Archive for the ‘meta’ Category

Should I stay or should I go?

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

I was recently wondering again whether I should move my Ayeri stuff to my own top level domain from its current residence at nfshost.com. I haven’t planned anything concrete, I’m just curious for your opinion. There’s a poll embedded in the following tweet.

The thing is, Ayeri’s been living at its current address since July 2008, and thus, things from this site are linked in quite a few other places. In this regard, I feel somewhat uneasy breaking continuity. On the other hand, people usually come in from a handful of sources only, besides search engines, and I can always put a redirect up here.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process II

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

A problem I have recently come to see with conlanging is that while a whole number of people may research a natural language at any time, each researcher contributing to scholarly discourse from their area of expertise, your typical conlanger is working on their fictional language all by themselves. I’m no exception with regards to this. This also means, however, that only you are acquainted with your conlang, which also means that while fleshing it out, you have to be a kind of jack-of-all-trades if you want to do it well. On the other hand, a single person does not have talent for or interest in all areas of a field to the same degree, nor can you know everything about a field as variegated as linguistics. In addition to this, acquiring some deeper knowledge and experience just in a part of a field takes time.

While writing my new Ayeri grammar, describing phonology at least roughly, and morphology with a little more attention to detail seemed fair enough.1 Describing a language, however, doesn’t end at elaborating on how to form words. Syntax is just as important, as it describes how to form larger units of meaning, which is certainly no trivial issue either. Since Ayeri’s structure departs from English in some basic ways, it definitely warrants more serious attention.

Most conlangers I know seem to be mainly interested in morphology, and may even go so far as meeting formal syntax theories with suspicion. Moreover, I have never had a proper introduction to syntax myself either, for instance, in class at university. However, since Ayeri is rather different from German or English, I have long had an itch to figure its syntax out in a more structured way, in order to find out and describe in standard terms what I have been doing so far without giving it too much of a second thought. Since I’ve been trying to keep up a certain level of seriousness in the grammar, simply stating that Ayeri is VSO and heads mostly go first, and treating everything within 5 pages won’t do. Dealing with such a complex topic this superficially does not seem satisfying to my own curiosity and ambition. I am hoping that finding out more about Ayeri’s syntax would uncover more remaining blank spots, the filling of which would allow me to add yet more depth.

A colleague of mine had suggested to get acquainted with Lexical-Functional Grammar, actually with regards to my day job as a grad assistant. Describing Ayeri in this framework, however, might be interesting as well, since LFG was developed with flexibility in mind so that configurational, non-configurational, and mixed languages can all be dealt with in a straightforward manner. With its VSO constituent order, Ayeri may fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, though this needs further analysis, which I can’t provide just yet. I have been trying to work through Bresnan et al. (2016), but I realized that trying to study these things on my own is no adequate replacement for correction by teachers, since it’s too easy to accidentally gloss over important details by reading a textbook without discussing its contents. Furthermore, this book presupposes familiarity with common structuralist paradigms, such as Generative Grammar (Carnie 2002/2013 seems to be a popular introduction), Government and Binding, and X-bar theory, which it seems reasonable to acquaint myself with before I continue.

Yet, I am impatient to keep on writing, since I really don’t want to let the grammar drift off into negligence again this time. I had written some 20 pages on syntax earlier this month, however I realized that much of what I had written is probably wrong, since, for example, I disregarded lexical integrity as a fundamental principle with regards to what I assume to be clitics, simply for the reason of not being aware of this principle for the lack of formal training in a very formal discipline. For the time being, I have deleted what I wrote about the phrase structures of DPs/NPs and AdjP/AdvPs from the PDF in the main development branch on Github (‘master’) to not spread misinformation. Once I know more and have reevaluated some things, development on this part will go on in the ‘trunk’ branch, which I will merge back into ‘master’ once I am confident enough that my analyses are at least not completely off.

Thus, for the time being, the grammar will have to pause at morphology, and hopefully not for another 5 years. Alternatively, I may need to find a way to adequatly describe how to form clauses and sentences without getting too deeply into theories, at least provisionally, if that is possible.

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Carnie, Andrew. Syntax. A Generative Introduction. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Introducing Linguistics 4.
  • Spencer, Andrew and Ana R. Luís. Clitics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.
  • Zwicky, Arnold M. On Clitics. 1977. Arnold M. Zwicky. 21 Apr. 2015. Stanford U. 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/~zwicky/on_clitics.pdf›.
  1. I will still have to rewrite some things with regards to cliticization, though. For instance, I am not quite sure whether manga with verbs is inflection or rather a special clitic; the term ‘bound word’ from Zwicky (1977) I used in the grammar hasn’t stood the test of time. I’m currently reading up on more recent research and positions on clitics in Spencer & Luís (2012), so corrections to the morphology chapter will follow eventually.

Issues with Lexember posts

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

So, as you may have noticed with the last two posts, things have been a bit messed up here on this blog. As I mentioned in this post, I make my Lexember posts on Tumblr (my main blog these days, sorry about that), and they should automatically be copied over here for my readers and the readers of the Conlang Aggregator. I have a special IFTTT applet set up specifically for that.

Unfortunately, it seems IFTTT is throwing a fit with my Lexember posts, and cannot copy their contents over to Blogger. The result being the empty post you may have seen appear yesterday (before I filled it by hand when I discovered the issue). I tried to solve the issue with IFTTT, but quite simply failed (I can't seem to find what is wrong with IFTTT. It should work, but it clearly doesn't), so today's Lexember post ended up as an empty post here again. This time I immediately set out to fill it by hand, but I did so using the mobile Blogger app, and it messed things up too (I need to check how to make it accept HTML input). I've now cleaned up the post contents so it shows up correctly, though.

