, the Nagada word naba became nebi in Negasi.
All words in the three languages are spelled phonetically. All three languages put the modifier before the word being modified (e.g., "doghouse" means "the house for dogs").
Here are the root words of Nagada and how those words appear in Makata and Negasi.
There was not room in this short introduction to cover borrowing or meaning change or any of the other factors that can override direct descent from a parent language, and I will give only one example here: Negasi borrowed luna from Makata to distinguish between the meanings of "divine" and "blessed", which were both reflected by the single word luma in Nagada. Makata, for its part, coined the word peta for "blessed" to distinguish between the two concepts.
Based on these words, here are some common names in the three languages.
The above table assumes the meanings of the names were kept current (like Indian names like "Dances With Wolves") rather than fossilized. If the meanings were instead forgotten, then the Makata and Negasi forms would have been shaped simply by changing the sounds of the words. So Nagada Lumarele would be Makata Lunarele, rather than Petarele.
If I was actually going to use these names in a story, I would spend much more time refining them to develop an affinity between the sound of a name and the character I wanted to represent. However, taking the words as they are can provide insights into the imagined people. I think Lumarele is a great name for an island princess, and I can picture Sahudala, the impotent witch doctor who wants her hand in marriage, but the name of her jealous sister Hamage carries with it the stench of lilies, rather than their sweet aroma...
Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.
Gymnastics with Onomastics
Hungarian Translation Where the last issue of Model Languages described in detail how to create model languages for generating names, this issue specifically elaborates on how different languages and cultures form names.
Here are some useful terms to describe the study of names:
onomastics - the study of names (in general)
anthroponomastics - the study of personal names
toponomastics - the study of place names.
Structure of names
There are many different ways a culture can structure a name, and the people who speak your language may use any of the following, or a different way besides:
[given name] [middle name] [maternal grandfather's family name] [paternal grandmother's family name] [paternal grandfather's family name] -- Eliana Marcia Villela Gomes Soares (Brazilian)
[given name] [middle name] [maternal grandfather's family name] [paternal grandfather's family name] [husband's mother's name] [husband's father's name] -- Maria Beatriz Villela Soares Veiga de Carualho (Brazilian)
[given name] [father's family name] y [mother's family name] - José Aguilar y Fernández (Spanish)
[given name] [father's family name] de [husband's father's name] - María Álvarez de Aguilar (Spanish)
[given name] ["father of" eldest son]
[given name] [father's given name] - Tafari Makonnen (Amharic)
This list is in no means exhaustive, with the possibility of variations even within a tradition. My friend Steve and his wife recently named their baby Joshua Patrick Lewis LaFrance Weissman: Joshua Patrick because they liked the Old and New Testament ring, Lewis after Steve's grandfather, LaFrance after his wife's surname, and Weissman because ... well, because!
Throughout much of history, when most people never traveled far from home, a given name sufficed, with use of a nickname in case there were two Davids in the village, for instance. As people were exposed to more and more people, the family name was added to differentiate people, then the middle name was added for the same purpose. As mass communications and the Internet expose people to that many more individuals, it would not be surprising if people begin making more prominent use of their middle names and begin adding extra middle names, like my friend Steve did for his son.
In Britain and the U.S., the first name, the given name, is the one the person regularly goes by. This is not so in Germany, where many people go by their middle names, so that Helmut Michael Schneid is likely to be called Michael by his friends, not Helmut.
Of course, many Oriental languages put the family name before the given name, reversing the regular order of Occidental names. Thus, Mao Ze Dong is known as Chairman Mao, not Chairman Ze Dong. (Hungarian is another language that puts the family name first.)
English names are unique in one respect -- no other language has a construct similar to the Sr. ("Senior") that gets appended to the names of fathers who have son with the same names, so that Carl Glenn Henning's eponymous father is known as Carl Glenn Henning, Sr. As for the Jr. appellation, it is used in English, Spanish and Portuguese names, among others, though not the Roman numeral designations II, III, IV and so on. Brazilian names have analogous structures to Jr., where Neto is to "grandson" and Sobrinho is to "nephew" as Júnior is to "son".*
Some languages, such as Russian, add gender endings to the family name, so that it is Mr. Molotov, but Mrs. Molotova. The Japanese routinely append an honorific to a person's name, such as -san; or -sama, a superhonorific; or -kun, for someone familiar or subordinate; or -chan, a term of endearment reserved for children.
