The book of mine which I use the most is The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. Enough, in fact, that my paperback copy is getting too worn. So I created a hardcover edition!


Lulu charges more than I’d like, but on the other hand I can put it on sale! So for now, you can pick it up for $28.76. That’s less than it costs to go out for dinner! And heck, I’ve put the hardcover Language Construction Kit on sale too.

I also took the opportunity to update the text, correcting a few embarrassing errors. Also, the latest copy of Word, amazingly, can hold the whole book in memory at once without crashing. So I was able to add the first few chapters to the index.

Go buy a few!


I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?


If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.


This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

The Five Year Plan has come in from the Marketing Commissar here at the Zompist Fortressplex. That is, I thought I’d talk about the next books I’m working on.

First: a book on Quechua. Long ago I actually wrote, for myself, a reference grammar and dictionary. That was a good start, but they need a lot of refinement. Plus I need to work through my best sources to absorb more of the language myself.


One reason I wanted to visit the Seminary Co-op bookstore last weekend was to check if they had anything on Quechua… if there was a really good book on it in English I might have just recommended that.  But they didn’t (indeed, their stock of language and linguistics books is, sadly, less than a quarter of what it once was). The best materials on Quechua are all in Spanish; I think there should be a good introductory textbook/dictionary in English, and so that’s what I’m aiming to produce.

After that I’d like to write about India, parallel to my book on China. I’ve already started the research on this, and the books I did pick up at the Co-op were grammars of Hindi and Sanskrit. I’m already excited about the material: India has an incredibly rich history, and it’s even less known in the West than China’s. But I want to spread out the research and reading a lot more, partly because I’m starting much more from scratch, and partly because I can already see that finding the narrative through line is going to be more difficult.

Chinese history is a story— you can tell it well or badly, but it’s hard for it not to be coherent, because it’s the story of one ethnicity, one language family, and for the most part one empire, which collapses and suffers invasions but always returns to itself.

India is not like that. India is unavoidably miscellaneous, and Indian history has no coherence at all. Empires rise and fall, but they’re not the same empires. You can list the major kingdoms of a particular time and it tells you nothing about other periods. (Plus there’s a lot we just don’t know. One of my books mentions that a particular king probably lived in the first century, but we can’t pin him down for sure anywhere within a 200-year period.)

Now, this is pretty much true of Europe and the Middle East too, but there we have the advantage of familiarity, and traditional identifications… Americans are not 99.6% not Greeks, and yet we read about the ancient Greeks as if there were the direct ancestors of our civilization.

One fascinating bit about India, which I get from Alain Daniélou, is that whenever some group started a kingdom or a religion in India, they’re still there. Ancient hunter-gatherers, Dravidians, Indic peoples, Persians, Muslims, Mongols, Portuguese, Brits, all came to India and you can still find them and their religions today.

It also strikes me that Westerns don’t know much about India in part because our maps stop too soon. A map of Europe + India stretches out too far; to make it fit nicely on the page, we cut it off somewhere east of Palestine. So one of the neat bits in reading Indian history is discovering the eastern half of many stories. Most of the big conquerors in the West— the Greeks, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Arabs— showed up in India too. The Greeks set up kingdoms in the Indus valley; the Romans traded with South India; the Mughals claimed descent from Genghis Khan.

Finally, for the few but anxious people who wonder if there will be another Incatena book: yes, though being able to pay rent and buy groceries is the higher priority, which is why the non-fiction books go first.  I have a few chapters written. Though honestly, this year has been discouraging for satirists. How do you top the absurdity that the daily news has been piling on us?




Now that I have one more title, it was time to convert my book sales records to the exciting technology of 1997— Excel!

This allows me to do some more data wrangling, such as this chart of sales for the last month:


(I had to label it myself, though. Separate legends for pie charts are dumb and should fail the designers out of Tufte school.)

If you’re curious, the all-time sales chart looks very similar, but the older titles get bigger slices. Total sales for the LCK are now over 8,000.  That’s a lot of conlangs inflicted on a  world which may or may not be ready for them.

For fiction fans, the good news is that Against Peace and Freedom sales just reached 201, which is the level I set for creating an Incatena conlang. So that will happen sometime this year.  The bad news is that, as you can see on the pie chart, fiction sales are crappy, which is why I mostly write non-fiction books.  The next one is probably going to be a manual on Quechua.

More data wrangling: Google ads are barely worth it, rarely reaching $10 a month.  I mostly keep them because I like having the search engine widget.

Also: print is far from dead. In fact it’s 62% of sales. But it varies by book: people apparently prefer to read fiction, and about China, on their Kindles.

My best month is always December, for obvious reasons. January is usually pretty good, presumably because if people didn’t get the books they wanted for Christmas, they buy it for themselves.  (Go do it now!)  The months in between tend to form a saddle shape, with the depressing low point around May or June.

Thanks to everyone who bought books!  Happy reading!

I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.


Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)





I’m almost done with the second draft, so it’s time for a page all about my China book. Ordering information will be there when the book is out.  I’m trying to get the book out before Christmas.  (I’m not certain about the cover yet; I have to see what it looks like as a physical object.)

A little pénjǐng

A little pénjǐng

Based on a suggestion from alert reader John Cowan, the title is now China Construction Kit, which fits neatly into my œuvre, and also avoids limiting the book to conlangers.

If you volunteered to read the second draft, I’ll be in touch shortly. I would still like to get readers who know Mandarin or Old Chinese well, so if that’s you, contact me.

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