Basically, this has been a train wreck, and to prevent further damage, I have disabled the misbehaving IFTTT applet. I'll simply copy my Lexember posts over by hand (and will do so on my computer only, at least until I can figure out how to make the Blogger app work correctly). I am not abandoning this blog, don't worry about it. However, being unable to count on automation means the Lexember updates may not always appear on time here. If you really want to read my Lexember updates as soon as they are available, I advice you check out my Twitter stream instead, or to follow my Tumblr blog directly (but I hope you don't mind pictures of cute animals, especially dogs!).

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

Draft for the 2016 Ayeri grammar cover
Draft for the 2016 Ayeri grammar cover
At the moment I’m still working on rewriting the grammar. It’s at about 150 pages of content proper now (at regular copy paper size, no less) and I’m working on describing the morphology of the verb right now. Much more still needs to be written, for instance, the chapter on syntax. It’s proven useful to some degree that I’ve already written blog posts detailing the one or the other issue in the past. In these cases, I could simply adapt what I had written before, which sped up the writing process a little. Other than that, I’ve more or less come to mostly ignore what I had written some 5 years ago, since most of it was not very detailed anyway. The new grammar will thus be completely rewritten for the most part, not merely adapted to LaTeX and with extended contents.

For the past four months I’ve tried to basically return to the mode in which I worked on my MA thesis last winter, which involved writing at least 1–2 pages every day. This seems to be the most workable way for me, since taking too long breaks has proven deadly with regards to motivation before. Thus, permanence is probably a virtue with such things, at least as far as I’m concerned, and seeing things grow in manageable increments effectively counters the paralysing fear of the whole mountain of work. Since life is life, however, I have not managed to keep this schedule up very strictly, but I’m still trying to do my best.

At the top of this article, you can see a front cover draft I’ve come up with some weeks ago. My current motivation is to finish writing this thing this time, and to then print out a full copy and have that bound as a reward to myself. It won’t be quite like a real book, of course, but it will still be something I can proudly put on my shelf as an Achievement. I’ve already written an 80-page MA thesis before, so I know I can manage this as well if I want to, even though this time it’s likely going to be three times as long. Plus, if I manage this, I suppose a PhD thesis will also be manageable.

You can still find all the source files in my GitHub repository at https://github.com/carbeck/ayerigrammar/. There’s also a PDF of the most recently compiled version of the grammar there, as well as an overview of the topics covered so far.

Link: Ayeri Grammar GitHub Repo

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

This place has been going rather quiet for the past 2 months, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on Ayeri—quite the opposite, in fact. While there hasn’t been much activity here on this blog, a lot more is currently going on at the Ayeri Grammar repository on the code-sharing site, GitHub.

I’ve been trying to add a few pages every day for the past 7 weeks so that I am currently at about 110 pages (examples and tables take up so much space!). Since the whole thing is quite a bit in flux, I don’t want to give a straight download link to the fully compiled document yet, but you can nonetheless take a look at everything I’ve written so far.

“Let there be Language” for Beginners

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson
‘The Art of Language Invention’ by David J. Peterson
From Horse Lords to Dark Elves to the language-affine TV watcher – David J. Peterson’s personal behind-the-scenes of language creation. Review by Carsten Becker.

Why is it that we make up languages, of all things? Why not write? Why not draw, paint or sculpt? Why not compose? For me at least, this recent tweet summarizes it nicely (although I also do photography):

I can’t draw well and I’m not confident in my writing, so creating #conlangs is my arts and crafts.
Robbie Antenesse (@robbieantenesse), October 4, 2015

Making up languages is maybe not a mainstream hobby (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my humble opinion), but it’s still a valuable creative outlet for a good few people, and also for me. And for David J. Peterson, conlanger extraordinaire, who earned his laurels in the community with his creating the Dothraki language for the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the novel series The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

In his freshly published book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building (292 pages, Penguin 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1, $17), David Peterson explores how the Craft came into being, from the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen to today’s sprawling online community, additionally drawing on a stockpile of anecdotes from the early days of the internet and his own experiences with creating languages both for fun and for money, which form the heart of the book. The meat, then, is a basic introduction to linguistics for those interested bystanders and fans who want to make their first tip-toe steps into deeper waters.

A thing I really liked about Peterson’s book is that he is very honest from the get-go: you will not find quick success if you seriously intend to make up a language or several and want to do it well. It takes time. It takes work. And it’s totally worth it getting engrossed in descriptions of the myriad of fascinating twists and turns that languages make to get meaning across. A sense of the joy of building up, destroying, improving, and also of solving puzzles can be deeply felt especially in the “Case Studies” after every main chapter of the book, in which Peterson discusses his own approaches to the respective topics while creating his languages. These are also the parts that contain background anecdotes about his work with TV producers and are probably the most entertaining parts of the whole book, for seasoned language tinkerers and people interested in some insider information on the TV shows’ production alike.

But even in the ‘meat’ chapters and in spite of linguistics being a rather academic topic with lots and lots of technical vocabulary, you will find Peterson’s original humor breaking through even the most dire technical discussions by referencing Harry Potter, Soundgarden, Michael Jackson, werewolves, cranky printers, and discussing the absolute and utter awfulness of onions among other things. Oh, and cats. This is 2015, after all, and we all love cats on the internet. Needless to say, since this is an introductory book, discussions of more complex aspects of language are sometimes a little simplified, though usually in a reasonable way that allows you to expand on later. There is only so much information you can put between the two covers of a 290-page book, anyway, and Peterson says so himself. For the $17 the book sets you back, you will get a whole lot of information, though.

