Monday, 13 April 2009

Teach Yourself the Yellow City Trade Tongue

What the heck, I'm going to start making up a language - partly as an exercise in linguistics, which I've always been interested in but never properly studied, and partly because it's one of those things that the fantasy authors I really admire have done - and if JRR Tolkien, MAR Barker and Jack Vance can do it, why can't I? (To those of you who might be reading this and thinking: this man has too much time on his hands...well, it helps that I don't watch any TV.)

The language I'm going to make up is the Yellow City Trade Tongue, a lingua franca spoken in and around the Yellow City and the places up and down the coast with which it trades. It's a simple language, as most lingua francas are (this also helps me start small), rather like Chinook Jargon or Sabir. What's unique about it is that it's the only language which both slug men and human beings can use to communicate properly with one another. Slug men's simple mouths, which lack teeth and have only a rudimentary tongue, can't produce many of the sounds which humans use in their languages, and humans can't produce the pheremones which slug men use to augment their own speech. Yellow City Trade Tongue provides a way around that.

Currently, the only thing I've really decided on about Yellow City Trade Tongue is that it is consonant-poor. The labiodental, dental and alveolar consonants are nonexistent, as are the nasals - slug men don't have bones or noses. This means that the only consonants available are most of the plosives, some fricatives and approximants, and the bilabial trill. (You can follow along with what this all means with the help of this handy IPA chart with sound samples.) By contrast, it is very vowel-rich. Almost all of the vowels are present, as well as dipthongs - slug people have no problem producing those sounds and in fact could probably create more.

I'll be going away and thinking about this some more tonight, as well as thinking about some fundamentals of grammar.


  1. cool!
    I like to think about what verbs are most used by cultures/races - how subjects identify themselves in relation to their actions also.
    Is this something largely phonetic as you are concieving it, or are you going to map this language to English/Japanese?

  2. If you're not already familiar with it, you should definitely check out the Language Construction Kit: It inspired far too many unfinished projects in my wild world-building youth.

    Even if you already know everything it discusses, it's a good guide for making sure you've covered everything. And the main site ( has a lot of great information on worldbuilding and linguistics generally. Mark Rosenfelder is a pretty smart guy.

  3. A clever anthropologist could probably "speak" the slug's own language through the deft use of bagpipes.

  4. Ack! Oddysey beat me to recommending the Zompist page. Yeah, I'll second her comments. I've dabbled in building a few languages myself from his guidelines. Very fun stuff.

  5. Josef: I'm going to use some elements of Japanese as inspiration - for example the fact that there are only two time tenses (past and present). But it will sound pretty different and I want to include verb evidentiality - i.e. verbs change their form not so much according to time, but according to knowledge (whether you know something for sure or if you just heard it, for example.) Verbs are fascinating for me too. Don't get me started on Native American languages and the way they use verbs for what we say with nouns!

    Odyssey: Oh, been there done that! I know that site from way back. But a commenter on a recent post sent me to the bulletin board run by Rosenfelder, which I hadn't known about.

    Zak: And pheremone sprays. Or is he spraying the pheremones out of the bagpipes?

    Trollsmyth: Interesting how sites like that get known around the internet isn't it?

  6. This means that the only consonants available are most of the plosives, some fricatives and approximants, and the bilabial trill.

    I'm sure this wasn't really the intent, but this puts me in mind of French... 0_o