A few lines about artificial language construction.
The Order faction in Scout’s Journey are now talking in their own language. I’ve started putting it into the script after some preliminary design work.
How to begin?
I started with thinking up a general sound for the language I wanted. The Order are a faction of crusaders, kept alive by necromancy, who are mostly concerned with conquering other people or killing heretics in the name of their mad god. That tells me they’re not exactly going to sound Elvish. They’re going to sound harsh, short, effective, but not without culture – ie. their language is going to have pretty complex grammar and a large pool of possibly multi-syllable words, as well as a somewhat sophisticated way for words to assume meaning in context.
My associations were the Romans and Latin grammar, not least because I learned a lot of Latin in school (I have a certificate) and because Latin was also the language of the church and the real inquisition. The Romans were not too timid when it came to invading and conquering others as well, after all any non-Roman was seen as a barbarian who needed to be taught some culture…
So the language would be dark-sounding, sharp or harsh sounding, but would have developed into a certain complexity. Like Black Speech of Mordor crossed with modern languages and Latin.
So I began just improvising and mouthing words to myself that sounded like what I was going after. I was imagining these soldiers of an age-old militaristic cult exchanging sentences. This is the slightly silly phase which you just need to accept. I believe this mainly requires imagination and empathy. Within my incoherent syllable experimentation, short sentences emerged that sounded snappy. I wrote those down and thought about what they might mean.
For a faction that spends most of its ingame time fighting and torturing, there would be an awful lot of combat related vocabulary. Words like “enemy”, “heretics”, and tactical commands. While shaping those words, I tried to make them sound like what the speakers would associate with them. Sometimes this turned out pretty close to Orcish, like “enemy” is now “dulzug.” But other words were soon needed, like “us”, “yes”, “no”, negations, “need”, “is”… Structures started to arise when certain things repeated, such as grammatical cases and imperatives of verbs – even short commands would use these quite a lot. Out of this, simple grammar arose like puzzle pieces.
Dos ush ulshakhanuk!
We – Need – Reinforcements
- Accusative mostly uses a k (-uk). This simply happened.
- Several kinds of declensions might exist.
Hados ush kadakarimye?
HaveWe – Need – Retreat?
- There happen to be concatenations of certain words.
- Verbs can be used as substantives.
- Imperative mood (-ye) is used in this context for some reason. Hm, OK.
- Imperative again (-ye). This, again, simply started to happen repeatedly.
Agor dolshan haniosuk.
Make – ready – the catapult.
- Accusative uses -k (actually -uk) again
- Different imperative! Hm, OK. Different kind of verb?
- Verb derived from Latin (agere).
- Ready (dolshan) related to attack (dolyug)? Militaristic. Fitting.
Now – (attack with) – the catapult.
- Dative using -e. Fine. If something like this just happens, roll with it.
- Verbs can be left out. OK, roll with it.
Now – Attack!
There’s the verb that was left out above.
shidu ota dolyug
it seems – it is – an attack
- We have flexion of a verb. Excellent.
- “it is” is an important puzzle piece
- “it” is omitted frequently
- Nominative uses -ug (or -yug, possibly)
- Verbing of nouns (or vice versa) apparent again
- Indefinite article is omitted? Scandinavian influence?
Fundamentally, whenever you see a pattern emerge in your gibberish, start doing it consciously. Grammar is basically repetition of features with the same meaning. Decide on a meaning and actively repeat the new feature.
This is how my orders started having -ye at the end of the word, how my nouns started to display the -uk or -ug in certain cases, and how other features started to show up repeatedly.
The Apostrophe that wouldn’t go away
Ready – We Are
- Huh. What’s with the apostrophe?
- Does it signify a case? A reinforcement? An abbreviation?
- ota also means “it is”, so is the ‘a signifying plural?
It started to repeat – some words gained ‘a at the end in certain contexts. This actually developed into a very recognizable language feature over time. I’m still not 100% sure what it signifies, but I went with it purely on instinct. I can still solidify the language later, at this early stage I tended to include a feature if it started occurring. I’m including this as an example on how to go by feel first, then sort it out.
Apostrophes are horribly overused in conlangs – Klingon, other Star Trek languages. Better keep it to a minimum or make it do actually interesting things.
Ashik dor dulzug’a
See – There – (is) – (the) enemy
- So is this a definite article? Plural?
- The verb (ota) is left out here again
- Note again a different imperative…
See (actually perceive) – (the) enemy
- OK, the plot thickens. Definite, plural?
- -e instead of -ye as imperative (singular?)
See / notice – (the) heretics
- Plot thickens more. Definite, plural.
- There are different words for different ways to perceive.
(To) Naruuk – Hail
- Oh shit. It does more than one thing.
- Is their god plural by default?
Hasuka’a gise gosiden
(Of The) Stars – Eater – Hail
- Argh. So plural and definite article seems like a good bet.
- Genitive plural not specially assigned? Huh
At this point, the ‘a seems like a catch-all for several meanings associated with the plural of words (except in the case of Naruuk, their god) and a definite article style of things.
Naturally, the apostrophe then appeared in different places.
HaveWe – (The) Victory!
- Oh shit. So this is interesting though…
- -ok is probably accusative plural
- Are some words (hidok) simply always used in the plural form?
- Why is hados appearing with and without ‘a in different places?
Questions over questions… and then:
Down with the enemy!
- Time to get a very strong coffee…
Creating a constructed language requires some imagination and empathy, and accepting that you’ll sound stupid while doing it. You need to be ready to accept reoccurring features as rules of a grammar you don’t understand yet. It’s like one part of your brain comes up with the language, and another has to make sense of it as if it were fragments of writing found in an archaeological dig. You’re the first person to decipher an unknown language.
Relatively soon, basic features of the language’s grammar need to be recognized and established. All or most of the gibberish that comes afterwards should try and conform to those. Newly emerging features will enrich the language, but of course it doesn’t need to be overdone. After all, we’re doing this for a purpose, which is making part of the game more believable. This is not a nerdfest, we have a goal in mind. We don’t want to write a book on it. Some balance and focus is required.
You don’t need to be a linguist (in fact that may help or hinder you) but you need to have basic understanding of real-world grammar and ideally a few different languages. We’re not trying to claim the Nobel Prize here, just making aliens speak in a videogame.
There might be different ways of doing this. You might be able to just take a grammar blueprint (Latin, likely) and fill it out with different sounds and syllables. My way is more by association, brainstorming, free flowing experimentation and finally, interpretation of the mess my brain made. Other approaches may be totally possible. I’m just talking about how I’m doing it.
Pronounciation, of course, is another layer to a language; I’ve not touched upon this, because my Order language is mostly pronounced like German or maybe Japanese. Thus, ush is “oosh”. “A” sounds like in German (“Ah”), not like in English. Same for “i” (“ee”) and “e” (“eh”). This is natural to me as a native German speaker but voice actors would need it explained. The Order are also rolling their R, it seems. While this is un-German, it seemed fitting to me. This pretty much just happened while I was gibberishing and trying to sound adequate to what I had in mind.
Until next time, thanks for reading.