Dan Vanderboom - Language Creation

06 Dec. 1991

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I Language Importance and Purpose

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1. Purpose of a Language

The spoken word is the ultimate form of communication for any society, whether good or evil, lawful or chaotic. It is the wonder that shapes our society, and that is shaped from our attitudes. Language is that which binds our society to work for a common cause.

There are thousands of cultures in real and imagined societies alike, and they all have some logic about them: grammatical rules, sentence structure, and so on. This tutor will help you to understand how language works, and is created, to help you understand our own language, and perhaps, to help you create your own. This is a mighty task, even with the 535 lines this tutor takes up, but it is possible, as I have done so with the Drow Elvish and Common Orcish languages of the Forgotten Realms for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.

The purpose of a language is as variant as anything else in the world. Some languages are used to talk about anything, like English, while others were created for simple and limited topics of interest, such as the combat speech in the story Dune, or the alignment tongues of AD&D (used to discuss morals).

You must first decide, upon creating your language, whether you wish it to be related to something specifically, several things, or a common speech, as so many are. The points of each are discussed herein.

Some may wish to create a language that can communicate all general, specific and abstract thought, such is the case in English. Note, however, that this is a time-consuming, tedious, and never-ending process. The English language, not an old one, took at least 600 years (to my knowledge) to come where it is today, with millions of people developing it. This is an impracticle goal, but it can be accomplished, assuming you are dedicated enough. Though this, once learned, is the most favorable at first glance, the latter is prefered: topic-related language creation.

When creation of a topic-related language is completed (usually no more than 300 words to express basic thoughts on a particular thoughts), you can easily expand and thus make your language broader to cover the subjects you wish to speak of. Such topics may include:

combat (both group and individual)
alignment (the views of society and morals)
engineering (navagational and sewer systems, or other advanced topics kept
secret in an otherwise primitive society, ie: the work of dwarves)
racial (human, gnome, dwarven, elvish, orcish, dragon, etc.)
...and so on.

Have a purpose in mind before you begin. This will be the frame of your language. From then on, you can simply add to it. You might wish to include those things in the home, in society, government terms, rules and guidelines, mathmatical relationships... the list is endless. Anything that could possibly be useful to you can be added.

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2. Voice, Alignment, and Intelligence

Some factors enter into what can be pronounced by the being speaking the words and his intelligence. As orcs are pictured with fangs, this (litteraly) gets in the way when trying to pronounce things with completely closed mouths. Determine what restrictions the beings in question have, if any.

Is the creature naturally peaceful or hostile? For peaceful beings, the words and syllables will be softer and smoother, while more hostile races will tend to make sharp, nasty sounds, spitting or barking their words once in a while.

The more intelligent the being, the smoother the language flows. In an evil society full of geniuses, the language would lose its sharp sounds to smoother flowing ones, but still keeping a sense of menace to them, though this is through the pronounciation and speed, and not the language itself. Evil and powerful beings of high intellect usually have graceful speech, making it's intenseness and wickedness hard to believe. The more intelligent creatures also use larger words with more syllables, while your typical orc might have no word more than three syllables, and most words being one or two. Only things dear to their hearts (eating, drinking, and fighting) would contain two syllables. In an intelligent society, these things simply do not pertain.

More will be spoken of intelligence when discussing word forms and how to change them in the sentence structure.

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3. Surrounding Cultures

Surrounding cultures seem to have their toll on languages by adding those words directly into that language, or using derivitives from them. In English, this is most prevelent in Latin and Greek where we get many base words and meanings for our words. Simple rearrangements to these original words work themselves into our language nicely. Therefore a language tells us something about our history: basically, our origins and how we felt long ago.

This language inbreeding adopts new terms into a changing language only. There are some languages where this is simply not allowed, such as those of alignment and ones that follow the strict dictatorship of a certain religion. Other than these rarities, however, languages will add from others simply because that's where they originated. For example, if a scientist comes up with a new idea, and makes up a name for it, other languages may borrow, as there is no direct translation for it.

