Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.

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