50 Ways to Calque Your Mother Tongue

We all know the ordinary ways to calque your mother tongue– by wholesale import of lexical items, loan words, syntax and morphology.  It is the sign of a clumsy language, something more akin to a cipher than a foreign language. But there are more subtle calques.

Single word definitions.
batl – honor, from Klingon. There are 24 distinct definitions of honor in English. Conlang lexicons with single word definitions are calques.  There is no particular reason for all 24 sense of honor to carried to Klingon in a tidy package.

Borrowed Metaphors
TIME IS MOTION. FUTURE IS FORWARD.  FAMILY IS CORDS OR ROPE.  Unless you deal with all concepts lexically from the start and have a huge dictionary, then phrases will be built.  They will likely calque your mother tongues metaphor system. e.g. toki pona: tempo kama la mi moli.  “In the time (which is moving towards me) I’ll die”

Borrowed “Obsessions” (aka grammaticalizations)
English really cares about how many things are on the stage, when things happened, if actors are male or female, living or dead. These metaphysical obsessions are peculiar to your mother tongue, not to people in general.  I’m calling these obsessions because even if you deem tense, gender, aspect as optional, it is hard to say when time really is salient when you’ve been obsessing about it your entire life.

* Each item in your lexicon should be illustrated by a full sentence illustrating one sense of the word.
* Metaphors should be an explicit part of the lexicon, or abstractions should be lexicalized– which has the same effect as a dead metaphor.
* Grammaticalizations are certainly in most specifications for conlang. The obsessions generally are not– obsessions might be morphological (word endings), syntactic (word order), or lexical (eg. pairs of words for all professions to indicate gender), and it might not be *obligatory*, obsessions are those things that occur more often than their salience dictates.

Why the conlang community needs a Stack Exchange Conlang Question and Answer Site



Conlanging on the internet is a collaborative project to learn, use and create planned languages.  Sometimes it is part of serious business such as experimental linguistic research or making believable languages for movies and books.  Sometimes it is a recreational hobby.

In all cases, the people involved are constantly coming across really hard question of a theoretical and field linguistics sort.

Currently, the web has two important technologies the forum and the mailing list.  The first tends to be ruled by who ever posts the most.  Because users have to keep up a high volume of posting to maintain their reputation, they fall victim to the board chess player problem.  When the chess players loose interest in the game, some players will find it more interesting to throw all the pieces all over the room.

A stack exchange site is driven by the people with reputation earned through asking good questions and good answers.  Virulently hostile answers get voted down, questions that are just bored-discussion topics get closed, and everyone is under pressure to delete bad questions and answers.  The cost of unnecessary posting or combative answers is that your content will either be ignored or closed.

What should be on topic and what should be a site of its own?

In the end, the community decides, but here are some of my thoughts.

Just about any language with public corpora, a cannon or other published sample text should be fair game.  I personally think that both auxiliary and constructed languages should be on-topic.  As long as the community closes purely-promotional questions, the Esperantists and the Sindarin speakers should get along just fine.  This is what tags are for– they let the community focus on the what is relevant to them and ignore the language they haven’t or won’t learn.

Personal language questions are a bit trickier.  If I create a personal language — we’ll call it fubar–(personal in the sense that I wrote it and no one else speaks it yet), then there isn’t a standard for objective truth.   Does fubar have inalienable possessive constructions? — Have to ask Matt.  Can compound words in fubar include object incorporation strategies? — Have to ask Matt.   If a language doesn’t have a published specification, or any published text, it isn’t really something that has an objective answer.   Language that were abandoned before they were defined or before any text was written certainly fall in this category- most of the questions about abandoned languages can’t have an objective answer.

On the other hand, here is an example of a personal language question that is objective, has an answer and isn’t discussion: “How do I get my conlanguage’s constript added to the Unicode specification?”

“How do you say…”  I lean towards allowing these.  A language Q&A site is easy to abuse as free source of translating talent, but sometimes translating model sentences can be very informative about the structure of a language.

