Designing a fictional language: part 1

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking lately about scifi and fantasy, and worldbuilding, and how one of the earliest things a writer (or this writer, anyway) does when designing a character is to come up with a name for that character.

Are you a worldbuilding nerd? Do you have characters and places to name? Would you like the names you choose to feel like they really belong together, like they all come from a particular place with a particular culture and feel to it? And would you like to lay the foundation for making up a whole fictional language for them while you’re doing it?

Lucky you, because I have a doctorate in linguistics, and I can tell you how.

What we need to do is to come up with a set of rules to describe how your culture’s language sounds (or, since we’re writing fiction here, how it looks on the page). To do this you’ll need to decide what its people’s vocal tracts are like, which will tell you what sounds they can make. Next you’ll decide which of those sounds they actually use. Then you’ll design the structure of their language’s syllables. At this point, you will know enough to go ahead and begin constructing names…or, if you want extra credit, you can go on to make up some phonological transformations first. That would be Tolkien-level stuff though, and do you want to be doing Tolkien-level stuff?

Yeah, I thought you probably did.

So without further ado, here is installment 1 in designing your scifi/fantasy language, with the specific goal of creating names.

 

Vocal Tracts

vocaltract

Vocal tracts are what birds and mammals use to make noises. They include everything that can be manipulated to make sounds using air that flows from the outside into the animal’s lungs and back out again.

Different kinds of animals can have different vocal tracts. Birds, for example, have a vocal tract that consists basically of a trachea, a syrinx, an oral cavity, an upper esophagus, and a beak. Mammals on the other hand have a laryngeal cavity or glottis, a pharynx, an oral cavity, and a nasal cavity. Humans specifically can also manipulate their tongue and lips to change the sounds their oral cavities make.

Are your characters humanoids? Are they actually humans? Are they not humanoid at all? That will affect their vocal tracts, which will affect what sounds they can make.

Before you get too excited, let me take you aside for a moment and have a serious talk about that. If your creatures aren’t even humanoids, they’ll still have to communicate to your readers somehow, using symbols for sounds that your readers understand. Your hero might be a gelatinous blob incapable of any noise but low-frequency humming, and that’s all very well, but you’ll have a hell of a time conveying it on the page.

You’ll encounter similar questions if your characters are birds, or if they have a syrinx like a bird…or even if they are mammalian but non-humanoid, like horses. Jonathan Swift did a bang-up job giving names to his intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver’s Travels, by the way. Just looking at “houyhnhnm” you see that it’s a sound a horse could make.

But it will be easiest and most straightforward to say that your characters are humanoid, or at least that they articulate like humans. Just saying.

 

Phonology

If your characters are humanoid then they can make consonant sounds at a few basic points of articulation. They have flexible tongues and lips that can touch those places of articulation in different ways, too.

The basic kinds of consonants that humans make, broken down by what parts of the vocal tract are making them, are:

Glottal sounds, made with the glottis. That’s down near your vocal cords, the farthest down in your throat that you can manipulate sound, and the most familiar English glottal sound is H.

Pharyngeal sounds, made with the pharynx. English doesn’t have these! If you’d like to make a pharyngeal sound yourself, try making an H, but make it hiss. Our glottal H is by necessity pronounced without much turbulence of air, but the pharynx can be tightened, and a hissing H will do that. Some people make this sound when they’ve just taken a bite of really spicy food.

Uvular sounds, made against your uvula, that fleshy blob at the back of your mouth. A few English dialects from specific parts of the British Isles use a uvular sound at the end of the word “loch.” Standard American English doesn’t use uvular sounds.

Velar sounds, created by putting the back of the tongue against the soft palate, which is the soft part at the back of your mouth. Familiar English sounds here include K and G.

Palatal sounds, made with the middle part of the tongue against the hard palate, which is a fancy way of saying the top of your mouth. The English Y sound happens here.

Retroflex sounds, made with the tip of the tongue rolled backward to touch the hard palate. The usual English R is pronounced here, and some dialects pronounce L here too.

Postalveolar sounds are made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge, which is the downward slope as you move from your hard palate toward your teeth. Many English speakers pronounce L here, as well as N.

Alveolar sounds are the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. D, T, S, and Sh are here.

Dental sounds are created with the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth. Think Th.

Labiodental sounds are created with the lips and teeth together. F, V.

Finally, bilabial sounds are made with the two lips together. Thing B, P, and M.

In addition to places of articulation, consonants have a manner of articulation. This describes how the sound is made, versus where it’s made.

Plosives are made by completely closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation, building up air pressure behind it, then releasing the pressure. Plosives include B, P, D, T, G, and K. They can be made with the vocal cords humming (in which case they’re called voiced) or still (unvoiced).

Nasals are made by closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation and letting air flow out the nose instead of out the mouth. English nasals include M, N, and Ng.

Trills are exactly how they sound: air is rapidly passed over the point of articulation, allowing brief puffs of sound to escape.

Taps or flaps are sort of like light plosives. The vocal tract is closed lightly so air escapes with relatively little force.

Fricatives are formed by narrowing the vocal tract just enough so that the escaping air becomes turbulent; think of rapids in a river. English fricatives include F, V, Th, S, Sh, Z and Zh.

Lateral fricatives (and lateral approximants too) are the same, but the air flow is diverted around either side of the tongue.

