How to fail at conlanging

While listening to Conlangery recently I was impressed by one of the host’s suggestion to "try different things and see what works." It’s an anodyne, nearly cliché bit of advice, but it prompted me to wonder: how, exactly, does something in a constructed language "not work?" After all, you’re inventing a language. You get to make up the rules; whatever you invent works if you say it does. Doesn’t it?

Yet anyone who has been conlanging for more than a few months will recognize that this isn’t actually the case. I felt this intuitively, but it still had trouble articulating what exactly it meant for something to "not work" in an invented language. So I’ve compiled a list below of common conlang failure modes. These are things which frequently happen to conlang creators which cause their languages to go awry, and I think that almost all conlangers should be able to recognize many of the items on the list. More importantly, I’ve tried to articulate why each of the mishaps represents a failure, and how they detract from the artistic integrity of the conlang.

Relex: A relex is a language whose vocabulary exists in a close correspondence with the language creator’s native language. Relexes are a hallmark of new and naive conlangers, and they mostly represent a failure of imagination. Languages differ enormously in the structure of their vocabulary — why repeat what you already know?

Syntactic relex: A more sophisticated version of the relex, the syntactic relex mimics not the vocabulary but the grammar of the creator’s first language. This, likewise, is a failure of imagination, but it’s much subtler and is something that even sophisticated conlangers fall into periodically.

Excessive ambiguity: The language, as designed, is not really usable for communication because it presents too many opportunities for misunderstanding. No matter how creative or artistic a conlang is, it must still function (at least in theory) as a medium of communication. This is actually a hard error for most conlangers to fall into, since conlangers tend to hate unclarity, and the human language facility is remarkably tolerant of ambiguity.

Excessive specificity: The language, as designed, is not really usable for communication because it requires the user to encode too many different aspects of the utterance. There are myriad different things that languages can encode, but there is no language that encodes all of them. Many conlangers get overly excited about all of the different things that their language could mark, and try to throw in all of them. This results in a bulky, unwieldy morphology and syntax that resembles no real-world language.

Unlearnability: The language can’t be learned by ordinary humans, because it uses structures that aren’t natural for human minds. Occasionally, as with Fith, this is a deliberate design choice, but more often the language creators intended for the language to be human-speakable, but failed by choosing an unsuitable underlying model. Lojban seems to suffer from this flaw.

Incoherence: The parts of the language don’t fit together, and there are gaps or clashes where the mismatched parts meet. The language’s phonology might make mutually exclusive demands of its word-shapes, or the syntax might contain valency-changing operations which are superfluous in a non-configurational grammar. This usually indicates that the conlanger has included an interesting linguistic feature without understanding how to use it or considering its consequences for the rest of the grammar.

Artificiality: The language is unnatural in some way or another, and this unnaturalness marks the language as artificial. Any aspect of the language (phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary) can show these telltale signs of artifice. Occasionally this is a deliberate artificial choice, but more often this is a result of the conlanger attempting to create a naturalistic language and failing.

Aesthetic failure: The most difficult and subjective failure. Most conlangers begin their languages with a particular artistic purpose in mind, whether that goal is phonoaesthetic, morphosyntactic, or lexical. But sometimes the language fails to meet its creator’s goals. This failure is so idiosyncratic that almost nothing can be said about it in general, but anyone who has ever tried and failed at an artistic endeavor will understand what it is like.

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8 Comments

  1. I think that of your items, relex and syntactic relex are the most common and egregious. As you say, excessive ambiguity is really hard to create, since it seems there’s a whole lot that ambiguity can do. And incoherent conlangs, as you describe them, are a problem, since they generally mean some features were thrown together without considering how they interact.

    Whether the others are even “failures” depends on the goals of the language. You mention that conlangs do such things deliberately, but I might even think of an “unlearnable” language even if the creator was making an experiment of whether people could learn it (which was the case with the original Loglan, though it was more of when they learn it, does it change thinking — in that case). Sure, it’s a failed experiment then, but failed experiments often tell you more than successful ones (Just look at all the physicist who were disappointed to learn that the Higgs boson actually exists).

    Artificiality also doesn’t need to be deliberate to be reasonable. If you’re creating an IAL like Esperanto, the specific goals of a good IAL will generally make the language very unnatural (most specifically the tendency to try for perfect regularity, for ease of learning).

    The main thing to remember is that different conlangers have different goals. When we reviewed Interlingua on Conlangery, we really didn’t like it because of its flat uninterestingness — a completely regular Romance language sans gender and some other things that make Romance languages interesting — but we acknowledged that it achieved the goal of being nearly fully intelligible to a Romance speaker, and probably fairly easy for an English speaker to pick up on. Of course, like most IALs, it falls flat on its face in terms of really being a significant factor in the world — certainly the fact that it was used for a number of publications is something, but you don’t hear of scientists using it at all now — but that is another topic entirely.

  2. The way I interpret “see what works” is “see what works for yourself”. Even creative people sometimes dislike, or even despise, stuff they’ve created because it doesn’t fit their taste or worldview or something.