Another aspect worth noting from a long-term hobbyist’s point of view is that Peterson never fails to make it clear that English is not the standard average language, but has its own peculiarities (apart from its infamously baroque spelling system) which everyone who is serious about creating languages needs to take into consideration lest he or she unwittingly rip off English. In a similar vein, Peterson frequently encourages his readers to do their own research into languages both natural and artistic in order to broaden their understanding and to develop a feeling for what is natural and possible. After all, a master needs to know his or her tools, and for a creative use of linguistics, it’s no different.

While Peterson’s book is not the only guide to creating languages for beginners – the other big one is Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit –, he covers some crucial aspects that Rosenfelder only touches on briefly, if at all, with a good amount of depth for the purposes of this introductory book. These topics are, for example, syllable structure and language change regarding semantic drift and grammaticalization. Moreover, Peterson presents some basic considerations on the development of writing systems and the effects different writing implements crucially have on their evolution.

* * *

Language is devilishly complex. This cannot be denied, and especially the first chapter drives this point home with its insane density of information that would probably cover the contents of a few weeks of an Introduction to Linguistics class. It is not easy ploughing through this even as a seasoned conlanger, though things get more digestible once the reader has made his or her way through. Promised. Interestingly, the chapter on phonology is the longest of the book, taking up about twice the amount of pages of each the morphology-and-syntax chapter and the one on language change. Strictly speaking, the latter two are no less complex and interesting topics to explore, and I wonder if things could have been balanced better if the phononlogy chapter had been thinned out a little for better legibility. Sounds and sound structure are important to give a convincing impression, since that is what people will hear on screen or, by proxy, read on the page, but it’s by far not the only important part in language design. I think what the book would have generally benefitted from to keep a balance between information density and readability is more suggestions for where to read more on a given topic.

As far as clarity of writing goes, I think it’s fair to say Peterson writes as eloquently as he speaks. However, it is slightly peeving nonetheless that he regularly uses terminology like “subject” and “object” or “causative” but only introduces the respective concepts several to dozens of pages later. The book is equipped with a small glossary at the back (besides phrasebook sentences from his conlangs and a page index), but that unfortunately does not contain all technical terms he uses either, making the text a little hard to follow at times for those readers who have never had any formal training in language.

It is also very nice that the book contains a whole lot of examples, though experience has shown that even a minimal amount of glossing is very helpful in understanding what is going on, especially for created languages whose grammar is usually only known to their creator. Peterson dutifully urges his readers in the introductory chapter to remember that when they develop their own languages and want to discuss them with others. Unfortunately, though, he does not follow his own recommendation for the greater part of the book. Thus, it is sometimes hard to quickly glance the phenomenon he is referring to in his explanations of language examples just from the phonetic (or phonemic?) transcriptions of lines in foreign scripts he gives along with English translations, especially when the differences between two example sentences are subtle.

It would also have been very nice if more examples in the morphology chapter had come from reasonably accessible and well-documented natural languages instead of almost only Peterson’s own. I know that this is a book on constructed languages from Peterson’s point of view, but he mentions himself how it’s always good to look at what natural languages do. This point of criticism goes hand in hand with my request for more reading recommendations above, basically, since an absolute newcomer would probably first go and look up the referenced languages to learn more. At the very least it would have been helpful to name-drop these languages in the descriptions of phenomena; you often wouldn’t even have to resort to very exotic ones.

Another thing that slightly peeved me is how the morphology chapter makes it seem a little as though languages always morphologically express case and gender. It is not uncommon that they do, but it’s not always the case (Nice to meet you, English!). You don’t need tables upon tables of declensions and conjugations, and a fair share of the world’s languages doesn’t even make use of the concept of gender or noun classes. For a first step, it may be reasonable to not go wild immediately (from a Eurocentric point of view), but at least it should have been said more explicitly that not all the world’s languages work like classical Indo-European ones with maybe some feature erosion for modern descendants. I also missed a reminder that languages tend to leave holes in paradigms and that syncretism is most definitely a thing (for example, the difficult thing about German definite articles is that six word forms cover sixteen paradigm slots, not that articles decline as such).

A thing that conlangers go into much too rarely is writing systems like Chinese, and while Peterson touches on that topic, a little more in-depth explanation about phonetic parts and semantic parts of Chinese characters in the fashion of Mark Rosenfelder’s page on ‘Yingzi’ would have been helpful, especially in comparison to the attention given to other kinds of writing systems. Korean presents the very interesting case of a featural alphabet made to mimic Chinese characters, but has unfortunately been omitted completely.

* * *

So, what is the takeaway of my ramblings? For one, you get a whole lot of bang for the buck. Peterson’s book is chock-full of information and a good way to get you going if you’re interested in creating your own language. For everyone else, it is a nice round trip through the engine room of language, though for this purpose it’s maybe a little too technical at times. As a seasoned conlanger, I was more interested in the anecdotes behind Peterson’s work than the actual explanations and definitions of linguistic concepts, though, and would have liked more information in this regard, for example about George R. R. Martin’s reactions to Peterson’s work and the slight changes he made to it. The book could use some more clarity in places and more literary suggestions, but should overall be a good toolbox that nicely complements similar works, such as Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which is also recommended reading for aspiring conlangers.

