Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Phonology and Morphology of Cythric

In talking about phonology I'm going to go full language geek and use the IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet. At least a cursory knowledge of this is essential to any but the most superficial language builder, as is a passing understanding of phonetics itself. I recommend J. C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics for reference on the subject; it's not a dry textbook but an instruction manual, complete with exercises, that teaches you the different sounds of language using your own yap as the classroom. Great book. For now, though, feel free to ignore all that and just pay attention to the pronunciation and orthography that I describe below, and I'll try to at least mention anything else.

Briefly, phonemes are the sounds of a language. These aren't the same as letters used to write the language; English uses a pedestrian 26- letter Latin alphabet but employs something like (depending on dialect) 35 different phonemes. So the letter a, for example, is used for three or more different sounds depending on who is speaking. The IPA, on the other hand, is an alphabet that uses a unique characters for every possible phoneme (at least nominally.) Some IPA characters are also regular letters, so when we write them we enclose them in slashes, thus: /p/ is the phoneme that we find the the beginning of the English word pill, for example. My own orthographic representations of the sounds, the way I will depict them in writing, will be denoted by in bold. So, for example, we have the sound /k/ in Proto-Cythric but for the sake of flavor we will render it as c.

There are also allophones, which are variations of a phoneme as actually used in a language. If you carefully compare the initial /k/ sounds at the beginning of the English words cool and calm, you'll find that while they can both be represented by the phoneme /k/ and the letter c, they are actually slightly different sounds, allophones of /k/. But we're not going to worry about phones or allophones at this point; instead we'll concentrate on making everything understandable to speakers of English; phonologically at least, Cythric isn't terribly different.

As previously mentioned I'd like Cythric names to sound lightly Celtic with hints of Basque and Anglo-Saxon, but we'll see how close I can come to that goal. First we will develop the Cythric language and then derive from it two daughter languages, Islander and Kethwyrn, of which the former will be subject to heavy outside influences. The first stop on this road is to decide what sounds are used in the mother tongue.


Cythric has six stops: labial /p/ and /b/, alveolar /t/ and /d/ and velar /k/ and /g/, represented orthographically by p, b, t, d, c and g, respectively. Note that both c and g are always hard as in call and guard, never soft as in cell or gender. Although there are many deep and subtle variations in the way these sounds are pronounced in different languages, we can consider them functionally equivalent to the corresponding English sound; in some form these six phonemes are found in almost every human language.

Cythric also has a voiceless labio-dental fricative /f/ and a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/, pronounced much as they are in English and represented by f and s. However, their voiced equivalents /v/ and /z/ respectively are not used in Cythric. There is also a voiceless dental fricative /θ/, represented by th, which is the initial sound of English thing, and a voiced equivalent /ð/, indicated by dd, the voiced sound of th from English this.

Cythric employs an unvoiced palatal fricative /ʃ/ (the sh of English shift,) represented by sh. Also present are the voiceless velar fricative /x/ (the ch in German Bach) which we will represent orthographically by ch and and a voiceless glottal fricative /h/ (as in English.) Lastly there is the voiced labio-velar approximant /w/, represented by w and pronounced as in English wake; some dialects of English have an unvoiced version, in for example which; in Cythric it is always voiced.

We will also include three nasal consonants: /m/ and /n/ (m and n,) similar to their equivalents in English, and /ŋ/, the ng sound in English ring. Note that this is not the ng of English finger. We'll see later whether this particular combination will occur in the Cythric tongues, but if it does we will use the orthography ngg.

The sounds we think of as "l" and "r" sounds are called lateral and rhotic sounds, respectively, and are collectively referred to as liquids. Even in English they are kind of a mess, but getting them right will go a long way toward giving Proto-Cythric the flavor I'm looking for.

Cythric's three lateral consonants are the voiced alveolar lateral approximant /l/, which is the clear l of English and will be denoted orthographically by l; a voiced velarized alveolar lateral approximant /ɫ/ (the dark l of English) denoted by hl; and a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative /ɬ/, which is the ll of Welsh and which is denoted the same way here. Also included is a rolling /r/, not the English r but the trill of Spanish perro. This will be denoted by rh. There is also a tapped /ɾ/ which I will denote by r. The standard /ɹ/ of American English is not present in Proto-Cythric.

