Sunday, September 4, 2016

C is for ConLang

Constructed Languages and How to Fake them

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    Captain Lamonta Seymour wandered through the crowded alien marketplace. She'd done business on Astema before, but never had the chance to go beyond the starport. Now with the Solitaire laid up for a couple of weeks for repairs, she decided to venture out and check out the locals. "Maybe too far out" she thought. There were few humans at the market and she knew little about the natives. Semi-aquatic, they had large bulbous heads supported by six extremely long tentacled legs, somewhat like an octopus stretched up to be two and a half meters tall. "Where did Hayton disappear to?" she wondered, as she perused a basket of lumpy purple fruit. Unexpectedly, Seymour felt a thumping on her shoulder and out of the corner of her eye caught a flash of pink tentacle. She spun around quickly and instinctively put her right hand on the hilt of her blade.
    The alien's face moved uncomfortably close to her own, its tentacle still on her shoulder. She recoiled at its fetid breath as its large, rubbery lips smacked "Wahoob, Copteen Seeemore. Ragu vo pep zuchai crystals? Ku? Zuchai?"


I like using alien languages when I game, if it's appropriate and the opportunity presents itself. It adds a sense of otherworldliness. And they're easy to fake. You don't have to create an entire language or understand its grammatical structure. Just make something that sounds interesting. You only need to enough words to get you through the game. If your players are going to be interacting with the language quite a lot, you might want to put together a basic phrase book for consistency. The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Avatar all make extensive use of constructed languages, but I think it would be the rare game that needed to take it to the degree that those films do.

I loved that the original Traveller Alien Modules included language generators, but I was disappointed that most of the words were so difficult to pronounce. An argument could be made that  that is how an alien language would probably be, but to me it just slowed down the process. There are a number of random word generators online, my favorites are Space Corsair, which is specific to Traveller, and Donjon RPG Tools. If you find creating languages is something you want to get into, check out the Language Creation Society.

(Update: 09-05-2016)
Rob Eaglestone (robject over at the Citizens of the Imperium forum) just made me aware of a Traveller word generator he has. Best one I've seen and my new favorite. Check it out here: Trav 5 Vilani Tools.

ConLang Examples
Below are some example of the "languages" I have used in gaming. Lugandish and Hindi are based on the sounds of the actual languages, but all words come from random word generators I've created. In general, I try to avoid complex spellings and silent letters and create words that are easy to read phoentically. No need to spell an alien word like "mnemonic" when "nemonik" or "neemonik" is easier to read. Also, I try to focus on one or two syllable words, with a few three syllable words thrown in. If you are a referee prepping for a game, it's beneficial to read the words and phrases out loud a few times to get a feel for them. Change anything you find your tongue tripping over.

When creating dialogue, pick out a couple of key words or short string of words and use them for common phrases: greetings, commands, warnings, etc. Depending upon the usage, throw in some English/Galanglic words, especially when discussing technology. Let the alien slightly mispronounce some Galanglic or draw out a particular vowel or consonant.

The Ularu are a developing race I created for my Hu'kura campaign. Their mouth structure is such that they have limited vocalization capabilities, so I've limited the range of the vocabulary. The apostrophe is a clicking sound.
kramirk     kukrirkru     hurirkku     runa     wu'nori     nukra     ha'nokna     runa
rukrakki     rirkwi     riknu'no     krur    hah     hurirk     wu'nora     ha'nokwu'no
mam     krihaka     ru'noha     ruhu'noka     hawa'noknu     rurawu     huha    krikna
mukru'rara     krakrak     rarirk     runikna     rah     hurirkku     nukra     rarakru
huw     rik     mu'rakra     mih     rikri     murirkkru     kriknu'no     rura     hina'nokri
hur     ranik     kruna'nok     ru'ramu     nu'nora     ru     krakkru     nakr     murirkkru
krakra     makrikmu     rakra'nok     kukrirkru     wurakwa     murirk