Carsten Becker has been tinkering with languages since he was 16 and his longest-running project is Ayeri, which he has been more or less actively developing for over 11 years. He is currently in the last stages of attaining a master’s degree in German Literature at the University of Marburg, Germany.
  • Peterson, David J. The Art of Langauge Invention. From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

Review: Peterson, The Art of Language Invention

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson
‘The Art of Language Invention’ by David J. Peterson
From Horse Lords to Dark Elves to the language-affine TV watcher – David J. Peterson’s personal behind-the-scenes of language creation. A review.

Why is it that we make up languages, of all things? Why not write? Why not draw, paint or sculpt? Why not compose? For me at least, this recent tweet summarizes it nicely (although I also do photography):

Making up languages is maybe not a mainstream hobby (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my humble opinion), but it’s still a valuable creative outlet for a good few people, and also for me. And for David J. Peterson, conlanger extraordinaire, who gained his laurels in the community with his creating the Dothraki language for the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the novel series The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

In his freshly published book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building (292 pages, Penguin 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1, $17), David J. Peterson explores how the Craft came into being, from the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen to today’s sprawling online community, additionally drawing on a stockpile of anecdotes from the early days of the internet and his own experiences with creating languages both for fun and for money, which form the heart of the book. The meat, then, is a basic introduction to linguistics for those interested bystanders and fans who want to make their first tip-toe steps into deeper waters.

A thing I really liked about Peterson’s book is that he is very honest from the get-go: you will not find quick success if you seriously intend to make up a language or several and want to do it well. It takes time. It takes work. And it’s totally worth it getting engrossed in descriptions of the myriad of fascinating twists and turns that languages make to get meaning across. A sense of the joy of building up, destroying, improving, and also of solving puzzles can be deeply felt especially in the “Case Studies” after every main chapter of the book, in which Peterson discusses his own approaches to the respective topics while creating his languages. These are also the parts that contain background anecdotes about his work with TV producers and are probably the most entertaining parts of the whole book, for seasoned language tinkerers and people interested in some insider information on the TV shows’ production alike.

But even in the ‘meat’ chapters and in spite of linguistics being a rather academic topic with lots and lots of technical vocabulary, you will find Peterson’s original humor breaking through even the most dire technical discussions by referencing Harry Potter, Soundgarden, Michael Jackson, werewolves, cranky printers, and discussing the absolute and utter awfulness of onions among other things. Oh, and cats. This is 2015, after all, and we all love cats on the internet. Needless to say, since this is an introductory book, discussions of more complex aspects of language are sometimes a little simplified, though usually in a reasonable way that allows you to expand on later. There is only so much information you can put between the two covers of a 290-page book, anyway, and Peterson says so himself. For the $17 the book sets you back, you will get a whole lot of information, though.

Another aspect worth noting from a long-term hobbyist’s point of view is that Peterson never fails to make it clear that English is not the standard average language, but has its own peculiarities (apart from its infamously baroque spelling system) which everyone who is serious about creating languages needs to take into consideration lest he or she unwittingly rip off English. In a similar vein, Peterson frequently encourages his readers to do their own research into languages both natural and artistic in order to broaden their understanding and to develop a feeling for what is natural and possible. After all, a master needs to know his or her tools, and for a creative use of linguistics, it’s no different.

While Peterson’s book is not the only guide to creating languages for beginners – the other big one is Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit –, he covers some crucial aspects that Rosenfelder only touches on briefly, if at all, with a good amount of depth for the purposes of this introductory book. These topics are, for example, syllable structure and language change regarding semantic drift and grammaticalization. Moreover, Peterson presents some basic considerations on the development of writing systems and the effects different writing implements crucially have on their evolution.

* * *

Language is devilishly complex. This cannot be denied, and especially the first chapter drives this point home with its insane density of information that would probably cover the contents of a few weeks of an Introduction to Linguistics class. It is not easy ploughing through this even as a seasoned conlanger, though things get more digestible once the reader has made his or her way through. Promised. Interestingly, the chapter on phonology is the longest of the book, taking up about twice the amount of pages of each the morphology-and-syntax chapter and the one on language change. Strictly speaking, the latter two are no less complex and interesting topics to explore, and I wonder if things could have been balanced better if the phononlogy chapter had been thinned out a little for better legibility. Sounds and sound structure are important to give a convincing impression, since that is what people will hear on screen or, by proxy, read on the page, but it’s by far not the only important part in language design. I think what the book would have generally benefitted from to keep a balance between information density and readability is more suggestions for where to read more on a given topic.

As far as clarity of writing goes, I think it’s fair to say Peterson writes as eloquently as he speaks. However, it is slightly peeving nonetheless that he regularly uses terminology like “subject” and “object” or “causative” but only introduces the respective concepts several to dozens of pages later. The book is equipped with a small glossary at the back (besides phrasebook sentences from his conlangs and a page index), but that unfortunately does not contain all technical terms he uses either, making the text a little hard to follow at times for those readers who have never had any formal training in language.

It is also very nice that the book contains a whole lot of examples, though experience has shown that even a minimal amount of glossing is very helpful in understanding what is going on, especially for created languages whose grammar is usually only known to their creator. Peterson dutifully urges his readers in the introductory chapter to remember that when they develop their own languages and want to discuss them with others. Unfortunately, though, he does not follow his own advice for the greater part of the book. Thus, it is sometimes hard to quickly glance the phenomenon he is referring to in his explanations of language examples just from the phonetic (or phonemic?) transcriptions of lines in foreign scripts he gives along with English translations, especially when the differences between two example sentences are subtle.