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4. Dialects

In addition to surrounding cultures, sometimes languages may differ from region to region, through isolation of one group of people over an extended period of time. When two or more such groups are torn from each other, they tend to grow in different directions. If and when they unite again, they may have some difficulty communicating again, though the basics will be kept. Fashion and style, and even the occasional personal flaire will dramatically change language.

There are usually common languages, which are the result of all these groups combined communicating together. These are limited tongues, though, and serve only certain purposes, such as battle between hostile races. Using orcs as an example again, there may be a dialect for every tribe among them, discusing metalwork in one clan, and rocks and caverns in another, as they often have differed interests. But when they come together, usually in time of war, they need only those things that pertain to them. Certainly the Clan of the Wild Horse does not wish to discuss the finer points of blacksmithing with the Clan of the Iron Fist.

Then there are "low" and "high" languages, with the Drow in AD&D and German in the real world. In both cases, High German/Drow refers to archaic, upper-class-only words, while Low German/Drow is the common tongue of all the peasents and common people.

II Understanding Speech

1. Articles and Conjunctions

Articles (a,an,the)

There are only three articles in the English language, hence they will be discussed first. They are also the most common used words. A and AN are the same, and there would be only two articles, save that our language requires AN for words that contain (as a first letter) a vowel (except long U) and silent H's.

Consider this statement: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

It does not say which apple, only AN apple. It could be any apple. Similarly, A day does not say which day. It could be thursday, friday, or it could be the third day of the month or year. A and AN are thus non-specific articles, meaning that there are several of that kind, and it does not matter which. When creating your own language, the easiest thing to do in this case is to have A and AN the same word. That little trick can save you a lot of headaches. Indeed, our language is complex, and needs a little trimming, but as we have gotten too deep, it is impossible to go back.

In that same statement, THE doctor points to a specific doctor. Using THE assumes that you know which doctor the speaker is talking about. In this famous saying, it directs attention to your doctor, the one you go to for checkups, etc. It usually means there is one of a kind. THE painting suggests a painting that both the speaker and listener know of.

Conjunctions

There must be sentence connectors, those words that string multiple thoughts together. That is the reason for conjunctions, such as and, or, if, when, but, and others. These words are too varied in their meanings, except that purpose they serve, and they are also listed under other topics (see conditionals), so they won't be fully described here.

2. Pronouns

Pronouns are a large part of our language. It is perhaps the largest collection of most commonly used words, except for articles. Pronouns can take many forms, including with them gender, singular/plural, possession, placement, and others. Each most important item is discussed here.

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Possessional

No matter the subject you talk about, you will want to say that something is mine, or yours, or theirs. These types of pronouns can direct attention to not only material objects, but also ideas, actions, and duties. Below is a list of useful possessional pronouns.

Mine, yours, theirs, his, and hers. Mine is first person, saying something is your own. Yours is second person, stating that it is the property of the person you are speaking to. Theirs is either one or more persons' possession other than that of yourself and the person you are speaking to. His is the same as yours, except that it points specifically to a single male, while hers directs attention to a single female.

Others can easily be added to your language, such as a pronoun that points to more than one person, all male, that are not around at the moment. While that is an impracticle example, sometimes such strange combinations can be useful. After a little practice with the finished language itself, you can become used to it and will find yourself wishing English had such useful words, however unorthodox they may seem to others.

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Placement

You will need to know where you are, in just about any given case. Pronouns have the power of saying such things without giving out details. That is the purpose of using them: so you don't have to re-explain everything over and over again. When you wish to go here, or there, you shouldn't say "Speaking of the cave near the little winding river, I wish to go back to the cave near the little winding river," when you both know where you are talking about. That should have been "Speaking of the cave near the little winding river, I wish to go back there." It is much more practicle, and doesn't dwell on one thought too long.

Many overlook the power of pronouns, and without them, we would not be at the level we are now. So we do have pronouns, and so should your language. You really only need three words for placement.

Here, there, and then. Then is also placement, but in time, not is space. But then there are objects that you need to use pronouns for. This and that are classic examples; this refers to an object here, and that refers to an object there. The following list should be used in that regard.

