Writing Excuses 12.51: Constructed Languages, with Dirk Elszinga
Key Points: [First, an apology from the transcriptionist — this was a very difficult episode to transcribe. I did the best I could. But listen to the audio for vocal points!] Creating a language? Keep it realistic. Look at a language you know, and play around with ideas from there. Loanwords, and the interaction between culture and language. Problems in creating a language? The fear that I’m just covering up English with funny words. Be aware of the idiosyncrasies and biases of the language. Study another language? Well, at least look at a reference grammar. DuoLingo, Google Translate, other online resources. Pay attention to sounds, and how they go together. Names! Dialect or not? Yoda, he says, a point can make. Check out the bibliography in the liner notes!
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 51.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Constructed Languages, with Dirk Elszinga.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Beth] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Beth] I’m Beth.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we have special guest, Dirk Elszinga. Dirk, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Dirk] Thanks. I’m glad to be here. I’m an associate professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University. My primary research interests are the documentation of the native languages of Utah. I like to play around with language in other ways. I like to create languages and think about how language is put together put together.
[Mary] I am so excited about this episode.
[Howard] I suddenly just got way more intimidated about this interview.
[Howard] So, in… The legendary author of constructed language fame is Tolkien. We are familiar with how long it took him to create what he created. How does one go about making a language? What are the rules that you would abide by?
[Dirk] So, there are different schools of thought, believe it or not. One thing I like to do when I do projects is I like to keep it realistic. I like to think, so, this isn’t a real language, but it could be. So for that, you want to… You’ll be familiar with several other languages. I don’t know that otherwise there are really any rules to it. I like to start with a word that kind of just pops into my head. So, the current language that I’m noodling around with, the word was steuben. I thought, that’s a kind of a funny word. What does it mean? I said, “Well, of course, it means shoe.” That sounds like shoe. So my… This language started out with that little word meaning shoe. Then I thought, well, what does that en at the end of steuben? I thought, well, maybe that’s a grammatical ending of some sort. Then, I thought, well, what kind of grammatical ending would that be? It just kind of spun off from there. So a lot of people get inspiration from looking at a language that they know fairly well. So if they’ve studied a language in high school or in college, they’ll say, “You know, I remember when I studied Japanese, they had this really, really cool thing that they do. I wonder what would happen if I did that, but like, even more so.” So you play around with these ideas that you kind of pick up from languages that you’re familiar with. Even English does some really bizarre stuff, if you stop to think about it.
[Some!] [Oh, some.] [Chuckles]
[Beth] English is an extremely bizarre language.
[It’s a lot of fun to talk about]
[Beth] [inaudible] language.
[Mary] Well, I think actually one of the things to… That English points out is that there are very few languages that don’t have loanwords in them. So one of the things that I’ve always found interesting when I’m thinking about languages and cultures is the way the language interacts with the culture and whether or not there’s… Whether or not this is a culture in isolation or if there’s a different… If there are trade routes and things like that. One of the things also, when you’re dealing with English, is that you can spot the loanwords because they have a different pattern to them. Like valet. That et because French is pronounced a unless you’re British and in the 1930s, when they would say valette because, and I quote from etiquette books, “we are English, not French.”
[Dan] Well, one of the things I love about English, when you look at the loanwords that we have, we have two words for every kind of meat. We have pork and we have… I can’t thi… Pigs.
[Dan] Pig comes from an English root and pork from a French root, because the poor people were the ones who dealt with the actual animal. So we call that meat pig because it’s a pig. The rich people never had to actually deal with the animal, they were upping their fancy castles and rooms, so they had their own word for it that we don’t use. We don’t call pork out in the thing. We don’t say… The difference between chicken and [garbled poultry?]
[Howard] Go out and feed the pork.
[Dan] Yeah. And the difference between chicken and poultry is the same thing. If you had to deal with the animal, you had a kind of different word taken from a different language.
[Beth] Well, you’re also looking at the class structure in that division of which word is used by whom and when.
[Dirk] Another really interesting thing… So, people, it kind of blows their mind when I tell them that the word kitchen is a borrowed word. Something so basic in a house as the kitchen. I mean, so, what did the Anglo-Saxons do, if they didn’t have kitchens?
[Beth] Hearths. They had hearths.
[Dirk] They had hearths. They had some other thing. So when you look at the borrows, the borrowed words that we have, it tells you a lot about the history of the people who speak that way. So your example of the different words for animal on the hoof versus what’s on the serving platter, the word for kitchen, the word church is a borrowing. It tells you a lot about what were the cultural interactions among the people who were kind of trading language as well as, as the anthropologists say, women and goods.
[Howard] Our listeners almost certainly want to create their own languages. What are the pitfalls, what are the speedbumps that we can steer them around, and what are the things in your toolbox that will make the job easier? This is a huge question [garbled I’m asking?]
