18 December, 2014

A Fox's Guide to Conlangs (Part 1)

Conlang is an abbreviation of “Constructed Language”, the practice of creating such things is referred to as “conlanging”. Conlanging is a hobby as old as fantasy literature, and perhaps even older if you work on the assumption that superstitious folk might have made up languages spoken by the gods and the faeries at the bottom of their gardens. Some of the most famous conlangers include JRR Tolkien with his creation of the Elvish and Orcish tongues of Middle Earth, George RR Martin with his rudimentary formation of the Dothraki tongue (which was expanded and refined far more thoroughly by linguistic scholars for the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV show), and the controversial creator of the Klingon language in Star Trek (claimed to have been invented by James ‘Scotty’ Doohan, and a number of other individuals). One of the more famous and respected conlangs is the hybrid tongue of Esperanto, designed as a universal language, but never really getting far except as a hobby among certain circles.

There are web forums dedicated to the conlang as an artform (for example conlang.org and conlang.wikia.com), and plenty of resources scattered across the web. The problem is that most of the conlangs I’ve encountered are rather crude. Many conlangs are primary a bunch of exotic nouns, possibly with a few verbs thrown in, and are barely able to form a meaningful communication of ideas.

This series is designed to act as a resource for people thinking of forming their own languages for fantasy (or sci-fi) setting. The purpose is to create a linguistic form that does not rely on the cultures of earth, and might in fact help in the description of non-terrestrial cultures.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Generally, there are two forms of grammar.

Prescriptive grammar comes first, it describes the way people should speak and the rules they should use when engaging in conversation within a specific language. As an example that most people would recognise, the forms of grammar for computer programming languages are prescriptive. They tell you the rules you need to follow before the communication process will be understood by a computer to perform a specific task.

Descriptive grammar comes second, it describes the way people already speak, and the rules they do use when they seek to communicate within a specific language. The rules of grammar used by anthropologists trying to understand the languages of tribal groups tend to be descriptive; the language came first, and the grammar simply tries to understand it.

There are some interesting cases that exist between these two general forms. Upper class English, which you might also call “The Queen’s English” uses a prescriptive grammar. The grammar is based on the dialects of England but was specifically formulated as something “other”, a form that was not in regular use, and thus a form that would differentiate “educated speakers” from the commoners. French as a general language also exists somewhere between prescriptive and descriptive as a council of scholars meets every year to formally recognise any changes, and rein in any linguistic anomalies that they deem undesirable to the tongue.

The grammar of a constructed language will almost always be prescriptive. The language exists as a fantasy that no-one is capable of speaking until the grammatical rules are formulated. Some people might dream of a language, and try to describe the grammar so that people in the real world might speak it, and there could be a debate regarding how “descriptive” or “prescriptive” such a grammar might be. But generally, since the language didn’t exist in the physical world, any grammar describing it is prescriptive and comes before the speech.

The aim of this series of posts is to prescribe an effective non-real language, a “realistic” language that is not “real” but which might be used to convey information. Such a language might help form the backstory for a culture, there might be elements of history in its words, semantic and metaphorical constructs that inform us about the thought patterns of the cultures who use the language. The aim is not to string a bunch of consonants together with various apostrophes and other unusual punctuation forms to sound “exotic and alien”. 
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