Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Tree Language: Phonetics

Early Draft of Tree, from 2010
Yesterday, I introduced The Tree Language that you may have spotted throughout The Mage's Apprentice. Today I'll delve into the sounds of the language.

While I did take a handful of linguistic courses during my undergrad to fulfill a degree requirement (at the time I was completing a degree in Cognitive Science and I guess that the designers of the degree believed the philosophers who maintained that thought is language and language; thought), I am not a linguistic.

So when I began creating the Tree Language, I didn't where else to turn to but Google. Thankfully, that most efficient of search engines quickly brought me to If you have even a passing interest in conlang you probably know what I'm referring to: The Language Construction Kit.

The page looks like it's from web 1.0, but it has so much useful info, I hope it never changes and never goes down. How would I make up artificial languages then??!!

According to Mark Rosenfelder, the creator of zompist, after you've observed enough natural language models, the first place to start is with the sounds of the language. This makes sense since humans probably communicated first using sounds, just like many animals do.

 You can read all about sounds on The Language Construction Kit website, in a sort of rough-and-ready guide to phonetics. Thankfully, I've already taken a course or two in phonetics and although it was a million years ago, I still remember enough about the International Phonetic Alphabet to get by.

But what sounds could be included in a Tree Language? That was my primary challenge. (Why Trees? That's a question to be answered in another post). So I set about listening to Trees. In the middle of silent, barren winter (probably, knowing Canada). The next best thing? YouTube recordings of Trees:

Asleep yet?

Anyways, there was a lot of that. And though it mostly sounds like whooshing, I came up with a pretty robust set of 22 distinct sounds. It took awhile for me to decide on them, but here they are in final (IPA) form:



Consonant/Vowels: (you know, in the same way that 'y' is sometimes a vowel in English)




You'll notice, if you are familiar with these symbols, that the consonant sounds are all produced neither too far forward nor too far back in the mouth. Basically they were chosen to imitate the sounds of wind-through-leaves. Obvious enough. So too for the vowels. I chose any vowel that, extended into a long sound and combined with a consonant, could sound like the wind in the trees.

But I could already see a problem. A couple of the consonants and many of the vowels don't have English equivalents. And that's because the International Phonetic Alphabet records all of the sounds that can exist in natural languages. And some of these sounds collapse into a single symbol in English, such as 'a', 'o', 'th', or 'i'. But I did figure out a way to mark that down, once I came to the Phonology of the Tree Language.

But Phonology is a subject for next time!