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).

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Second Language Creation Conference

Now that it's January 2009, I think it's about time to reminisce about July, 2007. What a month! It was then that the Second Language Creation Conference was held at sunny and inviting Berkeley on July 7th and 8th. This was quite a special time for me specifically, but to know why, I'll have to give you a little background.

Way back when LCC2 was just in the planning stages, I concocted a plan to propose to my then-girlfriend (now wife [so you know how this story ends]). We usually visit my wife's parents for awhile during the summer, and I thought it would be a good idea to take the car up this time, since we had a large chair to deliver to her mother as a Christmas present from a couple Christmases ago (shipping it would have been expensive and difficult). If it was split into two trips (one from OC to Berkeley, and another from Berkeley to Chico—both drives I had done before), it wouldn't be that bad, so I proposed that we drive up to LCC2 and then to her parents. What I didn't tell her is that I planned to stay over somewhere the day before we got to the LCC where I would propose. This I did, on July 5th, and, much to my relief, she accepted. We married a little less than a year later on June 29th, 2008 (for more info, go here).

In addition, the LCC was going to double as the first official board meeting of the newly incorporated Language Creation Society. I was anxious to meet up and get some work done (or at least things decided).

Now here's the best part (and when I say "best", I mean "incredibly distracting and nerve-racking at the time, but now a bit amusing"). Since I wanted the proposal to be a surprise, I didn't ask my wife for her ring size, and I didn't know what it was. The best I could manage was this: One day I turned the conversation to the ring she was wearing on her left-hand ring finger at the time. I asked to look at it, so that I could test it on my fingers, and found that it fit my pinky, but was a little tight. My wife happened to mention that she liked it a little tight. When I went to the ring store, I then tried on a bunch of sample rings, and found one that felt a little tight. Then I thought, "Oh, wait, she likes it a little tight", so I got it one half size smaller. You can see the error I made, of course: the ring was already a little tight. This was no problem for the engagement ring, which was slightly larger, but my wife wanted to try on the wedding band which fit into it. She tried it on once, discovered it was quite tight, but was able to get it off when she ran her hand under some water.

Then the next day she tried it on again. That turned out to be a mistake.

So, when we arrived in Berkeley where we were staying with a friend, I was thinking about wedding plans, friends and family I had to call, the LCS, the talk I had to give the next day, the other presentations I was involved with, and the fact that my new fiancée couldn't remove the wedding ring I'd just given her from her now red and swollen finger.

[Before I go on, a note to others who might find themselves in a similar predicament. I think I would have rather given away the "surprise" (and honestly, she knew I was eventually going to propose, most likely; she just didn't know when or how) by asking her her ring size than put her through that anguish. If this does happen to you or someone you know, though, I have advice: Preparation-H. No joke. It reduces swelling—anywhere, including a finger. (Oh, but, of course, get a new tube.)]

Despite all this, and the fact that the trip didn't start off well (I own a car that runs on Compressed Natural Gas [CNG], and to fill up in most places in Northern California, you need a special PG&E card, which we applied for weeks prior but hadn't received, which caused me to tear my hair out on the morning of our departure), I was in relatively high spirits when I arrived, and ready to get things going.

LCC2 was unique in many respects. For starters, this was the first time the LCC was broadcast simultaneously on the web. It was pretty wild. I never saw the feed, but throughout the conference, people were on IRC while watching and asking questions in real-time, which was an odd experience (when answering questions, I wasn't sure which way to look...). Additionally, LCC2 featured the introduction of the new 15 minute conlang-specific talk, which was hugely successful, and something we're determined to expand on in future LCC's. Finally, we also debuted the first LCC Relay, where the results of the relay were unveiled live, with many of the participants there to talk about their leg of the relay.

Here's the actual schedule, which is far more involved than that of LCC1. We had quite a number of presenters and presentation-types. Here are the talks (note: where a talk is hyperlinked, it links to a Google Video file of the entire talk, viewable online. Where a little HQ appears to the right of a talk, that's a link to a higher quality video than Google Video):

Saturday, July 7th

Sunday, July 8th

  • Jeff Burke: "Reverse Engineering of Phonological Change" (HQ)
  • John Clifford: "The Problems with Success: What Happens When an Opinionated Conlang Meets Its Speakers"
  • Sylvia Sotomayor: "Verblessness in Kēlen" (HQ)
  • James Gang: "My Right-Brain Verbotomy: How Creating Invented Words Changed the Way I Think"
  • Clint Hutchinson: "Universal Semantic Markers" (HQ)
  • Panel: "The LCC Relay"
  • Workshop: "Conlanging 101: Intro & Advanced Vocabulary Generation (Part 2)"
  • Panel: "Incorporating Conlangs into Your Life"

All of the handouts (which I recommend you look at while viewing the talks above) are available in the LCC2 program, which you can download by clicking here.

