Conlanging and phonetics

This blog post contains information and links pertaining to the hobby of conlanging — the creative endeavour in which practitioners invent a fictional language (or part thereof). It originally also contained a list of phonetics resources, hence the title, but during a review of this blog’s archives I’ve elected to remove most of that material. The conlanging info has also been edited.

I’m not actively conlanging any more, and never was more than a dabbler, but my interest in all things linguistic developed largely as a result of it. My introduction to the online conlanging scene was a process rather than a single event, so there is no one person I can thank for it all, but it was Irina Rempt who introduced me to the Conlang mailing list and a lot followed on from there.

I had known Irina for some time through online Terry Pratchett fandom. When my family and I visited the Netherlands during our holiday in Europe in 2000, Irina and her husband Boudewijn offered us hospitality (including a lovely glass of korenwijn). I was already vaguely aware that Boudewijn was involved in conlanging, because I’d spotted his name in conlanging-related contexts on the Internet, so on the train from Deventer (where the Rempts live) to Utrecht (where a meeting of Terry Pratchett fans was scheduled) I raised the topic with Irina. It turned out they were both active conlangers and – as I said above – she directed me to the Conlang mailing list.

Here is a photo of my family with the Rempts in February 2000.


The mailing list is apparently still going, but I’ve heard that it’s a shadow of its former self so I won’t presume to describe it.

The delight of conlanging, for me, lay mostly in the invention of grammar — thinking laterally about the fundamental rules by which an exotic language might operate. For example, my own creation (“Gzarondan”) makes extensive use of what linguists call nominal clausal TAM (which I invented independently). Another (much better) conlang with a grammatical focus is Kelen by Sylvia Sotomayor. Other people design conlangs with a very different emphasis, for example some (including Irina) are motivated by the invention of a fictional culture, into which the language breathes life and realism, and some are interested in the languages of an alternative history of Earth (e.g. see Brithenig by Andrew Smith). While you’re browsing conlangs, don’t forget to check out the languages of Tolkien.

[Update: Here’s some more information about my own language, Gzarondan.]

Mark Rosenfelder has various resources for conlangers, including the Language Construction Kit (a tutorial for beginning conlangers), his own discussion board, and other things you can find on his website.

The online conlanging community has its own flag, developed on the mailing list through an organic process in which members contributed ideas and submitted candidate flags. The final design was decided on democratically, and one of my own contributions to the conlanging world is that I was the person who facilitated this election.


The flag shows the sun on the horizon behind a layered tower. The colours represent creative energy, and the layers of the tower imply that a conlang is built piece by piece, never completed. The tower itself also alludes to the Tower of Babel, as it has long been a tradition to demonstrate a constructed language by translating the Babel legend. The winning design was drawn by Christian Thalmann, who introduced the layers. The idea of including the Tower of Babel on the flag had been introduced by Jan van Steenbergen, and the idea of placing the sun on the horizon behind it by Leland Paul. The idea of having the rising sun on the flag had been introduced by David Peterson, who saw it as representing the rise of conlanging from obscurity to popularity and notoriety.

To conclude, a footnote on online phonetics resources. Several utilities are available that let you easily select symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to paste into text; here is my personal favourite (added during a later update of this post).

For situations where Unicode is not supported, various transcription schemes are used to represent IPA symbols in ASCII text. Two of the most famous are X-SAMPA and Kirshenbaum, but the Conlang list invented its own variant known as CXS. This is a modified version of X-SAMPA, taking some of its inspiration from Kirshenbaum, and is the transcription scheme I prefer. CXS is almost the same as X-SAMPA, but circumvents some problems with the latter such as the difficulty of remembering which is which between } and {.

  • The central closed unrounded vowel is i\ instead of 1
  • The central closed rounded vowel is u\ instead of }
  • The vowel as in English cat is & instead of {
  • The front open rounded vowel is &\ instead of &
  • There are a few options for indicating stress, of which I favour () for primary stress and (,) for secondary stress

You are welcome to add your thoughts.

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