Language Creation Workshop

There was a three-hour Language Creation Workshop at Renovation, this year’s Worldcon. That really wasn’t enough time to generate much of a language, even if we’d used a streamlined procedure; we actually were given a seven-stage process which included things like vowel shifts, borrowing from other languages, etc., which was all very cool and educational and would have made for a more interesting language in the end, but we only had time to complete three steps.

My main contribution was a system of pronouns. Nobody in the group wanted gender-based pronouns like “he” and “she”, and I think we were about to settle on one pronoun for people and another for everyone else, when I suggested distinguishing between animate objects (like people or animals), things that change slowly (like an apple or snow), and things that are permanent (like a mountain). Our language ended up with five singular and five plural pronouns: nu (I), su (you), and three third-person pronouns, pe, te, and ke (pronounced pay, tay, kay). We also decided that our language formed plurals by adding -ish to words, so our plural pronouns were nish, sish, pish, tish, and kish.

I expected to leave it at that, but in the small hours of the morning I found myself refining the system. I added pu, a definite third-person pronoun, which refers to a specific person. (So “I saw a hunter by the creek. He was carrying a rabbit.” would use pe. “I saw Sylvia hunting by the creek. She was carrying a rabbit.” would use pu.) That got me thinking about whether tu and ku ought to be words. I didn’t see any use for tu, except maybe for nature spirits or some deities, but it struck me that dead people would be referred to with ke, so ku would be a pronoun that could logically refer to ghosts. After a while, I also came up with the idea that anything that was cyclical would use te, so tu would be the definite pronoun for a person carrying out a repetitive task.

I thought that it would be nice to have a mirror-image pair of words for birth and death, deriving from the concepts of te-to-pe (growing womb to person) and pe-to-te (person to corpse). When I looked at my notes I saw that we’d already agreed on pjet as the word for birth, so, drawing on that, I added a short e to our phonology and came up with pjet or péjet as the word for birth, téjep as a verb meaning an ordinary or gradual death, kép as a verb meaning to die instantly, and téjet or tjet as the word for cycle or repetition.

I thought it would be nice if the same word could be used for “die” or “kill”, so I decided on a basic word order of actor-verb-thing being acted on. So “Kép nu” would be “I die”, and “Nu kép” would be “I kill”.

Next, I asked myself how I’d make sentences like “I give you the book” or “I make a basket”. I decided that what was being acted on was the book and the bark—the book was being made your possession, the bark was being transformed into a basket. So what I needed was some sort of a market to turns “yours” and “basket” into verbs. I decided on the suffix -ta. So: “Nu yours-ta book” and “Nu basket-ta bark” (or just, “Nu basket-ta”). (I don’t have words for “yours”, “basket”, and “bark”, but I’m just coming up with grammar here.)

I even decided that -ta could be attached to verbs: “I run” would be “Run nu”, but “I make myself run” would be “Nu run-ta nu”, and “I make you run” would be “Nu run-ta su”.

If I’d continued, I would have done prepositions next, and I was thinking about making a system where you might say “from the ground through me” for “above me” or “toward the lake from you” for “to your left” (if the lake happened to be on your left), but thankfully I had no more sleepless nights, so I haven’t done any more work on the language. I have enough commitments already. But I can easily see how this could become addictive.

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