Lexember, day 19 – eelee

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language

eelee /ˈi.li/ – noun –

  1. a star (celestial object)
  2. a goal, an aspiration
  3. a passion
  4. a romantic partner (usually in a polyamorous context)

In general, celestial objects have rich use in metaphor. eelee is commonly used in aspirational metaphors, referring to hopes, goals, and aspirations. It also gets used for personal passions, from the avid fandom to heartfelt feelings and passions.

The sky is also a common metaphor for romantic relationships. Tezhmese metaphor makes a difference between monogamy and polyamory – monogamous relationships use daytime metaphors and polyamorous ones use the night sky. Thus, an eelee thus someone who one has a polyamorous romantic relationship: a lover, partner, spouse, etc. For a monogamous relationship. the word for sun (rex) is used instead.

Lexember Catch Up, Day 5 – 17

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language

I fell way behind on Lexember, so here is some words to catch up. I’ll catch up here and then hopefully again post day 18 later today.

  1. needebee – n – cat (often shortened to neebee, which is equivalent of ‘kitty’
  2. won – n – piece of bread
  3. sezhelwon – n – tortilla
  4. beenzhae – n – sandwich
  5. asua – ajd – clever, often too clever for one’s own good, mad genius
  6. sil – n – tree
  7. lasen – n -a warning light, a indicator light, and LED, a visual notification
  8. lasenzil – n – traffic light
  9. eeun – n – light
  10. aoowa – n – sky
  11. some – n – medicine, any compound or substance used to improve the health of something, applies to things like sealant, furniture polish, etc.
  12. vanem – n – mask, covering, lie, distraction
  13. inveea – v – measure, weigh, count, assess, watch carefully

Lexember, day 4 – shes

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language

Language: Tezhmese

shes /ʃɛs/ – noun

  1. a sly grin
  2. a trickster

Lexember, day 3 – daregon

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language

(catch up time!)

Language: Tezhmese

daregon /ˈdɑ.ɹɛ.gon/ – noun

  1. chosen family, the people a person is closest to who are not kin

From dar + egon (collective plural suffix). A dar is a person that one is emotionally close to in a way that is not necessarily aligned with romantic feelings or commitments.


Lexember, Day 2: reezenz

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language

Language: Tezhmese

reezenz /ˈɹi.zɛnz/ – noun

  1. an unknown
  2. a baffling thing, a source of unexpected confusion
  3. the aggregate of things that are unexpected and baffling

Usage notes: 
reezenz can used both in the individual and the collective senses, making it irregular (it is never used with the standard collective number suffix).

reezenz derives from the English word ‘reasons’, specifically from its use in the phrase “because reasons”, used to indicate that the cause was actually no reason the speaker could discern. Given that Tehzmese is a personal language, that is a perfectly valid motivation for the etymology of a word….

Lexember, Day 1: etres

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Tezhmese language


Language: Tezhmese
etres /ˈɛ.tɹɛs/ – verb

  1. to write, specifically to write as an act of creativity.
  2. to describe in text
  3. to design as a formal process
  4. to create a narrative or create a narrative space through description
  5. to create art with words (such as calligraphy)
  6. to create computer code

Usage notes:
etres specifically relates to act of using words, text, or narrative in a creative way, such as writing a story, poem, essay, blog post, etc. Anything that produces an actual text would qualify (such as writing computer code). etres can also be used to convey either the process of recording such a thing (e.g. I am writing this poem in my notebook) or the creative process (e.g. I am writing a poem about geese.)

Small bits of text are often excluded, however – etres would not be used to describe the process of writing a quick note, a tweet, or a quick social media post.

etres always requires the existence of some sort of text, but sometimes the text is theoretical – one could use etres to describe the process of designing a machine in some sort of formal way with the implication that the design is something that would end up with a text describing it. This is especially the case for design that goes into narrative works or works centered around texts, so a fiction author could use etres to describe designing the fictional setting, or it could be used to convey the process by which a debater explains an argument or position.

Creating art specifically using words can also be describe by etres (for example, creating calligraphy).

For the act of simply writing words down (inscribing words on a medium), or the act of taking dictation, you would use the verb srib instead.

Conlanging vs. Language Death

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Musings

There is a question that comes up in almost every Q&A session after a talk about constructed languages and in the comments thread of any article on a popular website. This question is: why aren’t you spending all this time and effort saving real languages that are dying off instead of making new ones?

Honestly, this is an annoying question, partially because it is based off of erroneous assumptions. Because this comes up so often, I wanted to lay out a number of the responses.

So, why are we conlangers out there saving dying languages instead of playing with our words by ourselves? Because we can’t – we don’t know how. What people need to understand is that creating a language and preserving a language are very different activities. A skilled conlanger is not a skilled field linguist (and vice versa). Both involve linguistic knowledge, but they require different skill sets. Spending time and effort on creating a language doesn’t keep a linguist out of the field.

Next, language death is more a political problem than it is a linguistic one. Languages die because people stop using (or are forced to stop using) the language or the people who use the language die off (or are killed). This is a bigger (and more important) issue than the language itself. It’s about the death of a culture, protecting it from assimilation and destructive forces (social, economic, and political). Language preservation can be a part of that, but it can’t be the only factor.

