The Art of Language Invention: a review

                I received an advance copy of David J Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention, which after some procrastination I have recently finished. It’s a book I highly recommend both to newbie and advanced conlangers, as well as anyone who might be interested in conlanging. Before I get started with my review, I will point out that William Annis has a great overview of the book on his Tumblr, and Gretchen McColloch of All Things Linguistic livetweeted her reading, and her take, as a non-conlanger, is really fun.

                David is very good at introducing basic concepts of linguistics in an entertaining and understandable way. There are, of course, those points that make me go, “Ah, yes, that’s the simplified lie we tell the undergrads,” but that part of the book isn’t for me, and I highly suggest anyone interested in conlanging to read the book especially if you don’t know anything about linguistics. I grew up in conlanging with the web version of The Language Construction Kit (years before it became a book), and I wish I’d had this book as well. It really is a beautifully laid out and easy-to-digest.

                All that said, as a linguist and a moderately skilled conlanger, the most valuable part of the book was in the copious examples and especially the case studies provided in the book. I was interested to see how David’s approach differs from mine, and what I could learn from him. Some of these things are just a function of different experiences with language. For instance, in his case study on Irathient, he discusses how he wanted to make the language “slow”, and that his prototype for a language with a slow speaking rate was Inuktitut, a language with a massive derivational system that packs a large amount of meaning into a word via derivation. Irathient is by no means like Inuktitut – morphologically it has more in common with Bantu languages – but I wonder if I might have approached that problem differently. The reason being, my idea of a prototypical “slow” language is Mandarin Chinese – almost the opposite of Inuktitut in that it is an analytic language where almost every morpheme is a single, complete syllable, and the majority of derivation is in the form of two-syllable compounds. In addition, whereas David feels the need to build in agreement in case lines get cut down in editing, my experience with Mandarin would make me comfortable with a language where you have no agreement but can find missing elements by context. Neither of these approaches are right or wrong, and I think increasing one’s repertoire of tricks and language structures can only be good for a conlanger.

                Another side of it is David’s focus on lexicon building and historical derivation. This is a place where I have to say David is far better than me. I’ve only recently started building a conlang from a lexicon-centric position, and seeing how David builds his words is very helpful. Look out for his example of an entry in his Sondiv dictionary, which already surpasses any entries I’ve made in a conlang dictionary for completeness and number of terms (of course, it is an entry for a triconsonantal root, but I think any derivation system should be built in a way that can handle this complexity).

                In the end of the book, David speaks briefly on the status of conlanging as an art form, and also on how an economy for professional conlanging can evolve. David encourages authors of speculative fiction to collaborate with conlangers, even if all they can offer is a percentage of royalties or the conlanger’s name on the front cover. I like this idea. I’d be more than willing, given the opportunity and the time (oh where to find time!), to collaborate with an author in that way myself, and I think there are a lot of very good conlangers who would as well. I would like to add, though, that even if you are a conlanger yourself and writing some creative work, I think that collaborating with other conlangers can be a benefit. Lots of conlangers have skills and knowledge applicable to a particular type of conlang (e.g. non-humanoid alien languages, or historical a posteriori languages). But definitely, definitely, I wholeheartedly agree that creators should partner with conlangers.

                The Art of Language Invention is not a comprehensive guide. If you are a beginning conlanger, this book is your starting point. As McCullogh put it, it’s “a geek’s guide to linguistics”, and something that makes for a good introductory text. If you are an experienced conlanger (or an intermediate one like me), it’s a window into how another conlanger does his craft, and being exposed to different approaches can only be beneficial to your own work. All in all, I recommend it to anyone interested in our weird little hobby.