This, that, these, and those. These is the plural form of this; those is the plural form of that. This points to a close object, these to close objects; that points to a distant object, those to distant objects.

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Personal

The next type of pronoun is that of yourself and others. You will always wish to speak of yourself or others in some regard. Here are the words needed for that.

I, me, myself, you, yourself. I and me are one in the same, but are used differently with certain grammer rules for the English language. Me and myself are twins, as are you and yourself, which speak of the person you are communicating with. If you are talking to more than one person, it might refer to all of them. "You surround our enemy, while I prepare the surprise."

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Miscellaneous

He, she, and it.

He refers to some person, a male, who you know of already, whether he was brought up in the conversation earlier or you think the other person knows who you're talking about.

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3. Conditionals

When you're in a conversation, and you direct an order, or something to that nature, and you're not certain of an event, you will need a conditional statement, such as IF or WHILE, etc. The following list will be sufficient for beginning languages. It is doubtful that this list will ever need to grow beyond it's initial framework.

If, then, else, when, while, and until. You could also add words to your language that mean the same as some phrases, such as "as long as" or "not until". Be warned, though, that comprehension will need to be more complex or a person will get easily confused by a single word substituted for an entire phrase. This is yet another inevitable factor in the creation of a new language, though.

4. Prepositions

Prepositions and prepositional phrases are the things that color our sentences and give them detail. "Under the rock", "around the corner", "through the roof" are all prepositional phrases. There are so many prepositions that only a few will be named within these pages. For more, there can easily be found lists of prepositions in English grammer texts at your local library.

When thinking of prepositions that you may need, you should consider the nouns you have created. If you include a word meaning rock, you will need such prepositions as around, under, atop, on, but not through or abreast. Keep your list of prepositions limited at first, relating only to the nouns you have created. If your language grows enough, however, this may be impossible to keep track of, and your preposition list will become wild. This is not always bad.

Abreast, about, around, at, before, below, beneath, for, from, in, inside, of, out, outside, over, through, throughout, to, and under. This list is not near to complete to usefulness. Your purpose may even outdo grammer texts, in which case you will have to look them up in a dictionary. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. My suggestion when using prepositions is to think small, then let your list grow as you need them. You might even eliminate prepositions that mean the same thing, keeping only one, such as below and beneath. They mean virtually the same thing. Below is more common to me, so I'd throw out beneath... It's up to you.

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5. Nouns and Gender

In the Spanish language, as well as many others, there are male and female words. This is determined by a suffix, while some other languages use prefixes. If you wish to do this--and it's not suggested due to an extreme amount more work--you can do so by formulating your own suffix/prefix additions to words. But I will show you how, in case you have other plans for them, such as making them plural, etc.

Adding an -el, for example, could determine one phase change of word. Let's make this the plural form of the word. Our examples, dulag, kile, and humel, are made plural, and are changed to dulagel, kilel, and humelel. What they mean does not matter for the sake of the example. Dulag--whatever that is-- are made plural simply by adding -el. Kile, having already an 'e' at the end, simply needs an -l suffix. And finally, where humel previously has an -el ending, it adds another, and might change its pronounciation a little from (HU-mel) to (HU-muh-mel), thus making syllables out of different letter combinations. You can also add, if you wish, exceptions for strange letters like x, y, and z. You may make it sound a little better, but only at the cost of adding to the complexity of the rules of grammer. Keep track of these rules and exceptions somewhere.

When adding prefixes or suffixes, don't add more than one or two letters, as you're significantly change the sound, and thus the meaning, of the word. You want to keep them noticably similar... usually. In genius societies where great and greatest need to be determined quite differently, you might have two completely indistinguishably different words.

Phase changes you'll want to cover are: singular/plural, gender (optionally), and other and miscellaneous things (food may be 'hun' for planted food and 'hunir' for hunted meat food).

