Let’s Conlang – Part I “Crash Course Phonology”

Salutations, Brain Exchangers! Welcome to my all new blog series: Let’s Conlang! In this series, I’ll be going step-by-step through one of my all-time favourite hobbies: conlanging. (Note: this is an introduction; the actual conlanging will start next post.)

So, wtf is conlanging anyway? It might sound like some kind of obscure sex act¹, but the truth of the matter is far less exciting than that. Conlanging is simply the process of creating a conlang (a constructed language) and in this series, I’ll be going step-by-step through that process, with you, specifically you, the person reading this right now!

You’ve probably heard of some conlangs before (unless you’ve been living sub lapide for the last umpteen years), even if you haven’t come across the word. Probably the most (in)famous example is Klingon, the language of the Klingons from the Star Trek universe. Next most well-known is probably Quenya, one of the many languages Tolkien created for the denizens of Middle Earth. These kind of conlangs, designed to imitate natural language and enrich fictional worlds, are often called artlangs, in contrast to other conlangs, such as Esperanto, which are designed to be used as International Auxiliary Languages. As useful as something like Esperanto may (or may not) be, we’re not about being useful here – we’re about having fun – so in this series we’ll be focussing on constructing an artlang.

Anyway, enough yackety-yak, let’s get to it!

Where do we start?

Like any creative endeavour, starting out a conlang can be a little daunting. Natural languages are huge, complex systems which have evolved over many thousands of years and we’re expected to single-handedly create one from whole cloth? Well, yes and no. A constructed language will never have all the nuances of a natural one, just like even  the best painting doesn’t contain every detail of the real world. It only needs enough detail².

“But,” you say, rudely interrupting my monologue, “none of that tells me where to start.”

This is true. Sorry about that. I suppose I got sidetracked. Which gives me a great opportunity to make another point: getting sidetracked whilst conlanging is one of the best ways to get the necessary details in there. Maybe I got sidetracked on purpose just to make that point³.

The most sensible place to start is with phonology, which, admittedly, I kind of gave away in the title of this post. Phonology, for the non-linguistically inclined, is the systematic organisation of a language’s phonemes. Phonemes I’ll get to in a moment, by for now, just read it as “sounds”. There are two main reasons that I like to start with phonology, one artistic, the other pragmatic. Artistically, the choices you make in a language’s phonology are going to have the biggest effect on its sound, which will give you direction for other aspects of the language. Pragmatically, the phonemes of a language are its fundamental building blocks, so, yeah … probably best to get them done first.

So, phonemes are important, but what are they? I could write a whole blog post answering that, but it would be boring and, for our purposes, largely superfluous. In a sentence: a phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound in a language.

As an example, let’s use the English phoneme /t/. Mostly, we think of it as the sound of t in top (aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive [tʰ]), but phonemes don’t just have one sound, they also have allophones (literally “other-sounds”) which are either conditioned by the environment they appear in (e.g. the t in stop, which loses its aspiration, becoming [t]) or just in free variation (e.g. the final t in foot may be aspirated [tʰ], unaspirated [t], preglottalised [ʔt], or replaced with a glottal stop [ʔ] all without altering the meaning). If we want to add even more complexity, in most dialects of American English intervocalic⁴ /t/ (as well as /d/) becomes an alveolar tap [ɾ], meaning an underlying /t/ can be realised as upwards of six different phones (sounds).

Now, if you’re not familiar with linguistics, that last paragraph may have been a little confusing with all that “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” nonsense, but terms like this aren’t half as complicated as they seem. It’s just a description of the various phonetic properties of the sound. “Aspirated” means that it’s pronounced with a burst of air (like you feel if you put your hand in front of your mouth and say puff out the candles on the pink pig cake); “voiceless” means it’s pronounced without vibrating the larynx, as opposed to /d/, which is voiced (say tug and dug next to each other; the main differences are aspiration and voicing⁵); “alveolar” means that it’s pronounced with the tongue up against the alveolar ridge (the sticky-outy bit behind your upper teeth); finally, “plosive” means that the vocal tract is completely blocked to make the sound.

OK, deep breath. That probably seems like a lot of work to describe something as simple as the sound t. We don’t want to have to say “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” every time we want to talk about a t. And that’s why we have (drum roll) the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)! TA DAA! In the IPA, “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” is simply [tʰ]. Now, I’m not going to tell you to memorise the entire thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time familiarising yourself with it. That massive Wikipedia article might make it seem very confusing, but all you really need to know can be summarised in this simple table:

IPA2005_1000px[1]

Looking at the consonants, along the top are the places of articulation (where your tongue/lips is/are⁶) and down the left are the manners of articulation (how you make the sound).
Here is a nice interactive IPA chart which let’s you hear the sounds too.
Note: when playing around with phonology, you will want to say the sounds aloud, which can be very useful; however, be aware that you will sound like a complete idiot. This is unavoidable.

For now, I’ll leave you with that.
If you want, spend some time getting to know the terms and symbols of the IPA; we’ll be using them quite a bit in the posts to come. If not, no sweat; you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

This introductory post has been largely non-technical. If you’re not so happy about that, don’t fret; the next post will get into the nitty-gritty of conlanging and we’ll start work on the phonology of a brand new language. If, on the flip side, you’re worried about getting in over your head, there’s no need for that either; Any technical term I use, I’ll give a definition for in the footnotes, or I’ll link you to its Wikipedia page.

Click to continue to Part II, where the real fun begins!

– Ben xoxo

¹ Or maybe I just interpret everything as some kind of obscure sex act.
² What constitutes enough detail is going to vary depending on more factors than I care to list (e.g. what you want to achieve with the language, how much you care about details, how much free time you have, etc.).
³ I didn’t.
⁴ Appearing between two vowels.
⁵ Actually, voiced consonants in English are often partly devoiced when appearing word-initially, but we’ll just ignore that for now.
⁶ Except in the case of the glottal consonants which can be thought of as having no place of articulation or an undefined place of articulation.

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One thought on “Let’s Conlang – Part I “Crash Course Phonology”

  1. Pingback: Let’s Conlang – Part II “Let’s Get Phonetical” | The Brain Exchange Podcast

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