Creating Constructed Languages

This course will be a practical workshop on creating a constructed language (conlang), such as Dothraki (A Game of Thrones), Quenya (The Lord of the Rings), Klingon (Star Trek), or Na’vi (Avatar). The aim is to help participants create languages that feel real, either to use in a fictional setting, as a personal language, or simply as an artistic pursuit. To accomplish this, we will be using tools and concepts from historical linguistics (the study of how language changes over time) and linguistic typology (the study of the diversity of the world’s languages).

Prerequisites

  • No background in linguistics required
  • Participants should come in with 2–3 languages they’d like to take inspiration from (this will guide the examples we use throughout the course)

Structure

  • 6-week course
  • price: ???
  • capped around 5 students
  • Weekly video call (2 hrs) to explain concepts and to do show-and-tell
  • Weekly homework assignments to guide participants through the process
  • Forum for showing work and for Q-and-A throughout the week

Outcome

By the end of the course, participants will have created:

  • A grammatical sketch of their language (5–10 pages)
  • A glossary of words in their language (~100 words)
  • A translation of a short fable into their language

Syllabus

Week 1: Introduction

We’ll introduce ourselves and start to look at what makes up a language. Then we’ll see how we can reverse-engineer actually existing natural languages to make our own.

Homework:

  • Find a brief video with speech sample (~1 minute long) of one of the languages you chose as inspiration. See if you can figure out what makes that language sound like that language.

Week 2: Making Sounds

We’ll have a crash course in phonetics and phonology by looking at the sound systems of your inspiration languages. Then we’ll talk about how you can create different effects in your own language by carefully selecting the sounds that will make up your language’s phonological inventory.

Homework:

  • Describe your language’s sound system (using the provided template)
  • Make your first 10 words under the constraints of the sound system

Week 3: Making Words

What we did last week for sounds, we’ll do this week for words. We’ll use examples from your inspiration languages to examine the different ways languages construct words. Specifically, we’ll look at how different languages express categories (like singular vs plural, present vs past, formal vs informal) in different ways, or not at all.

Homework:

  • Decide which morphological categories your language will care about
  • Write up a morphological sketch of your language (using the provided template)
  • Bring your language’s lexicon up to 25 words

Week 4: Making Sentences

Now we turn our attention to syntax, which studies the structure of language above the level of the word. Again, taking examples from your inspiration languages, we’ll look at the different ways languages use word order to express relationships. This will give us the tools to start making sentences.

Homework:

  • Write up a syntactic sketch of your language (using the provided template)
  • Bring your language’s lexicon up to 50 words
  • Translate 5 sentences (provided) into your language

Week 5: Making Things Irregular

This week we will take your nicely laid-out rules and start adding complications and exceptions. We’ll look at how irregularity in language is the most regular process of all. We’ll also examine how words change their form and meaning over time and see how these changes can show us a lot about the culture and history of the language’s speakers.

Homework:

  • Bring your language’s lexicon up to 100 words
  • Add some irregularity to the phonology, morphology, and syntax of your language
  • Create the first text in your language’s history by translating a common fable used in linguistic comparison

Week 6: Show and Tell

This week we’ll share the results of the translations and get feedback on how the languages have turned out. Are they natural? Most importantly, we’ll get a chance to try out speaking each others’ languages! We’ll end with some suggestions on how to develop the languages from this starting point.

2 Likes

Sorry for the delayed reply, bit hectic last week getting our first courses launched (!) but just read through again, I really like this course idea and outline!

Prereq of bringing in a few languages to take inspiration from sounds like a good idea. And the output of a grammatical sketch + brief glossary and translation seems great, specific and substantive yet not overwhelming…really interesting to think about not necessarily creating an entire language in six weeks, but enough constraints and direction to have the start of something that feels real. And I like the structure building from sounds to words to sentences etc.

Look forward to workshopping this further in the Meta Course :slight_smile:

1 Like