Language Building: Sounds and Syllables, Part One

Sounds and syllables are the building blocks of any language. When you are creating a language, you want to keep the sounds you use consistent. The consistency lends authenticity to your language, making it seem more natural. This is where phonetics can help you!

Step 1: The Phonetic Inventory

Phonetics is the study of sounds used in speech. In this step, you will choose the sounds your characters will use to speak. For this and future examples, I’ll be creating a language for Polishire. This is the language that Moon and her fellow Inslunders speak.

Depending on how much work you’ve already done with your own fictional culture, you may already have some of your sounds picked.

How can that be?

Well, if you’ve named anything, you’ve already got those sounds. For example, I’ve already named a few cities in Polishire, and the characters who live there already have names. All of these words have sounds. Some of the names and sounds I have are:

Tunston- [tʌnstən] ton ston

Whitire- [waɪtiɹ] why teer

Indesfell- [ɛndzfɛl] indz fell

Harsengard- [haɹzɛngaɹd] har zen guard

Looking at this, I have the beginnings of a pretty decent phonetic inventory (the system of sounds a language uses).

This gives me the consonants [t, d, n, ɡ, f, ɹ, l, h, z]

and the vowels [i, ɛ, a, ə/ʌ, aɪ]

While this is great, it does not a full phonetic inventory make, so I’m going to need to consult the IPA.

Step 2: The IPA

The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, is a system of agreed-upon symbols that represent every known sound used in human language*.

The IPA has a standard chart that outlines the symbols for each sound. The charts provide information on the places and manners of articulation for each sound, but unless you want to be really detailed, you don’t have to worry about those. Click the link to see what the chart looks like:

IPA_Kiel_2015

IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

I know that this is a lot of information to absorb at once, but if you feel daunted by the chart, don’t worry. The only places we really need to worry about are the Consonants (Pulmonic) and the Vowels sections.

If you’d like to hear these sounds, you go here (http://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/) and click on each symbol to see what each one sounds like. It’s fun to play around with.

In this step, I’m going to supplement my existing inventory with sounds using the IPA. Many languages function perfectly well with limited phonetic variation, but I think I’d like to add just a little bit more. Just as a reminder, my consonants are [t, d, n, ɡ, f, ɹ, l. h, z], and my vowels are [i, ɛ, a, ə/ʌ, aɪ].

Here are a few tips for adding new sounds:

  • The most commonly used vowels are those on the outside edges of the vowel chart in the IPA. If you just want to pick some quickly, choose these. If you’d like a more varied vowel system, venture into the interior of the chart. Check the link above to hear what each sound sounds like.
  • I already have several of these sounds, but I think I’d like to add a few more. Mainly, I need more back vowels. I also think I’d like to have an [ɪ] as in the vowel in “bit”. After adding the ones that I choose, my vowel inventory is [i, ɪ, ɛ, a, u, ʊ, o, ɔ, ə/ʌ, aɪ].
  • With regard to consonants, the distinction between voiced and voiceless is important. Voiced sounds are consonants that are produced using your vocal chords. Voiceless sounds don’t use vocal cords. For example, [s] is voiceless while [z] is voiced. If you place your hand on your throat, you can feel whether your vocal cords are moving or not, so you can tell if a sound is voiced or voiceless.
  • In the IPA, voiceless sounds are on the left, and voiced ones are on the right in the same box. It’s a pretty useful rule of thumb to know that if a language is going to only have one, it will usually only have the voiceless version of a consonant.
  • If you want to be different, try creating a language that uses only voiced consonants.
  • My consonants are [t, d, n, ɡ, f, ɹ, l, h, z] and I can already see that I’m missing the voiceless counterpart to [z], which is an [s]. Adding that in, as well as the other consonants I want leaves me with [p, b, m, t, d, n, k, ɡ, ŋ, f, ɹ, l, h, s, z, ʃ, tʃ] and also [w] which isn’t included on the consonant chart.

So now I have a complete phonetic inventory, and I can start making syllables. This involves some rule formation, so we’ll start forming syllables using these sounds in the next post.

*There are empty spaces in the IPA for sounds that have not been found in language. Those that are in white are sounds that linguists believe could be used, those in gray are sounds that linguists believe cannot be used in language. If you’d like to learn more about the IPA, you can visit the association’s website at https://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org

PS. I found a fun language generator at fantasynamegenerators.com where you can plug in some random letters and get a constructed language. If you still want the rules of your language fully formed, you can reverse engineer them from the language you get. Try it out!

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