It would also have been very nice if more examples in the morphology chapter had come from reasonably accessible and well-documented natural languages instead of almost only Peterson’s own. I know that this is a book on constructed languages from Peterson’s point of view, but he mentions himself how it’s always good to look at what natural languages do. This point of criticism goes hand in hand with my request for more reading recommendations above, basically, since an absolute newcomer would probably first go and look up the referenced languages to learn more. At the very least it would have been helpful to name-drop these languages in the descriptions of phenomena; you often wouldn’t even have to resort to very exotic ones.

Another thing that slightly peeved me is how the morphology chapter makes it seem a little as though languages always morphologically express case and gender. It is not uncommon that they do, but it’s not always the case (Nice to meet you, English!). You don’t need tables upon tables of declensions and conjugations, and a fair share of the world’s languages doesn’t even make use of the concept of gender or noun classes. For a first step, it may be reasonable to not go wild immediately (from a Eurocentric point of view), but at least it should have been said more explicitly that not all the world’s languages work like classical Indo-European ones with maybe some feature erosion for modern descendants. I also missed a reminder that languages tend to leave holes in paradigms and that syncretism is most definitely a thing (for example, the difficult thing about German definite articles is that six word forms cover sixteen paradigm slots, not that articles decline as such).

A thing that conlangers go into much too rarely is writing systems like Chinese, and while Peterson touches on that topic, a little more in-depth explanation about phonetic parts and semantic parts of Chinese characters in the fashion of Mark Rosenfelder’s page on ‘Yingzi’ would have been helpful, especially in comparison to the attention given to other kinds of writing systems. Korean presents the very interesting case of a featural alphabet made to mimic Chinese characters, but has unfortunately been omitted completely.

* * *

So, what is the takeaway of my ramblings? For one, you get a whole lot of bang for the buck. Peterson’s book is chock-full of information and a good way to get you going if you’re interested in creating your own language. For everyone else, it is a nice round trip through the engine room of language, though for this purpose it’s maybe a little too technical at times. As a seasoned conlanger, I was more interested in the anecdotes behind Peterson’s work than the actual explanations and definitions of linguistic concepts, though, and would have liked more information in this regard, for example about George R. R. Martin’s reactions to Peterson’s work and the slight changes Peterson made to details in Martin’s work. The book could use some more clarity in places and more suggestions on literature, but should overall be a good toolbox that nicely complements similar works, such as Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which is also recommended reading for aspiring conlangers.

  • Peterson, David J. The Art of Langauge Invention. From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

Review: Peterson, The Art of Language Invention

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson
‘The Art of Language Invention’ by David J. Peterson
From Horse Lords to Dark Elves to the language-affine TV watcher – David J. Peterson’s personal behind-the-scenes of language creation. A review.

Why is it that we make up languages, of all things? Why not write? Why not draw, paint or sculpt? Why not compose? For me at least, this recent tweet summarizes it nicely (although I also do photography):

Making up languages is maybe not a mainstream hobby (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my humble opinion), but it’s still a valuable creative outlet for a good few people, and also for me. And for David J. Peterson, conlanger extraordinaire, who gained his laurels in the community with his creating the Dothraki language for the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the novel series The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

In his freshly published book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building (292 pages, Penguin 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1, $17), David J. Peterson explores how the Craft came into being, from the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen to today’s sprawling online community, additionally drawing on a stockpile of anecdotes from the early days of the internet and his own experiences with creating languages both for fun and for money, which form the heart of the book. The meat, then, is a basic introduction to linguistics for those interested bystanders and fans who want to make their first tip-toe steps into deeper waters.

A thing I really liked about Peterson’s book is that he is very honest from the get-go: you will not find quick success if you seriously intend to make up a language or several and want to do it well. It takes time. It takes work. And it’s totally worth it getting engrossed in descriptions of the myriad of fascinating twists and turns that languages make to get meaning across. A sense of the joy of building up, destroying, improving, and also of solving puzzles can be deeply felt especially in the “Case Studies” after every main chapter of the book, in which Peterson discusses his own approaches to the respective topics while creating his languages. These are also the parts that contain background anecdotes about his work with TV producers and are probably the most entertaining parts of the whole book, for seasoned language tinkerers and people interested in some insider information on the TV shows’ production alike.

But even in the ‘meat’ chapters and in spite of linguistics being a rather academic topic with lots and lots of technical vocabulary, you will find Peterson’s original humor breaking through even the most dire technical discussions by referencing Harry Potter, Soundgarden, Michael Jackson, werewolves, cranky printers, and discussing the absolute and utter awfulness of onions among other things. Oh, and cats. This is 2015, after all, and we all love cats on the internet. Needless to say, since this is an introductory book, discussions of more complex aspects of language are sometimes a little simplified, though usually in a reasonable way that allows you to expand on later. There is only so much information you can put between the two covers of a 290-page book, anyway, and Peterson says so himself. For the $17 the book sets you back, you will get a whole lot of information, though.

Another aspect worth noting from a long-term hobbyist’s point of view is that Peterson never fails to make it clear that English is not the standard average language, but has its own peculiarities (apart from its infamously baroque spelling system) which everyone who is serious about creating languages needs to take into consideration lest he or she unwittingly rip off English. In a similar vein, Peterson frequently encourages his readers to do their own research into languages both natural and artistic in order to broaden their understanding and to develop a feeling for what is natural and possible. After all, a master needs to know his or her tools, and for a creative use of linguistics, it’s no different.

