Heterodoxy: Conlanging 101
2015-01-16 18:32:07
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Heterodoxy: Conlanging 101

It has occurred to me that my original Heterodoxy post has a problem: it's targeted primarily at people who already somewhat know what they're doing. Heck, it's pretty much a post to tell myself to be less silly.

So here is a bit of presumably even less controversial (should I rename this series "Orthodoxy"?) advice to people who are either starting out or have managed to avoid learning for a long time.


I cannot emphasise this enough. Typology is the single most important thing for a conlanger to know about. Morphology, syntax and phonology need only be learned rudimentarily because after a certain point they degenerate mostly into esoteric quasi-metaphysical theories about the formal structure of human language that are probably of little interest to conlangers (and in consequence I don't think most people go beyond the basics). Typology, on the other hand, is absolutely vital to producing anything of quality, because it deals at its heart with the question why language is the way it is. It studies panchronic systematicity and how systems interact to form new systems. Language is the way it is because it has changed from how it was before, and language changes because it is the way it is. Truly it is the mother discipline — and apart from all else, reading about typology will invariably expose you to a lot of practical examples of structures in languages around the world, which is excellent for both understanding and inspiration.

But can typology alone provide you with the knowledge to make the conlang of your dreams? Probably not. Hence:


This might seem like a no-brainer, but it goes deeper than it looks. For any endeavor, general knowledge is not quite enough. You always need to have at least some special knowledge relating to the task at hand — and to have that special knowledge, you must learn it. To learn it, you must know what to study. Before you do anything, understand what you want and look up things that are relevant to it.

More general knowledge goes a long way here too, of course, which is why that is point one, but supplementing it is vital. If I am going to do a polysynthetic language I might want to study some things about how they work. If I am going to do an alien language, I should know how they communicate and design the language around it. If I'm going to do a language designed so that you could theoretically program a compiler to understand it, I should get at least a grounding in things like formal logic or general theories of communication — this is where the deeper theories of natural language come in.

You might now think, "what, that is a way too daunting task! I don't want to do that!". Well, I hate to break it to you, but:


No, really. I know that this line has been spouted by various educators, thinkers, buzzword-spitters and would-be intellectuals the world over, but the sad truth is that learning never stops. Think about it this way: even if you just want to make a language that pleases you, few people set out to make a language that matches in every respect their native language. Some people do, of course, and they tend to be indeed well-equipped for this task, but most people want to play with language. Most people have some cool idea: Elves speak my language, and Elves have this special trait, and so their language is like this.

It leads, inevitably, up the ladder of conlanging principles. There is, of course, a way out: you can be pleased with something simply because you do not know it is bad. Many people go this route; often because they cannot do better, sometimes because they do not want to do better. This, however, is a very petty and cowardly course of action. I hope that this text might inspire at least some people to change.

This may seem like a very high-handed, perhaps even judgmental text, but consider maxim three. Nobody is perfect! Certainly not the author, not the best conlangers, whoever they might be. But it is important to note, I think, that putting in the effort pays for itself. You might not reach any hypothetical apex, but anybody who is willing to learn will almost automatically be better received than a fool who stumbles around not knowing he is a fool. And I am willing to bet that most people, upon achieving something through hard work, will be much more fulfilled by the things they did than if they had simply done something uninspired.

Try it!
Hallow XIII 6 years ago