Constructing Oghuran

Figure in the Desert

Desert Winds

It was many, many years ago when I first read The Lord of the Rings and the Redwall books, and I was always fascinated by the maps in the first few pages of each novel. Ever since then, I have been captivated by the idea of fantasy and science fiction world-building. It started with maps of my own – maps of places that didn’t exist, maps of places near my Massachusetts home as I wished they could have been, permutations of Tolkein’s maps. Eventually, I started to add to the maps notes about the cultures living in those worlds, inventing religions, societies, languages, and technologies. I began to invent prominent characters to populate my worlds, and eventually started to think about the adventures those characters would have.

The desert of Oghura and the Cathedral Galaxy are my latest such world-building exercises. Both of these have gone well beyond the “doodle stage,” as they now have characters and stories to their names. But Oghura stands out as the world that is probably the furthest along, and it is the only one of my invented worlds to have a fully-fleshed-out and fully functional language. And this is no cop-out set of invented fantasy words full of apostrophes, g’s, r’s, and q’s. Oghuran is an “a priori” constructed language that I pieced together carefully, using my knowledge of linguistics, statistics, and programming, with a liberal dose of imagination. Here is how I built Oghuran.

Phoneme Inventory

The phoneme inventory of a language is the full list of sounds that speakers of that language use. It’s not the same as the language’s alphabet, though the concept is similar. (For example, written American English uses 6 characters to denote vowels, but spoken American English dialects have 20-30 vowel phonemes.) So, before I came up with any Oghuran words, I came up with the Oghuran phoneme inventory. For this, I turned to (invented) biology.

Human languages typically use a set of phonemes that involve moving the tongue to a range of well-separated articulation positions within the mouth. In English, these can range from ‘k,’ at the back of the mouth, to ‘th,’ with the tongue between the teeth. But Oghurans are not human – they are lizard-like people I named suhurrak. So, I thought about my pet iguana’s mouth.

Sprite, the green iguana, on a leash in the backyard

Sprite, the green iguana, on a leash in the backyard

Iguanas don’t really have lips or teeth; instead, they have a bony ridge that goes all the way around their jaws, covered by gums. Their tongues are fairly thick, and don’t seem that nimble when they taste the air – unlike the classic snake tongue, for example.

I chose to limit Oghuran to phonemes that humans can articulate – because, after all, what fun is inventing a language that I cannot pronounce?! However, I decided that the suhurrak would have trouble with phonemes like ‘p’ or ‘m,’ which humans articulate with the lips, or the vowel ‘i,’ which moves the tongue to the front of the mouth. (Keeping the tongue in the back part of the mouth has the additional advantage of limiting the Oghurans’ exposure of moisture to the desert air!) I also thought that, with their lizard-lips, suhurrak would have trouble with round vowels, such as the English ‘o’ or ‘u.’

Here is the inventory I decided on. First, the consonants:

consonants

Oghuran consonant inventory

The alveolar consonants are the most forward in the Oghuran inventory. There are some notable phonemes not found in spoken American English. These include the voiced and voiceless uvular stops, which I spell ‘q’ and ‘G’ when transliterating Oghuran into the Latin alphabet, that are a bit further back in the mouth than the corresponding ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds. Oghuran doesn’t have ‘d,’ possibly because the ‘t’ sound comes from a snapping of the jaw rather than blocking airflow with the tongue or possibly because ‘d’ is an allophone of ‘t.’ The uvular fricative, spelled ‘kh,’ is the usual throat-clearing sound. The uvular trill, spelled ‘gh,’ is a fun one in the back of the throat that is kind of like a gargling sound. The lateral fricatives are articulated with the tongue in the same position as for an ‘l’ but are really more like ‘s’ and ‘z.’ I spell those ‘lh.’ The postalveolar fricatives are spelled ‘sh’ and ‘zh.’

So the Oghuran consonant inventory goes no further forward than the alveolar phonemes, and there are a lot of uvulars compared to English. The lizardlike tongue is my excuse for including a whole bunch of alveolar/postalveolar fricatives. They’ve gotta have the ‘s,’ of course, but the laterals are just plain fun – and to make the language seem more alien!

Here are the Oghuran vowels.

vowels

Oghuran vowel inventory

Again, the most front vowels are missing. The back vowels are related to the English ‘oo’ in ‘root,’ ‘u’ in ‘put,’ and ‘o’ in ‘poke.’ I spell them ‘u,’ ‘uh,’ and ‘o.’ However, the Oghuran vowels are different from English (hence the funny symbols) in that they are unrounded. German speakers will be familiar with rounded and unrounded vowels – that’s the property an umlaut affects. Rounding is exactly what it sounds like in that it involves rounding the lips. Oghurans do not do this. The vowels with tildes are nasalized. Finally, it is extremely likely that the schwa is an Oghuran allophone for ‘a’ and ‘uh.’ (By that, I mean that I sometimes pronounce them as a schwa.)

