Designing the Easiest Language to Learn

I’ve talked about real world influences a little bit on my language, but it actually draws influences from constructed languages as well. Most particularly, it cannibalizes my previous work on my last major conlang, Cosmopolitan.

I mentioned briefly on my Kickstarter page that I had done work for a language involving a tremendous amount of research comparing the phonological inventories of major world languages. That was Cosmopolitan. I called it Cosmopolitan (tentatively) because it was designed to be spoken by all the peoples of the world. It’s not the first of it’s kind by any means. Actually, the most widely spoken conlang in the world, Esperanto, is of this kind, and probably the first. Esperanto, an international auxiliary language, was first described by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887. Zamenhof, a Polish polyglot, devised a language as a hodgepodge of the languages he knew, intending that if people spoke a language which met everyone halfway, so to speak, they would also meet each other halfway diplomatically. His hope was that a world speaking Esperanto would be a world without war.

There are two big issues with Esperanto. First is Zamenhof’s philosophy. He had a very difficult time selling people on his theory that his language could bring peace, and his legacy has not vindicated him. Second, Esperanto may be easy for Europeans to learn, but for speakers of other languages, it is as difficult to learn as any other.

I don’t want to get into my politics, but as for his first mistake, my approach with Cosmopolitan was like something I mentioned in my Kickstarter – that language is a vessel for culture. I don’t think making a weird middle language is a solution to war, but I do think language is a major part of cultural identity, and for a new people to emerge, a new language facilitates the development of their identity, especially if they are an offshoot of a dominant existing culture. I guess that’s just a little crackpot theory I have.

As for the second problem, it’s something a lot of people have been pointing out for a long time, and a lot of languages were put forward as more “global” solutions to the same problem. I found those languages unsatisfactory however. I’m sure there’s more I haven’t heard of than those I have, but I found that they generally borrow vocabulary willy-nilly from major world languages and then just throw them together in whatever arbitrary grammar they contrive.

But I wanted a language with intuitive, a priori vocabulary, which could be learned by anybody. How? By deriving vocabulary from a short, simple list of basic roots, which could be combined to form every word you could ever want.

Of course, I wasn’t the first to come up with this idea either. Languages of this variety are called oligosynthetic, which is a weird, theoretical variety of a fairly common variety of languages, the synthetic languages. Synthetic languages are languages where words are made by combining a lot of morphemes together. Morphemes are pieces of words that have meaning. Here’s an example: “words” has two morphemes, “word” and “-s”. Here’s another: consider “classification”. How many parts does that have? We start with “class”, then we add the “-ify” suffix to make it a verb, then we add “-cation” again to make it a noun, referring to the act of putting something in a class. Now try “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

Despite these examples, English is relatively isolating, which is the opposite of synthetic. Synthetic languages usually have a lot more grammatical information built in to their words. Just by looking at an Ancient Greek verb on its own, you can tell its modality, its voice, the person and number of its subject, and tense (which, in Ancient Greek, went hand-in-hand with aspect, kind of). You don’t have to know what all that is to know that’s a lot of information. Now compare that to “choose”. You really don’t know much at all about what’s happening in the sentence that word comes from. You know the subject isn’t third person singular (he/she/it), you know it’s not past tense or perfect (chose or chosen),  you know it’s not passive (which would also use chosen), and it’s not the present participle on a gerund (choosing). But consider all the possibilities that remain. “You must choose.” “I will choose.” “He wants to choose.” In many synthetic languages, these would all be different words.

Oligosynthesis is hard to do right. It usually leads to long, cumbersome words for everyday things. One of my solutions to this problem was to use scientific names for things. Names for plants and animals would transliterate their scientific names. Of course, this means the language’s vocabulary is not entirely a priori, but I think it’s a nice compromise.

But I didn’t borrow that for the game’s language. I borrowed the one hundred root system from Cosmopolitan, and chopped its scope down significantly, so that it would actually suffice for the task. One hundred roots isn’t enough to talk about everything, but it’s enough for the game. The other thing I wanted to borrow though, was my work on its phonetic inventory, which is probably what I spent the most time on.

I spent several days looking at approximately forty major languages. These were my criteria: 1. The language has to be the first language of at least ten million monolingual speakers. It’s okay if many of them are bilingual, but at least ten million should be monolingual. 2. It has to be a language of instruction somewhere in the world. This means that it has to be a language that professors teach in. I chose these criteria because I didn’t want languages that were too small to have too much of an influence, lest they inconvenience the majority, and because anyone who doesn’t or can’t go to school could never learn the language I was making.

I devised a system of ten consonants and five vowels based on my research. These are, tentatively, /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/, /m/, /n/, /l/, and /s/. I agonized over these choices and ultimately I went with these ten more because I wanted a nice round number than because of their commonness per se (although they are all very common). For vowels, I went with a simple “a e i o u” system, which is by far the most common among all languages. The syllable structure is also very simple: C V (N). That’s consonant, vowel, and then an optional nasal. The nasal is always /n/, except before an initial /n/, in which case it becomes /m/. The initial consonant is only optional in loanwords. For example, the Cosmopolitan word for bird would be “aui”, from Latin avis (cf. taxonomic class aves). The “v” is rendered as “u” based on Classical Latin pronunciation. As such, the word has no consonants.

If you did the math, you might’ve noticed something interesting. Not counting loanwords, there are one hundred possible syllables in Cosmopolitan. This is part of why having ten consonants was important to me. Why is the one hundred syllable system important? Well, I said that people who pledge $50 or more to my Kickstarter will have their names transliterated into the game’s language and something in the game will be named after them. This is one of the big things that the game’s language is borrowing from Cosmopolitan.

There’s a lot more to say here, and another day I might talk more about why I chose the sounds that I did, but I want to keep my updates nice and short.

Thanks to everyone who’s supported me so far. Please tell everyone you know who’s interested in languages about my game. This game will not happen without word-of-mouth!


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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: Facebook: Twitter:


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