22 December, 2014

A Fox's Guide to Conlangs (Part 5) - Actually getting to the words

Who would start a language? How would it spread?

There are a few simple answers to these questions, each of which give us ideas about where to start the language (which words might have developed first, and therefore which words would be the simplest terms in the language).

The language might have been developed by religious types, as a means of communicating the glory of the gods with the wider community. I’d imagine such a language to be very conceptual because the ideas it conveys are deliberately spiritual and related to ephemeral things, any symbolic connections to physical items would be described in the form of physical objects possessing such spiritual qualities. Unless there were specific spiritual entities in regular contact with the speakers, this probably wouldn’t be a starting language for a region, because it requires a level of mental sophistication and cognitive skills that archaeologists/anthropologists link to developed cultures. I’m not saying this is a bad way to start a conlang, I’m just saying that this form of conlang requires a specific set of circumstances from the imagined culture that might use it.

The language might have developed through traders, as a means of describing objects that one person might want to exchange for the objects possessed by someone else. Such a language would be less about ephemera; concepts and more about physical items and the properties such items might possess. This type of language would probably have a harder time trying to discuss the spiritual nature of things, or abstract concepts (at least at first). As a language, it’s probably more likely to be the foundation of widespread communication (or at least the communication between two trading groups or tribes).

A language might have developed through the communication between hunters, where each hunter needed to communicate strategy without wanting to startle their prey. Such a language would have a very different form to those options already discussed, arguably it might convey just as much through subtle auditory cues such as whistles and clicks, as it would though visual forms such as the hand signals that Marines use in television shows and movies (I don’t know how accurate these portrayals of hand signals are compared to actual battle signals). How you’d develop a written form for hand signals would be something interesting to consider. Perhaps hand signals would be no different to verbal communication patterns, in much the same way that users of modern sign language read and write using the standard alphabetic symbols of the wider community.

We’ve got a supernatural presence in the setting (in the form of various supernatural beings, and races that are descended from them). So lets go with a blending of the trade lingo and the religious conceptuality as a starting point, then maybe branch toward other concepts and tactical variants as we look at the dialects (which will be re-incorporated into the core language at a later stage in the process).

If we look at a specific conlang such as Esperanto, we find that it was created to be a precise and definitive tongue to avoid confusion in lexical terms. The language has made efforts to specifically avoid duplicate words for the same symbolic concept, and has avoided using the same word to describe multiple symbolic concepts, unlike English which has entire thesauruses (thesauri?) dedicated to the variants of expression for a single notion. A young trade language might start that way, a single word for short, another for long, a prefix allowing variants for “very-” (very-short, very-long). It might include terms to indicate value, colours, materials, method of construction, method of use…and from there it spreads. As a core foundation of trade, the language would imply a sense of ownership, because something can’t be traded unless it is yours or maybe your tribe has simply invested you with stewardship over the item until it is traded (either way there is an implied commodity value and ownership, either singular or communal).

We start with arbitrary assignation of sounds to concepts.

How about a culture that believes in concepts of reincarnation and a cyclical nature of the universe? The absolute core of these beliefs would be the simplest and most fundamental elements of culture and language. Perhaps a binary existence of yang (life, movement, energy) versus yin (death, stillness, matter), I know that these aren’t exact definitions of the concepts as understood from a Chinese perspective but we’re talking about a fantasy culture with its own beliefs that we are making up on the fly. Having a vague shorthand to get people on the right page is a good thing, but deviating from it to make something new is better. If we were just going to use the strict Chinese interpretations then we might as well add Mandarin or Cantonese as languages to our setting, since they are already so rich and complex.  

Since we’re going for something a bit more exotic, how about a metaphysical trinity? Life (as a symbol of growth and maturity), Death (as a symbol of weakening and a return to the earth), and Spirit (as a symbol of rebirth and a transition through the darkness before new life can be reborn). Through these core conceptual definitions, we instantly get the understanding of a cyclical nature. We could even expand this into a six-fold system, where the concepts are basically…

Birth / Conception (the state of things starting) [Concept 1]
Growth / Invigoration (the state of things growing) [Concept 2]
Strength / Maturation (the state of things in their prime) [Concept 3]
Subversion / Stagnation (the state of things that have passed their prime) [Concept 4]
Death / Destruction / Completion (the end of things) [Concept 5]
Undeath / Spirit / Oblivion (the state of things renewing themselves for their next beginning/birth) [Concept 6]

I’m not sure about the fourth option on the list, but maybe that’s a good thing. If I can’t think of a good English term for the concept that I’m trying to describe, then there’s a good point of difference between that culture’s thought patterns and the general English / Western paradigm.

At the very core of this language, I’m going to assign six sets of vowel sounds to these six fundamental concepts. For each of these sets of vowel sounds, there will be a short form (for which I’ll use lower case) and a long form (for which I’ll use upper case).
a as in c(a)t – A as in c(A)pe
e as in (e)xit – E as in (E)
i as in (i)diot – I as in (I)ce
o as in h(o)t – O as in (O)pen
u as in c(u)t – U sounding like the first long vowel sound in (Ar)t
o - oo as in c(oo)k – O sounding more like the “u” in c(u)te
e - ǝ (Schwa) is a neutral vowel sound, not allied to any of the six core concepts

Initial assignment of these sounds to concepts…
[Concept 1] a/A
[Concept 2] u/U
[Concept 3] o/O
[Concept 4] i/I
[Concept 5] o/O
[Concept 6] e/E

These are generally arbitrary assignments except that I started with the idea of the Australian “cooee” call which is a sharp /k/ consonant with a long “oo” then short vowel “i” diphthong sound. The call is known for carrying across long distances. By imagining that this call might be a warning of danger, this links the fourth and fifth concepts into core vowel forms, and I’ve worked from tere.

It would be just as easy to start with assigning consonant sounds, pitch intonations, or tonal variance to the core concepts underlying a language, but I’m going with vowels.

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