The 2013 Smiley Award Winner: Brithenig

I am very pleased to present the 2013 Smiley Award to Brithenig, an a posteriori language created by Andrew Smith. Brithenig is a language that started a movement, and has been much celebrated by conlangers since its inception in 1996. It's well worthy of the Smiley Award. Congratulations, Andrew!

Smiley Award 2013

A Priori vs. A Posteriori

Most conlangs that have gained notoriety—and all those that have received a Smiley thus far—are a priori conlangs. A priori conlangs feature entirely original vocabulary stems and grammar (to the best of the creator's knowledge and ability). An a posteriori conlang takes all its vocabulary from another language—or languages. The most famous is, of course, Esperanto, which drew its vocabulary from European languages to make it more familiar to potential speakers from Europe. Not all a posteriori projects have ease of learnability as a goal, though. A common type of a posteriori artlang is the alternate history language, or altlang. This type of language takes as an assumption an alternate historical timeline which sees different nations rise while others fall, leading to different languages serving as the language of prestige in a given area. And while it might seem to an outsider that such projects would be simpler, since vocabulary is being drawn from an already existing source, doing it right can be as difficult as writing a period accurate historical novel—if not more so.

Brithenig may not have been the first altlang, but amongst the altlangs of the early 90s it's the best known, and one of the most highly regarded. Furthermore, it gave rise to an entire movement within the online conlanging community, and either directly or indirectly inspired a number of other excellent conlangs (some of which will likely be getting Smileys in the future).

The Set Up

The idea behind Brithenig is simple: What if the Roman Empire and Latin had left more of a lasting impression on Britain than it did? The implementation was a bit more complex. Since we're here to talk about language and I'm not much of a history guy, I'll simply say that Andrew did his homework (taking inspiration for the early period especially from The Age of Arthur by John Morris). You can check out the list of major events in Kemrese (Cambrian, in English) history here. I'll focus on the linguistic bits.

The Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) began their existences as a form of Latin. The Latin spoken by the occupying Roman forces melded with local languages, with the sounds of the Latin spoken there changing in characteristic ways, along with the grammar. Pretty soon the languages weren't Latin anymore.

The same thing did not happen in England when the Romans invaded. They came, they saw, they conquered, and then, pretty soon, it became more trouble than it was worth, so...they left. Most of the Latin that we have in English came to us via Norman invaders, or simply as learned borrowings, as they did in the rest of Europe in later centuries. If, on the contrary, Latin had stuck around, though, the same thing would have happened as happened elsewhere in Western Europe, with the key difference being that the languages spoken on the British Isles before the conquest would influence the development of the future Romance languages spoken there.

Enter Brithenig.

The Grand Master Plan

You can see a partial list of the sound changes Andrew applied to Latin here. I won't go through all of them, but I'll take you through a few of them. (Also, it will likely prove useful to look at the romanization system used by Brithenig here. Most of the time you can rely on your English instincts. Just remember that y and w are pronounced like [i] and [u], respectively, when they're being used as vowels, f is [v], and double ff is just [f].)

One of the characteristic features of the Celtic languages are their systems of initial consonant mutation. In order to make them function in what is essentially a Romance language, Andrew added a series of sound changes to Vulgar Latin which effectively chopped off all word endings. Whereas all number and declension information is contained in the endings in Latin, Brithenig relies on articles and word order—much like French, with the addition of Celtic-style consonant mutation.

Let me take as an example (since the end result amuses me so) the feminine word barba, which is Latin for "beard" (identical to the modern form in Spanish). This is what happens to it in Brithenig:

  1. Word-Final Vowel Loss: *barba > *barb
  2. Post-Rhotic Spirantization: *barb > barf

Ha. (And that's about what I think of beards, anyway. [But to be maximally fair, I should mention that word-final f is silent.]) But that's not the interesting part yet. Here's what it looks like when modified:

  • barf "beard"
  • lla farf "the beard

You see the same kind of mutation with adjectives modifying a noun:

  • rhys "red"
  • barf rys "red beard"
  • lla farf rys "the red beard"

Above, what's happening is that *b becomes f in between vowels, and the final vowel of the definite article lla is treated as if it's a part of the same prosodic word as barf, thus turning the b to f. Similarly, older *r becomes rh at the beginning of words and a few other places. The now absent final *-a of *barba blocks this sound change, resulting in barf rys rather than barf rhys. With the lack of any other type of marking, though—and combined with the fact that masculine nouns trigger no mutation—the mutation itself ends up serving as feminine agreement.

Using a word starting with a voiceless stop, we can see the effects of two different types of mutation, along with the original form of the word:

  • cas "house"
  • lla gas "the house"
  • llo chas "the houses"

And, just for fun, here's a masculine homonym:

  • cas "cheese"
  • ill cas "the cheese"
  • llo chas "the cheeses"

Those familiar with general sound changes should be able to see a bit more easily what's going on here. Taking the feminine cas "house", the older *c (which is [k]) voices to g in between vowels (as in the singular definite), but spirantizes from *c to ch (i.e. [x]) when it occurs after llo, which used to be *los.

The result is a plausible merger of standard Romance vocabulary with standard Celtic mutations. Very well done!