Questions that are really just promoting ones favorite constructed language or aux language should be closed immediately.  “Why are you studying Ido and not Interlingua?” Is not really a question.  It is subjective, leads to combative responses and really an invitation to general discussion, not a specific answer.

Subjective questions are not appropriate.  For example, soliciting  feedback on a phoneme inventory is subjective, unless of course there is an answerable question, such as– “Does this phoneme inventory have consonant pairs that will be unusually difficult to pronounce?”

Some questions are invitations to write articles.  These are so common that they should be tolerated, but converted to community wikis.  “What are all the tonal auxiliary languages that have been proposed since 1950?”  “What movies have constructed languages?”

XML, C# and propositional logic are all in a sense, constructed languages, but not really in the sense that is appropriate for this website.

Conworld creation is a type of creative writing.  While it sometimes goes with planned languages and some people think you can’t have a language without a culture to go with it, I think these questions require a site of their own.  “What kind of flag should I have for my conworld?”  “How should I draft the marriage laws for my Mattopia, my concountry?”

Most conculture questions are getting off topic.

Many natural language questions are on topic.  “Has a natural language ever used the idea that some objects are automatically owned and should be treated differently in possessive constructions?”

Many questions could be asked on a language acquisition site or an academic linguistics site, but should be asked here instead: “How can I teach someone to (or learn on myown)  make fourteen click sounds that they have never heard before?”   On a non-planned language site, it would be a huge distraction to have to explain that this question is important because the language has no native speakers yet.

“What constructed language should I learn?”  Subjective.  Should be closed.

Some constructed languages have utopian aspirations or other social opinions embedded into the specification.  Questions on these issues aren’t really planned language questions, they are invitations to discuss politics, religion and philosophy.  “Isn’t Laadan sexist and crypto-homophobic?”  “Will Esperanto bring peace in the middle east?”  “Why are auxlangs a bunch of failures?” “If Na’vi speakers like Indian languages so much why don’t they move to the reservation?”  “Shouldn’t Na’vi speakers be learning Mohawk instead of Na’vi?”  “People who teach Klingon to their infant babies are child abusers, right?” Subjective, argumentative, doesn’t have an answer, and is an invitation to discussion.  All of these questions are better discussed on blogs and forums. Blogs, mailing lists and forums don’t care about question or answer quality and really do a much better job of conducting flame wars.

HERE IS THE LINK TO THE SITE PROPOSAL.  Please ask sample questions and vote on existing questions.

Personal Languages

A personal language is created the intention of being used, but only by one person in the null domain, that being all linguistic acts that do not require an understanding collocutor.

The features and goals of a personal language may include any known features of artificial and natural languages.   Because the structure of a personal language may happen to resemble an auxiliary language, artistic language or engineered language one might confuse the goals of these languages with personal languages.

Languages adapt to the environment they’re used in. A key feature of a personal language is that it is used, and not just an sketch of how a language might be.  As a language is used, features that are awkward wither away and features that were missing will spring into existence.  Natural languages have a tension between efficiency and convention.   It is more efficient to drop unnecessary sounds from words, have short words for commonly used concepts, but it is more important to follow the conventions of the community if one wants to be understood.  A personal language would be expected to evolved to be a very good match with the user’s environment.

Other characteristics and benefits.

Highly optimized to needs of one person.

Highly but not completely private.

Standards of quality are personal.  It might be a relex of English, it might be a clumsy re-hash of Sindarian.  Since it isn’t written  primarily as a work of art for consumption by others, the fashions of the moment are irrelevant, although one would expect to see influences from the laguage designers mileau.

There maybe benefits to creating and using ones own language beyond the benefits of having a hobby, for example, it is known that bilingual people get alzheimer’s later.  If one didn’t have the opportunity to learn a popular natural language (which is a daunting task), writing one’s one language might be just as beneficial as a mental training exercise.

Technical Possibilities

The pronoun system does not need to develop “you” because it wouldn’t be a very important word.  1st person and 3rd person would be more important.

Phoneticis are less important, anything will do.  There is no feedback loop to fine tune the phonetic system.

