How To Create Your Own Language
Need a special, tailor-made language for that new work of fiction?
Need a language to code all of your good (and bad) gossip in?
Need a hobby?
. . . Desperately?
Then conlanging is the thing for you! So grab a pencil and paper (or a keyboard and word processor), and welcome to the wonderful world of conlangs.
A conlang is, by definition, a language that is invented by one or more people for private use, usually for a work of fiction or as a secret code. Usually, only the inventor speaks it and has a working knowledge of the language.
So, does this mean only linguists can create conlangs? Nope. But this doesn’t mean one can simply throw a bunch of random words together, assign them to English words (or any other language you may speak), and call it a language. It doesn’t work that way, and we certainly wouldn’t find languages such as Quenya and Sindarin as interesting as we do today if Tolkien had done so.
As for the actual creation of the language, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Which means starting with the sound of the language and working your way (slowly) up to grammar and words. Word building should be one of the last things you do. Although the rules you create beforehand are by no means set in stone, having no base at all will only topple your language.
So, now that I’ve gotten all of the warnings out of the way, let’s get on with what you’re here for in the first place.
Knowing another language is helpful during this process. Even knowing something about another language without speaking a word of it will help (skimming through the lessons workbooks for Sindarin and Quenya in the Languages section is an excellent idea, as well as a very accessible resource). If you don’t know any other languages, then don’t despair. Pick up a book on grammar, preferably of another language, to steal ideas from. Knowing a little about the topics you’ll be working closely with (grammar, morphology, syntax, etc.) will make the whole process much easier.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START . . .
This is just a list of words it might do you well to make the acquaintance of. And don’t worry; they don’t bite.
Conlang = constructed language
Conlanger = you (the creator of a constructed language, you lucky devil, you)
Phonology = the defined range of sounds and syllables that are permissible in your language.
Grammar = the broad term for all the little things that make your random lists of words into a real language (this topic includes morphology and syntax).
Morphology = what words mean in the context of a sentence (past, present, and future tenses, gender, nomative case, dative, possessive, etc.).
Syntax = sentence structure, how you form questions, commands, and how you form conjunctions, etc.
Diacritic = one of those little lines or dots that appear above letters (usually in foreign languages)
Stress = the part of a word you emphasize. This is a MUST
Consonant = these are the sounds characterized by obstructing airflow combined with the position of the tongue in the mouth.
Vowel = vowels rely on the shape of the mouth rather than the obstruction of airflow.
Diphthong = several consecutive vowels that are considered one sound, such as the Sindarin AE, EI, and AU.
Digraph = similar to a diphthong, a digraph consists of several consecutive consonants that represent one sound, such as CH, SH, and TH.
STEP I: PHONOLOGY
And no, this has nothing to do with your long-distance bill.
Phonology refers to the defined range of sounds that are permissible in your language. Because this is one of the MOST IMPORTANT things you have to do, I suggest spending a good deal of time on this step. The first thing to do is look up the basics of phonetics, become acquainted with what phonology entails and what it means. Do some research on the languages you want your conlang to sound similar to, and see what sounds they do and don’t include.
This is where you can also decide if your language will be consonant-heavy or vowel-heavy. For example, in one of my constructed languages called Taiogeuinaa, the bulk of the language is carried by the vowels. Consonants are few and far between, never double, and there can be as many as four vowels in a row (diphthongs included). Because of that, I had to create a huge range of vowel sounds in order to give my language variety. Overall, I ended up with more than fifteen separate vowel sounds.
Now that that’s all said and done, we can move on. The first thing you’ll want to do is decide what sounds are permissible in your language. How do you want your language to sound?
This would be an excellent time to look up the IPA, or the International Pronunciation Alphabet. It shows the various sounds that occur in languages around the world. The version of the IPA I use most in my languages, one that deals mostly with English, can be found through Omniglot.com. See my Resources section for more info on Omniglot.com.
What consonantal sounds will make up your language? How many do you want there to be? We all know what consonants are, and here is where you get to choose which ones make up your language. And remember, you are choosing sounds, not the actual letters.
Digraph is just a fancy word referring to a pair of consonants that represent one sound, such as TH (these/thin), SH (sheep), PH (phone), etc. While English has these sounds, it does not distinguish between digraphs and consonants. It only states that the two individual consonants, standing next to each other, create a new sound (though not in all cases, as with GH in ‘though’ (which is silent) and ‘ghost’). Whether or not this happens in your language is up to you, but I find it easier to include these as actual consonants rather than special pronunciation cases.
Vowels aren’t just limited to A E I O U. There are about separate twenty-two vowels sounds that occur in English alone. If you want to imitate an existing language, use the same vowel sounds and pronunciation rules. You can also add vowels or take some away. Maybe you want your language to be limited to A I and O. Or U and E only.
