Notes on Language Creation

Language creation can be a tough thing to get a hold of. There is no "How To" book for language creation. Everyone has their own opinions; everyone has good ideas. These are a few of mine (opinions, not good ideas—the latter's for you to decide).

Table of Contents


Let me pause while I figure out what this is an introduction to... Ah, yes.

This is intended to be a general introduction to me as a language creator, so you can know where I'm coming from.

I was never really interested in language the way I am now (and the way most language creators have always been) until my junior year of high school. Before then, I came from a house where English was the first language and Spanish the second, but I never fully learned Spanish. So, when I got to high school, I took Spanish, because everyone had to take a language. It was in my junior year, though, that I woke up one morning with a startling thought: Millions of people on Earth could speak French fluently, and I wasn't one of them. This greatly disturbed me. I was more embarrassed, than anything else. Like I'd walked into a black tie social event in my pajamas (and little-kid footy pajamas, at that). From that day forward, I was determined to learn every language on Earth, living or dead. (Note: It wasn't until much later that I learned that there were thousands of these things, and that I would have to revise my self-imposed goal, if I hoped to live anything that even resembled a normal life.)

Shortly after my revelation, I started to pick up different language books here and there. And so, I started to teach myself Latin and French. In my senior year, I added a German class, though I was thwarted in my attempt to take French 2 without having taken French 1. I also started to try to learn Arabic. Then when I go to college at UC Berkeley, I took, in my first year, a year of Arabic, a semester of Russian, and a semester of Esperanto. Esperanto was my official introduction to created languages, though at the time, I never imagined that one even could create a language for fun. That thought didn't dawn on me until my next semester, when I (finally) took a French class, and took my very first linguistics class: Linguistics 5, introductory linguistics. Some time during the lesson on the IPA, I thought to myself, "Hey, what if I came up with my own IPA, so that I could write English in an Arabic-style script?" I'd become enamored of Arabic, and especially its script, you see. And then I had a startingly thought. "What if I actually created a language that was like Arabic, but simple and regular, like Esperanto?" And that was the end of it for me. Ever since that day, just about all my free time has been spent creating languages.

That first language was a language called Megdevi, named after myself and my girlfriend at the time. My idea was to create a language that we could speak between ourselves (what a laugh!). When I realized that wasn't going to pan out, I just started to expand it on my own, adding sounds that I liked, not having to worry about how others could pronounce them any longer. Pretty soon I got some font making software and started creating a font. This led to creating more fonts and more languages.

It wasn't until March of 2001, it turns out (I could've sworn it was November of 2000...), that I came across the CONLANG list. It looks like my first message was on March 8, 2001, and it was rather argumentative. An ill omen. Oh well. One thing that's important to understand about me and language creation is that I really thought I had come up with a novel idea. I new that Esperanto had been created back in the 19th century, and that a few others had been created around that time (Ido, SolReSol, Novial, Volapük, etc.), but I didn't know that anyone had actually created a language for fun. Ever. I never read Tolkien as a child (I almost got three fourths of the way through The Hobbit once), and still am not fond of him. And even though I knew of him, certainly, I never knew that he created languages. I grouped him together with C.S. Lewis and George Orwell (other writers I read in fourth/fifth grade) as a set of sci-fi/fantasy-type authors, and never dreamed that he, as a member of that group, did anything but write. I'd certainly never heard of the actual Klingon language, or any other type of conlang, for that matter. I honestly and truly believed that I was the first. I continued to believe for a few months until I came upon Pablo David Flores's page on the internet, and was crushed. After all, if I was one of many, what was the point? So for the few months when I found out about language creation on the web and found out about CONLANG, I was in a bad mood. It's not surprising that I was so arrogant and rude, though it remains, nevertheless, unforgivable (especially since I was probably one of the reasons that David Bell abandoned CONLANG. I still feel very bad about that, and if he ever reads this, I want him to know that I'm sorry).

Anyway, during this time, I started to develop Megdevi. I got to a point where all I had to do was add triconsonantal roots. Thus, the vocabulary began to grow by leaps and bounds. At the same time, there was discussion on CONLANG about vocabulary size. Someone posed (I believe) about how their vocabulary had finally grown to 300 words. I looked at Megdevi and estimated the number of words, and it was well over 5,000. As a result, I got the idea that I was really a lot better at language creation than everyone on the list. What I didn't know, though, was that quite the opposite was true.

The language Megdevi itself (and I won't ever put anything up about it. The Babel Text is here if you want to get an idea for what the language was like) was really a very clever code for English. Its triconsonantal roots encoded semantic categories from which nouns, adjectives and verbs could be made. Any time I came across a construction my language couldn't handle, or learned about something new in one of my linguistics classes, I merely added an affix. And Megdevi had prefixes, suffixes, infixes and circumfixes—every kind of affix I'd heard of at that point. Thus, when it came to translation, its power was unlimited. Any time I came across something it couldn't handle, I'd either add another triconsonantal root, or add a new affix.

Now, I've no doubt that anybody on the list could've pointed out what was wrong with Megdevi. It would've been like taking candy from a baby who liked to hand out candy to strangers. I think, however, that it was best for me that I discovered it on my own. I believe it was when I was coming up with a new root for "fortify". Thus, the verb meant "to fortify", the verbal noun was "fortification", the utility noun was "(a/the) fortification or fort"... And it was right then, right at "fort", that I realized I was doing nothing more than cleverly recreating the vocabulary of English. And it was then that I realized that all the other languages I'd started at the time (languages like Geydr [not misspelled], Sunshine, Dangelis, Color, Mbasa, Zidaan...) were terrible. The more and more I learned in linguistics, the more and more I saw how little I understood language, and how much my languages had suffered. So, I stopped working on Megdevi, and all the others, and started a new language: Kamakawi. This was the first language I started that I considered somewhat good. It still suffers from some of my old bad habits, as do Sathir, Njaama and Zhyler, but it was a marked improvement. At the same time, I began to appreciate more and more others' languages, and was finally able to really start getting stuff from the CONLANG community.

From that point on, I kind of settled into a groove. I started to learn more languages (Middle Egyptian, Hawai'ian, Turkish...), learn a lot more about linguistics, and to work on the languages that are currently on this site.

Some time near the end of my stay at Berkeley, I started up an experiment with John McWhorter that eventually became the Wasabi experiment. The paper I wrote at the end of this experiment is what I used as my writing sample for my graduate school applications. Additionally, I was able to talk about the talk I gave on language creation at a colloquium that our club at Berkeley (the Society of Linguistics Undergraduates, SLUG) put on, and so, quite literally speaking, I can say that language creation is what got me where I am today (= 2005): at UCSD as a linguistics graduate student. Language creation has made a great impact on my life thus far, and I hope to be able to do even more with it in the future.

But, for now, it's fun. And that's what matters most. ~:D

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