The Art of Language Invention

“Careful now. I must say this right. Upe, I have killed your husband. There’s a gold hairpin in his chest. If you need more soulprice, ask me. Upe, bing keng … No, that doesn’t start right. Wait, I should say, ‘Upe, bing wisyeye keng birikyisde… And then say sorry. What’s sorry in this stupid language? Don’t know. Bing biyititba. I had to… She can have the gold hairpin, and the other one, that should be enough. I hope she didn’t really love him.”

This is a tiny fragment from the novel I was writing when I started hacking on Krita… I finished the last chapter last year, and added a new last chapter this year. The context? Yidenir, one the protagonists, an apprentice sorcerer, is left alone by her master in a Barushlani camp, where she lives among the women, in the inner courtyard. When she learns she has been abandoned, she goes to the men’s side of the tent, argues with the warlord and to make sure he understand she’s a sorcerer, kills his right-hand man, by ramming one of her hairpins in his chest. Then she goes back, and tries to figure out how to tell that henchman’s wife that she has killed her husband. A couple of weeks isn’t long enough to learn Den Barush, as Barushlani is called in Denden (where ‘barush’ is form of the word for ‘mountain’).

Together with the novel, I wrote parts of a grammar of Barushlani. I had written a special application to collect language data, called Kura, and a system that used docbook, fop and python to combine language data and descriptive text into a single grammar. I was a serious conlanger. Heck, I was a serious linguist, having had an article published in Linguistics of
the Tibeto-Burman Area
.

But conlanging is how I started. I hadn’t read Tolkien (much, the local library only had Volume II of Lord of the Rings, in a Dutch translation), I didn’t know it was possible to invent a language. But around 1981 I started learning French, English and German, and with French came a grammar. A book that put down the rules of language in an orderly way, very attractively, too, I thought. And my mind was fizzing with this invented world, full of semi-hemi-demi-somewhat humans that I was sculpting in wax. And drawing. And trying to figure out the music of. My people needed a language!

So I started working on Denden. It’s no coincidence that Denden has pretty much no logical phonology. Over the years, I found I had gotten sentimentally attached to words I invented early on, so while grammar was easy to rewrite and make more interesting, the words had to stay. More
or less.

Then I started studying Chinese, found some like-minded people, like Irina,
founded the Society for Linguafiction (conlang wasn’t a word back then), got into a row with Leyden Esperantist Marc van Oostendorp who felt that languages should only be invented from idealistic motives, not aesthetic. I got into a memorable discussion in a second-hand bookshop when a philosopher told me smugly that I might have imagined I had invented a language, but that I was wrong because a) you cannot invent a language and b) an invented language is not a language.

I got into the community centered around the CONLANG mailing list. I did a couple of relays, a couple of translations, and then I started getting ambitious about my world: I started working on the first two novels. And then, of course, I got side-tracked a little, first by the rec.arts.sf.composition usenet group, where people could discuss their writing, and later on by Krita.

These days, when we need words and names for our long-running RPG campaign, we use Nepali for Aumen Sith, Persian for Iss-Peran. Only Valdyas and Velihas have proper native language. The shame!!

And apart from RPG and now and then writing a bit of fiction, I had more or less forgotten about my conlanging. The source code for Kura seems to be lost, I need to check some old CDR’s, but I’m not very hopeful. The setup I used to build the grammars is pretty much unreconstructable, and the wordprocessor documents that have my oldest data don’t load correctly anymore. (I did some very weird hacks, back then, including using a hex editor to make a Denden translation of WordPerfect 4.2.)

Until today, when young whipper-snapper David J. Peterson’s book arrived, entitled “The art of language invention”. Everything came back… The attempt to make sense of Yaguello’s Les Fous du Langage (crap, but there
wasn’t much else..) Trying to convince other people that no, I wasn’t crazy, trying to explain to auxlangers that, yes, doing this for fun was a valid use of my time. The Tolkienian sensation of having sixteen drafts of a dictionary and no longer knowing which version is correct. What’s not in David’s book, but… Telling your lover in her or your own language that you love her, and writing erotic poetry in that language, too. Marrying at the town hall wearing t-shirts printed with indecent texts in different conlangs, each white front with black letters shouting defiance at the frock-coated marriage registrar. (I don’t believe in civil marriage.)

Reading the book made me realize that, of course, internet has changed what it means to be a conlanger. We started out with literally stenciled fanzines, swapping fanzine for fanzine, moving on to actual copiers. Quietly not telling my Nepali/Hayu/Dumi/Limbu/comparative linguistics teacher what I actually was assembling the library of Cambridge books on Language (the red and green series!) for.

Linguistically, David’s book doesn’t have much to offer me, of course. I adapted Mark Rosenfelder’s Perl scripts to create a diachronically logical system of sound changes so I could generate the Barushlani vocabulary. I know, or maybe, knew, about phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. I made my first fonts with Corel Draw in the early nineties. I had to hack around to get IPA into Word 2. But it was a fun read, and brought back some good memories.

And also some pet peeves… Dothraki! I’m not a Games of Thrones fan, I long for a nice, fun, cosy fantasy series where not everyone wants to kill, rape and enslave everyone else. I found the books unreadable and the television series unwatchable. And… Dothraki. David explains how he uses the words and names the author had sprinkled around the text to base the language on. Good job on his side. But those words! Martin’s concept of “exotic language” basically boils down to “India is pretty exotic!” It reads like the random gleanings from the Linguistic Survey of India, or rather, those stories from the Boy’s Own Library that deal with Hindoostan. Which is, no doubt, where the ‘double’ vowels come from. Kaheera’s ee is the same ee as in Victorian spellings of baksheesh and so on. Harumph.

BUT if the connection with television series helps sell this book and get more people having fun conlanging, then it’s all worth it! I’m going to see if I can revive that perl script, and maybe do some nice language for the people living in the lowlands west of the mountain range that shelters Broi, the capital of Emperor Rordal, or maybe finally do something about Vustlani, the language of his wife, Chazalla.

Let’s go back to Yidenir, doing the laundry with poor disfigured Tsoy… Tsoy wants to sing!

Yidenir, ngaimyibge?” Another fierce scowl.

“What did you say? — do I sing? Er…” Yidenir was silent for a moment. Was this girl making fun of her? Or was she just trying to be friendly?

Sadrabam aimyibgyi ingyot. Aimyibgyi ruysing ho,” Tsoy explained patiently.

“Er, singing, is good, er allowed? when doing laundry? Oh, yes, I can sing… Denden only, is that all right? Er, aimyipkyi denden?

Ruy!

“All right, then… Teach you a bit of Denden, too? Ngsahe Denden bingyop?” Yidenir offered.