Another fancy word for a pair of letters that create one sound. Diphthongs are pairs of vowels such as AI, AE, OU, etc. that represent one single sound. Again, whether you have a lot, some, few, or none at all is up to you and how you want your language to sound.
A Note on Diacritics
If you decide to use diacritics in your language, do yourself a favor and give it (or them) a specific meaning in your language. This will help to avoid any headaches later on, and, if the rules are set in stone (though they can always be changed later), it will help to avoid confusion, not only with you, but with anyone who later encounters your language.
I usually only use diacritics to discern between the different phonological values of my letters (for example: the difference between e (as in ‘bed’) and é (as in ‘hey’)).
For those who don’t know what diacritics are, here are some examples:
Acute accent = á
Grave accent = à
Circumflex = â
Tilde = ã
Diaeresis = ä
And don’t worry about how they are used in other languages. You can use them however you want. Just because they are used in one way, doesn’t mean you have to use them the same way. Mix it up a little. You can even use diacritics to show what part of a particular word is stressed. Diacritics don’t necessarily have to change the sound of a letter.
STEP II: STRESS
To save yourself pain and agony later, now is the time to lay down a stress rule. While creating a language is an on-going and changing process, the stress rule is the one thing I suggest you set in stone. With a stress rule, your life will be much simpler later on.
There are several ways to approach stress. You can use a method similar to what Tolkien used in Sindarin, which is to determine which syllable of a word is stressed based on length and makeup. There are also tone and pitch-accent systems, as used in Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese (the tone system), and Japanese (pitch-accent).
The tone system basically uses the tone of the voice to inflect meaning. And these tones are not limited to high and low tones, and can include rising and falling tones. Since I know little about this particular system, I suggest doing some research on it if this is something you think you might like to use for your language.
The pitch-accent system is used in Japanese, and is somewhat similar to the Sindarin stress rule. However, whereas the Sindarin rule depends on word length, each Japanese words seems to have its own particular stress placement, regardless of length, which means the stress of each word must be memorized.
Whatever system you use, I repeat: SET IT IN STONE. Well, make it a soft stone. You can change the stress rule later on if you find it too cumbersome or somehow inappropriate for your language, but the important rule here is to have one BEFORE you get any deeper into your language.
STEP III: PHONOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS
Phonological constraints control what kinds of words occur in your language. This is basically the letter-by-letter makeup of each word. It also helps to define the general sound of your language overall, further developing the idea you started with in Step I.
Phonological constraint determines if consonants are allowed to double, what letters may or may not follow other letters, etc. For example, Japanese basically allows only (C)V(V)(n). What this means: C stands for consonantal sounds, V stands for vowel sounds, and the n is a syllabic N which can stand alone in Japanese words.
Letters in parenthesis are optional, meaning they can appear in that position or not. So the (C)V at the beginning means either a consonant or vowel may begin a word. As for the part that shows V(V), this means that two vowels may stand side by side, though in Japanese it is usually the same letter. As for digraphs such as SH, they are considered one consonant (and part of one syllable). Some example Japanese words are: sushi, Tookyoo, sashimi, keiyaku, chotto, etc.
But Japanese is extremely simple in its general form, at least compared to other languages like English, which can go as far as: (s)(C)(r, l, w, y)(V)V(C)(C)(C). Which would probably explain the strange spelling of many English words. In another of my conlangs, a syllabic language called Aron’toli, I basically allow: (S)V(S)(l, n, r, s, y)’(S)(V). Some examples from Aron’toli would be: tileade, igel’hi, ngagor’gozi. Please note that in my example, I use S for syllables and V for stand-alone vowels, and the apostrophe is simply a means of separating consonantal sounds. In this way, the phonological constraint is much simpler to read. Otherwise, it would be a mess.
The phonological constraint examples in this section are borrowed from The Language Construction Kit on zompist.com (with the exception of my Aron’toli examples). I give full credit to that language guide. Without that guide, this guide would not be possible, since I’d have no idea what I was talking about. 🙂
STEP IV: ORTHOGRAPHY
(HOW TO SPELL)
Once you have chosen the sounds of your language, you’ll need to create an orthography (which is just a fancy word for a standardized alphabet). Usually, it is wise to begin with the Roman alphabet (what you’re reading now), and come up with a cultural alphabet later on (see Step VII: Alphabets and Scripts).
For starters, I don’t recommend trying anything fancy at this stage. You could just as easily represent a b c d e as é p ς î, but doing so is probably an attempt to disguise a weak phonetic system that turned out too much like English. If you want your language to look like that when written, save the idea for later, when you can design your script. For now, stick with a b c d e. It may be boring, but most people will be able to read it with little difficulty.
