By Maya Kilgariff
Based on a project for the QMUL Linguistics Constructing a Language course
When creating a constructed language, it can be quite tempting to make it as original as possible, making choices that would be odd, or even unheard of, in natural languages in order to create a language that feels new and exciting. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good way to make sure that your language is different, and that it isn’t just a reconstruction of the language/s you already speak. [i]
However, the choices you make, to some extent, should have some sort of justification. Some linguists have argued that language universals exist for functional reasons, so it is important to think about why the presence or absence of these universals makes sense for your speakers.
A helpful way to do this is to create a detailed backstory for the speakers of your language, this will make it a lot easier to understand why you’re making the decisions you’re making and what significance they have. It’s important to know who you are creating your language for, where they’re from, the articulators they have, etc. From here you can start thinking about what would make sense for the speakers of your language.
Or, if you’re creating a language for yourself to use, you can think about what is important in a language to you. It can be as simple as what kind of sounds you prefer. What matters is that you like it, and that’s a good enough reason. If you were to make a language for yourself to use based on features you thought were unique and different, but you didn’t actually like these features yourself, it probably won’t be as fulfilling of an experience when you come to speak it.
To show you what I mean, I will discuss some of the features that I included in my constructed language, some of the language universals in my language that were not present, and what the reasons for these were.
The language I constructed is called Fejasi /fejasi/, which derives from the Fejasi words fej ‘people’ and asi ‘garden’, to mean ‘garden people’. As the name suggests, the speakers of Fejasi live in a garden. To be specific, they live in my grandparent’s garden, among the flowers and plants growing there. The speakers are small, winged, human-like creatures (fairies, basically) who have the same articulators as humans do and so can make all the noises that humans can make. The fairies, like the plants that they live amongst, rely on water for sustenance and so rain (and water more generally) is very important to them. The fairies see themselves as a harmonious people: they are gentle and pleasant and don’t care for anything too harsh.
Now that we know who the speakers are, let’s look at some of the features of the language and how they correspond to what we know about the fairies.
First, let’s look at the Fejasi consonant inventory. Notice anything unusual?
Labial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Glottal Labio-velar
Nasals m n
Fricative f θ s ʃ h ʍ
Approximants l j w
You might think it’s quite unusual that only one stop exists in Fejasi. What if I told you that the stop is only used in words that are semantically linked to the concept of rain/water, and that otherwise the use of stops is not permitted at all in the language? That would be even more unusual, right? It would be strange because, in natural languages, the absence of stops is currently something not attested to at all (Hyman 2008). So, the decision to (mostly) not include stops in Fejasi adds originality to the language.
But the reason for me to not include stops can’t be down to originality alone: it has to make sense. Considering all known languages use stops, there must be a pretty strong, convincing reason for Fejasi disobeying this rule. What is this reason? I said before that Fejasi speakers are a harmonious people, and do not enjoy harshness. I believe that stops, in the sounds of Fejasi speaker’s ears, would be too harsh. I wanted the Fejasi language to be a reflection of how the Fejasi people view themselves, and stop sounds, in my opinion, do not fit in with this.
The stop [p] is permitted, however, in words associated with rain and water because I believed that it would be the sound that the fairies associate with water splashing on the ground. Essentially, the sound is used in a sort of onomatopoeic sense. It may also seem strange that a sound is included in a language only to be used in a few words. However, there is actually an abundance of words that are semantically linked to rain/water in Fejasi because of the fact that it is so important to them. Fejasi does not just have words for rain (/pa/) and water (/paʃeə/), but also words for heavy rain (/pilu/), light rain (/polis/), cold water (/pol/), warm water (/pos/) etc. The importance of water is even recognised metaphorically in the language; the word for treasure pa is the same as the word for rain, because the fairies view rain as a treasured substance.
Let’s now explore Fejasi’s morphology. Fejasi is a predominantly agglutinative language, and properties such as tense-marking, number-marking, case-marking etc. are realised through affixation. For example, verbs have tense-marking – not too weird right? Adverbs also have tense-marking, because adverbs agree in tense with the verb – a bit weirder? That second fact should seem unusual, because it is another thing unseen in human language. Another feature that makes my language unique and different.
