20 December, 2014

A Fox's Guide to Conlangs (Part 3)

Despite what you might think from looking at the English alphabet, there are more than 5 vowel sounds in regular use, and more than 21 consonant sounds. When it comes to vowels, there are long vowels and short vowels, monophthongs (single vowel forms), diphthongs (changing vowel sounds when two vowels follow one another), they alter their sound patterns based on open-ness of the lips and placement of the tongue as air passes through the mouth. When it comes to consonants, sounds change based on the way air stops, is interrupted, or redirected in its flow. It’s not really as simple as this, but that will do for the basic understanding of phonemes (the linguistic base forms that join one another to form words).

There are specific names for the way the mouth shapes the flow of air in each consonantal form, different languages and dialects tend to favour different patterns of consonants, some favouring specific forms of tongue placement, others favouring the manner in which the air is controlled. Languages described as guttural may tend to be filled with disjointed stops and starts, lots of “g”, “k”, “t”, and “d” sounds. More melodic languages might be filled with redirections of sound “l”, “r”, “s”, “w”, “y”, “f” and “n”.  

I don’t know if languages developed in the way I’m about to describe, and the research I’ve done into the topic suggests that no-one really knows; but it makes a logical sense to me, so this is the way I’ll get the basic rudimentary forms of the language started.

At the absolute basic level, I’d consider a language developed in a desert environment to use more consonantal forms, with vowels that minimise the opening of the mouth. This type of language structure would prevent sand getting into the mouth during dust storms, and thus allow for ongoing communication during such a dangerous event. Stops in the flow of air would also prove more useful because they are distinct and would be more readily understandable when a mouth is muffled by a cloth. 

Similarly, a language developed in a jungle environment might be more open to wider vowel forms, thus allowing louder speech more easily. This might be good for talking above the constant sounds of wildlife, and long vowels might be distinct from the chattering sounds of animals and rapid trilling of birdcalls. Consonantal forms in such a language might develop to make sounds quite different to the wildlife (especially if the culture speaking this language believed they were divinely created and thus separate from the animals around them), or the consonantal forms might develop to replicate the sounds of the wildlife (if the culture believed that it was a part of the wider natural world).

As you see, the very shapes and sounds of a language start to tell us something about the way the speakers view the world. There’s a controversial theory in linguistics known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, where it is believed that a specific language enforces a paradigm of thought onto its users. In the strong form of this hypothesis, a speaker of a single language is unable to perceive things that exist outside their language, while in less strict interpretations the speakers may perceive things they cannot describe but they are unable to fully comprehend them. The theory states a symbiosis between the development of understanding and the development of language, thus a flipside of this debate is the idea that a once something is perceived, terminology is developed for it, and once it is fully understood a word forms. The more words in a language, the more complex it is and the more suitable it is for the understanding of a wider section of the world. If a language doesn’t need to describe parts of the world that its speakers don’t encounter, then the language doesn’t evolve terms to describe those things. The words contained within a language describe certain things about a culture, the words it doesn’t have say other things about the culture. While working out the intricacies of the language, consider both of these…don’t just create a standard lexicon of 10,000 words that are the same 10,000 words you’d use for the development of all your conlang forms.

But I digress…

Let’s choose a specific place and develop the basic forms of a language that might be spoken in such a location. The continent/island known as Tankay exists on the opposite side of the planet to the Empire of the Sun, and the nations of the Old World. It also exists close to the island and it’s archipelago that we described recently as the focus of our game setting, close enough that a language developed for this region might have some people in the setting who speak it. We don’t really know anything about Tankay at the moment, we don’t even know if the people of Tankay call their own homeland by that name. It might be like the medieval maps of our world where China was referred to as “Cathay”, and where the Chinese actually call their land “Zhongguo” in Mandarin (while “China” as a term is derived from the Persian word “Chin”).

What is the land like? How does that shape the language? What words do they need? What vowel and consonantal forms do they find most commonly useful, and which ones are used as secondary forms to flavour their terminology in some way.

We know virtually nothing about the land so far, so we don’t know how the language might have been shaped by it. Let’s start by looking at the shape of the land, it’s jagged and not particularly big, there’s no part of the land that it a long distance from a large spread of water. It’s probably safe to assume that there isn’t much desert on the landmass. There might be rolling plains of grassland and savannah, as well as jungles and swamps along the southern coastlines, and temperate forests across the northern coasts. These geographic distinctions might form coherent regions for variant dialects of the language.   

Let’s assume they’ve got a rich history, where several generations of culture have risen and fallen. We’ll start with a single civilising influence, a culture that spread across the land as a catalyst (arguably like the progenitor culture that spread the proto-indo-european tongue across Eurasia in our world), this might limit itself to a couple of hundred words. Then we’ll be breaking that culture into a few dialectical variants, each expanding their phrases to incorporate specific elements that become important in their native lands. Then we’ll recombine a few of those dialectical variants, as though a single conqueror has spread their version of the tongue across the other lands of the region, but has assimilated some of the variant terms in their conquest. Hopefully that should give us a fairly rich language, rather than something that seems to clinical and formulaic.

Tankay is probably the size of Europe (maybe a bit smaller, but it’s at least the size of Western Europe), so it might be a bit of an over-generalisation to say that the entire region speaks a single language. If you want to develop a cluster of related languages, that’s great, but it’s an extra degree of difficulty. I’ll just be starting with the development of a single language. If I can maintain the momentum I might generate a pidgin form or creole mixed-language variant of the core tongue.  
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