Some Heterodoxy
2014-10-07 15:12:02
Anthologica Universe Atlas / Users / Hallow XIII / Some Heterodoxy

Some Heterodoxy

Miekko's recent observation on his blog that conlanging suffers from the problem of <there are a ton of ""phonologies"" everywhere with nothing behind them> got me thinking.

Not because the sentiment is particularly new or anything. The entire aforementioned blog is based on this premise, and it has been a kind of quiet consensus in my circle for quite some time. Rather, it struck me that this is only one particular aspect of the problem, and the esteemed blog author has been quietly writing based on this but never said it aloud.

The problem is that a lot of conlanging is done in empty generalities.

The standard procedure, as recommended by all the manuals, is to start with some typological framing and then work inwards; the phenomenon of the phoneme table is the most extreme end of it, but the next steps are not much better: decide dominant word order, inflectional typology &c. &c.

It is of course clear to the linguistically knowledgeable reader, which at the time of publication will presumably be all of them, that such typological identifiers are often of questionable validity and even where there is good reason to believe that they constitute useful information, from a conlanging perspective they still tell you almost nothing about the language whatsoever. There are, on conservative estimate, around 2500 SOV languages in the world. Given that these are distributed across multiple continents and a score of families, it is clear that such information is useful perhaps to the typologist, but not to the conlanger, who is usually interested in describing a single language rather than thousands.

And yet, many conlangers seem principally to be creating entries in typology databases. Is it any wonder, then, that so few conlangs are at all notable? If the information you present to me is roughly equivalent to what I might read on WALS, I will spend about as much time on it as I would on WALS. The best conlangs all share the singular feature of detail.

And the interesting bit is that it is pretty irrelevant how many details you have. Having just a few interesting quirks specified pretty much immediately translates into memorability. Consider one of our more Nortorious members. Most people's conlangs, when put into one sentence, would return something like "It has 25 consonants, ten vowels, is SVO and isolating." With this person, it is "it fucking inflects nouns for the TAM of the dominating verb @#!%!". The same goes for any good conlanger.

And the best part is that it takes extremely little work to satisfy this criterion. Any of miekko's miniature conlangs does, and that blog both has very many entries and makes a point of being bite-sized. Expanding such a miniature conlang to the point that it would already rank as "very complete" by the standards of conlangdom is similarly not very hard, since general structures can be derived from details quite a bit more easily than the other way around. All that you need is to realize that it is perfectly viable to start with the details. Not a lot of people do.
Hallow XIII 5 years ago


5 years ago
In an early episode of Conlangery (#4, I think?) Bianca espouses a generative approach to conlanging rather than a typological satisfaction approach; she generates text that she likes the appearance and sound of, then attempts to decode it, making revisions until a balance between a semantically consistent architecture and an appropriately euphonic (and/or cacophonic) result is found. This approach gives you immediate control over the look and feel of the product, and is something I've found very tempting to employ. I plan on doing it for Paligu, rather than fabricating a table of affixes blindly in advance, and I think it will produce a much more natural-feeling result.

Obviously this approach has its limits and pitfalls—particularly, substantial compromises may be necessary to ensure historically plausible derivations from ancestral forms (and thereby avoid the great "negatives-are-the-same-word-spelled-backwards" problem and similar.) For the generation of a proto-language, however, I think this would be an excellent way to escape the database-filling rut—of which I have my own obsessions, which are mostly about filling up dictionaries. (But that being said, dictionaries are familiar, useful things that people use all the time; what in the world gives conlangers such an itch to always produce phonologies first?! Are linguistics courses to blame? Is it just a meme in the community? If neither, who the hell uses WALS that much? How much can we blame this on ASDs? etc.)

I think it might make a neat community project for here at Annie to try and write a guide for this... let's call it gestalt conlanging, maybe? Sort of an alternative to the LCK targeted at more artsy types and less at analysis fetishists. Helge Fauskanger's introduction to Quenya has a grammar section that goes on for pages and pages about the inflections before it introduces a list of them, so clearly there are some very prominent materials which endorse some kind of deviation from the tabular norm.
5 years ago
Idk, is the LCK targeted at analysis fetishists?

Well, whatever the point, I think with a bit of scope expansion this could work — really just a guide to free-form conlanging, which seems to be the general specialty of people here. I would totally be on board.
5 years ago
Admittedly it isn't; it's pretty agnostic. But the community, ZBB included, is so rife with it that you'd need a counterweight anyway.
5 years ago
Well, i suppose it makes sense to do that if what one aims for is for one's conlang to be noted and/or notable... but then again, just how notable is Miekko's blog, which seems very interesting but I have no recollection of ever hearing about it in the past, is anyway?

At any rate, I'm all for the overthrowing of the tradition that "the beggining of a conlang is a phoneme inventory and a few typological traits". I'm myself starting with lexicon with my current one, we shall see how it goes.
5 years ago
I like the WAYK method that was popular for a while on the CBB. I generated a lot of a language in a short time with that, and only abandoned it because it tried to have a Khoisan-like phoneme inventory and turned into a kitchen sink.