So, one of the conlangs I worked on this year was Sehimu Thinara, the magical language for the card game Serpent’s Tongue.  The game is now shipping, so go buy a couple dozen.


The game’s head sorcerer, Christopher Gabrielson, approached me with kind of an emergency request– they had some people working on it but there was a disconnect, and they needed something fast.  So I reworked the vocabulary they already had and worked out the grammar.  Christopher and Jeremy Scherer did a lot of the initial work and carried on my stuff.

The game attempts something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it makes people speak in a conlang!  Sehimu Thinara (ST) is the secret language of the universe, you see; spells are orders spoken in the language.  I’m told that players take to the idea pretty well.  The game itself only makes you say words that are on the cards, but they wanted a whole language to generate them reasonably, and for later use.

They had developed an alphabet and phonology, so I worked with that.  Anyway, since gamers will be expected to say these words, it wasn’t a good idea to make them learn unusual sounds.  (As for the alphabet, the Serpent’s Tongue folks have access to far better artists than me!)

They had also worked out a vocabulary which divided the letters of the alphabet into six spheres (zokrul): quantum, soul, mind, biology, force, matter.  Now, this is the sort of non-naturalistic feature probably only a non-linguist would create, but I went with it, because a magical language should have some strange but satisfying features.  I think it’d be really disappointing if the secret language of mages built into the structure of the universe turned out to be just like Dutch or Jaqaru or Luo.

I added another such feature: reversing the phonemes in a word reverses the meaning.  E.g.:

  • ketig fire / gitek ice
  • devop acid / poved base
  • fekhar woman / rakhef man
  • sauhu war / uhuas peace
  • zhowa circle /  awozh point
  • pivda easy / avdip difficult

(The word construction method uses a lot of the possible phonological space, and generates words that sound very non-Latinate, like avdip above.  It’s interesting that simply using more voiced stops makes for words that seem very odd to an English speaker.)

The language is optimized for casting spells, which are in effect imperatives addressed to the laws of magic.  So ketig as an utterance is actually a command for something to be on fire.  An object can be specified, of course: rakhef ketig, set the man on fire.

As should surprise no one who knows my languages, there’s quite a bit of derivational morphology.  You can make a root into a noun with -a, or after a vowel -ra; thus thina ‘know’ > thinara ‘knowledge’. The general adjectivizer is -i, or after a vowel -li, thus ketigi ‘fiery’ or ‘flaming’, zhowali ‘circular’.  With verbs -u has a passive meaning: ketigu ‘flamed’ or ‘set on fire’; sehim ‘hide’ > sehimu ‘hidden’.

A cute touch, I think: syllables belonging to each of the six spheres serve as derivational infixes.  E.g. -da- belongs to the Matter sphere, and names substances or objects: gayit ‘move’ > gadayit ‘vehicle’.  Or -na- belongs to Mind and names persons, so bo-w ‘cast a spell’ > bonaw ‘mage’.  There is no 1st person pronoun, but bonaw generally serves in its place, along with ezhow ‘self’.

There is a 3rd person pronoun for each sphere, to be used for referents in that sphere, which is effectively a gender system.  Not something I’d normally impose on beginners, but as the spheres are basic to the game and to the vocabulary, it seems fair.

Ordinary sentences can be distinguished from spells by the use of a tense/aspect/mode prefix, such as u- present, is- past imperfect, me- past perfect, yau- irrealis.  Thus Rakhef u-ketig ‘the man is on fire’; Rakhef yau-ketig ‘the man may be on fire’.

There’s also a pure aspect particle bab which can be modified iconically in various ways to express the precise nature of the action: e.g. ba expresses that the action started but didn’t stop; ab that it stopped; baba that it was repeated; baab that it was prolonged.

The syntax is SOV; subjects and objects are separated by the clitic an-. Thus Bonaw an-rakhef baba me-ketig ‘the mage kept setting the man on fire’.

Here’s one more glimpse, a more complicated sample sentence:

Suya saukh-da imi-pabodez me-dimsu imi-obawta, ezhow an-ulani-ra lo depav-a u-abu.

SUB every-object in-world PERF-lose IN-day / self SEP-hope-NOMN and strong-NOMN PRES-be

When all is lost in the world, I am hope and I am strength.

Edit: The whole grammatical sketch is here.