When you create a noun, think of all the actions that would go along with that--verbs--and make sure you have all the words to describe it--adjectives. Then create the prepositions you'll want to use with it. If it has a hole in it, through might be used, as well as many others. But with prepositions you'll find that all the basic preps. you need you created with the first twenty or so nouns. And when doing so, keep all nouns basically related to one topic, moving on when you think you have covered every aspect of that topic. This is also an excellent way to learn the language.

6. Verbs and Tenses

When you create a verb, also create with it any adverbs that may be used with it as well as prepositions. If you run, you will want to 'run under ...' and 'run through ...', etc.

Verbs are really no different in creation than nouns, in that you need suffixes and prefixes to create different phases of the words. However, those phases are tenses (past/present/future), instead of gender, etc.

The prefix/suffix rules you use should not resemble that of any other prefix/ suffix method you have used with any other part of speech before, to avoid confusion. That way you can identify quite easily what part of speech the word is without actually knowing its meaning. This is extremely useful when learning the language. You can learn the words through their context and your mind will pick them up more easily, knowing there are little tips like that to be found.

Given the statement: "The gorgon dityels the enral."

Gorgon means 'runner' and dityels means 'passes' you know that "The runner passes the enral," whatever an enral is. In this case, you might see that enral is a torch in marathon running or a baton in races in which people run parts of the race. Consistancy is an invaluable tool in the case of building something you must then remember.

7. Adjectives and Adverbs

Adding almost as much detail as prepositions comes adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives describe nouns, such as 'WHITE pants' or 'FLOWING water'. Adverbs describe actions, such as 'ran QUICKLY' or 'MADLY thrashed'. Adjectives can be converted to adverbs in the English language simply by adding an -ly suffix. This does not apply to all adjectives, but for the most part, this will work. 'He FLOWINGLY danced,' would work, but 'He WHITELY painted' sounds odd, and so it is the responsibility of the speaker to make himself clear. A prefix/suffix rule could be added here as was done in the noun section (see section 5).

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8. Date and Time

Time and date is almost something not worth mentioning here, but you may wish to make the months and days called something different. For example, you may have your own names for months and days, and include your old holidays and celebrated events (in a fantasy game, for example).

While this may seem to make things complex, it is worth it in the respect that when speaking your other langauge, you may say "Jal gelan duth huardey January un rena!" It seems crude and sluggish, though it works. That is the definition of a kludge, and that is what your language will be, a kludge. When creating the Drow language for AD&D I even changed the names of the already different months on the surface. The Drow live below the earth, several miles in fact, and I figured their completely different culture would name their seasons and months accordingly.

Time will not change unless you are creating for a fantasy gaming world, where perhaps clocks do not yet exist. You would have different cycles of the sun on the surface, while below in the Underdark of the Drow, they have a magical fire that crawls a pillar, called Narbondel in one city. Different phases represent different times, more precise than the sun because you have no clouds to block it! Use your imagination and consider the culture for these things.

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III Structure

1. Sentence Structure

There are many ways one can speak words, by--in the English language--putting the subject first, then the verb and the object, or another method. While using your own way gets tricky when it comes to translation, the difference is unique and "neat". The English method is practicle and implies a possessive- oriented society, but that may not suit your purpose.

Our syntax varies: <subject> <predicate>

...with the optional descriptive phrase entering before, after, or in-between either the subject or the predicate.

Take, for example, the Roman empire, where they placed the verb first, then then noun and its object. This shows their affection for action, as their society was based on action, from the gladiators to chariot races, even to one of the several wars they had.

Their syntax would be: <predicate> <subject> [<descriptive preps>]

Other languages, such as Clyde Heaton's Elvish, places all descriptive prepositional phrases and colorful words first, showing their disregard for time. Since they are a nearly immortal people, living to the age of 1200, they can afford to set aside the main topic of speech to focus on the mood. This makes a better understanding of their situation, for example, when an elf comes back to his king and reports failure. The king would listen to the details foremost to discern if he had, perhaps, led his subject on an impossible mission. However, when angered or in a hurry--such as in war--they would skip description all-together and use a more Roman-based sentence structure.

