The writing system of XXiiaaxi: Connecting a world with its language

When putting a lot of work into building an interesting conlang, I think it is important to have a way to show off the way everything fits together. You have to balance the way the language sits within its constructed world with its own linguistic properties. One way that I have highlighted the interesting properties of a language I have made, XXiiaaxi, is through the writing system.

Writing systems can be an excellent place to show this because they inherently are the interface between your language and its world. It turns the words and sentences into something physical, and in the history of human language we have seen writing systems change in response to the writing tools available. The writing system I designed combines my constructed world and the linguistic features.

In order to understand the design of the writing system, it is important to know that a central divide in my language is between functional words and lexical words. For example, every sentence has a lexical verb (like create) and an functional auxiliary verb which captures the grammatical functions (like the aspect or the location of the event). Similarly, every noun phrase contains a lexical noun (like language) as well as a functional case maker which contains all of the grammatical information about the noun (like number or case). For example, the sentence “Students created languages” would be written like this:

wuss           liiyu-rus      luwwza     ruxx         uuxxiaax-jjus     raru-shi
nom.pl       student-N   perf.dist    acc.pl       languages-N      create-V
“Students created languages”

For simplicity, the gloss and translation have lost some grammatical information, but hopefully, you can see the difference between the lexical and the grammatical elements. ruxx (the accusative, plural, honorific marker) is the grammatical information for the lexical root uuxxiaax ‘language’. The auxiliary verb luwwza contains the grammatical information about the lexical verb raru ‘create’ (although it’s not next to the lexical verb).

Each lexical root also has a suffix that defines what grammatical category the root takes on (a noun, a verb, an adjective, etc.). We have similar suffixes in English. For example, raru in the above example means ‘create’ when it’s a verb, but ‘creation’ when it is an inanimate noun, and ‘creator’ when it is an animate noun.

So, when designing my writing system, I wanted to capture these three different types of information (lexical, functional, and grammatical category). I wanted to do this in a way that represented how these functions actually occur in the language.

One of the core properties of lexical roots is that they refer to unique parts of our experience of the world. A lexical difference in languages might be the difference between walk and meander or between dog and puppy. These words might be related in what they describe, but they’re not related by a consistent grammatical function (the way walked and walk are). they can be understood from context or diacritics (a great example of a language that uses an abjad is Hebrew).

I wanted to capture the created world of XXiiaaxi and also highlight the underlying linguistics behind the language design. The aliens for which I was designing a language do not have mouths, but instead speak by using energy rods which rough the air and create sounds like fricative sounds (like /s/ and /z/), approximants (like /r/ and /l/), and vowels (like /a/ and /u/). In doing this, the power rods create waves between them, as shown in the sketch below:

Slide6

I knew I wanted to make these swoops and waves a distinctive part of my writing system because they are a distinctive part of my alien’s linguistic world. I imagined them coming up with their writing system by trying to scribble down exactly what they saw when someone was speaking, and this left them with a writing system defined by waves.

Each of the consonants in my language created a mark that would distinguish its swoop. For example, the sound /s/ would be marked with an open rectangle, □, along the swoop. Voicing (the difference between /s/ and /z/) would for the most part be marked by filling in the shape. So /z/, the voiced counterpart to /s/, is marked with a filled rectangle, ■. Another important consideration was the length of each swoop, as my alien language is sensitive to the length of consonants. For example, ssuzu means ‘planet’ with a long /s/ sound, but with a short /s/ sound, suzu means ‘water.’ As such, the length of a swoop corresponds to length of the consonant.

You can check out the whole range of consonants in my language below:

slide5.png

Okay, so we have an abjad to write the lexical roots of the language. In theory, this abjad could have been used for the whole language, but I really wanted to draw the line between the lexical and the functional.

There are two types of functional information in my language, and the two have some differences as well as similarities. The functional affixes that tell you about the category of the root (like –rus in the “Students created languages” example from above) attach directly to the root in my language. Other functional words are separate words and tell you the grammatical properties of the root.

These two types of functional elements also share important characteristics. In human languages, the form of grammatical information can also change depending on the context or lexical word that it modifies. For example, past tense in English can appear as –ed on a verb liked walk (resulting in walked), but as a vowel change on a verb like run (resulting in ran). The other important similarity with functional elements is that my language has a limited number of them. Whereas new lexical elements are constantly needed to describe experiences, concepts, and things in my language, my language is not adding new specification for functional elements, such as number (limited to just singular and plural) or for parts of speech (limited to just noun, verb, and adjective).

Because the functional content is finite, I used an ideographic system where each possible grammatical meaning has a diacritic that is placed near the root it modifies. Because there is a limited set of meanings, an ideographic system is actually much easier for conlangers because you don’t have to regularly invent a new symbol. I was also able to economize the number of ideograms by using the same marks to refer to different grammatical relationships for nouns and verbs (there is also research highlighting how these systems work similarly). For example, my language has one mark to refer to honorable nouns. This same mark is used when the speaker/writer wants to express approval of the verb.

So how does the ideographic system work? First, we have to define the category (noun or verb) of each root. To do this, I chose to represent verbs horizontally and nouns vertically. This manipulation of the way the abjad is arranged also parallels how this information is suffixed directly to the root (rather than as a separate word).

For example, if we were to place the nouns and verbs from the example sentence (liiyu-rus ‘student-N’, uuxxiaax-jjus ‘language-N’, and raru-shi ‘create-V’), we would first figure out the abjad and then place the verb raru-shi horizontally, and the nouns liiyu-rus and uuxxiaaxx vertically, like so:

Slide4

Once we have all of our words arranged, we can also add in the other functional words. To represent this sort of meaning, I used diacritics around the roots. For example, an arrow ∆ placed near a set of swoops can mean the root is plural. It is ideographic in sense that the arrow shows an increase in the number from singular to plural. When it is placed near a verb, instead of meaning plural, it means the event has a special aspect, either perfective or inceptive. While a bit more abstract, this is still ideographic because these aspects have more than one stage in the event. For example, to begin to run (inceptive) conceptually requires an earlier stage without running, and a later stage when the running has begun.

While I won’t describe how each of these symbols represents the concept it is tied to, each of these marks is deeply symbolic to the aliens in my world. To check out the whole range of my grammatical meanings, and how they are represented for nouns and verbs, check out the chart below:

Slide3

With all this new information in mind, let’s return to the first example sentence:

wuss           liiyu-rus      luwwza     ruxx         uuxxiaax-jjus     raru-shi
nom.pl       student-N   perf.dist    acc.pl       languages-N      create-V
“Students created languages”

Looking first at the auxiliary verb luwwza we have to represent four meanings (perfective, distal, positive evaluation, declarative). To mark this we can add in ∆ for perfective, | for distal, and ○ for positive evaluation (remember that declarative is unmarked):

slide2.png

Next, we add the case lines for both of our nouns (|| for nominative, and accusative is unmarked). ∆’s for plural, and ○’s for honorific:

Slide1

And that’s how you build each sentence!

When I made the writing system, I also wrote a short passage to show how this worked. It might take too long to run through each of these, but you can check out this .gif of the writing system which shows how everything would flow together for my aliens.

Composition

— This is original content written by Nick Twiner (website, email), MA at Queen Mary University of London. 

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