As an aside, because language is a medium of culture, revitalizing a language by encouraging people outside that culture to speak it can very easily be an act of cultural appropriation. While that theoretically might continue the language, it’s unlikely to actually do anything to help the culture itself.

Third, there is a place for art in the world, and constructing a language is an art form. It is a method of creative expression, like painting a picture or writing a novel. You wouldn’t blame a fiction author for not spending their time for writing historical essays, would you?

Art can also happen along side of the ‘productive’ activities in the world. A number of conlangers are, in fact, trained linguists who use their training professionally in their occupations. Other conlangers have productive lives doing whatever it is that they do for a living, and they construct language for the joy of the activity. Art, and hobbies, can and do exist right along side of the ‘productive’ world. J.R.R. Tolkien did precisely that – he was a philologist, professor, and author while creating languages.

And finally, constructed language can be a gateway to the rest of the linguistic world. Learning to conlang exposes us to topics in linguistics that we might not have otherwise have encountered. This is also the case for the non-conlanger or those who are not linguistically savvy, especially for monolinguals like many modern Americans. Interaction with a language that is not our own opens our minds to the possibility of language and sometimes getting that through our entertainment is a more effective spark than other things we do.

Review: The Art of Language Invention

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Reviews

Anyone who knows me to any degree knows that I am a conlanger – that is, I create constructed languages for fun (and occasionally for profit). It’s an obscure art form, needless to say. However, it is a pursuit that has become increasingly more visible in the entertainment industry and the public eye. Tolkien’s languages have been around for a long time, and everyone knows about Klingon, sure. But the real harbinger of wide recognition that conlanging is a thing was spawned by the HBO show Game of Thrones and its languages Dothraki and High Valyrian. The zeitgeist of that new wave is is the creator of those languages, David J. Peterson. He’s the mind behind The Art of Language Invention.

Let’s start out with the most important detail about this book: You do not have to be a linguist to read this book. While there is a lot of information in the book, this is not a dry textbook focused on an academic audience. Rather, this book is full of entertaining tangents like when David blames English spelling on foul-tempered print setters, or repeatedly makes peanut gallery-style remarks on how much he hates onions, or uses werewolves to explain linguistic concepts. But if you can just enjoy the ride, the book has a unique voice that’s entertaining and engaging no matter how much you know about language.

That being said, linguistics is a huge topic (as is making languages) so he covers of lot of topics pretty fast. I would not expect the average person to absorb much of the information on the first read. In fact, I think that those who already have a little bit of linguistics knowledge (you’ve learned a few languages or taken an introductory linguistics course, for example) will be those who get the most out of the book. There’s enough there to fill in the holes of what you don’t know to give you a foundation that you can really appreciate the nuances of what David is talking about.

Now, this isn’t to say that if you don’t have that experience then you’ll be in over your head. It just means that this is a book you’ll end up reading a few times, and getting more details out of each time as you get more familiar with the topics. And that’s the sort of book you want on your shelf anyway, isn’t it?

The real gems of the books are the case studies, however. At the end of each major section, David uses some of his own experiences to further explain the topics he has been going over. These are a mix of insights into his thought processes and decisions, as well as little tidbits about making languages for the entertainment industry. There’s something for all levels of readers here. The fans of shows like Game of Thrones and SyFy’s Defiance will find the sort of details that they love to gather about their favorite shows. People new to the art of conlanging will find these to be valuable examples of the sort of things you need to think about. Experienced conlangers will find discussions and bits of wisdom that can only come from getting your hands linguistically dirty in the art, and that’s a very rare thing to find.

If you are looking for a light read, this is probably not it. But if you are really interested in learning what the art of inventing languages is like, David’s book is a great place to start. Heck, even if you never want to make your own language, you’ll learn a ton about how language works and enjoy doing it.

Here’s a David Peterson-style tangent: If you’ve ever listened to one of his presentations, or just sat down to talk with him, David is just like how he comes across in the book. He can dive into deep discussion on language topics, and then suddenly veer off on tangents that get you laughing. He obviously knows what he is talking about, but his combination of knowledge and amusing relatability make him perfect for being the popular face of this hobby. David is pretty much the Bill Nye of conlangs.

So yeah, buy the book.

Okay, next steps:

  • If you finish the book and your curiosity is satisfied, then good job – it’s money well spent.
  • David is also starting a YouTube channel to go along with the book.
  • If you want to learn more about making a language, I suggest reading The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It’s another introduction to conlanging and while there is a bit of overlap, you’ll find that it complements The Art of Language Invention nicely.
  • If you want to dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of language, I suggest Describing Morphosyntax by Thomas Payne. It’s meant to be a guide for field linguists, but it is very useful to someone who wants to build a language.
  • If you want to get involved in the community, check out Conlang communities on Facebook and Google+, as well as look at the Conlang-L mailing list. Also, check out the home page of the Language Creation Society at http://www.conlang.org

A Prog Rock song in Ithkuil

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

John Quijada, who I think is one of the grandmasters of modern conlanging, has posted a video for his progressive rock song Ozkavarkúi (lyrics).