While Peterson’s book is not the only guide to creating languages for beginners – the other big one is Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit –, he covers some crucial aspects that Rosenfelder only touches on briefly, if at all, with a good amount of depth for the purposes of this introductory book. These topics are, for example, syllable structure and language change regarding semantic drift and grammaticalization. Moreover, Peterson presents some basic considerations on the development of writing systems and the effects different writing implements crucially have on their evolution.

* * *

Language is devilishly complex. This cannot be denied, and especially the first chapter drives this point home with its insane density of information that would probably cover the contents of a few weeks of an Introduction to Linguistics class. It is not easy ploughing through this even as a seasoned conlanger, though things get more digestible once the reader has made his or her way through. Promised. Interestingly, the chapter on phonology is the longest of the book, taking up about twice the amount of pages of each the morphology-and-syntax chapter and the one on language change. Strictly speaking, the latter two are no less complex and interesting topics to explore, and I wonder if things could have been balanced better if the phononlogy chapter had been thinned out a little for better legibility. Sounds and sound structure are important to give a convincing impression, since that is what people will hear on screen or, by proxy, read on the page, but it’s by far not the only important part in language design. I think what the book would have generally benefitted from to keep a balance between information density and readability is more suggestions for where to read more on a given topic.

As far as clarity of writing goes, I think it’s fair to say Peterson writes as eloquently as he speaks. However, it is slightly peeving nonetheless that he regularly uses terminology like “subject” and “object” or “causative” but only introduces the respective concepts several to dozens of pages later. The book is equipped with a small glossary at the back (besides phrasebook sentences from his conlangs and a page index), but that unfortunately does not contain all technical terms he uses either, making the text a little hard to follow at times for those readers who have never had any formal training in language.

It is also very nice that the book contains a whole lot of examples, though experience has shown that even a minimal amount of glossing is very helpful in understanding what is going on, especially for created languages whose grammar is usually only known to their creator. Peterson dutifully urges his readers in the introductory chapter to remember that when they develop their own languages and want to discuss them with others. Unfortunately, though, he does not follow his own advice for the greater part of the book. Thus, it is sometimes hard to quickly glance the phenomenon he is referring to in his explanations of language examples just from the phonetic (or phonemic?) transcriptions of lines in foreign scripts he gives along with English translations, especially when the differences between two example sentences are subtle.

It would also have been very nice if more examples in the morphology chapter had come from reasonably accessible and well-documented natural languages instead of almost only Peterson’s own. I know that this is a book on constructed languages from Peterson’s point of view, but he mentions himself how it’s always good to look at what natural languages do. This point of criticism goes hand in hand with my request for more reading recommendations above, basically, since an absolute newcomer would probably first go and look up the referenced languages to learn more. At the very least it would have been helpful to name-drop these languages in the descriptions of phenomena; you often wouldn’t even have to resort to very exotic ones.

Another thing that slightly peeved me is how the morphology chapter makes it seem a little as though languages always morphologically express case and gender. It is not uncommon that they do, but it’s not always the case (Nice to meet you, English!). You don’t need tables upon tables of declensions and conjugations, and a fair share of the world’s languages doesn’t even make use of the concept of gender or noun classes. For a first step, it may be reasonable to not go wild immediately (from a Eurocentric point of view), but at least it should have been said more explicitly that not all the world’s languages work like classical Indo-European ones with maybe some feature erosion for modern descendants. I also missed a reminder that languages tend to leave holes in paradigms and that syncretism is most definitely a thing (for example, the difficult thing about German definite articles is that six word forms cover sixteen paradigm slots, not that articles decline as such).

A thing that conlangers go into much too rarely is writing systems like Chinese, and while Peterson touches on that topic, a little more in-depth explanation about phonetic parts and semantic parts of Chinese characters in the fashion of Mark Rosenfelder’s page on ‘Yingzi’ would have been helpful, especially in comparison to the attention given to other kinds of writing systems. Korean presents the very interesting case of a featural alphabet made to mimic Chinese characters, but has unfortunately been omitted completely.

* * *

So, what is the takeaway of my ramblings? For one, you get a whole lot of bang for the buck. Peterson’s book is chock-full of information and a good way to get you going if you’re interested in creating your own language. For everyone else, it is a nice round trip through the engine room of language, though for this purpose it’s maybe a little too technical at times. As a seasoned conlanger, I was more interested in the anecdotes behind Peterson’s work than the actual explanations and definitions of linguistic concepts, though, and would have liked more information in this regard, for example about George R. R. Martin’s reactions to Peterson’s work and the slight changes Peterson made to details in Martin’s work. The book could use some more clarity in places and more suggestions on literature, but should overall be a good toolbox that nicely complements similar works, such as Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which is also recommended reading for aspiring conlangers.

  • Peterson, David J. The Art of Langauge Invention. From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

Review: Peterson, The Art of Language Invention

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015
  • CLARIFICATION: David J. Peterson contacted me about providing an image featuring Ayeri’s script for his book in fall 2014, and it has subsequently appeared in the book (see the blog post of October 1, 2015, “You’ve Got Mail”). As a contributor, I received a signed specimen copy of the book after it had been launched in late September 2015 and decided myself to review it; all of the below is my own opinion. Even though I can’t be fully unbiased in my judgement anymore due to contributing to the book and receiving praise in it, I have still tried to be as fair as possible by highlighting both good and bad characteristics of the book in a constructive manner according to my own experience after over a decade in the community. I urge you to also read other reviews for a more balanced view.

'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson
‘The Art of Language Invention’ by David J. Peterson
From Horse Lords to Dark Elves to the language-affine TV watcher – David J. Peterson’s personal behind-the-scenes of language creation. A review.