[Dirk] It is a pretty big question. But the thing that everybody’s really, really worried about is like I’m just re-creating English with funny words. So I have… So like, take pronouns, for example. So in English we have pronouns, I, you, he, she, it. Well, why should we have he, she, it? If you’re going to make up a language, why should you have words that translate he, she, it? Why can’t we just have a single pronoun? Finnish does it, they seem to get along just fine. So being aware of kind of the idiosyncrasies of the language you speak naturally, or languages that you know well, can help you go a long way to overcoming those kind of biases. Yeah, it does require a little bit of familiarity with other languages. So I think that, by itself, is going to help keep people out of trouble.
[Howard] It sounds like the solution is study another language.
[Dirk] I think some…
[Howard] I bring that up cautiously, not because I’m afraid of studying another language, but because that’s quite an undertaking.
[Mary] Actually, it’s pretty simple these days. You can just go to DuoLingo and run yourself… I did this. I was working on a historical piece for Serial Box, and I had a Portuguese character in there, a Portuguese character who was speaking English… Not well. So what I did was I went and I took… I did about a week of DuoLingo, maybe two weeks of DuoLingo… Actually, it was only about a week of DuoLingo doing Portuguese so I could see where the language… How the grammar structure broke… Worked, because that grammatic structure is where… Shows you where someone is going to break when they are speaking English. Like, when I’m speaking another language, I’m going to tend to go back to my own comfortable, familiar grammatic structures. One of the reasons that you hear the very stereotypical thing with… Like, when we moved to Chicago and people were saying, “Oh, Kowal, Kowal. Is good name, is good name.” There’s no article there, because there is no article in Ukrainian there. So it’s that kind of thing. It can demonstrate… It’s not hard. You can take… If you’re going… You can do it in between as a break from writing.
[Dirk] I think people are daunted by the idea “Oh, I have to study a language. Oh.” It doesn’t have to mean that you then are going to be able to hold conversations about philosophy and politics in that language. But go to the library, pull off a shelf a reference grammar of some language you’ve always been interested in. Say Welsh. Just, I remember that because in eighth, ninth grade, I was in the library and I was in that section. Welsh, I wonder what that’s like. I pulled it off the shelf and thought, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.
[Dirk] The more I looked at it, the more I studied, I thought this is really, really interesting. I can’t speak Welsh. I mean, I could sound it out if I saw it. But it gave me an idea of things that are different from English. So it can be as superficial as just pulling a reference grammar off the shelf. You can go to DuoLingo. I think that’s a great resource, if you’ve got the time and energy. Talk to people who speak other languages. Go take a class. A night class. In Spanish or whatever. You have a lot of options.
[Mary] One of the tools that I’ll use sometimes is I’ll grab a text that’s in another language. Then I will take it to Google Translate and put it in one word at a time. So that I get the word by word translation.
[Dan] Because it changes a lot.
[Mary] It changes a lot. You also look at it and you’re like, “Okay, these words wind up in very different places than they do in English.” Which is really useful, to just shake things up. Can I give another tool that I use?
[Howard] Yes, please.
[Mary] The Everchanging Book of Names, which I’ve talked about before for coming up with names. But one of the things that’s great about it is that you can set the language patterns, the patterns of the words, which sounds exist in that language. And which sounds pair together. Like, there are sounds that never pair together in English. And sounds that never appear in English, but do in other languages. So it’s a really easy way to start generating kind of these core sounds. Like when you said steuben, you were already not using a sound that appears in English. The ii [eu?].
[Dirk] Well… No, all the sounds are there, but they’re not in that order. I mean, who would think to put an n after a b in an English word? Well, a geeky linguist might think about that.
[Dirk] And I did, and I thought I kind of like that. It led to a very fundamental part of the grammar.
[Howard] Let’s open our book of the week.
[Mary] Right. You were going to suggest something for us to read?
[Dirk] Yeah. So Tolkien was already mentioned, and he was a great influence on me as a ling… He kind of inspired me to become a linguist. But I’m going to go a different direction. The book by Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home. I think it’s just fantastic. She’s imagined this postindustrial world, complete with lifeways and a language. You don’t see it so much in the book, although you do get hints of it. There’s an appendix for people who like those sorts of things. But it’s… I mean, it’s Ursula Le Guin. It can’t be bad. The fact that she has lavished so much of her time and attention on creating this immersive world where she tells this very beautiful and moving story, along with samples of little plays, songs, poetry. It’s a remarkable book.
[Dan] I want to talk about the sounds that you mentioned earlier. Because that’s, I think, another one of the pitfalls that an English-speaking author can fall into in creating a language. Because English has a shocking number of vowel sounds that are phonemic. Meaning that they carry meaning. If you take the consonants S and T, you can put almost every vowel sound we have in our language in between those letters, and it’s a different word that means a different thing. Compare that to Spanish or Japanese, which have five vowel sounds and that’s it. So limiting the kinds of sounds that your created language has is a really good idea, and a way to differentiate it from the one you speak.
[Dirk] Absolutely. Another thing that I think is really helpful when you’re talking about sounds is just to play around with your vocal tract. Just make funny sounds. Believe it or not, some language out there is going to actually have used that as a speech sound. I think your point is well taken, though. If you take English and just reduce the number of vowels, then you’re going to come up with a system that is probably in existence somewhere, and that will look very un-English. So one of the languages I really like looking at, and it’s helpful actually for my professional work, is Nahuatl, classical Aztec. There are four vowels.
