Starting up (and spicing up!) your conlang: avoidance languages

The thought of making up a new language out of thin air can be quite intimidating. Where do I start? What should words sound like?

It’s also quite difficult to block the languages you speak from seeping into your constructed language. For example, suppose you want to create a word for “food”, but the first thing that pops into your mind either sounds quite similar to “food” (fud) or a English-sounding word (gamar). As a result, the words in your conlang don’t sound exotic at all… 

But all this is quite understandable! Even computers cannot generate new things at will (this is why we have random number generators).

This post will give you two tips on how to get started with constructing your language.

1. Fix the phonology of your language, so that sound-based constraints delimit the space of possible words for you.

2. Recycle freaky behaviours of natural languages and refashion them for your conlang!

In this blog, I’ll take you through these tips. To start, let’s consider a puzzle about taboo  avoidance in a hypothetical language called Mila.

THE PUZZLE: CONSTRUCTED AVOIDANCE SPEECH IN MILA.

You’re a researcher who is interested in how in-law relationships (affinal relations) are reflected in the language of Mila. Mila is spoken in Mozambique, and your informant here is named Tani.

Mila males take nouns as names. Common male names are: Raka “Courage”, or Bibari “Eagle”. Tani’s father-in-law is named Tako “Tree”.

You’ve chosen this village as a place of study, as there is a very strong taboo between daughters-in-law and their fathers-in-law. If a wife dishonours this taboo, then she is divorced and exiled. This taboo is manifested in the following avoidance behaviours:

1. Physically, the daughter-in-law is banned from sitting with, eating with, and looking at, her father-in-law.

2. Linguistically, the daughter-in-law is banned from uttering any word of the language containing the stem of their father-in-law’s name. 

3. They must resort to various substitution strategies to avoid uttering the tabooed name, in order to express concepts based on their father-in-law’s name. Essentially, daughters-in-law must construct languages for themselves to circumvent this taboo. 

So,  Tani is forbidden from uttering any word based on tako “tree”, and must use substitutions in lieu of tako to refer to trees and tree-related objects, which have the common root tako.

You’ve jotted down Tani’s substitution words below. You do not yet know what some of longer substitution words mean, marked below. 

Tani’s substitutions: used to avoid tako “tree”
Word Meaning

naji

tree

mu

wood

bimono

?

ruba

peak

kipi

leaf

mukala

?

lapimola

?

totonana

?

kota

root

tokimono

?

sususumola

?

But, it is crucial for your own research on in-law avoidance that you eventually know the full range of meanings expressed by Tani in her constructed language. 

In order to investigate the full range of meanings, then, you are learning more about the Mila language by consulting the partial lexicon of Mila below. 

Partial Mila lexicon

Word Meaning

tona

nature

wako

rock

rilo

rock

kaki

big

peto

love

toki

green

wiwiwimola

wind 

bokimola

cancer/disease 

giwimola

bird

lumola

cow

wakomola

blacksmith/grindstone

matamola

chef

lukala

tooth

sakala

pen

matakala

pot used for cooking

wakokala

rock pick

wawakoko

small pebble

kikipipi

stem of a leaf

pepetoto

fire

giwimono

plane

kakimono

giant/elephant

matamono

meal

kaka

courage

monomono

things

matamatamono

meals

boki

to kill/to be sick

lapi

to grow

ka

to be strong

sa

to write

mata

to cook

giwi

to fly

lu

to chew

bi

to be brown

Remember: your ultimate goal is to know enough about the structure of the language so that you can reconstruct the meanings of the substitution words currently marked ?.

Let’s take it step by step! Study the partial lexicon of Mila and answer the questions below.

QUESTION 1

From examining the structure of Mila words, you start to see a pattern in Mila syllable structure. Which of the syllables below is a legitimate Mila syllable? 

  • ba
  • ak
  • bri
  • bap
QUESTION 2

From this, what can you deduce about the structure of Mila syllables? How many consonants (Cs) and vowels (Vs) are there in each syllable, and what order do they occur in? Choose the correct option below.

Mila syllables have the structure… 

  • CVC
  • VC
  • CV

At this point, you might have also noticed that there are meaning similarities between certain words. For example, matamono “meal”, matakala “pot used for cooking”, and matamola “chef” are all related to the concept of cooking. This leads us to the next question… 

QUESTION 3

What is the stem for “to cook” in Mila?

There is another meaning similarity between words. For example, lukala “tooth”, sakala “pen”, matakala “pot used for cooking”, and wakokala “rock pick” are all words denoting instruments (instruments are objects, or tools, that you used to do things with). This leads us to the next question… 

QUESTION 4

If –kala is a suffix denoting instrumentality, what other meanings do the following suffixes have?