Their syntax would be: [<descriptive preps>] <predicate> <subject>.

While when speaking many exceptions to these syntaxes creep in--both from the fact that you're using English to learn it, and therefore borrow, and that sometimes things just can't be spoken clearly that way. That will happen in any society, ours especially.

2. Dual-Word Transformation

In the less intelligent races of the fantasy worlds, the use of prefixes and suffixes is rare. Indeed, any sort of organization of words would be used only with things that the race favors, such as war in the case of orcs, or stone- and metal-work for dueger dwarves. This is true for tenses of verbs and adjective/adverb conversions, but not gender or singular/plural forms.

The statement "dez dotad" means 'killed' in Common Orcish. "Dez" means 'kill', but the speaker wanted a past tense, so he included the adverb "dotad", making it past tense.

Watch for too much of this however, as it makes slow-speaking creatures the target of others' frustration. Saying some verbs in present tense can be dangerous in war-driven communities.

IV Learning, Teaching, and Expansion

1. Word Lists and Topics

The best method that I have found with the creation of languages is the use of index cards, suggested to me by an article on languages in Dragon Magazine No.75, by TSR, a fine AD&D subscription magazine. That article is the basis of my work, so I owe credit to them.

Get several hundred of these cards and make two indexes, one for English and the other for the language you are creating, and arrange them in alphabetical order (as you add to it). This way, you avoid repitition of words in both cases (creating new words when you have already used that particular made-up word and by designating two new words for one English word). On one side put your language, and on the reverse, the English translation. This is, in addition, an excellent way to study them.

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2. Communication

You can't very well use a language effectively when you don't know anyone else who knows your language. Whether you find a friend to help create the language, or if you do it yourself, make sure others know about it. This will develop your skills in that language, and help you to see flaws in it. You might say to yourself "that doesn't sound good" or "that could be smoothed out a little". This is good; it means you've taken interest to perfect a language, and it will always turn out for the better. After you get things pretty much down pat, don't be afraid to make a few exceptions of adjustments to make it sound better.

Half the fun is stumbling over simple sentences... Starting a new language isn't easy, but it is rewarding.

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3. The Written Word

Most languages use the standard ASCII type characters, usually the same 26 or so letters of the English alphabet. However, runes, symbols, and calligraphy can enhance your language immensely, and give it your own personal flaire. This is something that will not and cannot be discussed in a simple ASCII file. This I leave to you to develop. Make it as creative as you want it to be; smooth and extravagant, or blunt and crude. Of the several written languages I've made, I know only one. After a while you get to know runes of your own hand and you start to read them as if they were plain, English words before you. It really does give you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when your first language becomes quickly to your lips and your eyes.

Good luck upon creating your own language, for you'll need it. 'Tis not a frustrating experience, though it does take quite a bit of dedication. Create too many, and spread them too thin, and they'll also become bland and wear thin. This I also know. Many little single-purpose languages have I written and forgotten. I think you will find much greater satisfaction in creating one big one.

Until next I write,

Dan Vanderboom

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Appendix A: Basic Words

Articles : a, an, the
Conjunctions : and, but, or, if, when
Pronouns
Possessional : mine, yours, theirs, his, hers
Placement : here, there, then, this, that, these, those
Personal : I, me, myself, you, yourself
Prepositions : abreast, about, around, at, before,
below, beneath, for, from, in,
inside, of, out, outside, over, through,
throughout, to, under, and MORE!
Nouns : <topic-related>
Verbs : <topic-related>
Adjectives : <topic-related>
Adverbs : <topic-related>
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Appendix B: Prefixes/Suffixes
Examples

Verbs Nouns Adjective => Adverb
Past: <base>-ir Male: <base> Adjective: <base>
Present: <base> Female: an-<base> Adverb: <base>-an
Future: <base>-es Neuter: ot-<base>
Singular: <base>
Plural: <base>el

Credits:

Author's note: Feel free to distribute this file as much as you wish, as long as you do not alter it in any way, or take this or any section out, to discredit those who made such files available.