24 December, 2014

A Fox's Guide to Conlangs (Part 7) - Consonants

What are the first concepts a language would need to communicate?

I’m thinking that basic warnings or instructive concepts might be a primary motivator for verbal communications. Is something safe? Is it dangerous? How so?

Let’s make these words be quick utterances, so we’ll look at the short vowels and add a consonant to them. A few sources indicate that the most common vowels in human language are /t/, /p/ or /k/ (http://www.vistawide.com/languages/language_statistics.htm, http://www.translationdirectory.com/articles/article1833.php). That’s an interesting bit of information that can be taken two ways. We could either create something that sounds more natural by making sure these consonant sounds are present in the language, or we could deliberately create a language that sounds more alien by leaving these sounds out.

Since our fantasy world has cultures speaking analogues of English, Spanish, French and Maori, it’s reasonable to assume that the common consonants of Earth would match the common consonants of their world. It would be fun to develop something quite dramatically different, perhaps using clicks as a dominant consonant form like the Bushmen of the Kalahari, or trills, or maybe even stopping mid word to whistle a specific tone, but I can’t really justify this. The intended language is aimed as a functional and cultural form of communication.   

At first I was thinking of 6 dominant consonants, in combination with the six vowels this might give us a Japanese-style syllabary of 36 forms, but is probably a bit too trite. It starts to feel like a forced language, rather than something that has organically just grown. Even just having a single consonant gives us more speech sounds (phonemes) than the real world languages Piraha (which only has 10 sounds in total), Rotokas (with 11), or Hawaiian (with 12), so we could get away with a very limited number of consonants and still maintain a viable language. I could go the opposite end of the spectrum such as !Kung (a click language spoken by certain Bushman tribes), with 119 consonant sounds, but that’s probably getting a bit too complicated.
Instead I’m going with a few distinct and different consonant sounds, each of which can be modified with a standard affix sound. The core consonants will be /t/, /d/, /k/, and /n/, also known (in this language) as the elemental primary consonants. Elemental secondary consonants occur when an elemental for has a /y/ sound attached behind it.
/ty/ sounds like ‘ch’ as in (ch)ur(ch)
/dy/ sounds like ‘j’ as in (j)am
/ky/ sounds like q (or at least, from this language’s perspective they are phonemically similar enough to be considered the same).
/ny/ sounds like the middle letters in the name of the singer “E(ny)a”

Supplemental consonant sounds add a bit more variety to the language, and here we might add four more basic forms commonly encountered in human languages. These might be /s/, /r/, /p/, /w/….only the combined consonantal sounds of /sy/ (which might sound like ‘sh’) and /py/ (which might sound like the ‘p’ in com’/py/’uter) have a sound that is relatively common in English, but this point is basically moot at the genesis of linguistic development for the language because the language only begins with secondary forms for the elemental consonants, and not for the supplemental ones.

That gives us 12 consonants to play with and 12 vowels, possibly a syllabary of 144 consonant-vowel (or vowel-consonant) paired letterings. This would increase to 160 if we added the ability to use vowels by themselves. Certainly enough to develop a language from. I’m not 100% behind the idea of fixed written syllable forms, that’s just a notion that’s floating through my head due to my vague understanding of the Japanese culture and language.

Now for those initial communicated concepts. This language (which has not yet been named, because I haven’t quite gotten to the part of the language development process where I define the word for language) is very conceptually oriented. It is hoped to be an object based language for verbal communication, perhaps even fractal in nature like a well-crafted database of interconnected conceptual imagery. I’m imagining the culture of its people to be well organised, in trade, in spiritual beliefs and in general life. I’m intrigued by David Peterson’s Zhyler language, it has a variety of fifty-seven noun cases and numerous noun classes. I’m imagining the ability to mix and match these to give very specific word meanings in context, or specific contexts that are generated through the use of very few words.

I’m also thinking with the structure I’ve developed so far that strings of consonants will not form a part of this language. Strings of vowels, yes….only occasionally exceeding two vowels, and rarely exceeding three, but it could be possible to see a word showing four or five consecutive vowels (with some kind of non-aspirated stop between them…which may need to be depicted as a letter form of some type).
If we work on the assumption that the simplest and most common words in the language are the quickest to convey, then they would be single syllables. The more convoluted forms and concepts would need more refinement to convey, and thus would build through multiple syllables, and then through prefixes, suffixes and circumfixes (which I don’t think are used enough in our world).

Since we need to start nailing down concepts through the arbitrary assignation of sounds to meanings, it’s time to just get on with the process by picking a category of communication and applying everything necessary to make it communicable within the language.

Let’s start with forms of address between people. This includes salutations, greetings, farewells, active listening comments, I can’t think of a specific word in English that covers both greetings and farewells (and my cursory searches for such things yielded no results, possibly the closest being “interjection”). The essence of these basic conversational terms links directly back to the six core concepts and a single consonantal addition, more complex conversational terms might play with multiple vowels (but I’ll get to them later). These words form the start of a sentence in common conversation.

“Da” [Concept 1] This sentence will open the conversation – a greeting “da”
“Du” [Concept 2] This comment will expand the conversation with possibilities – a question “du”
“Do” [Concept 3] This statement poses a possible answer, but keeps conversation open – a theory
“Di” [Concept 4] This statement makes the definitive answer and closes this avenue of conversation – a statement.
“Do” [Concept 5] This comment not only closes the avenue of conversation, it closes the whole conversation  - a farewell.
“De” [Concept 6] This comment foretells that new conversations will arise, and maybe the same topics will be discussed – a “see you later”.

As a separate place to start, let’s consider nouns, and the classes that nouns might belong to. The easiest way to do this might be to categorise everything according to “animal, mineral, vegetable” or “solid, liquid, gas, other”, then refine the concepts further by the addition of extra syllables. A more complex way of doing it would be to choose a series of noun classes (in the manner of Zhyer) and see how they interact with the six core concepts to convey a specific idea. For this, I’m thinking of a base syllable for the noun class, preceded by the conceptual vowel syllable. Variants of the specific type would be defined by the addition of suffixes. This will follow the Japanese model of big to small, where the largest family of items is subdivided into smaller categories of possibility, and subdivided further until something very specific is defined. Context first, specifics later.

That’s enough for today, we’ll set the framework for those details tomorrow.
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