How to build a language

Wouldn’t it is great if there have been an exclamation created specifically to utilize whenever your cellular phone electric battery operates out-of juice? Or perhaps a term that perfectly captures the idea of doing one thing for no reason?

This semester, MIT students being getting back together these types of terms — but not for English or other understood language. They’re building totally new languages, or “conlangs,” within a class that utilizes linguistics, the research of language, to supply the mandatory blocks.

One pupil, whom took 24.917 (ConLangs: just how to build a Language) this fall, created a language for underwater animals just who speak in colors of shade. Another created a language that combines message with whistling. Senior Jessica Lang’s new language is actually for spaceships that speak. “It’s not really a super rational idea,” she claims, “but it’s a lot of fun facing the constraints. And, I like a lot of the words in ‘spaceship-speak’ as they are just really strange.”

Beyond imaginative premises, the task pupils take on in 24.917 is to create something that acts with techniques which are fundamentally distinctive from the languages they already fully know. To achieve that, it’s beneficial to “understand some thing about how human being languages actually work,” says Professor Norvin Richards, a linguistics scholar who teaches 24.917.

Understanding how languages tasks are exactly what the linguistics field is all about, and 24.917 offers a thorough introduction to the topic — including fundamental subjects like phonetics (creating sounds), morphology (forming words), and syntax (building phrases). The class, which premiered in 2018, has actually swiftly become one of the more popular provided by MIT’s top-ranked linguistics program.

When you look at the overhead audio short, hear more from students and MIT teacher of linguistics Norvin Richards about their particular work additionally the intent behind training course 24.917. View a full transcript here.

Language and the head

“One of this issues discover when you start to learn about language usually you will find all sorts of things that individuals do effortlessly, without thinking about it, but that are rather complicated,” Richards states. For example, English has a serious strict guideline for purchasing adjectives — it is usually “a big red vehicle,” never “a red huge vehicle.” Brand new English students routinely need certainly to remember this far-from-universal rule, while native speakers cannot actually alert to it.

“One associated with the objectives of 24.917 should show pupils several of what we realize about exactly how languages work compliment of most of the work that is already been carried out in linguistics, the study of just what it really is you know once you understand a language,” Richards says.

When asked to elaborate, Richards explains, “There are specific forms of linguistic tasks that individuals seem to inevitably accomplish in the same ways, no real matter what language they talk.” Linguists try to clarify the reason why that is. “A working hypothesis is the fact that element of being fully a individual is obtaining the type of brain that enables you to build and make use of language in some techniques however others,” Richards claims. “We’re wanting to find out what those properties associated with the human being head are; what forms of creatures are human beings?”


24.917, which presents pupils to some of the major quests of linguistics, is attracting many MIT undergraduate to explore the area much more entirely. Surprises abound.

Joseph Noszek, a senior majoring in municipal and environmental manufacturing, states he’s got discovered it fascinating to master phonetics — including the Overseas Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), something for pronouncing unknown words. “We began speaking about the manner in which you have appears though points of articulation and exactly how you’ll cluster consonants predicated on in which your tongue is, exactly what your mouth do, and how much environment you’re letting away,” Noszek says. Using this information, plus some understanding of the IPA, he has discovered it possible to create noises he had beenn’t knowledgeable about before. “we find it mind-blowing that there is a way of this,” he says.

Rebecca Sloan, a senior majoring in biochemistry, echoed this sentiment, noting that pupils in 24.917 also viewed address video clips recorded using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which allowed them to observe people used their particular speech organs to create sounds. “The most astonishing thing for me personally when you look at the course had been able to view the MRIs of men and women saying words and realize you can make use of that information to work things on about different noises,” she states.

From Swahili to Klingon

The class also supplies a tour of world languages, as Richards shows linguistic points using instances from Tagalog, Passamaquoddy, Thai, Korean, Swahili, Egyptian Arabic, O’odham, Dinka, and Welsh.

As you go along, he also offers students some insight into the functions of two languages, Lardil and Wampanoag, for which Richards is a leading specialist. For many years, Richards has worked aided by the Wampanoag individuals of Eastern Massachusetts as they were successfully revitalizing their particular native language which, ahead of the task began, had final already been talked into the 1800s. He has in addition invested many years attempting to battle the obliteration of Lardil, an Aboriginal language when widely spoken on Mornington Island, Australian Continent, the good news is almost extinct.

As Richards outlines numerous linguistic behaviors — including the creating of plurals or methods of arrangement — he often includes instances from these languages. But not interestingly for the class on constructed languages, Richards also incorporates examples from languages that have been intentionally created — notably Klingon, which was created for the “Star Trek” enjoyment world, and Quenya and Sindarin, two languages created by J.R.R. Tolkien for his “Lord associated with Rings” books. (Richards will quickly rattle down various terms of Klingon to make a linguistic point, but claims he speaks the language just “very terribly.”)

“Klingon is beneficial in discussing morphology, the study of how exactly we make words up out-of items of terms,” says Richards, noting that while English does not have much morphology, Klingon does. It’s understanding known as an “agglutinative” language, meaning that it commonly forms brand new words with the addition of prefixes plus long strings of suffixes to root words. “It’s such as a substance effect happening. You add these specific things, and words change from a very important factor to some other.”

Tools for new languages

As pupils learn how different languages form tenses, plurals, and kinship terms, as well as how they borrow and shape terms extracted from other languages, they are gaining the tools to create completely new languages. Richards claims, “You provide students with some selection regarding the types of noises you could make, plus the students tend to be picking and selecting and sometimes picking something which no language does.”

Other new languages to emerge from course add a language made to sound like beatboxing; a language that integrates speech with sign language, packing definition into both noises and gestures; as well as a language made for alien beings just who make noises by tapping to their exoskeletons.

“Our pupils get some good notion of the sorts of things we run in the linguistics industry,” states Richards, “after which they arrive with all sorts of wonderful stuff.”

Tale served by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial manager: Emily Hiestand
Senior copywriter: Kathryn O’Neill