The Conlanger’s Lexipedia is now available at Amazon.

The paperback is out now; the Kindle will be available in a few days.

Perfect for conlangers, conworlders, language freaks, firefighters, actuaries, Methodists, snipers, spies, baritones, lepidopterists, Mind Flayers, and gnolls!

So, where’s the book? I ordered the proof copy today. As soon as it comes, I’ll do some intensive editing and correcting, and then GET IT OUT THE DOOR.

Each step seems to be taking just a little longer than I expect. But the end is near. Tell all your loved ones to buy you a copy!

About ten minutes ago, I finished revising the second part of The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. (There are two parts because Word, bless its malfunctioning heart, cannot handle the entire text.)

So, I need victims readers! If you think you could read the whole thing in a relatively short period (the next 2-4 weeks) and offer some feedback, drop me a line at markrose at zompist dot com.

There’s a fair amount of physics and biology and an ungodly amount of Greek, Latin, and Chinese, so if you have expertise in those areas, please mention it.

(I’ll revise it and then need some more reactions, so if I get enough responses you may be in the next batch of readers.)

Today I got through Axel Shuessler’s Chinese dictionary, so I have a load of Chinese etymologies for the Conlanger’s Lexipedia.

The general procedure was admirably arcane:

  1. Look up the English word in the English-Chinese dictionary– say,  ‘friend’, which is péngyǒu 朋友.
  2. Find péng in the Chinese-English dictionary.  Um, what was the radical again?  Oh, ‘flesh’.  OK, there it is; it means ‘friend, acquaintance, companion.’
  3. Look up yǒu… er, what was the character again?  Dunno what the radical is, but that looks like 女 in the lower half, that’s easy to look for.  OK, it means ‘friend.’
  4. So the derivation of péngyǒu is ‘friend-friend’?  Ha, no, this is yet another case of Mandarin zeroing in on a meaning, amid its host of homophones, by giving two closely related words.  This is where Schuessler comes to the rescue.  Look up both words– fortunately these are some of the few that don’t have different traditional forms.
  5. Here’s   朋– the original meaning is ‘pair, set of two’, and he helpfully explains that this led to the meaning ‘friend’ (you and your friend make a pair).
  6. And here’s 友– ‘be friendly’, but listed alongside words meaning ‘aid’ and ‘(on) the right’– a friend is your right-hand-man.

(Note… if you were chuckling because is really ‘moon’ not ‘flesh’… the joke’s on you, 朋 is actually neither– Karlgren says it’s a picture of a bird’s wing.  To look up words you only need to recognize the radicals, not name them… I still think of ⾣ as ‘π in a box’.)

So in this case we’ve got two interesting etymologies for the price of one.  Often enough a word is missing from Schuessler, or matches an Indo-European etymology I already have, or doesn’t have any meaning change– e.g. the word for ‘wine’ is 酒 Jiǔ whose earliest meaning is… ‘wine’.

Chinese is like an old hoarder’s apartment: nothing is ever really thrown out.  So a given character may have half a dozen meanings; the earliest meaning (which Schuessler gives) is usually not evident.  Even more fun is when a different original meaning can be teased out from Sino-Tibetan.  E.g. Chinese words meaning ‘pleasant’, ‘glad’, ‘relax’, and ‘rob’ are all related to a Sino-Tibetan root meaning ‘loosen, relax’.

So, what’s next?  I’m still adding etymologies; the next step will be to put all the text together, convert it to 6″ x 9″, and get all the formatting right.  After that I’ll be ready to ask for some readers to see if I actually have something useful and readable.

Stand.  It’s the root of assist, insist, resist, base, basis, constant, distant, instant, exist, stable, stage, state, station, statue, stance, stay, steady, understand, (the) rest, restitution, substitute, subsist, substance, stanza.  And stand.  Plus Czech prst ‘finger’ and Greek oura ‘tail’.

Which is to say, I’m doing etymology right now, for my next book.  I want to have multiple etymologies for about a thousand words, as food for thought, and so I’m reading a lot of small print and abusing the Unicode generator.

The text for the book is kind of done except for this.  Meaning, I think most of what I want to say is covered, only I will certainly discover it isn’t and keep writing more.  There’s a point where a book is mostly present but highly fluid, and this is it… I keep thinking of new things I should add.

