Trompe l’Œil Conlanging—Or How to Fake Depth in

Trompe l’Œil Conlanging—Or How to Fake Depth in
a Conlang

Author: Sylvia Sotomayor

MS Date: 07-05-2019

FL Date: 11-01-2019

FL Number: FL-000062-00

Citation: Sotomayor, Sylvia. 2019. «Trompe l’Œil

Conlanging—Or How to Fake Depth in a
Conlang.» FL-000062-00, Fiat Lingua,
. Web. 01 November

Copyright: © 2019 Sylvia Sotomayor. This work is licensed

under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Fiat Lingua is produced and maintained by the Language Creation Society (LCS). For more information
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Trompe l’Œil Conlanging

Or How to Fake Depth in a Conlang

Sylvia Sotomayor

As everyone no doubt knows, the “best” way to make a naturalistic conlang is to create
a proto-language and then age it forward along with all the cultural and technical
innovations that the speakers might experience. Yeah. I don’t have time for that. It took
me 20-30 years to create Kēlen and 7 years to create Kenda Soro. Even taking less than 5
years for a fully worked out proto-language, it would take much too long to develop a
daughter language. So, here are a few short-cuts, a few ways of creating the illusion of
depth, in no particular order.

1. Save your drafts

Even if you end up creating something relatively ugly or hopeless, there has to be
something you like. Keep that. Set it aside if necessary and come back to it later. This
goes for vocabulary, sets of vocabulary, partial paradigms, grammar, anything.

2. Remember that everything comes from something

Grammar generally comes from ancestral vocabulary that has been cliticized,
affixed, worn away, etc. And, before the ancestral vocabulary was grammaticized,
there were probably multiple ways to express the same or a similar thing. So those
bits and pieces of an earlier draft or project that you liked, see if they work as
remnants of an older pattern or as borrowings.

Also, rather than do what I sometimes do and create new particles to mark new bits
of syntax, see if you can’t use an existing construction, or part of an existing
construction to convey the same idea. Read up on grammaticalization for ideas!

3. There are always exceptions

And these generally come from multiple patterns in the ancestor language, from
borrowings from other languages—from all sorts of places. This is where you can
take something from a previous draft and say it applies to this subset of words or to
this construction in this environment. Creating non-productive patterns for parts of
the grammar is a quick way to add depth. Have some words from a previous draft
that you really like but that don’t fit the phonology of the language? Make them


borrowings. If English can borrow pronouns, your conlang can borrow these words,
whatever they are.

Irregular forms are generally much older words that have everyday use or very
recent borrowings that haven’t completely assimilated into the language yet. So if all
your adjectives match the noun in person and number, there is probably a small
class like quantifiers maybe or some of the core adjectives that are either invariant or
are otherwise irregular. Latin does this by having some adjectives come before the
noun (good and bad and some adjectives expressing quantity) and the rest generally
follow the noun. Of course, in Latin, you can also put the noun and its adjective at
opposite ends of the clause because Latin is perverse like that. But even languages
with stricter word order might vary. Some of this variation is due to frequency of
use. Some is created by remnants of a more productive system that have now

4. Create overlapping patterns

If you can’t decide between two different ways to express a case or some other
grammaticized usage, use both! One way might be currently productive and the
other might be an older usage.

It is common enough for subclasses of some part of speech to have a different
pattern of usage or inflection or syntax than the main class. Again, these can be older
words with everyday usage, leftovers of a separate class, sets of words borrowed en
masse, specialized vocabulary, etc. A language that is strongly prepositional can
have a few postpositions, and vice versa. Even English, strongly prepositional, has
the postposition ‘ago’. And some words will provisionally belong to both classes,
like ‘through’ in ‘the whole day through’. So think of the various patterns and
systems in your language as liquid layers, ebbing, flowing, overlapping, and so on
until in some parts of the language, only remnants of a previous pattern exist.

5. Mess up your systems

Systems don’t come into being fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.
It’s nice to have a lovely tense system, with more than three tenses, all marked as
monosyllabic suffixes on the verb (I do this all the time), but it is far more common
in natlangs to have some parts of the tense system marked differently from the
others. And the aspect system, the evidentiality system, the person and number
systems—any system, really, because these systems evolve as distinctions come to be
made. And as they evolve, they coopt different existing words or patterns for the
different parts of the system at different periods in the life of the language.


6. Create overlapping vocabulary

Have you ever created a new word in your conlang only to find you already had a
word for that concept? I do it all the time. It’s actually a plus! In natlangs, specific
words go in and out of fashion, and some words will, at any given point in time for
a particular population of speakers, exist only in specific phrases, or in specialized
vocabulary. Specialized vocabulary doesn’t have to be jargon specific to a profession.
It can belong to any group of people that wants for whatever reason to speak a little
differently from another group. Think socioeconomic classes, moieties, age cohorts,
kin groups—anybody.


Say you have the word tæz ‘snow’ and for a relay or something you can’t find it, so
you coin a new word from your words for ‘rain’ ræs and ‘white’ ma > ræzma. Later
you find your entry tæz. Don’t despair! This is not a mistake! Just declare one to be
poetic! Like so:

Snow 1. tæz in common usage: tæz tæzanal ‘snow falls’, ‘it’s snowing’. 2. ræzma in
old-fashioned poetic usage, derived from ‘rain’ ræs + ‘white’ ma: ræzma tæzanal
dæt dʒæz ‘the snow falls on the plain’.

7. It’s okay to have one-offs

These are patterns or vocabulary that only appear once. So an affix that only appears
in a single word, a word that appears only in a single idiom, a grammatical
construction that only appears with certain vocabulary. These are also the most
likely to be forgotten by subsequent generations and second language learners, but
in the meantime they exist and hint at depth.

It is okay to have single-word word classes. Some of these will be remnants of older
classes or subclasses and some will be innovations that haven’t quite caught on yet
(or ever).

8. Unlock the power of metaphor

Right. That’s a whole ‘nother paper and John Quijada probably wrote it already.

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