The lyrics are in the conlang Ithkuil, and they are sung by David Peterson, creator of languages for Game of Thrones, Defiance, Dominion, The 100, Thor: The Dark World, Star-Crossed, Penny Dreadful, and an ever increasing list of other nifty things.

What makes this exceptionally cool, in my opinion, is the fact that Ithkuil is one of the more exceptional conlangs out there. It’s not intended to act like a natural human language. It’s a philosophical language designed to reflect more aspects of human cognition than natural languages do, and reduce the ambiguity that is common in language.

Here’s what I think is a great example of it, taken right from Quijada’s introduction to the language:

Tram-mļöi  hhâsmařpţuktôx.
On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.

That’s two words for a 19 word English sentence. It’s all built off of a single root for ‘mountain’, and includes tones (like in Mandarin Chinese) and word stress that has specific meaning to the words.

The morphological analysis of the lyrics for the song (in the link to the lyrics above) is just insane. It looks like there are all sorts of shades of meaning in the lyrics that the English translation does not quite encompass.

As you can see, Ithkuil is quite a singular language, which is why this video has extra helpings of awesome. It’s a full artistic work based in a language that is incredibly unique, and honestly is not the sort of language project I’d have expected music to come from.

What Conlangs Taught Me – Part II

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

This is a continuation of my previous post: http://www.allocosm.net/2015/01/19/what-i-learned-from-conlangs-part-1/. While that post focused mostly on what I had learned about the nature of language, this one will be a little more scattershot. If there is one theme to this post, however, it would be that few people actually understand how language works.

So let’s start off with that: Everyone uses language, but few people understand language. Language is basic fact about being human, right? But our personal understanding of language works on a cognitive level very different from our intellect. It’s more like an autonomic system that runs despite our conscious minds, not because of it. People have very little understanding about what they are doing when they use language – they simply do (which is very Zen, now that I say it that way….)

As a corollary, native speakers are the definitive experts on how to produce a particular language, but are horrible sources for understanding how their language works. If you want to know what is right, or if something would sound ‘off’ to a native speaker, you ask a native speaker. (In fact, that seems to be a lot of what linguists do – they spend their time asking native speakers how  they would say something.) If you want to know the mechanics of what they say and how they are saying it, most native speakers really have no clue.

People think they know much more about language than they actually do. People have lots of opinions about language, but most of those opinions are based off of cultural baggage or just random ideas they have. Authors are, surprisingly, some of the worst offenders. They think that because they are adept at manipulating language that they are experts at how language works. Really, their skills aren’t about language – they are about storytelling.

Even science fiction authors, who generally pride themselves on at least knowing where they are departing from established science fact, make wildly inaccurate assumptions about language. Because we as a reading community don’t understand language itself, we don’t notice. As Suzette Haden Elgin once pointed out, authors who would get raked over the coals for inaccuracies about physics or engineering can be completely off the mark about language and get no response.

Written language is very different from spoken language. When a lot of people talk about language and words, they are often talking about written language. But the real source of language is the spoken word – it’s about what we say. Written language is really an afterthought.

We conflate what we are saying with what we are writing: the sounds of the language are not the letters of the language, words are not things separated by spaces. Some of our language arguments involve spelling or punctuation (such as the never-ending parade of condescension about using apostrophes or the oddly fetishistic adoration of the Oxford comma). Spoken language really doesn’t care  – what those signify are either handled completely differently in spoken language or completely ignored.

One could argue that a spoken language and its written counterpart are not the same language, but rather different dialects. Heck, you could probably make an argument that they are different languages entirely. Think about it, a fluent speaker still needs to learn to read, and often has to learn separate rules for how the written language works (punctuation doesn’t exist in spoken language, the style of how you write is very different from the style of how you speak, etc). And people can learn to read a language, but actually not understand it if it is spoken (especially in the Internet age, where we learn a lot of information purely through text). In that way, written English and spoken English are not mutually intelligible – knowing one doesn’t mean you can understand the other. I’m overstating the idea a bit, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

There are not 40 word for snow in Eskimo. Really, there aren’t. The story, which people seem to love, is a great example where people latch onto something because it sounds interesting. There are just lot of bad assumptions in there:

  • ‘Eskimo’ doesn’t really mean anything specific – rather it is a term born out of misunderstanding the languages and culture involved. There are a lot of different languages that you could paint with the overly-wide brush of ‘Eskimo’. Many of these languages are not all that related, if at all.
  • The concept of a word is misleading. Many of the languages people are trying to refer to with this myth have different definitions of what a word is and how words work. In the so-called polysynthetic languages, words are built up with a large number of affixes where, in English, we’d use phrases with a number of separate words. And there is still the argument to be had about what constitutes a word.
  • It implies that having lots of words for snow is uncommon. English has lots of words for snow depending on the context: snow, powder, sleet, slush, flurry, blizzard, snow drift, snowflakes, graupel, etc. And what if you count related words: snow, snowing, snowy…

Really, a lot of our clever commentary about language is not born from an understanding of language, but from creative misunderstandings of it.