Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Tree Language: Phonology

Phonological Constraints

Before I dealt with the problem of having to transcribe a language with a lot of vowel distinctions into English, which has much fewer, I first had to decide, as the Language Construction Kit informed me, on Phonological Constraints.

English has a very complex set of Phonological Constraints. You have only to look at words such as sprint to realize this fact. It's one of the reasons why for native speakers of other languages, English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. There are plenty of other reasons as well. English is the confused bastard child of Germanic and Romance languages, but that's also why it's such a productive, malleable beast: producing portmanteaux and compound words at the speed of thought.

But let me back off of the language geekery and get back to the matter at hand: The Language of Trees.

The phonological constraints that I decided on are very simple. Syllables can only be produced from very limited options. Below, (c) stands for consonant, (v) stands for vowel, and (c/v) stands for those letters that, like y in English, can be either a vowel or a consonant. Pretty simple, hm?

Possible Syllables:

(c)(v)
(c)(v)(v)
(c)(c/v)(v)
(c/v)(v)

Very, very simple, yes? More akin to Japanese than English. So far so good.

Except for one thing. If you're a more astute linguistic than I am, maybe you've seen the Tree phonetics and noticed that with 22 distinct sounds, and such narrow phonological constraints, I'm going to run out of possible syllables pretty damn fast. And since this language is meant to be produced by a Tree and not a human mouth, how is this all even going to work??

I have one word for you:

Tones

Languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese use tones to convey meaning. It's one of the reasons why these languages are so difficult for a native English to learn: the tones in our language convey meaning, but only grammatical meaning (more inflection, but you know what I'm saying: it's like how your voice goes up at the end of a sentence to indicate asking a question). It's difficult for us to hear different tones on words as indicating that the word means something different.

But if you think about it, as I did: the sound of wind through the Trees does have tones. The tone, I observed, is largely dependent on the speed of the wind. The faster the wind, it seems, the higher the tone. And so the slower the wind, the lower the tone. Generally.

And so I decided that the Tree Language has five tones. Mid-tone, high, extra high, low, and extra low. No rising or falling. In phonetics, tones are indicated with these symbols, called suprasegmentals:

Extra high: ˥
High: ˦
Mid: ˧
Low: ˨
Extra Low: ˩

Or as an accent on the vowel, which I prefer to use, and you can see here.

With these five tones, every syllable has five different possible meanings, and so the set of possible syllables in the Tree Language makes it more like a natural language. It's a sloppy workaround, and one I have yet to work into the Mage's Apprentice itself. But it's what I went with!

So much for the sounds of the language. Tomorrow I'll get into a really interesting bit, and my favourite part! The Writing System!

The Tree Language Links

Introduction
Phonetics