Few phonemes require an Oghuran speaker to move the lips much, and the jaw remains fairly stationary. This is consistent with the idea of a language that evolved in an arid environment – it keeps the mouth mostly closed to avoid any unnecessary moisture evaporation.

This phoneme inventory also tells me approximately what an Oghuran accent would be like when a suhurrak first learns to speak, say, English. The labial sounds would likely get pushed back to the alveolar position: ‘p,’ ‘b,’ ‘m,’ ‘f,’ and ‘v’ would become ‘t,’ ‘t,’ ‘n,’ ‘s,’ and ‘z,’ respectively. (Another possibility is that Oghurans might change ‘f’ and ‘v’ into lateral fricatives, but I think that is more likely to happen with the interdental fricatives.) They would also have trouble with high front vowels and likely move those down to become a mid front vowel.

Words

Once I had a phoneme inventory for Oghuran, I started to come up with names and words as I needed them. After a while, I found that this was a more time-consuming task than I thought it was going to be. If I wanted to be sure I wasn’t favoring certain phonemes too much, or wasn’t forgetting to use some of them, then I had to put a little more careful thought into some word construction. After a while, I had built up a good number of names and words, but the few times I tried to set out and come up with complete sentences it just took a much longer time than I anticipated.

I saw a solution in all the words I’d already constructed. I tallied up all the phonemes I used, and figured out the frequency of each in syllable onsets and codas. I tweaked some of those statistics to make sure that all the sounds would be represented. Then I listed combinations of phonemes that never occurred in my words and I didn’t ever want to appear. From these frequency lists, it was a short step to a list of rules governing Oghuran word construction. With a list of rules, I no longer had to do the work of inventing any Oghuran words.

vowel program

Some vowel frequencies

My research has required that I become something of a whiz at Matlab programming. So I whipped up some simple scripts that, based on the rules I observed and a lot of conditional statements, generate random Oghuran words.

Oghuran word-generating program snippet

For example, here’s some output from the program:

words

Oghuran word output

Clearly, the program still sometimes comes up with words that cannot be easily articulated, sometimes it repeats previous output, and sometimes the words are just plain boring, so I retain veto power over my program when I put together Oghuran translations. And, by observing the most egregious violations of good phonetic sense – the words that cause my tongue to whip all over trying to get everywhere it needs to go to pronounce the word – I can add rules to my program so that the output improves. Still, it’s a pretty good word generator. In fact, ‘haryuhng’ in the list above is an exact match for a placename on my map of the Oghuran desert!

So, instead of coming up with however many thousands of vocabulary words, I created the rules for word construction and let a computer do the grunt work for me! I’ve found that an unexpected benefit of this approach is that it takes a lot of the pressure off of me. I no longer have to make sure all the words I create sound “cool,” or even consistent with one another, because I explicitly defined all the rules ahead of time. If I had tried to make sure every Oghuran word sounded “cool,” I would have ended up overusing certain phonemes or combinations, and would have ended up with a language that, as a whole, sounded terrible. After all, not every English word sounds “cool” to a native English speaker. If I rely on my Matlab scripts, instead, I get a more natural-sounding variation among words. And if I need to translate a word, I’ve simply built my generateWord script into another program that searches a translation dictionary database that looks up matches or prompts me to create new word entries!

Syntax

Syntax is the set of rules governing the way words can be combined into sentences, to convey meaning. My linguistic experience is mostly in phonetics and phonology, so I was reluctant to build Oghuran syntax up from scratch. That would require a lot more knowledge of abstract grammatical structures than I possess. Fortunately, I speak one language fluently (English), and learned the rudiments of another (Español), with a little exposure to a few extra languages here and there. So, for my own sanity, comfort, and ease, I simply decided to base Oghuran syntax on spoken American English.

However, I made a few changes, based on some interesting things I’ve seen in other languages or during my limited linguistics education. For example, I decided that Oghuran modifiers follow the words that they modify, like in the Romance languages.

