What’s in a Name? How Linguistics Helps Your Story World–Guest Post by Brennan D.K. Corrigan

Good morning, friends! Anna here. July is a fifth-Saturday month, and you know what that means: an extra-special Fifth Saturday Post here on The Story Scientist. Today, I have a guest post by my good friend, author and conlanger (if you don’t know what that means, read on to find out) Brennan D.K. Corrigan. Enjoy!

Asengae! Num Perènen Koringgan noth, neh num jaenoryu Anno rinaafal naysiÿenafe (iÿenafe anaysa ja) vana šathu. Rikunind šef hato ngeleoval!

            Hello! I am Brennan Corrigan, and I am writing this article for my friend Anna as her conlanger (creator of languages). Many thanks to her for this honor!

What is written and translated above is in the Toriqayse language, which I created for the serial Nations of Tiynalta. Linguistics has been a passion of mine for six years, and in that time I have studied Spanish, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Quechua, Esperanto, Korean, Klingon, Na’vi, and Trigedasleng. My novel, Winter’s Corruption, features several of my constructed languages. I am also the conlanger for Anna’s novels.

As much as I love language, and as much as I would love to see an immense, full-grammar, thousand-word-dictionary conlang in every speculative fiction work, I have to respect that this isn’t always possible or necessary. Many people only need some suitably foreign-sounding names to differentiate aliens and elves from the average Joe. But what makes a language sound foreign? Just as importantly, what makes that foreignness consistent and realistic? It comes down to three principles of linguistics. What you need to know are phonology, phonotactics, and Romanization.

Phonology: What sounds are you using?

Every language has a unique set of sounds that sets it apart from any other. Certainly, common sounds overlap between languages, but others are more specific, giving that language a special auditory “flavor.”

Adding and subtracting sounds from your English inventory is a good way to make a foreign phonology. English lacks any front rounded vowels, but German does have two, written as ü and ö. Welsh has several consonants that are foreign to English, such as the alveolar lateral fricative, written as ll, and a trilled r. Removing English consonants is just as important as adding foreign ones. English’s th sounds, as in thin and this, are extremely rare in other languages, which is why many foreign accents change them to z or s. Without having practiced them for their whole lives, foreigners easily mispronounce them.

How, though, to choose which sounds should stay or go? As it turns out, linguists have been very careful to classify every sound that the human mouth can make into a handy chart, the International Phonetic Alphabet. Every consonant and vowel has a neat little place on the table, which describes how exactly your mouth pronounces it. (These descriptions are the names used above to describe ü, ö, and ll. Don’t worry about them immediately; that will come as you get familiar with the table.) The easiest realistic way to add or subtract consonants is to take out particular rows or columns, for example, the voiced plosives, or the labial consonants. (N.B.: In natural languages, the voiced consonants hardly ever occur unless their unvoiced partners are also there.) With vowels, I go for a small number (5-6) that are far away from each other on the table, so no two get confused with each other. The table may look very foreign to begin with, but type “IPA for English” (or any other language) into Google and some nice pronunciation guides will come up.

Phonotactics: Where are you using that sound?

Every language has rules that govern where sounds can appear inside syllables. English would never have names like Nguyen (Vietnamese), Mbanta (Igbo), or Tsuda (Japanese), because English doesn’t allow those consonants or consonant clusters to be at the beginning of a syllable. However, any of those clusters could come at the end of an English syllable. Play around with the beginnings and endings of your syllables, and find clusters that you like that aren’t native to English. Or, go the other way: Restrict the creation of syllables so that English’s clusters aren’t possible in your language.

Romanization: How do you spell it?

The big difference for conlangs between written and spoken media is the fact that in writing, every word has to be seen and spelled out. Thus, I take time to make sure my spellings look really, really cool… but not without some restrictions.

First, your spellings should be regular. Each sound should be spelled the same way everywhere, because if your readers do end up trying to pronounce your names, you should be kind to them. English’s radical and unpredictable spellings are the product of thousands of years of history, and unless you want to map out every historical spelling change for your fictional world, go easy on the reader.

Second, be careful with accent marks. I love the exotic look of them as much as the next conlanger, but they must have purpose. Otherwise, they’re just a fancy-looking distraction. Do some research into accent marks that you think look cool, in order to learn why they’re there.

As with accent marks, research digraphs or trigraphs that you think will make an aesthetic impact on your work. I personally love the Welsh and Old English systems for representing consonants. I learned about them so recently that they have yet to be added to any new conlang, but soon they will be!

Conclusion: Have Fun With It!

 Conlanging is a big, amazing pool of linguistics fun madness obsession general nerdery stuff, and this article is only the very shallow end. Okay, maybe more of an ocean. There are big syntax whales down there somewhere. Whatever it is, I hope this introduction has given you a good starting point. Ašetyuves tilariy na! (Good travels!)

Thank you so much, Brennan, for posting here today! Well, readers, what do you think? Have you ever invented names, or even a full-blown language? Do you think you might in the future? Do you have any questions for Brennan? (If so, I will relay them to him and try to get them answered as soon as possible for you!) Tell me (and Brennan, haha, he’ll probably be watching this) in the comments!


3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? How Linguistics Helps Your Story World–Guest Post by Brennan D.K. Corrigan

  1. This is so cool! I’ve dabbled around in making my own languages. I’m playing with a language that’s a mix between Inuit and Icelandic currently. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is cool! 🙂 I was just beginning to give my naming systems some structure when Brennan offered to invent languages for me. I find it’s given more depth to my storyworld; I think it’s really helpful. Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I can imagine that language would have a very interesting grammar. My knowledge of either language is limited, but David Peterson’s description of Inuktitut in The Art of Language Invention fascinated me. Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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