It'll be hard to say something about all these talks (there were so many!), but I'll give it my best shot. David Salo, whom many will know as the ling. grad. student that worked with the folks who made the Lord of the Rings movies, was our keynote speaker, and did an admirable job. John Quijada (Ithkuil) followed up with a wonderful talk about conlang aesthetics. If you didn't get a chance to see John's talks at the first two LCC's, I strongly recommend you search for them on Google Video. To be able to see them live was a real treat. When it comes to presentations, no one tops John. He absolutely has it.

Next was our first official 15 minute conlang-specific talk, and the honor of being first went to Lila Sadkin, who gave a talk on her language Tenata (to see a bit of it, check out her leg of the LCC2 Relay). I found it to be a charming experiment. Speaking of experimental, Jim Henry (gyâ-zym-byn) next gave his talk on the game he created, Glossotechnia. The talk was good, but what was better was play-testing the game, which we did during lunch.

After lunch was my talk, which passed without incident, and it was followed by one of the highlights of the weekend: Don Boozer's talk about Dritok, the language of the Drushek. Dritok is a language which...well, I guess it has vowels, but it's kind of a combination of pulmonic and non-pulmonic consonants, clicks, and hand-gestures. If you look at the actual IPA, it looks like an awful mess (perhaps like someone grabbed a bunch of random symbols and tossed them, blind-folded, at a rotating piece of paper), but Don can actually pronounce all of it, and pronounce it very, very well. It's a sight to behold (or be heard)! In addition, I was more than pleased to make Don's acquaintance, who is one of the nicest guys I've ever met. I look forward to seeing him at future LCC's, where, perhaps, the gelato will be as plentiful, if not as splendid.

To close the day, Sai and I and Don (whose help we enlisted the day of) ran a vocabulary creation workshop. It was an experiment, and I think a successful one. Basically, the idea I had was to model vocabulary creation with Duplo blocks—to wit:

A picture of three Duplo blocks.

So, for example, in one system, that picture might be a representation of the word "sleepiness", where the green block is "sleep", the yellow block is "-y", and the red block is "-ness". Or it might go the opposite way. Or perhaps that's an abstract glyph, and if the green block is off to the left like that it means "sleepiness", whereas if it's moved to the right 90 degrees it means "sleep", and to the right of that 90 degrees "to sleep", etc.

So that was how we approached the vocabulary workshop, and though a few had some difficulty (including Amber Dance, who was there to research an article she was writing for the Los Angeles Times entitled "Babel's Modern Architects"), several folks took right to it, one of the most enthusiastic participants being David Salo.

After dinner, we went back to Stern Hall, where several attendees were staying, which brought back some memories (I lived right next door my freshman year at Berkeley), and played Glossotechnia pretty much all night, or until everyone was ready to fall over (some, like me, were unaccustomed to waking up early, which meant we were pretty tired when the sun went down). It was great fun! People attempted to build up structure for the language, and I tried to mess it up. (All in good fun, of course.)

The next morning began with Jeff Burke giving a rousing conlang-inspired rendition of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, followed by his talk on his Amerind-inspired conlang, which was quite incredible. John Clifford then gave a very interesting talk about the consequences facing a language creator when their conlang becomes popular—an unresolved issue still, and something that several of us have had to deal with at odd times.

Next my friend Sylvia Sotomayor gave a 15 minute talk on her language Kēlen. This is something many had asked or been waiting for, and it didn't disappoint. James Gang's presentation on Verbotomy followed. Verbotomy isn't necessarily directly related to conlanging, but it's of general interest, and of particular interest to those who are interested in neologisms. What Verbotomy is is an online "game" where James Gang, the creator, has visitors create neologisms (mainly portmanteaus) for the various humorous (and illustrated) definitions he comes up with. It's a lot of fun!

The next talk was for me possibly the most confusing and most fascinating. Clint Hutchison was, for many years, a stenographer (the person at court who records the proceedings). Stenographers have to be quick and accurate, and undergo a rigorous training process. Not only that, but they don't use pencil and paper or a typewriter: They use a special machine designed for stenographers (this was all news to me). Clint created his own stenography machine and method. If I remember right, it has eight buttons, and, for the life of me, I tried to follow the presentation, and I just couldn't (too much at once!), but it was incredible! I strongly recommend you watch the video to see what it was all about.

We finished up with the second half of our vocab. workshop (including a translation challenge) and a couple of panels, the latter of which, kind of hosted by Don Boozer, was a wonderful close to the weekend.

After the conference was officially over, we went for gelato once more, and then, for me, at least, it was time for goodbyes: the worst part of the weekend.

LCC2 was bigger and more all-inclusive than LCC1, and a lot of fun. Given all that was wrapped up in that weekend for me, it was easily one of the best weekends of my life. I even discovered that my former linguistics TA at Berkeley was herself a conlanger (she was there! Silly as it might sound, I was happy—perhaps even proud—that she was in the audience when I gave my talk). A good time was had by all, and everyone was eager for LCC3.

Oh, and by the way: On Sunday, the ring came off. After two days of struggle, I can't adequately describe that feeling of relief (but I bet my wife can!).

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