Yivrian is historical conlang, designed with a proto-language and a set of sound changes that derive it, and with parent and sister languages. But I made it and its family backwards. Yivrian itself was conceived first (and it was not originally designed as a historical conlang), and only after the language was originally designed did I begin to speculate on what its parent language was like, and begin to design its sisters. This is not how your supposed to do these things, but it worked out reasonably well.

The biggest difficulty that I encounter with this approach is that Yivrian is too similar to its parent Common Yivrian, and the other sister languages are too different. Since Yivrian came first and retains its pride of place, everything about Common Yivrian that I didn’t specifically intend to be different defaults to being the same as Yivrian, while the other languages (Praseo and Tsingrizhil) wind up with a much greater distance from the proto-lang.

Fleshing out Praseo for The Wedding of Earth and Sky forced me to confront this problem anew. It also presented a different problem: while the Yivrian-like proto-forms work fine for deriving Yivrian, when I take those forms and put them through the sound changes to create Praseo, the result is often very ugly.

For instance, for Wedding I had to consider what to call the diety that in Yivrian is named Aratelor. If we extrapolate backwards into Common Yivrian by the most direct route, we would reconstruct something like *arātelōra, which as you can see is very similar to the Yivrian form, and not very interesting. Worse, the Praseo generated from that proto-form is Arotlura which I don’t like at all.

So I did some speculating. First, the Yivrian ending -elor is commonly attached to the names of dieties, and for that reason it may be innovative or analogical. Furthermore we know that the stem from which this name is formed is arat- (which appears in several other words), so it’s reasonable to assert that the CY name is *arāti or something similar, and the Y -elor is an innovation.

The second step was a new sound change. I had long known that CY contained /*ð/, which has disappeared in all of the daughter languages but left behind traces. In Yivrian the normal reflexes were (I thought) /d/ and 0, but about this time I began to speculate that there had been a sound change of *ð => r. Yivrian has a lot of r‘s, and I find so many r‘s to be unpleasant outside of the particular phonoaesthetic context of Yivrian, so this seemed like a good chance to turn a certain number of Yivrian r sounds into something that wouldn’t be reflexed as r in the other sister languages.

Applying that to this case, I changed the proto-form to *aðāti — and this was paydirt. The Praseo reflex of *aðāti is Azatsi, and I loved the sound of that! I liked it so much that the name became canon: in Wedding the name Azatsi appears as the name of the diety in question, and that’s unlikely to change in the future.

Yivrian has been conceived as a member of a language family, though none of the other members of the family have ever seen significant development. This presented me with a challenge and an opportunity when I sat down to write my current WiP, since it’s set in a part of the world that doesn’t speak Yivrian, but one of its sister languages Praseo.

Praseo, known as Praçí in an earlier incarnation, is the language of the city of Prasa (formerly Praç) and its environs. Praseo was originally conceived as a Portuguese-like relative of Yivrian, and it retains several features from that early stage: nasal vowels, several syllable reductions, and vocalization of coda -l to create lots of diphthongs ending in -o. However, over time that Portuguese flavor has largely been lost, partly because my conception of the conculture of the Yivrian cultural area changed quite a bit, and partly because the Yivrian lexical base was hard to warp into something that felt Romance-like. The current incarnation has phonoaesthetic elements of Japanese and Pacific Northwest Native American languages to go with the Portuguese substrate, but it retains enough similarity to Yivrian to feel like a member of the same family.

But I may be getting ahead of myself. Let me show you a chart of Yivrian’s close relatives:

There is not a lot of breadth here, as the near relatives of Yivrian number only two (plus a possible, unnamed third language which I haven’t included in the chart above, since it’s little more than conjecture at this point). For brevity, I often refer to the languages mentioned above with the following abbreviations:

  • PY (Proto-Yivril)
  • CY (Common Yivrian)
  • OY (Old Yivrian)
  • OTz (Old Tzingrizil)
  • Y (Yivrian)
  • Pr (Praseo)
  • Tz (Tzingrizil)

[Speaking from an in-universe perspective:] Yivrian, Praseo, and Tzingrizil are all attested, literary languages that had hundreds of thousands of speakers during the classical period and are quite well-documented. The “old” languages Old Yivrian and Old Tzingrizil are also attested, though much more sparsely, while the ancestral languages of Common Yivrian and Proto-Yivril are only known through reconstruction. There is a pretty high level of intelligibility between OY and OTz, though the daughter languages are all mutually unintelligible.

[Speaking from a conlanging perspective:] My Yivrian lexicon includes the ancestral Common Yivrian forms for all of its entries (except those that are borrowings or later coinages, obviously), which means that I have a pretty large CY lexical base to use for deriving other sister languages. The challenge that this presents, though, is to create forms that are phonoaesthetically pleasing and linguistically plausible for the other daughter languages. Y itself doesn’t have this problem, since all of the CY forms in the lexicon were created by extrapolating backwards from Y, but I find that the sound changes from CY forward to the other daughters require a lot of tweaking. Next post I may go into detail on a few of the problems I encountered and some solutions that I worked up for them.

