I’m toying with a Sanskrit-esque conlang. At the moment this is likely to be just a naming language, but there’s a good chance that I’m going to need to expand it later, so I want to make sure I get off on the right foot.

But this poses the question: what is Sanskrit-esque? I’m mostly concerned with phonology and mouth-feel, not syntax or morphology—which is convenient, since I know basically nothing about Sanskrit beyond its phonology. A little brainstorming suggests the following characteristics:

  1. A four-way stop contrast, with all combinations +/- voice and +/- aspirated for most places of articulation
  2. Palatal and retroflex consonant series
  3. a as the most common vowel, followed by i
  4. Syllabic sonorants, especially r
  5. Lack of w, but v and y very common.
  6. Onset clusters of the form Cr, but few/no other onset clusters
  7. Vowel length distinction
  8. Relatively few word-final consonants, and those that occur are usually nasals or h

I found this Sanskrit text as a good language sample, from which I drew most of the preceding observations. Obviously some of these are generalizations about Sanskrit romanization and not necessarily about phonology per se, but since my end-goal here is to create a Sanskrit-flavored naming language, observing the romanization conventions is part of the deal.

Now I further complicate my requirements by noting that I already have a decent number of names in use for this setting, which I have to retrofit without completely destroying. Let’s start with the city formerly named Wyrnas, a grotesquely cliche pseudo-Welsh name. My initial concept of this language used the digraph yr to indicate a syllabic [r], so this name can be changed to Vrnas with almost no change in actual pronunciation. But what a wonderful difference in flavor! I’m off to a good start.

Next is Corath. This name doesn’t violate any of our rules outright, but that final -ath doesn’t sit right. Obvious alternatives would be Coratha or Corathi, which are merely okay. While looking at these names I thought of simply geminating the th to Corattha, which seems just right.

On to Gocem. I’m pretty sure that CoCeC is not a possible word-shape in Sanskrit, so we have to change at least one of the vowels. But the most minimal change here seems like the best: Gocam

(Note that I’m editing purely for flavor here, without any concern for the morphology or phonotactics of the target language. This is fine as a first step, though later of course I’ll have to figure such things out.)

I won’t go through the rest of the 20-ish names that would have to be retrofitted, since this is just a preliminary sketch. But I’m heartened that the retrofit seems to be possible.

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.