Also I had an idea for another book.  Though it will require even more research… I should go finish Diary of the Prose Wars just so I can simply make up stuff instead.

But for now, back to etymology.  Why is it that just about all the Indo-European languages decided that the inherited word for nose was just fine, but head needed to be changed?  I wonder if some of these patterns [from 'defender'] extend ['stretch out'] to other languages ['tongues'].

I’m working on my Lexipedia, and I’d like to have many examples of semantic divisions that are different from English.  Things like this:

  • French doesn’t bother to distinguish ‘city’ and ‘town’, making do with ville
  • Japanese divides ‘water’ into mizu ‘cold water’ and yu ‘hot water’
  • Guugu Yimithirr speakers don’t point out things as left/right, but as north/south/east/west
  • In some languages there are not four cardinal directions but eight (that is, directions like northeast have their own names not derived from the main four)

But the more examples I have the better, so if you have some, lay ‘em on me (markrose at zompist dot com).  Note that what I’m after is not just different words, but different categorizations of the world– places where a semantic field is mapped out differently (even if trivially), as in the above examples.

Naturally, I’ve accumulated quite a few examples already, from various languages, but they’re mostly things I’ve run into randomly, and you alert readers may well know some that I’ve never heard of.  (If it’s in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, however, I’ve heard it.)

Today I got through part of my book project: writing one-line summaries of the etymologies of 1500 common words.

Next project, I think, is to deepen this work by looking at other languages. The aim is to help conlangers by collecting ideas on how to form words.  So, the more languages the better.  (I think.  I don’t want to make the thing a juicy but unreadable reference.)

Also it’s fun to highlight the fascination of etymology, a field full of surprises. For instance, I love words like these with a near-baffling succession of meaning changes:

fast: OE ‘firm, fixed’ > ‘determinedly’ > ‘quickly’

fog: ‘grassy, mossy’ > ‘fleshy’ > ‘murky’ > ‘misty’

nice: Lt ‘not knowing’ > ‘foolish’ > ‘fine’ > ‘kind’

pretty: OE ‘tricky’ > ‘clever’ > ‘admirable’ > ‘pleasing’

At the same time, there are many many words that have virtually the same meaning today as they had a thousand years ago.  Not so surprising with two or brother or eye, but more so with dare, creep, hat, mean, rough, slide, stare, wild, yell.

Then there’s words that only date back to Middle English, when I’d have expected something older: ago, bad, boy, cut, grab, rabbit, smell, talk, whip, wrap.

And there’s words that I would have thought were homonyms, but turn out to be the same etymon: e.g. trip ‘stumble / travel’; lot ‘chance token / a bunch’; mess ‘serving / disorder’; might ‘power / possible’, fair ‘pretty / just’.  Or words where the original sense isn’t what I would have expected: dull was ‘obtuse’ not ‘blunt’, leave was ‘let remain’ not ‘go’, worship was ‘value’ not ‘praise’.

Some time ago I casually mentioned doing some paid conlanging work, and a collective eyebrow seemed to be raised: you did what?  So I thought I’d talk a little about that.  I’m working on my fourth paid conlang now, and I may be starting #5 soon.  Though this is no way to get rich, it is fun to consider that I’m one of probably a handful of people in the world to make conlangs for money.

This adventure started in 2003, when a fantasy writer, Eric, contacted me to create a language for him.  His reasoning was simple: he’d tried conlanging himself but was dissatisfied with the results; why not go for the best?  So we worked out the details and I created a language called Thesolas.

The process went like this.  I gave Eric a little questionnaire on what kind of languages he liked, to get an idea of the sounds and style he was after.  I made some short (meaningless) sample texts to help refine the process.  And I asked him to tell me as much as possible about the people who’d be speaking the language.

Eric wanted a pretty accessible language, so I kept the morphology simple and didn’t introduce any difficult sounds.  To give it a distinct feeling, rather, I removed common English sounds: of the common stops p t k b d g, Thesolas has just one, t.

I think it turned out rather pretty.  Here’s a sample sentence:

Tis tiriel nisienin ren ai rus u nioth rus seniel.

The way that can be told is not the eternal Way.