But using Praseo for my WiP actually presented a bigger problem. Namely, the people in the book don’t actually speak Praseo yet.

The book I’m working on is set in an early part of the Yivrian history, at the stage of Old Yivrian and Old Tzingrizil. The story takes place in and around Prasa, but at the time of the story Prasa had been settled by explorers from Tsingris for only about two generations. So the characters are largely speaking OTz. But I don’t want to use OTz for my names and language snippets, because OTz is ugly. I have strong phonoaesthetic expectations for my conlangs, especially those that are going to go into books. I consider OY and OTz to be intermediate stages, and I don’t much worry about tuning them, but this means that they aren’t suitable for use as the main conlang sources in a novel. Furthermore, I have to keep my readers in mind — it would be really confusing if I publish three different novels in different time periods, and all of the place names were slightly different in each book due to linguistic shifts.

To get around these problems, I established a policy which I intend to follow from here on out. All place names and language snippets appear in the canonical, classical form of each language, which is generally the latest developed form of the language in con-historical time. Furthermore, wherever possible place names are given in the form of the local language, regardless of the language of the speaker or POV character in the story. That is, the city of Prasa will always be called Prasa, since that’s its name in Praseo, despite the fact that in Y the name is Parath, and in Tz it’s something else yet.

But all of this is just backstory and extra-literary justification for my linguistic decisions. The actual work of creating Praseo is still underway, and next week I’ll talk about some of the challenges.

In conlang parlance, a naming language is a language sketch which is designed only for generating names in a work of fiction. Naming languages are sometimes held in low regard by conlangers as not being "real" languages, but this is an unnecessary bias. A naming language is like a minimalist painting: it only consists of a few strokes, but it should suggest the shape of something much bigger, and when done well it has a beauty and an elegance of its own.

Also, often you just don’t have time to create a full language. And that’s how it was with Yakhat: I needed a language to provide placenames and personal names for one of the tribes in the story, but I didn’t have the time or the interest to develop a full-blown lang for them. So I made a naming language.

All you need for a good naming language is two things:

  1. A phonology
  2. Some basic morphology

Yakhat phonology is very simple. I want the language to be reminiscent of the languages of Southeast Asia, so I pick out the following consonant phonemes:

p   t   tʃ  k
b   d   dʒ  g
bʱ  dʱ      
    s   ʃ
m   n
    l, r 

Some unusual things to note: we have a single series of aspirated stops, but the labial and dental members are phonetically voiced, while the velar member is voiceless. At a featural level, all of these stops are unspecified for voice, but the labial and dental members are phonetically voiced because they lie further forward in the oral cavity and thus easily fall prey to spontaneous voicing. And why is the aspirated affricate missing? Here I imagine that there once was an aspirated affricate /tʃʰ/, but that this member became deaffricated and gives the /ʃ/ phoneme shown above.

Meta-linguistic concerns actually drive most of the decisions above. I like the digraphs bh and dh, but I dislike ph and th, since English speakers are likely to pronounce those as [f] and [θ] respectively. Furthermore, /tʃʰ/ is nearly impossible to romanize well, as you either choose the abominable chh, or you use ch and then find some other way to indicate /tʃ/. The conjectured sound change above justifies me avoiding it, and gives me an excuse to include /ʃ/, which I had already used in several names that I liked very much.

To this basic phoneme set, I add a few basic phonotactic constraints and some phonological processes, which I won’t cover in detail here. You’ll see some of them in action below.

On to morphology. For the purposes of my language, I created exactly two morphemes: a patronymic suffix -lik, and a reduplicative suffix for collective plurals. The patronymic is unremarkable. The primary character from this tribe is named Keshlik /’kɛʃlɪk/, the son of Keishul /’ke:ʃul/. In the derivation of that name you can observe a few phonological processes at work, such as syncope of an unstressed vowel, but otherwise there’s little to say.

The reduplicative plural is much more interesting. The hometown of the primary character is Khaat Ban [kʰa:t ban], and the people from his town are known as the Khaatat [kʰa:tat]. This collective plural is formed by reduplicating the vowel and final consonant of the stem: Khaat Ban gives Khaatat, those from Louk Ban are the Lougok, and those from Bhut Ban the Bhudhut, etc. You can observe several phonological changes in these forms. For example, voice and aspiration are both neutralized in codas, so that Bhut has the underlying form /bʱudʱ/ which is realized as [bʱut] in the simple name, but the underlying form of the final consonant reasserts itself in the reduplicated form.

And that’s it! With a relatively simple phonology, a few phonological rules, and some morphemes I have a naming language, but one that has just enough depth to suggest that a complete language underlies it. I don’t know what the stems of the names mean, and I don’t need to. If I ever decide that I need to elaborate Yakhat further, I’ll already have the groundwork laid down to create something fuller.

Next time: Praseo, and the challenges of developing something for a language family you already have.