For a more interesting syntactic adventure, I decided to use a lot of affixes in Oghuran. English has a pretty rich set of suffixes (like “-er” to turn a verb into a noun referring to a person who performs that verb, or “-ly” to turn adjectives into adverbs). But Oghuran, for example, uses prefixes for articles and does conjunctions like Hebrew. Each element of a list gets a prefix meaning “and.” Thus, the colors of the Oghuran rainbow include and-red, and-green, and-blue. In addition, Oghuran uses affixes to denote many auxiliary verbs. And, for variety, I decided to have Oghuran denote possessives by putting an affix on the thing that is being possessed, rather than the thing doing the possessing. There are a couple other interesting rules here and there; mostly, I have been inventing syntactic rules as I require them – based on the constructions I’m used to making in English so I can take the more complex rules for granted.

As an example, the sentence

Huyora’s caravan travels annually between the city of Oghura Karat and the Qora oasis.

becomes

Caravan-(possessed by) Huyora travel-(present tense) annual-(adjective-to-adverb) between and-the-city of Oghura Karat and-the-oasis Qora.

and, finally,

Rõzlhes-t Huyora gosh-osh ãg-hen ar keh-ot-rokegh yat Oghura Karat keh-ot-gheõsh Qora.

Writing

The final touch for Oghuran is its written alphabet. Simply put, a writing system is a set of characters that encodes the phonemes or words of the language. In some languages (English included), the set of characters used in a word does not necessarily correspond to the phonemes making up the pronunciation of that word. (Think of how many ways an English speaker can pronounce the written letter ‘e.’ I count 6 in the previous sentence, for instance.) Rather, it is the entire written word that conveys meaning to readers of the language, though each written word is made up of a specific set of building blocks. In other languages, one character can represent an entire word. Still other alphabets – specifically, the International Phonetic Alphabet – explicitly use one character to represent one phoneme.

I decided to imagine that the Oghuran writing system descended from a pictographic or ideographic system, but that it evolved into a system in which certain characters corresponded to certain phonemes. The thing that makes Oghuran interesting is that each character corresponds to a single phoneme – but each phoneme may have more than one character to represent it. In addition, the ideographic origin of the Oghuran alphabet left each character with a little bit of its previous meaning.

This means that, when writing a word, an Oghuran scribe could simply pick a character for each phoneme and other Oghurans would be able to read the word phonetically. However, if the scribe gave some thought to which character he would use for each phoneme, then he could overlay other meanings and connotations into the written word. For instance, the Gur family crest includes the word “GUR,” with three characters. The meanings of each character, individually, are something like “constant” or “same,” “assist” or “help,” and “sentry,” forming a sort of family motto that might be pieced together as “always helpful, always watchful.” Other selections of characters might have given a different meaning, or simply have been chosen for the phonemes they represent. This dual-layer meaning in writing is a dying art in Oghura, principally used in ceremonial or official writings.

Of course, I came up with a complete set of Oghuran characters. Here, again, I abused technology to my own benefit: I used the Tablet PC font-creation tool to make myself a font full of Oghuran glyphs in my own handwriting. So I can easily transcribe the example sentence from the last section into Oghuran:

glyph example

Example of Oghuran glyph writing

What I Do with Oghuran

At this point, I can pretty much say that I’m finished inventing Oghuran – and that I can translate any words or sentences back and forth between English and Oghuran. Of course, that’s mostly thanks to my word-generating programs and the fact that I write down syntactic rules as I need them – I can invent whatever I need whenever I need it. Clearly this approach doesn’t let me speak Oghuran, but it’s great for what I need it for.

I am slowly – slowly! – writing the adventures of Gur Huyora, a member of the Oghuran police/military force based in Rukhas, and a man from outside the desert. So, I occasionally have reason to write down something that one character or another does not understand; and it’s much more fun to put in the actual Oghuran speech than to write “Huyora said something in her native tongue.”

At one point there are some mysteries to solve, too, so now I can build in ancient Oghuran texts or provide maps in Oghuran script:

Oghura map

Map of Oghura

In general, my use of Oghuran serves the story, and was a fun exercise for the bits of my brain that haven’t thought about linguistics since college.

Just don’t ask me to speak Oghuran. My accent is terrible.

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3 Responses to Constructing Oghuran

  1. Ryan says:

    Very cool. If you don’t read it already, you should check out Juliette Wade’s blog TalkToYoUniverse. She’s a linguistic anthropologist who writes sci-fi, and she talks a lot about the stuff that you have considered for your language, and about worldbuilding in general.

  2. Joseph says:

    Hey Ryan, glad you liked the write-up! It occurred to me that if I never do anything else with Oghuran – if my story never gets all the way written 😛 – then at least I should document this process!

    Thanks for the pointed to Wade’s blog. It looks very cool, and definitely of interest to a sci-fi linguistics geek like myself….!

  3. Harley Tate says:

    What is the best short or from home creative writing course available in London?

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