• Making up a Language for Fun and Profit

    by  • May 8, 2013 • RPGs • 0 Comments

    ProtoLanguage2Ever since I first read Tolkien, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of creating a language. Of course, J.R.R. created several languages as he built the foundation for Middle Earth. It gives the narrative a cohesive feel, as if his languages had developed and evolved over thousands of years, and you can sense the relationships between the words. When I first thought of creating a language myself, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the project, and my book of notes soon disappeared in the dustbin of history.

    ʊț ɕιδɸαɷ ɛʈ feɀi translates to “we saw the goat.” It is pronounced “awt rideras ef fezhi”, all short vowel sounds.

    The idea was renewed recently when I began working on the Dungeon World campaign I’ve been running. There are seven major cultures represented in the game world, and I wanted to create the unity and history that languages can bring to the fiction. I decided I’d start with a proto-culture, with it’s own proto-language. Much like proto-indo-european, which gave rise to English and so many other languages.

    You should do it, which is written “ʋ ɛʎο ϴαɷυ oɕ“, and pronounced “ar EkO thAsu or.” Capitals represent long vowel sounds.

    To begin, I decided to create an origin story. I wanted to give the proto-culture, and its derivative cultures a cohesive structure for religion. And the words used to describe the original spirits venerated by the people could become the basis for words based on similar concepts.

    The Void (ɮαɀο) was everything and nothing. It created Fire (ʎʋɀο) to keep it company. Fire (ʎʋɀο) was a restless and chaotic spirit, and spread itself everywhere it could. The Void (ɮαɀο) was angered, and stole Fire’s sparks, tossing them about the void where they became the Moon (ɱοɕɀα) and the nighttime sky. Torn from Fire (ʎʋɀο), the Moon (ɱοɕɀα) began to cry, her tears becoming the first Water (ɛɲȴαɀa). They fell and extinguished all of the smaller fires, turning them into Earth (ȹυɀο) and Stone (βοʎɀα). Where they fell on Fire (ʎʋɀο), they were destroyed and reborn as Air (ɷαɀο).  The Void (ɮαɀο) was excluded from the new world (ȝȿ). He deceived Earth  (ȹυɀο), who allowed him to open passages to the world. To counter him, the six spirits worked together to create a seventh spirt, Life (ȿαȴa), who then gave birth to everything that is alive.  

    Making up that story set off an enormous landslide of new ideas.  The words I made up for Void and Fire are kwazho and karzho, to show their principal relationship, and that alone was fertile ground for new ideas. But, before I go there, let’s get back to how I made up the words in the first place.

    Phonemes. The basic building blocks, the sounds that make up all words in all languages.  No language, or dialect for that matter, uses the exact same set of phonemes. That gives each language its own distinct sound. So, I dug up a list of phonemes used in the English language. English because I can already properly pronounce all of the phonemes in it, which will make pronouncing the words in my Proto language that much easier. English, as it turns out, has 40-something phonemes, which can be divided into vowel and consonants. For vowels, I chose “aw”,”ar”,”er”, “A”,”a”,”E”,”e”,”I”,”i”,”O”,”o”,”U” and “u”. The capital letters, as noted before, are long vowels. For consonants, I chose “b”,”k”,”d”,”f”,”h”,”j”,”l”,”m”,”n”,”p”,”kw”,”r”,”s”,”t”,”v”,”ks”,”z”,”sh”,”ch”,”th” and “zh”. No “c”, “w”, or” v”, although the “c” sounds are covered by “k” and “s” . Simple combinations, such as vowel + consonant or consonant + vowel + consonant, create pronounceable words.

    The old proverb ɂοββι ɛʈ iȹȹʋɲ eβboɱ ɛʈ iȹpαɕɲ ɂobbiaɕ ʋ, or “Kill the wolf before the wolf kills you” [chObbi ef  Ipparn  Eddom  Ipparn chObbiar ar]

    I also decided to give the Proto language its own script. In order for the characters to be easily visible to all viewers, I simply stole greek, latin and other characters out of the extended set in the Arial true type font, and assigned them to each phoneme.  There are eight characters for vowels (the long and short form used the same character) and 21 for consonants, 29 characters in total in this Proto alphabet.  [Although writing may have come a long time after speaking in our history, it’s a lot more fun if adventurers find strange, ancient script to read and decipher.]

    Armed with all of this, I simply constructed some javascript to create new words with both the proper script spelling and pronunciation. Fed a list of English verbs, it spits out a new word for it, complete with simple conjugation. Because I’m using a wiki for this information, the javascript provides output already formatted for mediawiki tables.


    As I’m going along, I’m changing some words to tie them more closely to the already established Proto-culture.  The word for Moon, morzh, is used as the basis for describing the moon’s phases. A waning moon is morzhish (ɱοɕɀɨȿ) is a waxing moon;  morzhOno (ɱοɕɀɵɲό) is a waning moon;  a full moon is the morzhAkwa  (ɱοɕɀαɮa) ;  and the new moon is called morzhkwash (ɱοɕɀɮαȿ).  The word for Full is Akwa (αɮa), while the word for Empty is kwash (ɮαȿ), the root of the name of The Void, kwashO (ɮαɀο). Sometimes, I’ll mirror words with opposite meanings, so the morning is Oher (οʅɸ), the afternoon is Oshaw (οȿʊ).

    All of this makes for a fun exercise, in learning about languages and expanding my javascript skills.  I am intrigued by what I’ve done so far. I think the language when spoken sounds like Arabic. What do you think? And at some point, I’d like to expand the programming I’ve done to allow anyone to choose a set of phonemes and word structures and get a list of words automatically. We’ll see!


    Michael has been writing professionally for print, television and the internet for thirty years. As a Senior Producer at CNN International, he examined the future of technology with dozens of brilliant scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs on the acclaimed series Future Summit. Before that, in the CNN International newsroom, he helped lead the production of award winning coverage of news like the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the devastating 2004 tsunami in Asia. As a director, he has created a dozen short films in the last seven years. He lives with his wife, dog, four cats and two horses in the suburbs of Atlanta.


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