Language Construction 101

by Suzette Haden Elgin

You can of course construct an entire language composed of just the item “A”; linguists torment students with that kind of thing routinely. But suppose you want to construct a language that might be of some practical use for communication in your fictional universe… here’s how it’s done. It is not difficult.

STEP ONE: Decide whether you want a polysynthetic or agglutinating language (one where you construct meanings by assembling lots of small meaningful pieces into larger chunks, as Navajo does) or an isolating language (one like English,where words are made up of only a few meaningful pieces and often of only a single piece.) Polysynthetic or agglutinating is quicker, the way building stuff with a TinkerToy™ set is quicker; I recommend it.

STEP TWO: Choose an order for verb, subject, and object. Only six are mathematically possible; English uses the order “Subject, then Verb, then Object.” Pick one.

STEP THREE: Choose the structure and assembly rules for your syllables (pronounceable chunks). For example, you could decide that all syllables of your language must contain a vowel; that none can begin with more than one consonant; that all can end with either a vowel or a consonant; that no double (long) vowels or consonants are allowed; and that no more than twelve syllables may be in a single word.

STEP FOUR: Choose a set of phonemes (that is, chunks of sound that change meaning.) For English, the fact that we understand “bat” and “sat” as two different words proves that the sounds of “b” and “s” in those words are two different phonemes. Hawaiian has eleven phonemes, English has about thirty-five, seventy is roughly the upper limit, and all human languages choose from the same set. (You could pick sounds no human language uses, of course, if you’re constructing a language for ETs, but you couldn’t be sure that your human readers would be able to pronounce it in their heads as they read; it’s not wise to annoy your readers that way.) Suppose we pick these twelve: /b/, /g/, /s/, /1/, /m/, /h/, /w/, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/.

STEP FIVE: Set up an inventory of syllables that your rules will allow, either by hand or by computer. Like this….

a, e, i, o, u, ba, be, bi, bo, bu, bab, beb, bib, bob, bub, baba, bebe, bibi, bobo, bubu, bubab. . .

…and so on, till you’ve listed as many as you feel you need to get started with. By hand — which is how I did Láadan — this is tedious; a computer will whip the whole list out for you in a flash. The length of the flash is determined by what you did in Steps Three and Four. Obviously, if you only allow three-syllable words in your language and you have only seven phonemes, the list will be shorter than if you’re using ten syllables and twenty phonemes.

STEP SIX: Decide how you want to handle your basic grammar markings. That is: How will you mark something as plural? As past (or other) tense? As completed or still going on? And how will you indicate whether something is the subject, the object, the possessive, etc.? Write the rules you need to do these things. Suppose you decide to mark these basics by adding syllables to your words. If you do that, you’ll have rules like these: “Adding ‘ba’ at the end of a word makes it plural.” “Adding ‘ga’ at the beginning of a verb makes it refer to past time.” “Adding ‘fa’ at the end of a word marks it as the subject of your verb.” And so on.

STEP SEVEN: Start assigning meanings to your listed syllables, for your core vocabulary. That is, for words like “house, woman, child, man, tree, fire, make, eat, drink”… and words that are totally invented as well, if you need them because they’re as basic to your fictional culture as “fire” is to human culture.

STEP EIGHT. Make your basic decisions about syntax. That is: How will you indicate that a sentence is negative, or is a question, or is a command? And– very important — how will you combine two or more sentences into a single bigger sentence? Once again you could do this by using syllables. Like … “Adding ‘fo’ to the last word in a sentence indicates that it is a question.” “Adding ‘wa’at the end of the first word of a sentence indicates that it is embedded inside a larger sentence, as ‘Mary is tired’ is embedded inside ‘I know Mary is tired’ in English.” And so on. No human language does these things by repeating words, but for an ET language you could decide to do exactly that. You could have a rule that said “A sentence in which every word is repeated twice is a question.” “A sentence in which every word is repeated three times is a command.” And so on. Human beings would find that cumbersome, but your ETs might not; that’s up to you.

STEP NINE. Take some simple text… a short folktale is a good choice… and start translating it into your language. This serves as a diagnostic probe to let you know what you need to add or change. For the Láadan language, which was constructed to express the perceptions of women, I began by translating the Twenty-Third Psalm, because the King James Bible is one of the most masculine-perception-expressing books I know of and that psalm is the right size.

And there you are; this is how it’s done. When you get through with these steps you will have a usable language, meeting all the specifications for a usable language. That’s just the beginning, of course. Turning it into a living language would require native speakers. Using it to write great literature would require many years of additional elaboration, plus writing talent. Using it as part of a story or novel would require the construction of a culture to go with it. Turning it into a best-selling grammar and/or audio program would require a powerful media unit like the group behind the Klingon materials. Nevertheless, you would have a whole language, constructed by you, to your personal specifications, to use for whatever purposes you like.

Copyright © 1999 by Suzette Haden Elgin
Originally posted at: Copied with permission.