(1) jaːla-war refe-war fi-lai
fly-PST fast-PST 1SG-ABS
‘’I flew fast’’
So, what is the reason for this unusual feature? The answer, again, is linked to the idea that Fejasi speakers are a harmonious people. The Fejasi language favours harmony, which realises itself in more conventional ways: through features such as front-back vowel harmony and harmony across different syntactic domains (Fejasi syntax is head-initial, no matter the domain). But, it is also realised through non-conventional ways, like having adverbs agree in tense with verbs.
I felt that having adverbs agree with verbs (as well as adjectives agreeing with nouns) would create even more harmony within the language and would help me to maximise this characteristic as much as possible. The idea was that many of the aspects of the language appear to ‘link up’ and complement each other in a way that could be considered harmonious. Now, knowing this, this feature seems fairly plausible, right? It is still unusual, but now there is an explanation for it, an explanation that my backstory helped me to create.
Finally, let’s explore information structure in Fejasi. A lot of languages use intonation to mark information structure (Payne 1997). But, guess what? Intonation has no role in Fejasi information structure. Here we have another odd/unusual feature of my constructed language. Any guesses as to what the reason behind this unusual feature may be? Yep – harmony!
I wanted Fejasi to be as harmonious as possible, and I felt that harmony would be maximised if there were minimal changes in intonation. I envisioned a sort of continuous flow between all the sounds in a word and all the words in a sentence.
So, imagine, in English, you were asking someone a question, perhaps ‘Do you drink water?’. To indicate that your utterance was a question and not just a statement you would probably use a rising pitch. This is not possible in Fejasi.
Instead, if a Fejasi speaker wanted to indicate that they were asking a question, they would use a question particle, suffixed to the verb. The question particle is [sof] when the preceding vowel of the stem is a back vowel, and [sif] when the preceding vowel is a front vowel (because of front-back vowel harmony!):
(2) ʃeələ-θe-sif far-iri nɪ-paːʃeə-f-alai
drink-PRS-Q 2.SG-ERG INDF-water-SG-ABS
‘’Do you drink water?’’
Imagine, then, that you wanted to emphasise a particular word in your question. In English, you would probably use intonation, such as emphasising the word ‘you’ – ‘Do you drink water?’ Or, you could emphasise the word ‘water’ – ‘Do you drink water?’. This is also not possible in Fejasi.
If a Fejasi speaker wants to emphasise a certain word, they can still do so, but they will have to use a special contrastive topic marker, suffixed onto the word they want to be the topic of the sentence. This contrastive suffix is [miʃ] when the preceding vowel of the stem it is affixing to is a front vowel and [moʃ] when the preceding vowel is a back vowel:
(3) ʃeələ-θe-sif far-iri-miʃ nɪ-paːʃeə-f-alai
drink-PRS-Q 2.SG-ERG-TOP INDF- water-SG-ABS
‘’Do you drink water?’’
(4) ʃeələ-θe-sif far-iri nɪ-paːʃeə-f-alai-miʃ
drink-PRS-Q 2.SG-ERG INDF-water-SG-ABS-TOP
‘‘Do you drink water?”
When having odd/unusual features in your language, you might want to think about how they might affect your language and what may potentially be lost when implementing these features. It may be helpful to look at features used in other languages, or even universals across languages, to find solutions to potential problems.
No intonation in Fejasi meant I had to find other ways to show things like whether a sentence is a question or not, or which word might be the focus of the sentence. So, I implemented features that I had observed in other languages which would help me achieve exactly that.
Many languages use question particles (e.g. Arabic, Greek, Sinhala, and many more) to indicate questions. I balanced out my extremely unusual feature with a feature that is a lot more common. I also observed that a special topic marker is used in some languages (e.g. Japanese, Korean, Hindi) and I felt using something like this would also be extremely beneficial to my language. Don’t be afraid to use features that are more common across languages. I know it is exciting to try and make your language as unique as possible, but it still needs to work! And using a combination of common and unique features ensures that your language is new and interesting, but also fully functional!
I hope that I have shown you how creating a well thought out and detailed backstory for the speakers of your languages can be so important and so helpful when it comes to trying to make your language fun and unique. Without the backstory, it can be difficult to think of justifications or reasons for why some features may/ may not exist in your language, so make sure you don’t skip this step! Don’t forget the importance of looking to other languages for inspiration too, but, most importantly, get creative!
Hyman, Larry. 2008. Universals in Phonology. The Linguistic Review 25 (1-2): 83 -127.
Payne, Thomas Edward. 1997. Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[i] If you want to find out which linguistic features appear often and which aren’t so common, WALS is great place to look!