Here is where I’d also decide if your language will be similar to English (where a word is made up of individual letters) or similar to Japanese (where words are made up of syllables, which are combinations of consonants and vowels).
STEP V: GRAMMAR
The order in which you do Grammar and Word Building (the next step) is entirely up to you. They exist in this order here because this is my preferred method (after all, how can you possibly begin creating words when you don’t even know if you’ll have verbs, adverbs, and the like?). You can do both simultaneously if you choose.
This is where your language really begins to take shape. The topic of grammar is actually an umbrella, which covers other topics such as morphology, syntax, nouns, gender, case, tense, verbs, pronouns, and everything else that makes up a language. You can deal with those as you come to them, because this topic can be quite overwhelming in itself. As for this guide, I’ll make a list of general topics, and you can go into detail on each one as you go down the list. And remember, you can change anything at any time.
Also remember that I’m not going to cover everything that falls under grammar here. I’m not a linguist and I still have a lot to learn about all this stuff. Most of what I know is from personal experience in making my conlangs. So I hope this section is of some help to you.
– Is Your Language Inflecting, Agglutinating, or Isolating?
Okay, this topic needs some explanation. Inflecting languages are languages, like English, which use affixes to conjugate verbs. The –s we use to pluralize nouns, and –ed we use to show past tense action, for example. Inflecting languages may also designate that one ending means more than one thing. For example, adding –ed to the end of the verbs in your language could mean past tense, 3rd person, negative. I’ll just make up an example for this. Let’s say uhe means ‘to jump’. So saying uhed could be: “He/she did not jump.” Quite a compact method.
Agglutinating languages are similar to inflecting languages, except that each affix has one meaning ONLY. So that could mean that –ed would indicate past tense, -in could indicate 3rd person, and –ai could indicate a negative. So uhe, ‘to jump’, might end up something like uhedinai, “He/she did not jump.”
Isolating languages use no affixes at all. Meaning is implied by adding additional words to a sentence.
– Nouns, Verbs, & Adjectives
Do you have them? All of them? One or two of them? Just because all three exist in English doesn’t mean you have to have all of them in your language. It is possible to drop one of them (or two of them; I think dropping all three would only make a mess of your language). However, I cannot say for sure since I have kept all three for the conlangs I have invented so far. But one of these days I’ll get around to it.
– Plurals, Case, & Gender
How do you form plurals? There are several methods used worldwide, but don’t let that stop you from inventing your own method. In my conlang Erthevilé, I used a combination of the vowel shift (similar to Sindarin’s plural method) and suffixes. In words that end in vowels, the last vowel will shift to another vowel. In words ending in consonants, a suffix is added to the end of the word without changing anything (sort of like in English dog becomes dogs, and woman becomes women).
Case is sentence-dependent. In other words, sentence structure usually implies case without too much trouble. I won’t go into any deep detail, but cases generally include: Nomative (the subject), Accusative (the direct object), Possessive (my, your, etc.), and Dative (the indirect object). As for direct and indirect objects, direct objects are the ones doing something, whereas the indirect object is the recipient of the action. As for how you indicate case, there are any number of ways of indicating it.
As for gender, it is not necessarily needed in a language. I used it only once, and it wasn’t your average male/female/neutral genders. In Erthevilé, there are three genders: inanimate (for man-made objects), dark (for things of evil), and reverent (for things of nature, as well as all plants, animals, and races of people). The people who speak Erthevilé are close to nature and respect it greatly, and the genders of their nouns reflect that. And, usually if something wasn’t immediately recognizable as one gender, it would be placed in the inanimate category.
Pronouns are words that replace proper nouns (names, mostly). The most commonly known pronouns are I, you, we, he/she/it, they, them, etc. How you indicate them is all up to you. Some languages don’t differentiate between male and female pronouns, so you don’t have to, either.
How are you going to form your numbers? Do you form them as in English (forty-three), or do you prefer the German method (three and forty)? Or do you do it another way? There’s no wrong way to form numbers. The method can be as outlandish as you want. For example: to say forty-three, you could say ‘four tens and three’ or ‘three and four times ten’.
– The Articles, A and The
The articles are just like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You can quite easily get rid of one or both. Or, you can have the articles correspond with each of the noun genders (like German der (male), die (feminine), and das (neutral)).
– Sentence Structure
Ah, one of the most important topics of grammar. In what order do you put your subjects, verbs, and objects? English is generally SVO, though it often deviates. There are only six possible combinations, so pick one and run with it. You can make things more interesting by changing word order for certain meaning. For example, in Erthevilé, the default sentence structure is VSO. However, when forming questions or commands, sentence structure switches to SVO. But only under those two circumstances.
That covers the basics of grammar, but other topics still exist. Doing some homework on grammar, as well as looking up examples of styles you’d like to emulate, will help you in building a realistic language.