    But I strongly disagree about a relex language being naive and unimaginative or even a fail for a beginner. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for someone who maybe doesn’t know much about linguistics or their first language from an analytical perspective, a relex might be a great way to get into stuff. So, to answer “Why repeat something you already know?”, I’ll say, what if they actually don’t?

    Or – maybe it is naive and unimaginative, but who isn’t naive and unimaginative in the very first steps? Is it a fail to start from the same level as everyone else, through a way that feels easiest and most welcoming?

  3. Mr. Bangs,

    Your article seems a bit contradictory to the premise that starts it to me. You encourage trying different things to see what works, but then prescribe a veritable formula that may not be deviated from without “failure”– and it’s quite subjective, considering that people conlang for a variety of reasons. Any number of such reasons could justify things like unlearnability, artificiality, or ambiguity. To me, this article is a bit like saying there is only one kind of bread and one way of making it. I have seen this attitude discourage new conlangers– especially those unfamiliar with formal linguistics. My cordial suggestion would be to clearly frame such things as your preference, rather than as absolutes. Very best to you.

  4. This article is useful in that it names categories/axes that can be used to evaluate conlangs, but my question becomes:”WHO is doing the evaluation?” Who determines if a conlang has failed or not? Can’t/Shouldn’t only its creator do that? If I set out to create an entirely new (an interesting to me) relex of English (or any other language I know), is that immediately a failure out of the gate just because it’s a relex? If I learn something valuable in the process must that fall under the umbrella of “failure” just because of the initial conception of what I set out to do?

    Yihssihr raitup hebbiht suhm wuhrt ihnnyatihd gihbb’uss suhm neymweyz dyem’yæt wuhn kænna go’bæwweyt suhm conlænks, stihl massa ay gw’æskihnn: “Djæss huddæt ihzz hi’yæt gohnna go’bæwweyt’em, n’y’o HU?” Hu gwæn go’dasayddiht yæt hebb gonduhn feylded suhm conlænk, fuh yihss fuh noh? Íhzzniht djahss massbi yæ’cchob obduh wuhn yætt’eb gohnduhn go’mehkkiht aforst? Ihff gohnduhn ay dasyayddiht yætta gwæn go’uhpmeykay suhm totli nyuwwan obduh rilihx fuhm Inklihsh ern’nuh’hyer yæt gohduhn ay nohd yæssit ihzz fuhyyay kwayt aýpappihnn, hebbiht gonduhn fuhm fors’step go’feyld djæssfuhm ihzz yæt suhm rilihx? Ihff kænna ay nihnyæt a’duwihnn go’nyumemrihnn a’yíng yæt hebbiht hihssohn bælyu, massbi yætiht wuhn gohnna mǽt’cli go’dreypiht go’kawldiht a’feyllihnn djæss fuhmiht ha’gonbihn ayza hardrihbbihnn aydya fuhm aforst?

    1. This comment wins mostly by virtue of being written in a conlang.

      I essentially agree with your points. My list of “failures” are failures by the criteria under which many (most?) conlangs are made: the criteria of naturalness, speakability, or other engelang constraints.

  5. I will just point out that this “conlang” in which the translation of my English response was made did not exist until I wrote the original response and decided to do it on the fly this morning. But, even as an ad hoc relex, it contains many features that I find new an intriguing. I especially like the emphatic ”n’yo’ HU?“ and I’m not familiar with that structure from any other language. I’m also quite delighted with “ayza” form “my”. This emerged out of something I heard recently in the banter from a reality TV show. A contestant referred to “Brian and I’s XYZ” or some such—and I’m still dumbfounded by that—but I understood it. So, there you go. “Whether X or not”’s becoming “, fuh yihss fuh noh?” is also fun. There are probably both phonological process inconsistencies and grammatical incongruence in this that I could not easily explain away in front of a judges’ panel from the LCS elders, but SO WHAT!? For what it is, it’s a complete success (for me).

  6. Very interesting article, that set me thinking about my own conlang again. Though I did come to the conclusion that I’m finally on the right path. The most worrying was the part about syntactical relex, which does seem to occur a bit in mine. But I did set out to make a language that seems to be a member of the Germanic language family, and syntaxis in this family is often very similar. Though I’m still changing some parts of that. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Naa intresearende zuekskryefed, ðei mynen eegenen kuenstesproak myn vyer maaktet oafer-þänken. Trös y va töt dän uutkommed kam, ðas y uutändlig op dän juusten paad bin. De mäst fersöargende vart de teil oafer voardôrdshe tröwfaal, dee ännen luk in mynen sproak föar skyent kommen. Abbe y börgte va tûsväg ännen sproak maaken dee ännen mätteil däs Gärmaanshen sproakfamyl belykeþ, ûn voardôrd in dizzen famyl är ôfte naa lykesh. Trös y nooþ sommen teile ðats feraðere. Taank vädde dynen þaggeds!

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