Philosophical possibilities

If one is using their language to speak to unseen beings, then one would need a well developed pronoun system covering “you” but it wouldn’t be so personal anymore, would it? Pure personal languages aren’t for talking to anyone, seen, unseen or imaginary.

There is no particular philosophy of personal languages, but solipsism seems pertinent. If one has messages and isn’t communicating them, maybe it is because there is no one to communicate with or at the very least the other’s aren’t that important or they just don’t understand you.

Another angle is that one has information that describes reality from one’s own perspective and that is unique enough that it can’t be communicated, but is nevertheless worth recording for future  use.  Using a language for communicating the common deniminator messages that everyone understands would be suboptimal for recording the messages that only you understand.

What a personal language definitely is not.

It is not an auxiliary language, even if it is easy to learn and relies heavily on loan words.

It is not necessarily artisitic, naturalistic, engineered, although it might be.

It is not a community.

It is not a living language, but one could call it a moribund one, on deaths doorstep.  This is okay because propagation isn’t a goal.

All that said, a personal language could potentially gain fans and even be used by people other than the creator, should the creator publish enough materials.  I suppose if fans were to stay true to the philosophy of a personal language, they’d contort the language to suit their own minds and not use it to communicate with other fans or the creator.

Conlangs and Online Communities

Online communities, I have recently come to believe are a mixed blessing for constructed languages.  On one hand, for the last few hundred years of constructed languages, they typically languished without any attention at all because the audience for constructed languages is so thinly spread out, it was nearly impossible to get critical mass for a new language using traditional media.

Klingon, Na’vi and toki pona probably would all have disappeared at birth without mailing lists.  At the moment only Lojban seems to have had a serious pre-internet community and even Lojban would be a shadow of it is now without the internet. So what is not to love about using the internet at the primary place to find and build a community for your or your favorite conlang?

In my roamings online since last November, I’ve decided there are some serious pitfalls.

The internet affect (or compromises) language design. Even English gain a new vocabulary and is probably on the verge of new grammatical constructions from it’s use online.  Emoticons, ALL-CAPS means shouting, /commands, the threaded discussion, replacing diacritic letters with letter followed by x, all are changes to the language to adapt it to online needs.  A designed language has goals, such as being true to a fictional culture, a certain social goal–such as cross border communication, a certain therapeutic effect, and many other whimsical goals peripheral to the needs of facilitating keyboard mediated written communications amongst strangers widely dispersed across time and place.

Civility and Fight Club. “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”  All online communities run the risk of griefers, trolls, people who treat the internet like some sort of fight club.  Even discussing the internet’s level of civility is a losing battle, with camps of people imagining that it isn’t a even a problem to begin with.  Those who do see it as a problem, often have no recourse but to leave the community.  This starts a downward spiral until most online communities are fight clubs, inhabited by  only those who are looking for a fight, enjoy fighting or can’t tell the difference between discourse and fighting anymore.

Someday, there might be a social or technical solution, such as human moderation, comment voting.  In the conlang world, prospects don’t look good.

In my years of living the real world, I’ve never encountered the number fights, and nastiness that just pops up all over the place in online communities, some I’m just observing, some of it I end up on one end or the other.  Obviously, for many this is a non-issue.  They either enjoy fight club or are oblivious to it.  For me, each fight is a colossal distraction. As they say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out the kitchen.  I now choose to stay out of the online community kitchen.  I’ll use the internet for organizing in person meetups, posting my letters in a bottle to no one on my blog, but I’ve pretty much had it with participating in online communities.

Stay tuned for my next article on how to build communities for conlangs using real world resources.

The null domain for rare and endangered languages

The null domain is where only you are using the language and no one else is.

  • Diary writing.
  • Prayer.
  • Thinking.
  • Dreaming.
  • Talking to the cat.
  • Writing codes (e.g. your accounting books for income not reported to the tax authorities)

The null domain is for the language that isn’t ready for public use (like a new conlang), for when you’re studying a language outside of it’s normal range (Icelandic in Washington DC), or if you are in fact the last speaker of a rare language.

The null domain doesn’t really have a community, so in that respect, it isn’t fully a language.  I would say it is a full language in the sense that it will evolve and be subject to the forces of erosion, sound shifts, etc.