Patronymics: in the name of the father
One of the more common elements of names is a patronymic, a reference to a person's father.
Related to this, Fitz- (as in Fitzgerald) is Old French for "son of", though it was typically used to mean "illegitimate son of". (So the next time you're angry with some idiot, but your kids are listening, call him a "son of a Fitz".)
Amharic (which is a language of Ethiopia) no longer has a separate word for its patronymic, so a name is simply formed from the child's given name plus the father's given name (as if Robert Stevenson was just Robert Steven).
While English has fossilized its patronymic, so that for all we know Robert Louis Stevenson's father may have been named Joe, many languages -- including Arabic, Hebrew and Icelandic -- give a new patronymic to each generation. In such a culture, Robert Louis Stevenson's son Jeffery would be known as Jeffery Robertson and his son Thomas would be known as Thomas Jefferyson, and so on, with each son give a different last name than his father.
The Russians use patronymics in such a way that children still have the same family name as their parents. In Russian, the patronymic is the middle name, so Ivan's son has the middle name of Ivanovich, while Ivan's daughter has the middle name of Ivanovna.
The Spanish and Portuguese are more fair to the people who carry these children for nine months. Both languages form last names from the family names of both the mother and father. In Brazilian, the name of the mother precedes the father's, so that the mother of Eliana Marcia Villela Gomes Soares has a surname of Villela, while Eliana's father had the surname of Gomes Soares (Gomes being the family name of his mother). Spanish reverses the order, putting the name of the father first.
Related to patronymics, but different altogether, is teknonymy or paedonymy, where the parent is named after the child. In Arabic, the parent would be known as "father of" or "mother of" the eldest son.
Forming first names first
The story is told, perhaps apocryphally, of a tribe in Nyassaland, Africa, that took its names from a publisher's book catalog that had found its way into their hands. The chief christened himself Oxford University Press. Ox, as his friends may have called him, had chosen his name in one of the more unusual ways. Typically, first names are formed from compounds, from saints' names, from places, from personal traits -- in fact, from many things other than publisher's book catalogs.
German and Celtic frequently formed compounds (and served as the basis for the naming vocabulary described in the June issue). Examples of this style of first names include Baldwin, "bold friend", and Gilbert, "shining pledge".
The first name is often, especially in Britain, called the Christian name, because after the Norman Conquest the first name was frequently taken from that of a Christian saint (Matthew, Mark, Luke and others). Other traditions would name children after places (Norton, "from the northern village"; Glenna, "from the glen"), personal characteristics (Joy; Kent, "handsome"; Kevin, "kind") and even animals (I'm not going to mention "Dances With Wolves" again).
Arabic and Semitic, and many other languages, feature theophoric names, names referring to God, such as Arabic Abd Alla-'h, "slave of Allah", or Hebrew Daniel, "God is the judge", and Michael, "God-like". Anglo-Saxon names also referred to God, as in Godfrey referring to "God's peace" (and surviving in the more common name descended from Godfrey, Jeffrey). The Anglo-Saxons had not always been Christian, and older names made frequent use of Alf-, "elf", the elves being divine spirits, so that Alfreda meant "counselled by elves" and Elvira meant "elf-like" (making it a suitable name for the host of a horror-movie theater).
Since the elves, if not appeased, might take a baby and leave a changling in its place, it was hoped that a child named after elves would be left alone by them. Other cultures take the fear of evil spirits further. If a mother had already lost a child to disease, she might be likely to name her next child after something vile, to keep evil spirits away. So her baby might be given an apotropaic name like "Ugly" or "Misshapen".
A name like "Ugly" would not be accepted in many European countries. France, Germany and Scandinavia all have lists of approved first names; a baby must be given an approved name, or the child will not be legally recognized. (Perhaps a superstitious Norwegian will name his child "Illegal" in the hopes of keeping those modern evil spirits, lawyers, away.)
Incidentally, many languages do not have separate names for men and women, as if all names were like the English neuter names of Chris, Alex, Lee and Kelly. Other languages often use regular inflections for grammatical gender to indicate the gender of names, so that John and Jane, for instance, which are both from the same Hebrew name, are represented as Johann and Johanna in German, Giovanna and Giovanni in Italian and Juana and Juan in Spanish.