Why is it that we make up languages, of all things? Why not write? Why not draw, paint or sculpt? Why not compose? For me at least, this recent tweet summarizes it nicely (although I also do photography):

Making up languages is maybe not a mainstream hobby (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my humble opinion), but it’s still a valuable creative outlet for a good few people, and also for me. And for David J. Peterson, conlanger extraordinaire, who gained his laurels in the community with his creating the Dothraki language for the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the novel series The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

In his freshly published book, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building (292 pages, Penguin 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1, $17), David J. Peterson explores how the Craft came into being, from the 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen to today’s sprawling online community, additionally drawing on a stockpile of anecdotes from the early days of the internet and his own experiences with creating languages both for fun and for money, which form the heart of the book. The meat, then, is a basic introduction to linguistics for those interested bystanders and fans who want to make their first tip-toe steps into deeper waters.

A thing I really liked about Peterson’s book is that Peterson is very honest from the get-go: you will not find quick success if you seriously intend to make up a language or several and want to do it well. It takes time. It takes work. And it’s totally worth it getting engrossed in descriptions of the myriad of fascinating twists and turns that languages make to get meaning across. A sense of the joy of building up, destroying, improving, and also of solving puzzles can be deeply felt especially in the “Case Studies” after every main chapter of the book, in which Peterson discusses his own approaches to the respective topics while creating his languages. These are also the parts that contain background anecdotes about his work with TV producers and are probably the most entertaining parts of the whole book, for seasoned language tinkerers and people interested in some insider information on the TV shows’ production alike.

But even in the ‘meat’ chapters and in spite of linguistics being a rather academic topic with lots and lots of technical vocabulary, you will find Peterson’s original humor breaking through even the most dire technical discussions by referencing Harry Potter, Soundgarden, Michael Jackson, werewolves, cranky printers, and discussing the absolute and utter awfulness of onions among other things. Oh, and cats. This is 2015, after all, and we all love cats on the internet. Needless to say, since this is an introductory book, discussions of more complex aspects of language are sometimes a little simplified, though usually in a reasonable way that allows you to expand on later. There is only so much information you can put between the two covers of a 290-page book, anyway, and Peterson says so himself. For the $17 the book sets you back, you will get a whole lot of information, though.

Another aspect worth noting from a long-term hobbyist’s point of view is that Peterson never fails to make it clear that English is not the standard average language, but that it has its own peculiarities (apart from its infamously baroque spelling system) which everyone who is serious about creating languages needs to take into consideration lest he or she unwittingly rip off English. In a similar vein, Peterson frequently encourages his readers to do their own research into languages both natural and artistic in order to broaden their understanding and to develop a feeling for what is natural and possible. After all, a master needs to know his or her tools, and for a creative use of linguistics, it’s no different.

While Peterson’s book is not the only guide to creating languages for beginners – the other big one is Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit –, he covers some crucial aspects that Rosenfelder only touches on briefly, if at all, with a good amount of depth for the purposes of this introductory book. These topics are, for example, syllable structure and language change regarding semantic drift and grammaticalization. Moreover, Peterson presents some basic considerations on the development of writing systems and the effects different writing implements crucially have on their evolution.

* * *

Language is devilishly complex. This cannot be denied, and especially the first chapter drives this point home with its insane density of information that would probably cover the contents of a few weeks of an Introduction to Linguistics class. It is not easy ploughing through this even as a seasoned conlanger, though things get more digestible once the reader has made his or her way through. Promised. Interestingly, the chapter on phonology is the longest of the book, taking up about twice the amount of pages of each the morphology-and-syntax chapter and the one on language change. Strictly speaking, the latter two are no less complex and interesting topics to explore, and I wonder if things could have been balanced better if the phononlogy chapter had been thinned out a little for better legibility. Sounds and sound structure are important to give a convincing impression, since that is what people will hear on screen or, by proxy, read on the page, but it’s by far not the only important part in language design. I think what the book would have generally benefitted from to keep a balance between information density and readability is more suggestions for where to read more on a given topic.

As far as clarity of writing goes, I think it’s fair to say Peterson writes as eloquently as he speaks in front of audiences. However, it is slightly peeving nonetheless that he regularly uses terminology like “subject” and “object” or “causative” but only introduces the respective concepts several to dozens of pages later. The book is equipped with a small glossary at the back (besides phrasebook sentences from his conlangs and a page index), but that unfortunately does not contain all technical terms he uses either, making the text a little hard to follow at times for those readers who have never had any formal training in language.

It is also very nice that the book contains a whole lot of examples, though experience has shown that even a minimal amount of glossing is very helpful in understanding what is going on, especially for created languages whose grammar is usually only known to their creator. Peterson dutifully urges his readers in the introductory chapter to remember that when they develop their own languages and want to discuss them with others. Unfortunately, though, he does not follow his own advice for the greater part of the book. Thus, it is sometimes hard to quickly glance the phenomenon he is referring to in his explanations of language examples just from the phonetic (or phonemic?) transcriptions of lines in foreign scripts he gives along with English translations, especially when the differences between two example sentences are subtle.

It would also have been very nice if more examples in the morphology chapter had come from reasonably accessible and well-documented natural languages instead of almost only Peterson’s own. I know that this is a book on constructed languages from Peterson’s point of view, but he mentions himself how it’s always good to look at what natural languages do. This point of criticism goes hand in hand with my request for more reading recommendations above, basically, since an absolute newcomer would probably first go and look up the referenced languages to learn more. At the very least it would have been helpful to name-drop these languages in the descriptions of phenomena; you often wouldn’t even have to resort to very exotic ones.