It may not seem like it, but that's a fairly simple system of consonants (compare it to Hindi's) with only a few sounds (/x/, /r/ and /ɬ/) not found in English.


The vowel system of Cythric is fairly straightforward, with seven vowels.
  • A near close, near front unrounded /ɪ/, the i of English pit, represented by y.
  • An open central unrounded vowel /ʌ/, the u of English dust, represented by u.
  • An open mid front unrounded /ɛ/, the e of English press, represented by e.
  • The open back unrounded /ɑ/, the a of English father, represented by a.
  • A close front unrounded vowel /i/, the ea of English neat, represented by i.
  • An open mid back rounded vowel /ɔ/, the ou of Midwestern American English thought, represented by o.

In addition, there are three dipthongs:
  • An /ɑʊ/, the ow of English prow and represented by au.
  • The /eɪ/, the a of English phase, represented by the digraph ae or the ligature æ.
  • A, /ɪə/, the ea of English near, represented by ea.
When vowels are long they will be doubled, as in shaan, "lake." The a, o and u vowels have long versions aa, oo and uu, and when these are found initially they are preceded by a breathing, denoted by h, much as in Ancient Greek. Also note that Cythric will have a regular stress on the penultimate syllable. Daughter languages of Cythric will have evolved phonologies, of course, but those will be easy to develop as variations on this base.

Phonological Constraints and Basic Wordbuilding

That panic-inducing phrase just means the ways in which the sounds of a language can be put together to form morphemes, which are language components that make up or are themselves words. Roots and affixes are both types of morphemes, for example; the English root bake and the suffix -ed are distinct morphemes and as such carry meaning with them.

Different languages have different rules or putting morphemes together. To English speakers the word ngai seems weird and perhaps even unpronounceable. That's because in English the /ŋ/ isn't allowed initially. In other languages, though, initial /ŋ/ is perfectly normal — Ngai is a common Cantonese-derived surname.

Designing this seems like a chore especially given the advice in Rosenfelder, which involves learning the code linguists use to describe such rules. It's actually fairly simple: start with a small sampling of words, preferably words of different numbers of syllables. Half a dozen words that you feel sound characteristic of your language should be enough.

Then, divide your phonemes into categories. This can be as simple as Consonants and Vowels, but it can get more involves if you'd like. For Cythric I've used six categories:
  • Stops (S): /p/, /t/, /k/, /b/, /d/ and /g/
  • Fricatives and Approximants (F): /f/, /s/, /θ/, /ð/, /ʃ/, /x/, /w/ and /h/
  • Rhotics (R): /r/ and /ɾ/
  • Laterals (L): /l/, /ɬ/ and /ɫ/
  • Nasals (N): /n/, /m/ and /ŋ/
  • Vowels and dipthongs (V): /i/, /ɛ/, /ɑ/, /ɔ/, /ʌ/, /ɪ/, /ɑʊ/, /eɪ/ and /ɪə/
Now take your short word list and dissect the words, syllable by syllable and sound by sound. For Cythric we'll use as an example the name of the language, cythric, literally the only word of the language that had been determined before this article was written. Cythric has two syllables, /kɪθ/ and /ɾik/. Disassembling each of these syllables we get stop-vowel-fricative and rhotic-vowel-stop. So right there from that one example we learn that SVF and RVS syllables are allowed in Proto-Cythric.

A second word is cethwyrn, the name of a daughter language of Cythric that is spoken by some tribal peoples of the Isles. Cethwyrn breaks down to /kɛθ/ and /wɪɾn/ and from there to SVF to FVRN. That's one more permissible syllable form. You can see that from a very small but varied sample of words you can extract a number of allowable combinations, and more can be added at will. If you like, you can even start to generalize them using the standard linguist's notation that Rosenfelder discusses, but once we have, say, six to ten such combos we've gone as far with this as we need to. For Proto-Cythric I have eleven. From here we can start generating word lists. And that's where we'll pick up next time.