in Conlangs

It’s been a while, but I have good reasons. And this post is about those reasons. I am the type of person that needs goals, needs something to do, to make me want to do anything. A goal gives me a sense of focus, something to strive for, and, above all, the undeniable satisfaction of a job finished, a job well done. But I am also the type of person that always sees something to do, so I have trouble keeping to only one task at a time. So it’s hard for me to work towards two goals at the same time. Thus the continual lack of posts here, and, in particular, the latest two-month drought.

Almost 12 weeks ago, not long after summer had started, I noticed something about Suvile, the conlang I have been working on (and, lately, describing): I had about 1700 words to show for about six years of work. (For comparison, English has hundreds of thousands of words, though it is in the upper echelon of languages on that count.) Even by hobby standards, that’s not very much. So I set a goal for myself. I needed a milestone, and I needed a deadline.

The deadline was the harder part, though fairly obvious in the end. I had a few options for a long-term project like this: the end of the year (over six months away), some specific day like my birthday (October 16) or a holiday, and so on. To be honest, the end of the year just felt too far away for my tastes, so I looked for something a little closer. At the end of June in the South, one thing comes immediately to mind: summer. So that became my idea: to use the summer to expand Suvile’s lexicon.

The second question was just how much expansion I wanted. As I said, I had around 1700 words at the start of summer. My first thought was 2000, but that seemed like it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. Next was a relatively huge number like 5000, but that was more than I thought I could handle. So, like Goldilocks, I decided that somewhere in the middle was just right. So I had my goal: 3000 words. And I had my deadline: the end of summer, September 22.

The fact that I’m writing this on the morning of September 16 should be a dead giveaway as to the status of my project. But, in case you can’t tell, I did it. Word #3000 entered the Suvile language around 9:00 last night. (For those that have read the Suvile lessons: the 3000th Suvile word was ocin, meaning “to accomplish” or “to achieve”, which I thought was fitting.)

In the opening of this post, I said that finishing something leaves an undeniable satisfaction. For me, it’s true. The psychological impact of a job’s completion, especially that of a project that has been in the works for almost three months, is a wonderful feeling. It’s motivational, positive, an all-encompassing rightness with the world.

Most of all, this dictionary expansion project has been educational to me. I’m not the kind of person that has a fountain of creativity inside that I can turn on at a whim. I have to be in the mood to create, but I can be quite productive once I get in that mood, that zone. With languages, this becomes evident. It’s hard for me to just sit there and come up with words, but if I have a reason to invent them, that makes things so much easier. So, I had to find things that I could do that would help me increase the Suvile lexicon. That meant that I had to translate. But I also had to find something to translate.

Thus, my advice to beginning conlangers looking to expand their languages’ vocabularies is this: translate everything you can. For my project, I used the “Graded Sentences for Analysis” lists, the Swadesh List, the 1600-word ULD (that I can no longer find online), and, quite simply, whatever came to hand. I used news stories, cryptograms from the local newspaper, anything.

Finally, after any good deed done comes the inevitable letdown: where do I go from here? Suvile now has over 3000 words, enough to express most concepts in everyday life, at least of the period of Suvile’s culture, which would correspond to a couple of decades before the American Civil War. But there are still many holes to fill. Some of these are cultural, because the culture simply isn’t “filled in” as well as the language itself. So there’s one line of inquiry. There’s also the evolution of the language, where sketching out Suvile’s ancestors might provide insight to the modern language. Another thing, one that seems very interesting to me right now, is original creations: writing something in Suvile itself, rather than translating. I’m hopeless at poetry and music, but history, legend, even science and “current events” (whatever that would mean for a world that doesn’t exist) aren’t all that difficult, when you can make them up as you go along. What I do know, though, is that I need to set a goal if I want to have any hope of finishing.

I’m going to close this post with a little bit of showing off, including some of the stats from this summer:

  • Word #2000: embol, “successful”, on July 23. I’ll admit, this seems like a bit of wishful thinking, in hindsight. One month down, two to go, and only 300 words? But I hadn’t done anything for the previous two weeks, and that day saw over 100 new words, so I feel justified.
  • Word #2500: doj, “sled”, on September 2. This word came up in the Graded Sentences list, and it’s not very momentous. I was still behind schedule, though, and not really looking for a milestone.
  • Word #2750: d’rcun, “surrounded”, on September 11. If I hadn’t had a word for “tower” since 2004, I probably would have used it here. Note that this was only last Friday, which was another big day of 130 words.
  • Most common initial letter: a. Over 10% of the words (and prefixes, suffixes, etc.) in my lexicon start with “a”, owing to the fact that, some time ago, I imagined that one of Suvile’s sound changes was to drop some initial consonants. This resulted in a lot of “a” words, as well as quite a few “e” words.
  • Least common initial letter: y. As of right now, there are only 14 words in the Suvile dictionary that start with “y”. This is mostly due to the definite article i-, which becomes y- before vowels. Because of Suvile’s sound patterns, this means that “y” words can end up starting with iy-, which isn’t the most stable of sounds. (The 14 “y” words are: ya “to be”; yab “was”; yaciri “to be present”; yaciru “present” or “available”; yacirwil “presence”; yandh “five”; yath “universe”; yav “wood”; yelax “approval”; yelex “to approve”; yelox “approved”; yoth “universal”; yov “cheap”; yud “will be”)
  • Most common letter: a. Note that this is the most common in the dictionary, only counting each word once. I don’t have a big enough corpus (yet) to do statistical tests on letter frequencies in the whole language.
  • Least common letter: zh. Again, this is only among dictionary words, and counting them only once.