[Mary] Oh. What are the vowels?
[Dirk] Words… ah, eh… Let’s see. ii, ah, eh, oh. And oh can also be pronounced sometimes as oo. There’s a little bit of wiggle room there.
[Mary] [garbled little room there, yeah]
[Dirk] But there’s just the four vowels. They don’t have as many consonants as English. So the words are about 3 yards long.
[Dirk] They’re just really long words.
[Mary] Hawaiian is that way, too.
[Dan] To your point about just playing with your vocal tract, there’s a lot of sounds that English doesn’t have. A lot of vowel sounds that we don’t use at all. So just… You can come up with weird consonants and things that… So expanding or limiting, I think, is a good. But it looks like Beth keeps trying to say something. We all keep cutting her off.
[Beth] No. I… Well, I was going to ask you who else besides Tolkien does good language. You answered Le Guin. Yes. Amazingly. What do you think of C.J. Cherryh?
[Dirk] I haven’t read any of her stuff, I have to confess.
[Beth] Well, she’s the other author I know who builds languages in her books.
[Mary] Well, she’s worth reading, regardless.
[Garbled] [Regardless. She really is.]
[Howard] Are there others…
[Beth] I think she doesn’t amazing job of building languages.
[Dirk] Well, so when I’m looking for new science fiction or fantasy to read, I’m not looking, “Okay, let’s see what the language is like.”
[Dirk] Because to be perfectly honest, as much as I love Tolkien and as formative as he was, I get kind of annoyed. You see that Elvish bit and it’s like, “Great. You can just bleep right over, because it just yanks you right out of the story.” So I think that can be a problem sometimes. So that’s not what I look for in my fiction, to see, “Okay, how good of a linguist are they?” Although sometimes it does kind of knock you over the head when people are making up these names that have no idea how these names are pronounced because there doesn’t seem to be any system to it. That can be annoying. But it doesn’t have to be a fully fledged language. Although it’s kind of nice to know that authors do take the time and trouble to put one together.
[Beth] It does bother me when I’m reading a manuscript and so clearly the invented language has absolutely no system to it.
[Mary] I was just looking over at… I was thinking about the way words evolve in the way names evolve, and looking over at Dan Audioman, who has an actual last name. But because we have Dan Wells, when we’re just saying, “Hey, Dan,” it’s often Dan Audio. That’s how you wind up with John Smith as opposed to John Farmer. So I think one of the things, again, when you’re looking at… One of the reasons to develop a language, even if you have no plans on putting it into the story, is because it’s going to give you better names. Like my name, Mary Robinette Kowal. If you go back to the roots of each of those. Mary actually means bitter. Robinette is a little robin. And Kowal, Koval, means smith. So I’m bitter little robin smith.
[Dan] That’s always how I’ve thought of you.
[Beth] You could build a whole short story world on that transformation.
[Mary] Yeah! Yeah, oh, you could.
[Howard] We’re out…
[Howard] We’re out of time and I… But I want to keep going. I’m looking around the room to see if anybody’s going to stop us.
[Mary] Oh, we should stop.
[Howard] Question for… Here’s a question. Do you have to represent this created language, your constructed language, in its own words in the text of the story or can you represent it in a dialect of the story language, English, in the case of a story written in English? Can you represent it as a dialect in a way that will convince us that there is an actual language underneath it?
[Dirk] Aw, that’s a hard question. I think one of the things that Star Wars did right was what they did with Yoda. Okay? If you think about how Yoda talks. There is a… In fact, I had a professor when I was an undergraduate. She did this… She created this homework exercise called Yoda syntax. Where she transcribed the whole corpus that was extant at the time of Yoda. We had to figure out what the syntactic rules were. Believe it or not, they were consistent. I thought that was… The more I think about that, the more I…
[Yoda] [garbled consistent it is?]
[Dirk] Yes. Exactly. It’s… Whoever did that for Yoda got it exactly right.
[Howard] Frank Oz.
[Mary] He was…
[Dirk] Well, he was the voice…
[Mary] He was the puppeteer.
[Dirk] Oh, he was the puppeteer. Okay.
[Mary] He wasn’t the voice, though.
[Howard] He wasn’t?
[Mary] No. But that’s a different…
[Dan] That’s a different discussion.
[Dan] I know that we’re out of time, so I want to let you guys know that when I invited Dirk to be on this podcast, and I said we want to be sure to include some resources, he sent me what is essentially a large annotated bibliography of amazing sources…
[Dirk] It wasn’t that large.
[Dan] You can go to, books and other resources. We will make sure that’s all on the website in the liner notes, so you can look up all these things.
[Howard] Let’s have a writing prompt.
[Dirk] All right. So one of the funniest things about language is the way we use metaphor. One of the common metaphors for engaging in debate is combat. So when we talk about like a Presidential debate, candidates debate, where we talk about, “Yeah, he scored points,” or “he knocked his opponent out.” We frame it in terms of personal combat. Come up with a metaphor for a debate that does not involve personal combat. That talks about how the exchange of different ideas can be thought about in a different way.
[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.