Zompist, Conlangs and potty mouthed trolls

There is a interesting  thread on the Zompist board.  Not about conlangs, but about meta–talking about the board there.  The zompist board has suffered a general drop in the level of civility to the point where most people there routinely dish out harsh and rude words and generally have adopted a Klingon attitude that manners are for the weaker species.  What doesn’t matter is what these people have written.  What does matter, is “Are the people that have left that community  from the constant harshing the ones that I was interesting in talking to?”  The answer must be yes because I’ve generally stopped posting on Zompist.

In general, the Zompist forums has colored my opinion of a whole style and approach to conlangs.   People learn or write a language so as to reach out to the people who’d be interested in such a language, if only to briefly look at the grammar and dictionary.  If naturalistic conlangs with richly imagined conworld (like Vedurian) attract people who behave like arrogant rude 12 year olds, then for gods sake that is the last sort of language I’d want to create or study.  This goes for the Language Construction Toolkit.   I suspect that if I wrote a language to that spec, it would attract the same sort of people that are pissing all over the zompist bb.  If anything, I would want to write a language that is repulsive to the people remaining on the Zompist, reading the Language Construction Toolkit in reverse so to speak.

Anyhow, nothing left to do now but sit back and wait for some flaming comments from the Zompists.  Does anyone know of  a better run forum?  The yahoo conlang mailing list doesn’t have even a fraction of the bile you see on zompist.  Ditto the toki pona forums.  Ditto the lojban mailing list.  Ditto for the Klingon mailing list (oh the irony!).

What do you call the trolls when it’s only the trolls that are left at an online community?

How big a phonetic inventory?

As a baby, you can hear all phonemes.  As an adult, many phonemes are experienced as one sound, even if they are different.  Often ordinary people can’t re-learn the difference until after years of listening to fluent speakers- such as the aspirate consonants of Hindi or the double consonants of Swedish.  Conlangers that wish to attract fans should ignore these facts at their peril.

Everything and the kitchen sink. Dritok, Ithkuil, gjâ-zym-byn fall into this category.  These languages have radically different phonetic structures, so chipmunks can speak it, so you can do some sort of information compression and so it won’t be mistaken for an auxlang.  I don’t think anyone expects these to be spoken, except as a sentence or two as a party trick.  Even the designer of Ithkuil has reconsidered the phonetic inventory in favor of fans and way from a large phoneme set, by designing Ilaksh.

Same Phonetic Inventory as X. For Esperanto, the inventory is much the same as Bialystok Polish.  Na’vi is much the same as English except for a handful of exotic sounds.  The advantage here is that it is relatively easy to find materials to listen to to learn the phonetics of those languages and then apply it to a conlang.

This is somewhat out of  style because conlangs that ape natural languages too closely are considered uncreative derivatives.  But it’s also a practical choice.  It should be learnable by at least one existing language community and the extra sounds is a minor burden and possible not important should fans fail to ever get the extra sounds right.  It would be like listening to English with a Japanese accent.  Sometimes the l->r transform causes problems, more often not.

Ordinary, but Extra Exotics. This would describe Klingon, whose alphabet isn’t especially large, but has a bunch of harsh noises.  Klingon is also noted for having unusual distribution of phonemes.  I’ve read posts where people harp on if a distribution is natural or not (such a language lacking certain categories of sounds), but for language learning, I’d pay more attention to crowding.   The more similar sounds you have, the more phonetic misery you will be inflecting on the fans of your language.

Radical subset.  This is a common auxlang feature because it makes the language pronounceable for the most people.  Toki pona is a good example of this sort.

A conlang doesn’t have to be an auxlang.  If it isn’t an auxlang, it doesn’t have to be over the top difficult with the phonetics.  The odds of anyone learning to read and wrote a new conlang are slim, the odds of getting two people to speak it are slimmer.  The odds of getting two highly trained and talented phonetics experts to follow your phonetic recipe are getting to be infinitesimal.