Forming family names
In America, melting pot of the world, there are over 1.2 million last names, according to an analysis of the Social Security rolls. In an analysis of my own business address book, consisting of 4,240 U.S. computer professionals, I found 2,936 unique names, ranging from Abate to Zytniak. Choosing any individual at random revealed a 48% chance that no one else in the address book had the same last name as them -- this is simply an amazing diversity, representing the hundreds of cultures who have seen citizens migrate to the United States.
Koreans, in contrast, have just a few principal last names, such as Kim, Pak and Yi, though they have different spelling variations (Yi is also spelled Li, Lee, I and Rhee). Because ancestry is so important to Koreans, they have been culturally adverse to changing their last names; in fact, family names are so important that women do not change their family names upon getting married. As a result, Koreans have preserved the last names of the three major families that first settled the present-day Korean peninsula.
Like the Koreans, the Welsh also have few family names. So to tell apart all the people named Jones, Price or Evans, the Welsh tend to distinguish people with 'by-names', so that Welsh Mark Jones-the- petrol is distinguished from Mark Jones-the-gardener.
Many family names derived from such a casual use of referring to people by their occupations: farmer, weaver (e.g., Webster), baker. One of the most prestigious occupations in ancient times was that of the blacksmith, who forged swords into ploughshares in time of peace, and pikes into pole-arms in time of war. In fact, blacksmiths were among the most influential members of community, which is why the most common family name in many cultures is "Smith":
Smith, Smythe, et. al.
La Fèvre, La Forge
Besides occupations and patronymics, other sources of family names include places (Henning, for instances, means "the meadow filled with larks"), colors (White, Brown, Green) and virtues (Good).
Forming names of nations
Many groups of people (races and nations) see themselves as "the people" of the world. If they are isolated from other tribes or realms, they are even more likely to name themselves "the people", as the Innuit (Eskimos), the Bantu (an African tribe) and the Illeni Indians (for whom Illinois is named) did. The Chinese were chauvinistic about it; their name is derived from the dynasty of Chin, with Chin being the word for "man".
The more different realms a group of people are aware of the more likely they are to name themselves after the place where they live: the Canadians live in Canada, the English live in England, the Germans live in Germany. But the Jews live in Israel (the name of one of their greatest ancestors).
If your imaginary people are imaginative enough to call themselves something besides "the people" or "the people of [place]", they will nonetheless give themselves a flattering name, something like "the people of God" or "the blessed people" or "the people of [person]", where the person is any suitably noble patriarch or matriarch.
So how did the English get to be called the English? Well, in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated from northern Germany to southern Britain. The Angles' name was related to their word angel, "hook", and is assumed to refer to hook-shaped stretches of the German coast. By the ninth century, Englaland was used to describe the island all three tribes had settled, and the form of the name was quickly shortened (not by happenstance, but by haplology) to England.
Cultural attitudes towards names
No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people, they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname -- such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means 'fir-cone'. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping.
"A Wizard of Earthsea", Ursula K. Le Guin
Names are invested with a power. Many cultures have private names, or true names, that are only to be used by family and close friends, with a public name used regularly instead. The fear is that a wizard or witch will learn their true name and so be able to cast a spell over them.
In Múharafic, the model language spoken by desert nomads in an exceptionally dry science fiction novel a friend and I once wrote, each person's name exerts power over them. The most powerful person in the clan is the watersinger, who names each child upon ascension to adulthood, and therefore knows the names of everyone in the clan. The watersinger can declare a person outcast by announcing his true name to everyone. Alternatively, a person can gnomifesi, "confide one's true name to another", to give themselves in marriage to their partner.
The Todas of India are not afraid to have their names known, but they will not themselves pronounce their own names. When an individual is introduced to someone new, she asks a companion to say her name.
As David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, "People in the 20th century may find it easy to dismiss such attitudes, but things have not greatly changed. It is unlikely that popular opinion would ever allow a new ship to be named Titanic."
Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.
*Thanks to personal correspondence (January 6, 2005) from Mauro Mello Jr. for clarification on the use of Jr. in South America.