How To Create A Language: The Conlanger’s Compendium

We’re all just making it up as we go.
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How To Create A Language: The Conlanger’s Compendium

Are regular human languages too worn out for you? Perhaps you’ve had enough of English, you’re not stimulated by Spanish or you’re just so done with Dutch. If you’re ready to move on from boring natural languages like these, it might be high time for you to create a language of your very own.

There are plenty of reasons you might want to construct a language from scratch — whether you’re a linguistic hipster who’s too cool for mainstream tongues, you need a language to be spoken by characters in a fictional universe you’ve created or you’re looking for a top-secret uncrackable code to help you evade the authorities in your next art heist.  (Okay, maybe your life isn’t that dramatic, but you get the point.)

The good news is that to create a language, you don’t have to be as much of a trailblazer as you might think. If you’re looking to join a community of like-minded language crafters, you’re in luck; the world is full of conlangers, or people who create and practice constructed languages for fun — or even for a living. Take David J. Peterson, for example, who’s the mastermind behind the fictional languages in the Game of Thrones series, like Dothraki and High Valyrian. Or look at J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of the Lord of the Rings franchise and the constructed languages like Elvish within its universe. With a sharp knack and passion for constructing new tongues, you can make a lot of friends and fans — and, if you play your cards right, some sweet, sweet cash.

Designing new languages from scratch is an art and a science, and just like with many other intellectual and (semi-)academic endeavors, there’s an established precedent for how to do it effectively. If you’ve always wanted to create a language but aren’t sure what steps to take to get started, keep reading!

How To Create A Language

When it comes to building an artificial language, it’s wise to take a look at the elements and characteristics of natural languages that already exist — the ones you, I and the rest of the world speak every day. Who would have thought that the perfect template for conlanging was already at the tips of our fingers — or, rather, the tips of our tongues?

Alphabets And Sounds Abound

First and foremost are the sounds. Every language you’ve ever interacted with (barring a few exceptions, like sign languages) has a phonology, a repertoire of sounds — called phonemes — that can be pulled from to build syllables and words.

Languages by no means have to have the same phonologies. In fact, phonetic differences are part of what makes the world’s linguistic diversity so rich. The phonemes that are found in English, for example, don’t overlap exactly with those of, say, German, which has umlauted vowels and phlegmy glottal consonants that English doesn’t. Even further away phonetically from these two languages is an African language like Xhosa, which uses clicks unheard in most other languages around the world.

So it’s up to you how you want to define your language’s set of sounds. You might only want your tongue to have a dozen carefully selected consonants and vowels in total, or you could use every single human-produced phoneme ever documented in the International Phonetic Alphabet to create a language. Follow your heart (and your ears!).

And if your language is going to have sounds, what you’ll likely want to design next is an intuitive jump: a writing system to capture them. A carefully crafted writing system can transform your language from an oral-only means of communication to a multi-medium living linguistic system.

In creating your writing system, will you borrow from the existing Latin or Cyrillic alphabets, in which letters are meant to represent individual sounds? Perhaps you prefer pictograms or a character-based script like you’d find in Chinese. Or maybe you want something completely different that you design yourself, based off of Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform or even the abstracted doodles you’ve been drawing in the corner of your notebook. When it comes to crafting a writing system for your conlang, there’s no wrong or write way to do it! (With a developed writing system you, too, can make groan-inducing puns just like these!)

A Linguistic Recipe — Just Like Grammar Used To Make

One of the most important things you’ll need to create a language is grammar — a hallmark of every full-fledged tongue, natural or artificial. If hearing the word “grammar” makes you cringe, cry or cower in fear, don’t worry. Learning a language’s grammar in the general sense of the word doesn’t mean running conjugation drills and being humiliated and shamed by society’s old-school linguistic “elites.”

Grammars are actually just sets of rules that govern how languages naturally behave — what will and won’t fly when you’re combining the different elements of a language together productively, sort of like a blueprint or a recipe for combining the constituent parts. So, in the case of English, for example, an English speaker knows subconsciously that the phrase “I go” is grammatical, and “me go” isn’t. If you’re a native speaker of a language, you know intuitively what fits with or obeys that language’s grammar just by listening to the language (and your gut).

Designing your own grammar allows a good bit of creative flexibility. You get to make the rules! You might decide that in your language, subjects always precede verbs. Or maybe you make a noun plural by saying it twice. You could even declare that in your language, there are forty-five ways to say the definite article we call “the” in English. Whatever you choose, you can relish in the fact that for once, you get to make the rules, that you get to be the grammar guru — instead of being the one who’s chastised and corrected by your high school teacher for mixing up “who” and “whom” for the umpteenth time.

A Wealth Of Words

Now that you’ve locked down what your new tongue sounds like, to create a language you’ll also need a vocabulary: words, words and wait for it — more words.

Sure, you don’t have to come up with a word for every concept in the universe. If you’re creating a language spoken by beings in a fictional galaxy five hundred years in the future, you probably won’t need to include words for food, animals and clothing that exist only on Earth in the 21st century. Not all of the tens of thousands of words you use regularly in your everyday speech and writing necessarily need a direct translation in your new constructed language. Pick and choose what makes sense to you.

But you’ll probably want highly functional words that describe concepts that appear throughout many world languages already — function words like “and,” “but,” “you” and “we, or conceptual words for things that have been in people’s lexicons for millennia, like “man,” “woman” or “water.” You can even come up with smaller meaningful word units — also known as morphemes — that aren’t full words themselves but that somehow alter the meaning of other full words. For example, in English the sound -s is added to the ending of some words to pluralize them. You could create a morpheme that affixes to the front of an adjective to negate it or one that follows a verb to indicate the future tense. It’s these linguistic bits and bytes that will give your language the shape and structure it needs to succeed.

Let Your Language See The Light

Now that you’ve got down the basic building blocks of your new language, you’re ready to share it with the world! Maybe you’ll want to publish a reference book or dictionary in your new tongue. Or perhaps you want to unveil the wonders of your linguistic lovechild at one of the world’s conlanging conferences.

But conlanging can also be as simple as teaching your new language to a few family members and friends or hosting workshops and meetups for interested learners in your neighborhood. You could even join one of the many conlanging communities and forums around the internet to spread the word about your new invention. Who knows? With enough work and a little luck, you might just become the next big invented language legend.

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