  • meaning of –mono: _______________
  • meaning of –mola: _______________
QUESTION 5

You come across a new Mila word, lapikala. Using your new knowledge of Mila, what might lapikala mean?

Since you have now hugely expanded your knowledge of the Mila language, you are now in a position to complete the table containing Tani’s substitution words for your own research! 

QUESTION 6

Complete your initial table with the missing meanings now.

Tani’s substitutions: used to avoid tako “tree”
Word Meaning

naji

tree

mu

wood

bimono

_______________

ruba

peak

kipi

leaf

mukala

_______________

lapimola

_______________

totonana

_______________

kota

root

tokimono

_______________

sususumola

_______________

If you’ve successfully answered the puzzle questions and completed the table (Congrats! Here are some answers if you would like to double-check), you’re now ready to return to the real world—where you wanted to overcome the thorny practicalities of conlanging! In what follows, we’ll link aspects of the puzzle back to aspects of conlanging.

BACK TO CONLANGING

Recall the two conlanging tips provided at the beginning of this blog:

1. Fix the phonology of your language, so that sound-based constraints delimit the space of possible words for you.

2. Recycle freaky behaviours of natural languages and refashion them for your conlang!

So, how did the puzzle relate to these tips?

TIP 1: Fix the phonology

As you’ll have seen from answering Q1 and Q2, Mila only allows syllables of the form CV, where a consonant strictly precedes a vowel. 

But, this seemingly simple constraint on syllables generates quite a sizeable lexicon! You don’t have to think about the shape of the overall word: just focus on each syllable, choose your consonant and vowel, and build the syllables into words. This shows that fixing the phonology of your conlang one way or another is a productive way to go about making new words.

If you choose to fix your phonology in a way that is different from English, this also prevents your conlang’s words from resembling English words. English syllables are not limited to CV structures, so the following syllables are all plausible:

  • ak
  • bri
  • bap
  • strak
  • yats

…but in Mila they would not be. This “implausibility” (implausible referring back to English) gives Mila more authenticity as a new, exotic language.

TIP 2: Recycle and refashion

Although Tani’s language has been presented here as a constructed language, the phenomenon here is in fact attested in human language.

This avoidance speech style is called hlonipha and is found in the Nguni languages, spoken in Zimbabwe and South Africa. These languages include Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, Ngoni, and Ndebele. As described by Herbert (1990), any word with the same root of the father-in-law’s name cannot be uttered by their daughters-in-law.

The following strategies are found in hlonipha:

  • using synonyms
  • using paraphrases
  • deleting/substituting certain consonants
  • making up new words (neologism)
  • using outdated words (archaicism)
  • using loanwords

Here’s an illustration of a similar phenomenon in Mongolian (see Humphrey 1978 for more examples):

Name Taboo Word Substitute

Shar

shar “yellow”

angir “yellow coloured duck”

Bayadaa

bayan “rich”

uyen “ermine”

Galzuud

gal “fire”

tsutsal “spark”

Xazai

xazaar “bridle”

nogt “halter”

If you’re interested, the following table identifies Tani’s substitutions with some of these linguistic strategies.

Word Meaning Strategy

naji

tree

Synonymy

bimono

brown thing

Periphrase/approximation

mukala

woodaxe

Instrumental suffix

lapimola

one that grows

Agentive suffix

totonana

part of nature

Partitive construction

tokimono

green thing

Periphrase/approximation

sususumola

one that rustles and goes sususu

Onomatopoeiac neologism

Most of the time, human languages are already cool enough, and can be a great source of inspiration for conlangers!

There is a great resource which maps out the logical possibilities of how several grammatical phenomena (such as number, person, tense, aspect) are manifested in human languages. This is the World Atlas of Languages Online (WALS, at http://wals.info). Another similar resource is Langscape (http://langscape.umd.edu/), where word lists, texts, recordings, and sound inventories of 6,000 languages are available. 

Hope this post was useful and enjoyable, and happy conlanging! All comments are welcome.

— This was original content created by Ruoan Wang, PhD student at Queen Mary University of London.

Image Source: https://www.irasutoya.com/2014/11/blog-post_353.html

References:

Herbert, R. K. (1990). Hlonipha and the ambiguous woman. Anthropos, 455-473.

Humphrey, C. (1978). Women, taboo and the suppression of attention. In Shirley Ardener (Ed.) Defining females. Oxford: Berg: 73–92.