On creating my own language

Some of you may remember that I was working on creating my own language. I wrote a creation myth in it a little over a year ago, and with the exception of a few months, I’ve been trying to make daily diary entries in it as a way of not only recording my life but practicing my language.

I didn’t create this for any grandiose reason. I simply wanted a language that would express the way I think. I wanted to play with language itself and learn more about it. And, I wanted to learn a new language. But I’m fairly honest with myself about what I can, and will, realistically accomplish. I could learn a natural language no problem, except for the lack of anyone to speak it with. More importantly, natural languages are external things. Someone else created them. The rules are someone else’s, and to speak it correctly you have to learn, and abide by those rules. But, they’re all just abstract foreign things. They’re not anything you’ve grown up with (at least not the languages I’m interested in), or anything that conforms to your brain’s view of the world. And without someone else to speak it with, it’s a lot like rote memorization. You memorize their words, their rules, and just accept them. And free writing in a natural language before you really understand the rules can lead to some very bad habits based on misunderstandings, and the words you have to look up seem fairly random. It doesn’t make a lot of sense why a word sounds the way it does, or why it means such different things1. Reading from books isn’t very doable either until you’ve built up a fairly decent vocabulary.

But creating your own language… that’s something else entirely. You aren’t memorizing someone else’s arbitrary rules. You’re creating constructs that rules flow out of. Words can sound however you want. Take “water” for example. To me English’s “water” doesn’t sound like anything I associate with the stuff of rain, rivers, and oceans. “Water” isn’t flowing, or bubbly. It doesn’t ripple or wave. But, lelea (lay lay ah), *that* sounds like water to me. So, that’s what water is. But, being me, I didn’t just use the rule’s I’d grow up with. I’d just end up with a cypher of English if I had, and I wanted to learn. So, I gave myself a few small restrictions which would have a significant impact on what I created. Sentences would have a Verb Subject Object order, there wouldn’t be a verb “to be”, and the concepts of Yin and Yang would be an integral part of word creation: pushing and pulling, male and female. To me the world is all about the push and pull of energy, and I wanted to help myself to see it in those terms. I also wanted it to sound similar to Hawai’ian and other languages that evolved from gift cultures, with their flowing tones. That evolved into a requirement that all consonants be separated by a vowel and never come at the end of a word. Somehow I ended up with a glottal stop like Hawaiian too, although that wasn’t intentional.

With those few tiny restrictions I’ve been building something that’s seriously challenged my mind and forced me to question so much about how English works, and what I really mean what I speak. Getting rid of the verb “to be” has been the most challenging. It is so ingrained into English that learning to speak without it has really taken work. But, it’s been so worth it.

In olo ( the name of the language ) I’ve found a real sense of peace. I actively want to write in it at the end of the day; not to keep up my practice, but because the act of using it is so relaxing. If I go to bed without having written I feel like I missed out on something special, like a relaxing beer or glass of wine at the end of the day is for many.

I think a part of that may be that I keep my journals in a Moleskine, and writing on paper, in a different orthography is so removed from anything I do during the day. I believe that the different orthography is a huge factor. The act of drawing those foreign characters really does seem to affect my mind. I’m enjoying watching how those characters are evolving as my speed and comfort level increase. It’s like watching a natural language’s evolution in fast forward, because there’s no-one to make me stick with the old way. One of my characters started out looking like a “u” with a straight bar closing the top, but now the bar has remained and the “u” part has turned into a sort of attached curlicue. Writing in not only a different language, but a different orthography gives me an even greater feeling that this is *mine*… It’s something I can own as thoroughly as my own thoughts.

It’s also nice to know that in this language I can speak without reservation. If we spoke honestly with each other we’d hurt a lot of feelings. And, while most people do feel comfortable speaking honestly in their diaries, there’s always that lingering worry about what would happen if someone else came across it. But with Olo I don’t have that worry, at all. I do plan on eventually making my language reference public, but even if I did it would take enough tedious work to figure out what my diary said, that no-one would be likely to actually bother to figure out more than a few lines.

Because the vocabulary is still evolving, writing any sentence forces me to pause and question what I really mean, because so often we say things in our native tongue that aren’t really what we mean. We use idioms constantly; far more than most of us realize, but I don’t have that luxury. I’ve only three to work with in Olo (so far). We’re frequently talking around our meaning, because there’s no way to accurately express our true intent. But with your own language there’s always that option. It’s *your* language, and if there isn’t a word to express a concept you can create one, and you’re free from unintended connotations and implications. In English, for example, I could talk about “toil” but there are lots of negative connotations there. We don’t really have a word for work that you do that is simply undesirable, like washing dishes. You don’t really “toil” at washing the dishes, and it’s not really a hardship. It’s just undesirable work. A big part of most people’s lives is filled with undesirable work. In Olo, there’s a word that’s similar to “unpleasant” but without the negative connotations. It’s simply “not pleasant”. Combine that with the word for work and you can speak about work that is undesirable but not bad: pa’u hana.

If you need the ability to discuss something in a way your native tongue doesn’t adequately allow for, you can devise a way of doing it. As time goes on the rules your language accretes will make this a bit more difficult, but you’re unlikely to live long enough to make a language even a quarter as complex as English, unless you go out of your way to add complexity. But, if you, like me, are creating a language to express the way you see the world, or want to see the world, you’ll find things work out quite nicely. I’m still rather slow, and as I write more I am constantly having to coin new words which sometimes take a while to get memorize, since many of them, like “doubt” don’t come up very often. New affixes arise, and force me to go back and alter a few existing words to conform to the new rules from time to time. But, the process is wonderful, and educational in so many ways. I hope that one day I may meet someone special and she’ll be wiling to learn it with me. I think the intimacy of a private language shared only between you and your lover would be an incredible thing. I may never meet someone like that. But, even if I don’t, I’m learning so much, about language, about myself, and about the world around me.

So what’s the point? Why have I written this? I think the point was to speak about language creation, to give a little glimpse of what it can be, and what it is for me, to let some people know that it’s a legitimate option, and let others know that they are not alone in their desire to create a language. There are thousands of language creators around the world and it’s something with a long historical tradition. It’s certainly not for everyone, but what is? Conlangs have been brought into the public’s eye again with Na’vi, and learning it, like many conlangs, will provide you with a wonderful perspective on your native language. You’re also likely to find a small sense of community because it’s like joining an exclusive club for speakers only. But, creating one can give you a means of self expression you’ve probably never imagined. So many of us think with words of our native tongue, and every language has some concepts, and views of the world that it simply can’t express well, especially when you consider how tightly bound our language and culture tend to be.

Language creation is frequently a solitary act, but it can be a very rewarding one. Even if no-one else learns your language, there are many of us who will enjoy getting glimpses of it, and happily help each other with their creation. If nothing else the Conlang mailing list has proved an incredible resource for questioning English and learning about options that other languages present.

3 post-it notes with olo example and translationon them

  1. Hawaiian’s lāhai (just a random example) means: to poise aloft ( as a kite ), to leap, or a short wing fence to guide cattle to a corral. To someone who didn’t grow up with the language it seems so arbitrary, and we’ve no way to know if it is, or we’re just missing something because we haven’t grow up with it or its culture. ↩︎