Archive for November, 2009

LCC2 – John Quijada – Language Personalities

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Everyone who saw John Quijada’s LCC1 talk will undoubtedly remember it forever.
I know I will. John’s LCC1 talk set the bar pretty high, but I think he was up to the challenge.

The first time around, John gave us an introduction to the role that metaphor plays in language—something vitally important for a conlang, yet oft ignored (or tacitly assumed). This time, John introduces us to the concept of Sprachgefühl, or “Speechfeeling”: The way in which a language’s sound system works to give the language a consistent “feel” or character.

Before commenting, just to get an idea of how much fun a John Quijada talk can be, I urge you to jump to the 11:30 mark in the video above (I know a video that’s more than an hour long can be daunting). Just take a look and a listen to John’s example (the part where he asks if anyone can identify the language being spoken). This guy has a fine ear for language—one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now for the meat of the talk.
The question John explores is how to create a phonaesthetic feel for one’s language: How to effect a perception one is going for, and how to change the feel, perhaps, of what one already has going.

John starts with an examination of phonetic/phoneme inventories. What John points out is that certain elements (an abundance of “guttural” or back consonants, a series [or more than one series] of consonants with a secondary articulation, rounded front vowels, etc.) will be noticeable, and will stand out to the listener. It’s completely unsurprising for a language to have, say, /p t k m n/ (if anything, their absence will make the language noticeable [think Hawaiian]), so it’s the other elements that will help to distinguish a language.

John goes on talk about phonotactics (allowable syllable structures, etc.), and then morpho-phonology (reduplication, stress shifts, mutation, sandhi—definitely watch the whole thing to get all the specifics), but there seems to be an enduring theme throughout the entire talk.

Essentially, there are target areas in any language that have the potential to give that language a particular feel. For example, if you allow for CVC syllables, where two syllables come into contact thus (CVC)(CVC), it gives rise to the potential for something to occur which will give a language a particular Sprachgefühl (and, of course, I’m talking about those two middle consonants). Any number of things can happen: (1) Nothing; (2) progressive assimilation (total or partial); (3) regressive assimilation (total or partial); (4) lenition, etc. And if this change is consistent throughout the language, suddenly that phonological phenomenon becomes a characteristic part of the language which listeners will pick up on and identify.

Jump to 41:30, if you will.
(Or just wait for it to come up, and take note of it when you get there.) This is, perhaps, the most useful part of the talk for a conlanger. Here, John takes a contentless sentence (Apo ket olua taraskentel brihaprai) and manipulates it to produce sentences that sound radically different. Basically, the idea is that what you have with the first sentence is the phonemic version, but through synchronic sound changes and sandhi effects, the phonetic version can sound radically different—and furthermore, that the same language can be made to sound very different without changing the structure, or even the phonology.

This video is part of the 2nd Language Creation Conference, held at UC Berkeley on July 7-8, 2007, and hosted by Language Creation Society.

We would like to add closed captioning / subtitles to all the videos from LCC2, including this one. If you are willing to help, install Subtitle Workshop, and email your transcribed .sub file to