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Conlanging 101

by Brian Loo Soon Hua 5 months ago in pop culture · updated 4 months ago
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If wanted to create an alien language, just HOW alien are we talking about?

The above inscription reads, "I am a human being". Image by the author.

I’ve never been a fan of the Star Trek “pretty much human with a bump on the forehead” kind of alien. Nor for that matter, some of the languages made up for these fictional aliens. Take Klingon — spoken by warrior aliens with — sigh — bumpy foreheads. They have human-like mouths to the point that Klingon can be spoken by humans (albeit the guttural sounds take a little bit of getting used to) and is in fact a popular conlang for language nerds…I mean, conlang enthusiasts to learn. You can read Shakespeare in the original Klingon! (add link here), I kid you not. Oh, and Klingon script is alphabetic like most human languages.

Personally, I’d go the Arrival route. (One of my favourite sci-fi movies ever!) Make an alien language completely alien. I mean, in this gem of a movie the aliens are kind of like intelligent giant squids with 7 digits at the end of their tentacle limb. And here’s the fun part: they squirt ink that they manipulate to form complex symbols linked together to create the equivalent of splotchy sentences that look like random irregular circles suspended in water (but isn’t!). It’s so weird that it’s PRECISELY what a language “written” by non-humanoid, non-mammalian aliens should look like! The language is so alien that any human who learns it basically has to rewire his or her brain. The linguist tasked with finding a way to communicate with the heptapods goes through precisely that and gains the ability to experience past, present and future all at once.

The weirder, the better

So with that in mind, I set about crafting a few conlangs of my own for my upcoming novel. Yes — I’m writing my first fantasy novel, and no — I have no idea what the heck I’m doing (fumbling about in the dark, or so it feels at times) other than regurgitating words and desperately trying to herd them into coherence.

But the thing is, I love fantasy and I love languages so why not incorporate both into my little creation?

This is where my conlangs (short for "constructed languages") come in.

Conlanging

How about these for weird languages?

Imagine a race of mystical canine creatures so mathematically-inclined that their language IS mathematics. Some numbers are used to represent words and sentences are just strings of numbers that add up to a specific number with various properties. In written form, everything looks just like numbers arranged in circular formations.

Check out this one. Think aquatic fairy creatures that use chromatophores or colour cells under their pale skins to created complex swirls of patterns and colours. The patterns are almost organic and things like tense and aspect can be indicated by the speed in which they swirl around like living words on the creatures’ skins.

"Your tail is beautiful" and "Is someone talking to me?" in the Undine language. Image by the author.

The idea comes from our own cuttlefish and octopuses (octopi?) who can not only change their colours and skin textures to blend in with their environment but can apparently communicate primitive ideas to a certain degree with their displays of colours and moving patterns.

A language based on taste?

Imagine a race of beings with no vocal cords and fairly weak vision. This is where I got the idea to experiment with a taste-based language. That’s right, the “speakers” are multi-limbed eight-headed beings who spit little coloured packets filled with organic flavour compounds into each others’ mouths. The packets are eaten and the sequences of chemical flavours are interpreted as words and sentences by the “listeners”. Other races on their world call them "vomit eaters" but the term is now considered derogatory.

In the image below, the flavour packets spell out “I am a human being”. Note that each individual creates flavour packets with unique designs so even just by touch individuals from this species can recognise each other the way we recognise voices.

"I am a human being". Image by the author.

Touch communication

Finally, imagine a race of blind tentacled folk who communicate via touching each other’s wide teardrop-shaped bodies and using their tentacles to form elegant touch-sentences on their skins?

"The man is works in the mayor's office". Image by the author.

Intrigued? Stay tuned. I’ll be going through the grammar and pronunciation of each of these languages in the next posts. (Philosophical question: “Does the term “pronunciation” apply to words formed from colour, taste and touch?”).

pop culture

About the author

Brian Loo Soon Hua

Linguist and creator of off-kilter content. Likes everything from horror stories to cook books. And wombats, please let there be more wombats!

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