By the time you have 12 uncommon sounds in your language, you might as well specify that is only be spoken by rhythmic contractions of the sphincter muscles whilst farting.

Locally Dead Languages, like French, and What they’ve in common with Conlangs.

Are we studying locally living, dying or dead languages? If one “learns” French and you never meet anyone to speak French with, or don’t move to France, you will join the ranks of people who can say, “I took 16 semesters of French in High School and College and still can’t converse very well.”  It’s a still born language with regards to your household– in your community French is dead, and never really was alive.

Like biological species that can thrive in one area and be extinct in another, languages fail to thrive outside their range or wither until their gone.  French is a living language in Quebec, Louisiana, France, not so much in Washington DC.  In DC, I’d call it an endangered language.   French, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian are all dieing languages in Washington DC. The domains of their use is vanishingly small and could disappear any year now.

A truly dead language can only be used to write messages to your self and read the messages from people who can never respond to you.  Knowing a locally dead language is a clever party trick, but otherwise a colossal waste of time.

How do you recognize the languages near you that aren’t dead yet?

A language is dead for you when you can’t use it in any domain- not at home, school, work, church, or on the street.  I haven’t made up my mind about if a language is dead or not if you can still use it on the internet on a forum or mailing list.

-Are there social events that are conducted in something other than English? This is the case with Russian.  Most of the events are in DC and Maryland.
- Are there play groups and immersian schools? If children don’t have an opportunity to use a second language in their community, they will stop using it.  Ordinary schools that offer French and Spanish don’t count because probably 99.98% of those who study French and Spanish and school will never attempt to use it in any forum and generally their students never achieve any interesting level of fluency.  The exception to this would be the various immersion schools in the area– there is one for Russian, German, Mongolian, Swedish, one in the works for Icelandic and so on.
- Is mass media available? The internet has only been half a solution.  Many languages don’t have very good internet resources and many communities don’t have a high ratio of tech savy people.  Locally in DC, there is cable TV and Radio for Spanish and some other languages, but out of the 50+ languages some one might want to study, the local availability is sparse.  Books, libraries and news stands generally a pretty grim picture for non-English materials–hard to find and expensive.
- Is this a job skill in demand for both native and non-native speakers?

If we are studying a locally living language, is a open or closed social group?
I get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that some language are alive in the DC area, but if that language group is closed to me, it might as well be dead.

Some existing language groups are open.  This is a subtle distinction, I doubt any social group is formally closed.  Do the existing groups go out of their way to advertise and gain new members? In the case of Russian, general when you meet a bilingual Russian, the like to speak Russian to you. If you meet a Swede, generally, they like to speak English because listening to broken Swedish is a tedious chore.

Enclaves are largely restricted to recent immigrants and their descendants.  Enclaves are another scenario of interest–outsiders will never be invited, many members of an enclave plan to go home at any time, so they’re not motivated to reach out to the local community.  For example, the Vietnamese and Mongolian community is fairly closed, in part because sometimes they’re monolingual.  You can’t find  them until you’re fluent, if you can’t find them, you can’t learn the language except through books, a challenge only the most academically expert can pull off.

Enclaves are the most linguistically fragile systems, especially if they stop teaching the language to their children or if immigration from the home country drops off.  The Scandinavian languages are the best example of this.  If I had a nickle for monolingual person who showed up at a Scandinavian language meetup saying “My grandfather spoke Swedish”, I’d be rich.

How to revive a language or bring a language to life?
The Welsh, the tiny community of conlangers and the Esperanto community have something to teach us.  A language needs to have prestige, a open community, tolerant of low proficiency speakers and lots of in person social events.

To bring a new language to life, it needs to have prestige factors. Esperanto speakers are working on world peace, Lojban speakers are working on clear thought. Klingon and Na’vi speakers are Sci-fi fans who can win points for being a competent fan, where as anyone can say they watched a movie and liked it.

So what would a prestige factor for a natural language be? Icelandic for some reason is prestigious among linguists and polyglots-wanna-bes.  Chinese has a prestige factor because the pronunciation and writing system are so difficult for English speakers.  I have no idea what the prestige factor is for French and Spanish and I don’t think anyone in Washington DC knows either.  Arabic and Pashto (and previously Russian) have prestige because a noticeable number of government and military jobs exist that require it.

