ConLangs 101: Units of Speech and Writing

In this fourth post of the ConLangs 101 series, we'll be looking at the way language is communicated. I'll be using the terms 'immediate communication' and 'permanent communication' alongside 'speech' and 'writing' by way of description, since this series is designed to aid in the construction of both human and non-human languages, and I don't want for your imaginations to get stuck in the easy or familiar. I'll also be discussing the importance of building relationships between your language systems and providing you with a few more resources for your own conlang development.

Immediate Communication (Speech)


Morphology is the study of word structure and inflection1. In brief, inflection is the means by which the singular word cat becomes the plural word cats; the suffix -s is added to the uninflected word to create the inflected word. Of course, morphology is a fairly complex subject and one you'll have to undertake on your own as you develop your constructed language, but I'm going to introduce two important branches of it here to help get you started.


In linguistics, a phoneme is one of the set of speech sounds in any given language that serve to distinguish one word from another2. They're the smallest units of language; morphemes, words and sentences are built with them. 'Oh! They're letters!' you might say. Well, not really. Consider the letter 'G', for instance. In 'garage', it sounds one way, in 'gestatation' it sounds another, 'genre' gives you a third sound and 'gnaw' gives you a fourth! All of these sounds represented by the letter 'G' are phonemes, but each phoneme is different from the others34.

So what we're talking about here are the smallest building blocks of spoken language, which might be different from the smallest building blocks of written language. If you're constructing a human language, you might do well to familiarize yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which provides the notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages. However, if you're developing a non-human language, you must ask yourself what the smallest units of immediate communication might be and how they might be notated. Are these units created by sound? By light? By some other mechanism? And when they're created, how are they differentiated from one another in writing? Does each 'sound' correspond with a 'letter', or is the system more complicated than that?


Morphemes are speech elements having a meaning or grammatical function that cannot be subdivided into further such elements5. They're the second-smallest units of speech and the smallest units to carry meaning on their own. But much like phonemes aren't letters, morphemes aren't syllables. For instance, the word un/der/score has three syllables, but the second syllable /der/ carries no meaning by itself, so it isn't a morpheme. Further, while the first syllable /un/ can carry the meaning 'not', it doesn't carry that meaning in this word. Here, the two morphemes are 'under' and 'score'.

Morphemes can be bound, requiring other morphemes to turn them into words, or they can be free, which means they're words already. Here are a couple of examples:

∗ rewrite
∗ sleeping

In these examples, re- and -ing are both bound morphemes because they require the rest of the word in order to have meaning. However, write and sleep are free morphemes because they have meaning all by themselves.

Why is this important to constructed languages? For one thing, it demonstrates that not every unit of meaning is a word, and for another, it demonstrates that units of meaning are transferable from one context to another. These can be important things to remember when building prefixes, suffixes and sets of words that convey similar ideas. Once again though, remember that the function of a bound or free morpheme can be extrapolated out to any sort of constructed language. How might a bound morpheme behave in a language comprised of color? Of chemicals? How might a free morpheme behave?


Syntax is the arrangement of words in phrases, clauses and sentences and the study of that arrangement6. This includes parts of speech and their placement in the sentences you construct. Again, it's a fairly complex subject and one you'll need to research on your own, but I'll be glossing it here to help get you started.


Grammar is the set of language rules governing sounds, words, sentences, and other elements, along with their combination and interpretation. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and other parts of speech fall under this umbrella and so do their correct and incorrect uses. You will need to know how grammar works in order to construct a language and tinker with parts of speech in that language.

If you need to brush up on your grammar knowledge, ESL (English as a Second Language) and university web sites can be great places to start, because the information there is catered to adult learners. If you're a polyglot, of course you should brush up on the grammar rules for all the languages you speak and consider yourself ahead of the game when it comes to creating your own.

There's no shortcut for this part of the process, and it's one of the most universally important. The structure of your constructed language will become a crucial component of the dialogue you create from it and will even influence the turns of phrase your native conlang speakers employ when they use the common tongue.

Here's an example of that sort of thing from Gàidhlig:

English: I don't know whether he will buy that.
Gàidhlig: Chan eil fhios agam an ceannaich e sin.
Translation: I don't know will he buy that.

One of my Gàidhlig instructors recently mentioned that her grandmother always phrased 'whether' constructions this way in English, and I've heard other Scottish people do the same. What language structures transfer from your conlang to the common tongue? Good grammar-building will help you to answer that question.

Permanent Communication (Writing)

Writing Systems

Not all writing systems are alphabetical, as ours is, and this should certainly inform any permanent communication system you create. For example, Arabic and Hebrew are written with consonant alphabets called abjads. Vowels are missing in abjads but notated by combining consonants or by using diacritical marks above consonants where vowels should be spoken7.

Hindi, Sanskrit, Nepali and other, similar languages are written with syllabic alphabets called abugidas, where vowels are secondary to consonants. In abugidas, each consonant has an inherent vowel that can either be changed or muted by means of diacritics. Vowels can also be written with separate letters when they occur at the beginning of a word or on their own8.

Logosyllabic systems like Chinese, Japanese and Mayan contain pictograms, ideograms and compound characters that often represent both sound and meaning. Because of this, these scripts can include hundreds or thousands of symbols9.

These are just a few examples of known human-language systems, but of course the possibilities for permanent communication are much greater and more unusual for non-human systems. How would chemical 'speech' be 'written'? How would it be 'read'?

Letters, Syllables, Words & Sentences

You should already know what a letter, syllable, word and sentence are in the context of permanent or written communication, so I won't cover those things here. In addition, we've already looked at the difference between a phoneme and a letter, so you know they're not synonymous and that a letter can signify for more than one phoneme. We've also looked at the difference between a morpheme and a syllable, so you know that morphemes always carry meaning, while syllables might not. Those are the fundamentals you need to create basic structures in your conlang no matter how your immediate and permanent communication might be expressed.

What I want to draw your attention to here then, are the relationships between phonemes and letters, morphemes and words, spoken and written sentences. In English, phonemes and morphemes don't have a 1-to-1 correspondence with letters and words, and anyone who has ever composed a piece of professional writing understands that spoken and written English are not the same. So it should be with your constructed languages. If you're working with a color-based language, the way it's expressed in the skins of its communicators will be different from the way it's expressed in their texts. In much the same way that the letter 'G' might signify for several phonemes, the color red might be expressed in several kinds of writing stroke, or it might be blended with other colors as the 'red' morpheme in a word. And while it might only be part of a chromatophoric 'speech' event, it might be painted across a canvas or appear in a three-dimensional cloud as part of the same event rendered in 'writing'.

The important thing to remember is that these two systems, immediate and permanent, should make sense internally and make sense to each other. You should be forming relationships between them as you create, thinking about how a 'spoken' statement might be 'written' and vice versa. For instance, my own World Sea People 'write' in spirals or clouds of color, but sound is such an important part of the way they communicate that they don't have an exclusively written form of the language. It has to be both seen and heard to be understood.


I've only grazed the surface of sound and writing systems here, and my focus was more theoretical than practical, but my hope is that you'll be able to use this article as a springboard to bigger and better things. To that end, I'm leaving you with some resources for more in-depth exploration of language construction so that my betters can answer any questions you might have now that I've whetted your appetite a bit.

∗ Language Creation Society (Creators of the Dothraki language for HBO's Game of Thrones)
∗ Advanced Language Construction
∗ How to create a language
∗ Some Internet resources relating to constructed languages

Next time, I'll be looking at the relationship between language and culture in Conlangs 101: Culture of Communication. Until then, tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, agus qapla!