This is a randomized language I created based on the Luganda language after seeing "The Book of Mormon".
Hasa diga eebowai!
vuvumba    alik    sinnulik    amukembo    omun    vinembo    mafumba    jayimbo
som    zalemo    omunoka    ban    anda    tenimbo    nabuluzi    bannak    utera
amukembo    zafulik    omunulema    najemo    dazama    pajemba    mudanda
bakaja    anda    onda    bak    okukuba    bik    mwojulik    nuzembo    mavunak
Wikaja    tonamala    onda    losantu    ndigunak    olik    banazzi    okwebola
bannak    zif    pomalik    tenimbo    zozantu    wawuba    okukuba    mafaja
nak    mokembo    mwukamala    zafulik    moz    bikonda    alik    zazimbo

This is a randomized language I created based on the Hindi language. I just liked the sound of it.
venuruta    tashamala    ruki    sobusha    kalutina    liritu    kusha    santahar
devunar    madi    giridar    sava    tarpadin    venurut    arivini    savuk
venuruta    tarput    vatadari    jitinara    mata    uradinath    asa    susalok
ranti    jitinara    nit    anirit    vimikura    anirit    sobusha    anakur    kami
mu    nirumar    kamisha rantinar    menushia    giri    savu    sata    marki
ari    madunari    muku    balu    matami    niruriti    madu    linakur    madint
hiwani    madunari    geetipit    shankungi    tarpadin    nishuthan    ankath

Don't forget about using body language and tone. Not knowing the language can be half the fun.

Body language can add a lot to communication, and it relatively easy to determine if an alien means you harm or is agitated. Other emotions might be more subtle and easy to misinterpret. The tone of the dialogue, whether it be shouting (angrily or happily), whispering, or whimpering will give some clues as to what the speaker is on about.

I had an experience years ago when I was studying in Italy. I got on a wrong bus while trying to get to the train station and the bus headed out of town. Way out of town. Figuring it eventually would have to turn around - don't ALL buses drive in loops? - we eventually parked at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere. I was the only passenger and decided to stay on the bus, but the driver indicated he wanted me to get off. I asked him some questions in English but he just shook his head no and pointed to the store. I exited the bus, and he shut the door behind me and started reading a newspaper.

In the store, there was a young woman at the register and I decided to make a small purchase to break the ice. It was late afternoon and I had no idea if there would be another bus. The fact that the driver had stayed on board was a good sign, but I really needed to get to the train station. I asked her if the bus went back into town and how I could get to the station. She didn't speak any English either. I knew very little Italian, but fortunately knew the words for "number", "bus", and "to" (or so I thought). I asked "Numero autobus via...(number bus street)" and paused. I didn't know the word for train or station. I was the only other person in the store and figured what the hell. I started pumping my arms like old steam engine coupling rods and making "chugga chugga woo woo" sounds. She burst out laughing, but understood what I meant. She was able to show me a bus schedule and indicated which buses I needed to take to get to the station. I pointed to the bus and driver and asked "Quanto?", while tapping the face of my watch. I know quanto meant "how much" but I had only used it when asking about the cost of a purchase. Apparently it worked because the woman flashed me two open hands and then one open hand. Fifteen. I grinned and gave her a heartfelt "Grazie!" and waited for the driver to finish his break.

And finally
Use language to add flavor to a game, but don't let it bog down the play. If you've spent a lot of time creating a language, don't let the players become frustrated because they don't know what you are saying. If the characters can't understand the language, they have a few options. Depending on the players patience and the referee's willingness to make up language, they can roleplay it until there is greater understanding. Characters can try to seek out interpreters, phrase books, or electronic translators. Maybe even a Babel fish if your games lean toward the bizarre.


  1. I have a fairly large pile of word generators using Traveller's table-based system. It has all of the standard ones - Gvegh, Vilani, Zdetl, etc - and also rarer ones - Logasku, Aekhu, Bwap - and some novel ones

    1. This really is a great one. Wish I'd known about it sooner. I updated my post to include your link. Thanks for sharing!