As Eric described the speakers, they had a philosophical bent.  Evidentiality seemed like a good fit for that.  I also created a grammaticalized mind/body distinction– e.g. metis is ‘this (physical) thing’, metio is ‘this (non-physical) thing’.  This affected the derivational mophology too; e.g. Thesolas speakers distinguish mumon ‘the physical sensation of fear’ from mumo ‘the emotion of fear’.  A warrior could thus be advised to avoid mumo but ignore mumon.

Eric was happy with the results, and in fact this year he came back to ask for three descendants of Thesolas– that’s my current project, in fact.

Earlier this year I worked on a language for a future video game, for a developer named Guilherme.  The speakers are dragons, so naturally it’s named Draconic.  Here’s a sample:

Ajekiño Xantolo< eɴqχana.
I sought the elixir alongside Sunfire.

The transliteration is much less English-like, because Guilherme liked the looks of my sample.

I had a lot of fun trying to make Draconic fit a non-human species.  Starting with the phonology: as dragons have no lips, they can’t pronounce labials (I don’t know how Skyrim’s dragons pronounce fus!), and as they have a long snout they distinguish four places of articulation (thus the basic stops are t c k q).  There’s a word-final phoneme made by snapping the beak shut.

Flame is phonemic: vowels can be produced with or without combustion.  In addition a word can be ended with a large burst of flame, transliterated <.

Creating the lexicon, I tried to think about how dragons would look at the world.  E.g. they’re enormous by human standards; as a result they don’t have separate words for many small plant and animal species… under a certain size it’s all weeds and vermin to them.  They’re armored, so though they often keep humans as pets or slaves, they have only one word for clothing, irtenîr ‘false skin’.  The natural stance of a dragon is to be on all four feet, which means that what we strange bipedal beings call the back is really the top of a dragon.

Flight also colors their whole way of thinking.  To fly (xi) is to go; to fly alongside (dranxi) is to be a friend or companion; to fly above (serxi) is a threat. There are basic words for the basic movements of flight (pitch, roll, yaw), and changes in direction must be assigned to the correct movement— e.g. you turn right by rolling right (tiŋke) like an airplane, not by rotating about your axis.

They don’t need words for the surface details that are important to creatures confined to a two-dimensional surface– words like bridge, island, path, wall.  To confine a dragon you need a three-dimensional enclosure.  Structures with roofs are thus deeply ambivalent for dragons: they represent both safety (you can’t be attacked from above) and threat (you can’t escape by flight).

If you’re wondering about business details, these projects are work for hire, which is fine with me as I have my own conworld for personal expression.  I asked Eric’s and Guilherme’s permission, in fact, to mention some details about these languages in this post.

(So when can you read more about these conlangs?  Well, that’s up to my clients.  Probably when their projects are further along.)

Is it difficult to work with someone else’s conworld?  Not at all, for me at least.  It adds some constraints, but artistically working within constraints can foster rather than inhibit creativity.  I’ve had fun working on all these projects.

If you’re wondering how you get this kind of work, well, I don’t know!  My clients are all people who have contacted me.

Does this make you want a Zompist Conlang for yourself?  If it does, contact me (markrose at zompist dot com) and we’ll talk.



Geoff Eddy pointed me to an absorbing blog– bLogicarian, by A.Z. Foreman.  It’s right up my alley— a man with a passion for understanding foreign cultures, and with impressive erudition.  He seems to know (and can translate from) at least Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Some highlights:

  • A devastating takedown of the bogus Chinese elements in Firefly.  I regret not noticing this myself.  Supposedly the system is a fusion of Western and Chinese culture, and yet there is really nothing in it that’s recognizably Asian, except a few kanji and an entirely unaccountable and unmotivated bilingualism.  (Inara is kind of an Asian courtesan with a Buddhist worldview and an Arabic name, but this is a social role from the past— it’s as if Shepherd were depicted as a medieval friar.)
  • A critique of Esperanto focusing on its strange unnatural morphology, which gives fascinating information on how the language has developed in the last hundred years.  (Of note: people have made lots of coinages to address some of the worst bits of the morphology and to use more recognizable pan-European words; the verbal system has gotten weirdly baroque and is developing a mediopassive; and native speakers have a tendency to bag the accusative.)
  • A fun critique of the supposed linguistic realism of Mel Gibson’s Jesus film.
  • A rant against Christianity, not itself very novel, but featuring a great discussion of how Roman pluralism worked.

Definitely a dude to check out.

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