Jules Bourbeau ’25
Only a handful of “conlangs” ever created have crossed the sphere of their creators and close acquaintances, including Tolkien’s Quenya (one of the Elvish languages), Dothraki of game of thronesand Mando’a du star wars universe. “Conlang” is a portmanteau of the words “constructed language”, and the art of creating one is called “conlanging”. There are three main types of conlangs: “engelangs” (“technical languages”) are designed to meet a particular purpose or type of communication, “auxlangs” (“auxiliary languages”) are used to facilitate communication between several different existing languages and “artlangs” are generally intended for use in a fictional setting, but also include conlangs which may exist purely for the sake of a joke.
Creating a custom language requires intimate knowledge of several different branches of linguistics, including phonology and phonetics, morphology, syntax, etc., depending on the goals of the project. As for me, I have only a modest skill in linguistics, but I will use the example of my own conlang creation to highlight the joys and difficulties of this underrated hobby.
My language is an artlang called “Tsau” designed for a fictional species of horse-like humanoids living on the northeast coast of a supercontinent. This was originally a COVID project, but it is still a work in progress. I started the process by choosing the different phonemes, or sounds, that I wanted in my language. This required an understanding of IPA, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, which gives a unique symbol to every sound in every language in the world. The consonants and vowels that appear in a language are essentially arbitrary, meaning that I can choose more or less entirely based on which ones strike me as interesting.
Then I turned to the development of orthography, which is the writing system of a language. I wanted to work with a syllabic orthography, an orthography in which each grapheme (character) represents a syllable, with a few exceptions. In Tsau, each consonant has a base symbol, with an additional feature, such as a dash or underscore, representing the vowel that follows it. A handful of vowels and consonants can also constitute their own grapheme, hence the exceptions. It was heavily inspired by Japanese hiragana and katakana, which work quite similarly.
I then turned to Latin to find out how to structure the grammar of my conlang. I chose a case system for nouns with six cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative to, dative for, and instrumental. Then, also like Latin, every noun has a declension, of which there are five based on the phoneme the noun ends with. I also largely based the verb system on Latin but limited myself to only two different declensions.
Other than creating a handful of words to populate the dictionary, I’ve largely stopped here for now. There is still an immense amount of development needed to make Tsau a fully-fledged language, such as pronouns, tense, and probably a whole host of features that I don’t even have enough experience to know. Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done to create a language. No doubt many longtime conlangers would spend a field day tearing up Tsau. Don’t let that put you off creating your own language, though. Ultimately, you should approach conlanging, like any hobby, as something to enjoy, and if you follow similar processes to mine, you’ll undoubtedly learn a lot about linguistics along the way.