Lastly, approximants are sounds in which the vocal tract narrows at the point of articulation, but even less so than with fricatives. They are almost vowels, and in many cases serve the same purpose as vowels (like in the next lesson, when we’ll talk about what’s at the heart of a syllable). In English these include R, Y, and L, which is a lateral approximant.

If you, like me, prefer your information in chart form, then jump over here to see a chart of all the sounds that are made in known natural languages, then here to see the sounds in English specifically. Keep those tabs open, by the way. We’re going to be referring to them.

But what about the vowels, you say? Vowels are wild, that’s what. They don’t depend on hard points of articulation—they’re squishy-wishy slippy-slidey timey-wimey…uh…you get the idea. Suffice it to say they can happen anywhere inside the oral cavity. They can be tense or lax, which means you either tense or relax your vocal tract while you pronounce them, and they can be rounded, which means you make a circle with your lips when you pronounce them, like in the sound “oo”. In addition to this, a vowel can be a monophthong, meaning it is pronounced at just one place in the mouth, or it can be a diphthong, meaning it slides from one place to another, or it can be—wait for it—a triphthong, meaning it moves between three places. All English dialects have several diphthongs: the vowels in face, choice, goat, price, and mouth are all diphthongs. The Wikipedia article on English phonology claims that Received Pronunciation (which is a prescribed “proper” English accent, now falling out of favor but still common on BBC broadcasting) includes triphthongs, but it hasn’t given us any examples of them in use (phooey.)

Go back to the chart I sent you to earlier. This chart is fantastic because if you turn the sound up on your device, it will pronounce the sounds for you. You’ll notice besides the runs of consonants that English has there are series of consonants pronounced as a pop or click, while sucking air in instead of blowing it out, with an extra puff of air…there are lots of fun possibilities.

You’ll also notice that the letters English uses to represent familiar sounds aren’t always the same as the symbols used on this chart. An American R, for example, is ɻ on this chart. Our th- is represented as either θ (unvoiced) or ð (voiced). This system of symbols is called IPA, which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. These symbols are used because people make more sounds than any alphabet has letters to represent them with. If you really want to keep your head straight as we move forward with constructing your culture’s names, get familiar with those symbols. You can do it. I’ve taught them to a gazillion undergraduate students. You can learn them too.

Spend some time with the IPA chart. Learn about all the wonderful noises humans can make. Try to make them yourself. Get excited about it. Take time with this step, because the next step is to use this chart to construct your language’s phonological inventory.

What’s that?

You’ll notice that English doesn’t use all the possible sounds. No language does. All languages use only a subset of all the noises the human vocal tract can produce. So the first thing you need to do to figure out how your language sounds is…you guessed it. Decide what your language’s subset is, and make a list.

Pick some or a lot of consonants—somewhere between ten and thirty.

Pick some or a lot of vowels—somewhere between three and twelve, say. Also decide if your language has diphthongs and triphthongs, and what they are.

Make your list using IPA symbols, if you can hack it. If you really hate all those little symbols and would rather use the familiar alphabet to write your sounds down, that’s fine too (this is all just fun and games anyway, right?)

You might want to look at the phonological inventories of languages other than English while you’re doing this. Look up Arabic’s. And Mandarin’s. Look up Navajo and Hawaiian. Just google “X phonology” where X is whatever language you’re interested in, and charts will be easy to find.

If you look at enough languages, you’ll notice that languages tend to have “trends” in their phonological inventories. Hawaiian doesn’t have any voiced stops, for example. Arabic has lots of sounds in the velar, uvular, and pharyngeal positions, a part of the vocal tract that English practically ignores. Navajo differentiates unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops. Mandarin differentiates tones—sounds spoken using rising, falling, and flat tones of voice. Isn’t that amazing?

So. As you are picking out your language’s phonological inventory, keep in mind that languages tend to have trends in their consonants. You can add consonants that have tones, that are clicks, that are aspirated…whatever makes you happy. Just keep in mind that at the end, you’ll have to figure out how to write it in the standard alphabet for your readers (because you might be willing to learn IPA for your craft, but your readers won’t be.)

At this point, if you are still writing characters who aren’t human, you can impose some broad logic about their phonological inventories based on what you decide about their vocal tracts. Are they cat-people with cleft upper lips, who can’t pronounce bilabial sounds? Do they have teeth like ours that allow dental sounds? Flexible tongues like ours? Do they have an extra point of articulation?

Enjoy yourself, and settle your choices. In the next article we’re going to build syllables.

 

Working Along

Each article in this series will end with a Working Along section, where I’ll make up a naming system at the same time you do, so you can see how I work.

For the sake of simplicity, my characters are human. Say they live on a colonized planet, a couple thousand years after colonization, when the parent cultures have been forgotten.

Below is an inventory of sounds I chose. When choosing yours, I recommend that you start with a word or handful of words that “sound” like your culture, for whatever reason, and use the sounds in those words as the seeds of your phonological inventory. If you already have a character name that you’re attached to then use those.

I started out by thinking of lovely mellifluous words without a lot of hard sounds, like “Wampanoag” and “Momoa.” I picked out the sounds used in them. Then, because I like them, I expanded the series of nasals, added some more velar/uvular/glottal sounds because I guess this language likes that part of the vocal tract, and finally added a trill because they’re fun.

Then I filled out my vowel inventory with mostly mid and back vowels, because that’s where so many of the consonants are happening. I finished off with four diphthongs.

phonology