STEP VI: WORD BUILDING
Here’s where your language truly begins to take shape. But remember, don’t come up with a random list of words. Follow all the rules you’ve already outlined for yourself, and everything should fall into place.
This is also where you’ll begin to see small problems in what you’ve created so far. By problems I don’t mean that anything you’ve come up with is wrong, but you might find that you have to adjust rules or exceptions in order to make everything work out the way you want it.
To begin with, create only a few words at a time. Trying to create hundreds of words a day will only lead to them all sounding similar, and you’ll find yourself quickly running out of inspiration. Take it slow. And, while you might think that having your words sound similar makes it seem more like a cohesive language, it won’t! It’ll only confuse you later on when you have twenty or thirty words that sound the same and mean completely different things. Then you won’t even be able to read or understand your own language.
The best place to go for word inspiration is a website that I’ve found called Fantasist.net. This site has a conlang section that I often use to help me create new words. In fact, the name for Taiogeuinaa came straight out of one the word generators. Also, don’t forget about root words and word families. For example, in Taiogeuinaa, the word for ‘hand’ is amor, which is the root word for other words associated with hand, such as fist, finger, and palm, as well as gestures that make use of the hands, such as stop, cup, greet, to wave goodbye, etc. The same goes for the word that means ‘eye’, which is dhoo. So ‘to see’ is dhopie, which literally means ‘eye-focus’ (not to be confused with ‘I focus’ of course).
Other than that, have fun and remember that anything is possible in your conlang.
STEP VII: ALPHABETS & SCRIPTS
Once you’ve got your grammar down, you can begin making a special script to write your conlang in. Try to find a way to represent your alphabet that somehow reflects the language or the culture in which the language is spoken. This, of course, is not required, but it does help tie the alphabet to the language in some ways.
This is an example of the basic script I came up with for my conlang Taiogeuinaa.
Of course there’s more to it than just the letters, but this should give you a general idea of where to start. There are symbols for each of the numerals, 0-9, and there are symbols to show a double vowel, as well as to indicate where sentences end and begin. Also notice that, in this conlang, I don’t differentiate between upper and lowercase letters. Whether or not you do is up to you. Maybe you want to come up with special capital letters for the beginning of a sentence, and another set of capital letters for proper nouns.
When you first begin to create your script, be as wild as you want, but try not to make your letters too similar in appearance. As you can see above, only a few of the letters are the same symbols, only reversed, such as C/P, D/G, and R/SH. While under most circumstances, this might cause problems when trying to read the script, since consonants never double and are usually separated by a vowel or two, there ends up being enough room between to differentiate between the letters. Also, C and D somewhat resemble their Roman counterparts, which helps them stand out against P and G.
The other thing to remember when creating your script is to take your time. It took me several weeks to develop the script to its current form, and I spent another few days deciding just which letters would be assigned to each symbol (though some of the letters were easy, since they resemble the letter they represent, as you can see in C, D, L, M, N, O, V, and W). I’ve changed a few of them around several times, and (for now) I am happy with the result.
Abjads & Others
What is an abjad, you ask? An abjad is an alphabet that represents only the consonants, or where the vowels are shown as diacritics over the consonants they follow. If English was written as an abjad it might look something like:
i e e e i a
Ths is a sntnc in an Englsh abjd.
Very odd-looking, indeed. Also, don’t let English weigh you down. Left to right horizontal writing is not the only way to form your script. There is right to left vertical, right to left horizontal, left to right vertical, and even in alternating lines from left to right and then right to left (called a boustrophedon). I’ve seen circular scripts, as well, so there is no limit to how you want your alphabet to look. You can even create an alphabet that can be read in any direction.
STEP VIII: KEEP ON STEPPIN’ . . .
Once you’ve finished the steps outlined in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to creating a language. But it won’t stop here. Nor should you. Just keep refining the rules, adding a few new quirks (which will help make your language more naturalistic), and keep building the vocabulary.
So, now that you have some basic knowledge under your belt, go forth and conlang.
RESOURCES & INSPIRATION
I found these various sites very helpful when I first began conlanging. Please note that I’m not including links. A Google search will take you right to them, and they shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you do have a horrible time finding them, PM me and I’ll give you the URL. But only in emergencies, please.
The Language Construction Kit. This is my favorite conlang guide because it’s very in-depth and straightforward. It goes into the structure of language far more than I do in this guide. I’d highly recommend this site for beginning conlangers.
Chris Pound’s Conlang Page. This site is fun. While it doesn’t have any guides to conlanging, it does have several word generating programs, which I sometimes use to get inspiration for word building.
Omniglot. While this site showcases the world’s languages in the forms of their alphabets more than the actual languages, it is a good place to go for some basic information on different languages. Looking at the scripts is a good way to get inspiration for your own script.