Sunday, October 5, 2014

An Observation on Conlanging

Conlanging has a particular problem as far as hobbies go. I don't think this problem is unique to it, but it is fairly strongly present.

Obviously, conlanging is somewhat knowledge-intense. For newcomers, this is in part alleviated by some guides - Zompist's Language Construction Kit, various threads for newcomers at various fora, people answering newcomers' questions for help with a bunch of advice. (The same bunch of advice, however, has now been repeated for about 15 years without any updating, without anyone even looking at what results the advice leads to.)

Since conlanging has become more popular in recent years - a result of Avatar, Game of Thrones, Defiance and possibly other movies and series that I may be forgetting right now - more newcomers that don't have all that much knowledge in linguistics enter conlanger communities than ever before, and are presented with the same advice.

Pretty much everyone who offers advice are in an almost heart-warming agreement as to what the first thing a conlang needs is. That thing is a almost unvariably a phonology. And there is a nice way of illustrating a phonology - a table with IPA symbols in it.

Of course, in reality, there's much more to a phonology than that. There is all the allophony (which some conlangers do get into), there is archiphonemes and mergers, there's phonotax, there's syllable structure, there's suprasegmentals, there's feature spreading, there's prosody, ...

However, this leads to a situation where every new conlanger posts a tabular representation of a phonology, or even a few of them - each for a new language once the previous one has been abandoned. And we get drowned in relatively boring phoneme inventories. Phoneme inventories are useful for conlangers, but they are about as exciting as any other excel table.

My intention when starting this blog was to show that compelling conlanging can be done without even having a table of phonemes in mind. That one can describe and develop a language quite far without phonology. And once you have an idea about the kinds of constructions - the morphosyntax, the morphology, even the more scary stuff in pragmatics and semantics, - you can start thinking about what kind of a phonology you want to add as skin on your Frankenstein's monster.

Heck, you can even come up with a loose sketch of morphophonological features of the language without having a clear idea of the phonology - and I think that might be a good idea, even, as you then can design the phonology to make realistic morphophonemic alterations that pattern the way you want them to.

I hope this blog this far has inspired people to skip ahead past the phonology-section of the Language Construction Kit, and to start describing wildly different aspects of their languages without fleshing the phonology out. Maybe, in the future, we will see more conlangs introduced not by posts describing their phonologies, but posts describing their most fascinating, well-developed and quirky parts.

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