I'd also like to look briefly at some of the sound changes that gave Brithenig its unique sound. One sweeping change is coda [k] becoming, in effect, [i] (or an [i]-like sound) before [s] or [t], and word-final [i] jumping before its consonant to palatalize the previous vowel. Along with a *t to th change, that produced word forms like this (note that endings like -us and -um have already been lost):

English Latin Brithenig
bed lectus lleith
night nox (gen. noctis) noeth
roof tēctum teith
arm brachium breich
milk lac (gen. lactis) llaeth
arrow sagitta saith
son fīlius ffeil
dictionary dictionarium dithiwneir

Maybe it's just me, but those are some attractive words. Part of the fun of using Brithenig is forgetting that you're actually using a romlang.

But You Are

Indeed, it is still a Romance language. Check out this conjugation table, which should look rather familiar to those who know any Spanish or French (the word is dorfir "to sleep"):

  Singular Plural
First Person eo ddorf nu ddorfen
Second Person ty ddorf gw ddorfith
Third Person ys dorf ys/sa ddorfent

And you can also use a variant of the verb ystar "to stand" to form progressive tenses. Compare the following:

  • Brithenig: Eo yst dorfin.
  • Spanish: (Yo) estoy durmiendo.
  • English: I'm sleeping.

The similarities are easy to spot when looking at longer bits of text:

  • Future: Ys yscrifera yn garth. "He will write a letter."
  • Conditional: Ys digef ke ys yscriferew yn garth. "He said that he would write a letter."

Another favorite feature of mine is how Brithenig negates verbs. Before getting to it, though, I should probably formally introduce the Brithenig mutation system (something I haven't done yet because I thought I could get by without doing so, we are). Brithenig has three initial consonant mutations: The moillad (softened) mutation; the solwed (loosened) mutation; and the naral (nasal) mutation. These mutations affect oral stops, the nasal m, and the approximants ll and rh. Here's a summary of the mutations (below Ø indicates that the sound in the base column disappears; a dash indicates that there's no change from the base form; nasals followed by h are voiceless):


Consequently if you have a verb like passer "to pass", it could show up as passer, basser, phasser or mhasser depending on how it's used in a sentence (well, not really, since that's the infinitive form, but you get the idea. The stem would change). This is how negation works:

  1. Infinitive: dorfir "to sleep"
  2. Present Positive: Eo ddorf. "I sleep."
  3. Present Negative: Eo norf rhen. "I don't sleep."

As you can see, you have, in order: (1) no mutation; (2) moillad mutation; and (3) naral mutation. The moillad mutation in (2) seems to be motivated in the usual way (it's triggered by the previous pronoun which ends in a vowel), but the naral mutation in (3) seems to be triggered by the word that comes after the verb. So what happened? Those who know French have probably already figured it out.

In fact, the word rhen isn't actually a negator—or at least not on its own, or not originally. It's a negative polarity item now, sure, but it's cognate with French rien, which comes from Latin rem, the accusative of res which meant "thing" (a word many will know from the expression in medias res). There was an older stage of the language that used expressions like this one (this is Latin, but you get the idea):

  • Ego non video rem. "I don't see a thing."

When the mutations happened, the final n of non effected a naral mutation in the following verb, if it could take one. After a while, the word non dropped out entirely, leaving behind the naral mutation of the verb as a kind of marker of negation. But since not all consonants are affected by mutation, some marker needed to be present, and that marker was the orphaned rhen—formerly a noun in the accusative, and now a full-fledged negator that can actually be used in wider contexts:

  • llaeth "milk"
  • rhen llaeth "no milk"

And so you get plenty of pairs of sentences like these:

  • Eo gedd. "I yield."
  • Eo nghedd rhen. "I don't yield."
  • Eo ddyth. "I doubt."
  • Eo nyth rhen. "I don't doubt."
  • Eo en. "I produce."
  • Eo ngen rhen. "I don't produce."
  • Eo bar. "I prepare."
  • Eo mhar rhen. "I don't prepare."

I love stuff like this, and it's really hard to pull off convincingly and naturally. Brithenig does a great job of it.

How Brithenig Has Made Me Smile

Do I even need to say it?

A fire-breathing dragon!

Look at that fancy fellow! This feisty fire-breathing dragon has greeted visitors to Andrew's Brithenig pages since the 90s, and it fills me with joy to see him still up and smoking to this day. When I first saw it, I thought it was amazing ("How does he make it move?!" I puzzled), and now it never fails to remind me of the days of old, when all conlangers knew html and created webpages on dinosaurs like GeoCities and Tripod (where this site got its start). It sure doesn't seem like a long time ago (a function of the 00 decade, which, numerically, never felt like a real decade, I say), but 1996 was 17 years ago at the time of writing—or, in other words, as far away from Radiohead's 2000 release Kid A as Metallica's first album Kill 'Em All, released in 1983. Time she does fly...

And, of course, Brithenig itself has spawned some excellent conlangs by some excellent conlangers over the years. The early conlang crew found it so fascinating that they basically took stake in the universe where Brithenig is spoken, which Andrew has called Ill Bethisad. The thing has gotten so big that it has its own wiki with a couple dozen participants. Things like this don't happen in conlanging, generally. Many have started up collaborative conlangs or collaborative world building projects with varying degrees of success, but in the case of Ill Bethisad, people basically asked to join in. It's an impressive group achievement that grew out of an impressive conlang.

I may have joined the Conlang-L a bit too late to appreciate the initial wave of enthusiasm over Brithenig, but its ripples can be felt to this day. It gives me pride to hoist the flag of Kemr, and say congratulations to Andrew, for creating a magnificent and inspirational altlang!

Smiley Award 2013
Ill Dragun Rhys duġ ill modd!
"The Red Dragon leads the world!"

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