There have been a few times recently when I found myself wanting to send friends to a website that explains what conlanging is, particularly in reference to languages created for works of science fiction and fantasy. Nothing out there suited me precisely, so – here is my own.
Conlanging is making constructed languages. A conlang is a constructed language and a conlanger is…well, guess.
A conlang can be as simple as a list of names for a fantasy world, created to make them sound consistent; or it can be a sprawling, life-long project with grammar, phrasebook, illustrated website, searchable dictionary, newsletter, and flag. Most fall somewhere in between. A carefully-thought-out world to go with a conlang is, of course, a conworld.
There are a few kinds of conlangs. Most conlangs are artlangs, created for artistic pleasure. Tolkein, with his Elvish languages that he tweaked and obsessed over his whole life, was the father of all artlangers – even if he would have had no idea what that meant!
Tolkein’s languages (Quenya and Sindarin, among others) are also fictional languages, which means specifically that they were created to go with a fictional universe. Klingon is a fictional language; the linguist Marc Okrand was hired to create it for Star Trek. A fictional language that does not have an extensive grammar, but just contains words to name people and places in a science fiction or fantasy setting, is a naming language.
The next type of conlang has a few different names. An engelang (engineered language), loglang (logical language) or philosophical language is designed to be “logical” from whatever the viewpoint and philosophy of the creator choses. A full explanation is here. The most famous loglangs are Loglan and its offshoot Lojban, though calling them “famous” is probably an overstatement.
An auxlang is created to be an auxiliary language to facilitate communication between people who do not share each other’s native tongues. If intended to be used on a large scale, it might also be called an IAL (International Auxiliary Language). Esperanto, created by Dr. Zamenhof, is a famous auxlang. Because this is my personal website and not a Wiki that is supposed to present a neutral view, I am going to say that anyone who truly believes that enough people will ever learn an invented language for it to be genuinely useful as an IAL is kidding himself. Like it or not, English has taken that place in the modern world.
The opposite of a conlang is a natlang – a natural language. Naturally.
Examples of conlangs
For a particularly nice example of well fleshed-out conlang, check out Teonaht, created by an English professor who goes by the pseudonym Sally Caves. She is also the author of “Hollow Pursuits,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Reginald Barclay first appears; if that isn’t geek cred, I don’t know what is! (Way cooler than the fact that my uncle’s name is in the Tron credits.) This is a very old website now, but I still find Teonaht so pleasing that I revisit it once and a while.
More of my favorites are Mark Rosenfelder’s Virtual Verduria, which is an entire world; and Irina Rempt’s Ilaini, of the Valdyan people. For a more engelang take, check out Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen, based on the concept of a language that has no verbs. And David J. Peterson, the president of the Language Creation Society, has the honor of being one of the few people to actually get paid for conlanging: HBO hired him to construct the Dothraki language for their version of Game of Thrones.
Why would you do that?
If you are mystified as to why someone might create languages for fun, well – I don’t have an answer for you. I also have no answer for why people tell stories, paint pictures, compose music, do sudoku puzzles, play sports, or follow the scores of sports they don’t even play. You can come up with a Unified Theory of Hobbies and Artistic Occupations if you want. And while you work on that, I will keep writing stories, enjoying other people’s music, ignoring sports, and making conlangs….
I do know from personal experience that conlanging is a brilliant way to learn about linguistics. I started creating languages for my fictional worlds when I was kid so small I had to look up the difference between a noun and a verb! When I was a teenager, the Internet came along (what a weird thought) and I discovered that other people did what I did – and beautifully so. Flash forward some years and I was pouring over Swahili grammars, doing the exercises in Michael Kenstowicz’s Phonology in Generative Grammar, and changing my mind for the Nth time about whether I wanted to mark the accusative case by a clitic or a suffix.
Of course, one problem about knowing something about linguistics is that you are frequently reminded how little most people know. (No, all languages are NOT descended from Hebrew. Shut up or I will kill you.) Which brings me to my next point, which is deserving of its own section:
Conlanging for writers
If you write fantasy or science fiction that takes place where languages other than ours are spoken, you need to know at least little bit about conlanging; specifically, naming languages.
Writers, I am going to say this once, nicely: you don’t have to create full-fledged conlangs to name your characters, but for the love of God, don’t use the Punctuation Shaker trope. Or the Law of Alien Names trope. Or the Aerith and Bob trope. Us readers, we do notice. You don’t want me to have to invoke the Evil Overlady’s rule, do you?:
All apostrophes in the middle of fantasy names are now to be pronounced “boing.”
–Issendai, “The Evil Overlady Has Solved a Pressing Literary Problem”
Avoid the “boing,” friends: Here’s what to do instead. I think that this guy did a really good job of saying what I want to say, but in a less-ranty way than I would. Read his posts, take them to heart, and follow his excellent tips.
Why Names in Fantasy Often Suck, Part I | Part II | Part III
Now, whether you are a writer or just someone who is interested in learning more about conlanging, here are links to some of the sites I’ve found most useful (or would have found useful, if they’d existed when I was trying to learn this stuff…grr). The International Phonetic Alphabet has a section to itself, because, frankly, I consider learning it a Life Skill for anyone who is even remotely interested in words.
- Conlang section on WikiBooks.
- FrathWiki, the conlanging Wiki.
- Linguistics glossary from SIL; SIL has done amazing and important work in describing and preserving languages around the world. They also provide useful free software and fonts.
- Pablo Flores’s How to create a language.
- Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit.
- Thomas E. Paine’s book Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists, the “conlang cookbook”; it’s written for real linguists, but brilliant for conlangers.
- Rick Morneau’s essays on language design, some suitable for beginners and some more advanced.
The International Phonetic Alphabet
- Interactive IPA chart with sound files.
- Phonetics and Phonology, a detailed but clear introduction to phonetics that will help you understand the chart.
- English as written in the IPA, a good way to get a quick grasp of the IPA for native English speakers.
- IPA transcription practice from nonsense and real words, with excellent videos.
- Conlang X-SAMPA, the computer-friendly transcription of the IPA that is in common use among conlangers.
- i2speak, an onscreen keyboard that makes typing in the IPA easy.
- Omniglot, all about writing systems, both natlang and conlang.
- Swadesh list, a basic vocabulary list.
- Basic English wordlist, another wordlist that (with tweaks) can be used as a good jumping-off point to create vocabulary.
- McGuffey readers, a set of old-fashioned children’s books containing usefully gradated sentences.
- Rick Harrison’s Universal Language Dictionary, a huge vocabulary list.
Useful natlang references
- Ethnologue, a reference guide to natlangs.
- Online Etymology Dictionary, for English, but packed with great real-world examples of how meanings change over time.
- World Atlas of Language Structures, another great reference to natlangs.
The conlanging community
- Conlang-L mailing list, very high-level discussions, and very high traffic!
- Language Creation Society, an international group of conlangers that holds yearly conferences.
Advanced conlanging materials
- Language Universals Archive; when you need this, here it is.
- Liepzig glossing rules; ditto.
- Software tools for conlanging.
- Speculative Grammarian, a webzine of linguistic satire, for when you become a hardcore language nerd.
If you find this page a useful reference, you can refer people to it at www.bit.ly/conlangs.
Last updated: 27 March 2015 (updated bit.ly link).
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