There are a few prestige factors which I think are junk.

“It’s a beautiful language”  What language isn’t?  Even Klingon is beautiful once you get used to it and even Italian is ugly if you aren’t used to it.  I’ve gotten used to French and Spanish, so Latin strikes me as a rather ugly counterfeit.

“Grampa speaks it.”  Who wants to talk to old farts?  It’s difficult enough to talk to family in English.

“100 million people speak it”.  Do they live in Washington DC?  What’s the odds of you ever meeting 1 of those people and needing to speak to them?

The community needs to tolerate extremely sloppy speech.  Fluent speakers of Finnish and Hungarian tend to tolerate language learners attempts because it is so rare to find anyone who is trying at all.  French and Japanese fluent speakers have a reputation of tolerating only extremely fluent speakers attempting to speak their language.  US English speakers are the same, but it’s because we are sure as hell not going to learn someone else’s language.

The community needs to have public social events.  A tribe in the Ukraine used to have fabulous feasts, were they sacrificed horses to their god the sky father.  They invited everyone to the sacrifices and everyone ate, sang, danced and had a great time.  The people who showed up got free food and learned the language of the host of the sacrifice.  This tradition sparked off the greatest expansion of a language in known times, and in my opinion, explains why the Indoeuropean languages are alive anywhere other than along a particular river in the Ukraine.

Without potlucks, French, and any other second language being pursued in the DC area, will remain a dead language, an amusing party trick and a colossal waste of time and money.


Uscaniv is a real conlang with a smidgen of fame now on account of being in “Conlang the movie.”  At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be enough information to translate the zompist guidebook, or order coffee.

Posted by character from the movie.


CALS page:


My conlang wish list

A conlang should be good for something, have a reason to live.  If described just by portmanteuas:  homelang, manifestolang/ideoculturelang, easylang, despressionlang, deaflang.

This is a home language.  A language will have the shortest words and the most grammaticalizations for dealing with its primary domain, in this case–talking at home.   Any good home language should have verbal affixes to indicate if an action is at home or away from home.  It should have a rich vocabulary for dealing with family, children and the significant other.

This is an opinionated language. A language will have compound words, short (root) words and grammaticalizations with an agenda.  No particular effort to be culturally neutral like Lojban or fair (like Esperanto) or alien (like Klingon and Na’vi).  This isn’t a mindcontrollang like 1984, this is a language that believes that culture does and must inform the structure and vocabulary of a language and can’t be neutral.  A language doesn’t control the minds of its speakers anymore than indoeuropean languages are making it’s speakers think and act like bronze age Pontic pastoralists.

Depression and Cognitive Therapy. The language should have features for the rapid detection of biased thoughts, such as catastrophizing and unrealistic expectations of the future.

Easy to learn to speak, but also easy to read and quick to pronounce. This is hard to achieve.  Up to now, everyone has assumed that isolating languages like tokipona  and hyper-borrowing languages are necessarily easy (most auxlangs).  toki pona is an oligo-isolating language that is way over on the isolating end of the spectrum and way over on the oligo end of the spectrum as well.  I think that this has made it easy to produce but hard to read and well as verbose.  toki pona does lack in the derivational periphrasis department because it wasn’t part of the original design and the community is still somewhat slow to convert words and patterns into productive derivational patterns.

Oligo-agglutinating. Piling on suffixes and prefixes is easy, phonotactically.  Also, if enough of these affixes are derivational, then we can achieve the ease of word coinage, without the verbosity of using whole words and phrases.

Phonetically. It should have an extremely large logophone-space– lots and lots of possible words with a significant distance between individual sounds and words.  Minimal phoneme pairs and minimal word pairs are not easy to learn. They may evolve over time, but that can’t be helped.  What can be helped is how hard the language is on the day of its birth.  There should be a machine implementable algorithm for generating new words

Scripts. It should be hand-signable and written using the 24 letters of the alphabet, without diacritics.