ConLangs 101: A Departure from English

This second post in the ConLangs 101 series is intended to help English monoglots begin to think outside the structure of English-language communication. It isn't comprehensive by any means, but I hope that by the end if it you'll feel a little less dependent upon your mother tongue as you begin to experiment with language construction. You polyglots will have already internalized many of these concepts, but I hope you might be encouraged to range even farther afield with the languages you construct.

The Cultural Foundations of Language

In Gàidhlig, there is no verb 'to have'. Rather, personal belongings are 'at you', diseases are 'on you' and while you're permitted to use possessive pronouns to discuss your body and your blood relations, there is some ambiguity about whether or not it's all right to do the same when referring to your spouse. A few examples:

Tha leabhar agam.
(Literal Gàidhlig) 1Is a book at me.
(English Translation) I have a book.

Tha cnatan orm.
(Literal Gàidhlig) Is a cold on me.
(English translation) I have a cold.


Tha mo làmhan sgìth.
(Literal Gàidhlig) Are my hands tired.
(English Translation) My hands are tired.

In a language community comprised of large, extended families, it isn't surprising to find the concept of private possessions somewhat absent. As Gàidhlig is anglicized in modern usage, possessive pronouns are making inroads into other relationships, like the ones we form with spouses, pets and the things we create or build. Still, there's a kernel of truth about the Scottish Gaelic worldview embedded in this characteristic of the language. When you think about it, there's another kernel of truth embedded in the way the language is changing, too.

So this characteristic of Gàidhlig springs from the Scottish Gaelic culture of the people who spoke and continue to speak it. Similarly, your own constructed languages have to be rooted in your world-building, where your fictional cultures are created. The more divergent those cultures are from the one you live in, the more divergent the ideas expressed by their languages will have to be. And if the culture changes over time, as all cultures do, then the language will have to change with it.

Now let's go back to that missing verb 'to have' and take it a step further. In The Language Construction Kit, Mark Rosenfelder suggests eliminating parts of speech altogether and offers the following example:

It’s not hard to get rid of adjectives. One easy way is to treat them as verbs: instead of saying "The wall is red", you say "The wall reds"; likewise, instead of "the red wall" you say "the redding wall".

How would your conlang look without adjectives? Without nouns? Without verbs? How would concepts be expressed? How would your conlang look with parts of speech not present in English? Not present in any human language? What purpose would they serve? But perhaps more importantly, why are those concepts missing from or added to your language? What elements of culture gave rise to their absence or presence?

Speech, Writing and Gesture

Now that we've looked at ideas, let's look at the way they're expressed in speech, writing and gesture. If your constructed language is human, these will be your primary methods of communication. If it isn't, then your options are dependent upon the physiology and psychology of the beings you create. But even in the narrow range of human possibilities, you have quite a bit of latitude.


Here's an example of spoken Welsh from Listen for the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative2, a sound not present in English:

Genir pawb yn rhydd ac yn gydradd â'i gilydd mewn urddas a hawliau. Fe'u cynysgaeddir â rheswm a chydwybod, a dylai pawb ymddwyn y naill at y llall mewn ysbryd cymodlon.

Translation: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)3

This is only one of many sounds it's possible for the human tongue to make that isn't found in English. It's worth investigating a few others before you decide how your spoken language ought to sound, and it's also worth spending some time on cadence. How do the sounds of your spoken language fit together in words, in sentences? Do native speakers articulate every word? Do they shorten or lengthen common phrases? Do they eliminate or add sounds to words and phrases to make them easier to say? For example, De an t' ainm a th' ort? (What is your name?) becomes C' ainm a th' ort in spoken Nova Scotian Gàidhlig, and that's only one of many times many sound changes the language employs in the service of fluid speech.


4My nephew Alex - a student of Mandarin Chinese - tells me this ancient language utilizes two primary writing systems known as 漢語 [汉语] (hànyŭ) or 中文 (zhōngwén) and Hànyŭ Pīnyīn. The first is comprised of characters that convey both sound and meaning and may represent physical objects, abstract notions or pronunciation. The second was developed in the 1930s for use by Chinese immigrants living in the Soviet Union5.

These writing systems are excellent examples of non-English communication. The first of them is not phonetic, and while the traditional form of the script is written in vertical rows that can be read both left to right or right to left, horizontal rows that read from left to right are the standard now6. Simply put, there are no letters that correspond to specific sounds, and the writing system as a whole has both changed and standardized over time. The second of them is a phonetic transliteration of the first, a useful adaptation that that romanizes the language and is also read in horizontal rows from left to right. Let's take a look at them both:

Sample text in Chinese (Traditional characters)

Transliteration (Hànyŭ Pīnyīn)
Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì shàng yīlù píngděng. Tāmen fùyǒu lǐxìng hé liángxīn, bìng yīng yǐ xiōngdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng duìdài.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)7

So the writing system for your constructed language doesn't have to be phonetic. It can be syllabic, conceptual, pictographic or something else entirely. You can develop ancient and modern forms of the system that operate differently from one another. You can develop transliterations that serve different purposes for the people who utilize them. Has your writing system been influenced by the writing systems of other languages? Who uses the ancient form of the script? The modern? The transliteration? Is there more than one transliteration? What purpose does it serve?


I could write about American Sign Language here, which is an excellent example of gestural communication, but I've been reading Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle and have a special love in my heart for Ademic, the language of the Ademre. Hand gestures are an important component of emotional communication in the language, conveying happiness, sadness, respect and a whole range of feeling not conveyed in facial expressions. In fact, the Ademre are an impassive people who rarely speak and who utilize gestural communication to create multiple shades of meaning in everything they say. The result is that both the language and the culture operate largely on nuance. I'm simply captivated by the notion of gesture as emotional expression, and Rothfuss' execution of it is brilliant, both linguistically and culturally.

Of course, every time I flip somebody off, I'm engaging in the communication of emotion by way of gesture. So it isn't that unusual a concept. But I think building gestures into a language this way is unique, and I would encourage you to experiment with the ways you might include the hands and body in your constructed language. Does your language make use of gestures to convey letters? Syllables? Concepts? Emotions? Something else? What do the gestures augment or replace, and why?

Other Kinds of Communication

One of the linguistics professors I interviewed for the sake of my own constructed languages told me that it was impossible for beings of different species to communicate with one another. Of course, if you've ever lived with an animal, you already know this isn't the case. Perhaps he was speaking of the capacity for a shared language, and perhaps our brains are wired in such a way that we couldn't speak with an alien species even if we wanted to. But I still think it's important to remember that we communicate cross-species all the time even without a shared language, and that sort of communication is something to be considered when you're working on a conlang.

Does cross-species communication exist in your world-building? At what level? How does it manifest? Is one species more intellectually advanced than the other? Is one species more emotionally advanced than the other? Are any relationships symbiotic? Adversarial? How are they expressed?


Well, we've covered a lot of random ground here, and I was a better tour guide for some bits of it than I was for other bits (I'm counting on my nephew, Omniglot and Wikipedia for the Mandarin Chinese stuff, so srsly, call me on any mistakes you find there). That said, I hope I've managed to escort you out of the English language a little and introduce you to some interesting possibilities in other tongues, writing systems and forms of communication.

Next time, I'll be writing about the sending and receiving of communication signals and introducing a few examples of my own world-building. Until then, tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, agus qapla!