Another thing that slightly peeved me is how the morphology chapter makes it seem a little as though languages always morphologically express case and gender. It is not uncommon that they do, but it’s not always the case (Nice to meet you, English!). You don’t need tables upon tables of declensions and conjugations, and a fair share of the world’s languages doesn’t even make use of the concept of gender or noun classes. For a first step, it may be reasonable to not go wild immediately (from a Eurocentric point of view), but at least it should have been said more explicitly that not all the world’s languages work like classical Indo-European ones with maybe some feature erosion for modern descendants. I also missed a reminder that languages tend to leave holes in paradigms and that syncretism is most definitely a thing (for example, the difficult thing about German definite articles is that six word forms cover sixteen paradigm slots, not that articles decline as such).

A thing that conlangers go into much too rarely is writing systems like Chinese, and while Peterson touches on that topic, a little more in-depth explanation about phonetic parts and semantic parts of Chinese characters in the fashion of Mark Rosenfelder’s page on ‘Yingzi’ would have been helpful, especially in comparison to the attention given to other kinds of writing systems. Korean presents the very interesting case of a featural alphabet made to mimic Chinese characters, but has unfortunately been omitted completely.

* * *

So, what is the takeaway of my ramblings? For one, you get a whole lot of bang for the buck. Peterson’s book is chock-full of information and a good way to get you going if you’re interested in creating your own language. For everyone else, it is a nice round trip through the engine room of language, though for this purpose it’s maybe a little too technical at times. As a seasoned conlanger, I was more interested in the anecdotes behind Peterson’s work than the actual explanations and definitions of linguistic concepts, though, and would have liked more information in this regard, for example about George R. R. Martin’s reactions to Peterson’s work and the slight changes Peterson made to details in Martin’s work. The book could use some more clarity in places and more suggestions on literature, but should overall be a good toolbox that nicely complements similar works, such as Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which is also recommended reading for aspiring conlangers.

  • Peterson, David J. The Art of Langauge Invention. From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

Notes on a Vaporware Conlang III

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

A thing that’s always bothered me a little regarding Ayeri is that, so far, I haven’t come up with a proto-language which to draw irregularities and other neat and natural idiosyncracies from. For this conlang idea, I want to right those wrongs from the start, and by experimenting with a “fresh” language I can also learn how I could maybe retrofit Ayeri a little while avoiding noob mistakes … Since any sound can change to any other at least in principle, I thought I should just

  1. assume some phoneme inventory for the proto-language, maybe with some underspecification à la PIE’s laryngeals;1
  2. make up some phonotactics of course;
  3. make up some words in either system accordingly;
  4. morph the proto words to their recent shape and thus gain a bunch of sound changes to draw on and extend.

Furthermore, of course, I can also go backwards from the current shape and make assumptions on what may have happened to generate the current surface form. For example, given words like boď and šaňt, there may very plausibly have been a high front vowel following the palatalized sounds which was elided by apocope or syncope, so e.g. *bodiboď and *šanitšaňt.

For a proto-language inventory, how about this, for a start:2

Consonants

labial dental velar guttural
nasals *μ [m~n~ŋ]
plosives *t *k *q [q~ʔ]
*tʰ *kʰ
fricatives *s *x [x~h]
liquids *w *λ [r~l]

Vowels

Front Mid Back
high *i *u
mid
low *a

Some possible words

Given the above phonemes and the phonotactic rules I sketched out here,3 here is a list of some possible words:

*aλ, *aλs, *i, *iμs.tʰus, *kak.tʰixt, *kaλs.kʰaμk, *kisk.twa, *ku, *kuλ, *kʰa, *kʰask.λaμ, *kʰax.sta, *kʰaλt, *kʰaμ.sλa, *kʰuλs.txu, *sa.taλk, *si.λuxs, *ska.λi, *skʰa, *skʰu, *stʰaq, *su.λə, *sλa, *sλi.μaλμ, *sλu.λəλk, *ta.quμ, *taqs.qusq, *tsa.stʰu, *tu.λətq, *tuλ.tʰa, *txa, *tʰas.qsə, *tʰask, *tʰaxs.taλμ, *tʰaμ, *tʰis.λax, *tλa, *tλa.kaμ, *tλu, *xask.xwu, *xkʰa, *xə, *xλi.saλt, *xλuq.stʰa, *xμa, *λa, *λak.xa, *λəλk.λaλ, *μaλq.tʰak, *μisk.sλak.

Obviously, in order to reach the phoneme inventory posited in my previous blog article in this little series, there has to be some splitting of phonemes, and the underspecification of some of them will be useful there, I suppose, in that allophony (e.g. *λ → *r / #(C)_ but *λ → *l / _#, so *λəλk.λaλ*rəlkral) provides different contexts for sound change to operate on as complementary distributions get undermined. Also, there will have to be some playing around with vowels to generate /e/ and /o/ and to get rid of /ə/, and also to generate a length distinction.

  1. If you like some not totally serious but still good conlanging, look at Pthag’s Shapshiruckish with its series of voiceless fricatives *Ⅰ, *Ⅱ and *Ⅲ, with their sound value “reconstructed” as *​h~ʔ, *f, *θ, respectively.
  2. That is, this may be subject to changes, depending on whether I can make it work or not …
  3. This is a rule file for a little word generator I wrote some time ago, called Wharrgarbl. You can check that out, too, if you like.