Swelling Tongues: The Languages of Daszeria

WARNING: This entry will probably be of interest mainly to those with a linguistics background.  Parts of it are fairly technical.

The languages of Daszeria, covering some 12,000 years of fictional historical development, are among its most important aspects; and, at times, I’ve considered them _the_ most important, because they intersect and shed light on more or less everything else.  I’ve been working on Daszeria’s conlangs since college, having started to develop them seriously around the end of 1995, before the first draft of THE SPIRIT-WEAVER was written.  I was taking a course in Mohawk at that time, and it had more than a little influence on them; and Cheyenne, which I began learning a couple years later, exerted even more.  Their broad strokes have been painted since the beginning, but the minute details and have grown and changed much over the years; and they’re still undergoing evolution now.  I’ve said before to friends that I’d probably never be satisfied until I’d traced Daszeria’s main language family, called Central Mountain or CM, back in time to a purely CV proto-language with no vowel length and a semi-minimal number of sounds, so that I could show where all the little nuances and oddities came from.  And that’s exactly one of the things I’ve been working on–extending CM’s fictional history back to that primordial, pure-CV genesis.  I’m writing it out in the form of an academic treatise, covering all aspects of the languages–phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic–from a diachronic perspective and treating it like I would a paper on a natural language (which it’s supposed to mimic); I get a big kick out of doing that, playing my own language game–it’s a unique thrill only conlangers know.  Here’s a taste of the work so far (the sound changes in §2.3 are all labeled [x], since I won’t number them until I know how many there’ll be in total):



Central Mountain (CM) was a large family, perhaps largest among its early contemporaries, only a small part of which survived the First Earth.  Our work focuses on the six best known languages: Hlholamelo (Hlh), Kapakwonak (K), Noyahtowa (N), Hanoa?tsi (H), Shashuska (S) and Ohiyo?pa (O), all of which were closely related to N.  Data from lesser known CM languages and dialects are used as needed in supplementary fashion.

Proto-Central Mountain (PCM) is used to designate the common ancestor of Hlh and K.  An earlier stage, pre-PCM (pPCM), is investigated through methods of internal reconstruction applied to PCM.  While by no means a blind guess, pPCM may indeed reflect as much speculation as fact, glossing over (by necessity) substantial irregularities and variations in favor of idealized forms.  Elements and words from pPCM must be viewed with this caveat in mind.  Nevertheless, we regard many, if not most, pPCM forms as probable, while admitting that our internally reconstructed language as a whole is not likely definitive.


Transcription follows, in the main, Americanist notation, supplementing with IPA or ad hoc symbols only when the former is inadequate or unclear.  No distinction is drawn between phoneme and phone.



PPCM had five vowels, which apparently did not distinguish quantity: high front ; mid front *ɛ; low central *a; high back *ʊ; and mid back .  The back vowels were rounded; the others were not.  The high and mid vowels were all lax. 

The pPCM simple consonants were unaspirated stops *p, *t, *k; fricatives *s, *h; and nasals *m, *n, *ŋ. The nasal consonants were voiced; the rest were voiceless, probably lenis.  The consonant *ŋ, although alien to the phonologies of the later languages, is reconstructed based on the need for a segment that shares the nasality of m and the velarness of k, both of which are yielded by the segment.


PPCM syllable structure was strict, invariably CV, with a vowel always forming the syllabic peak.  No clusters, consonant or vowel, occurred.  There was a single level of stress, constituted by increased amplitude.  Monosyllabic words all received stress; and disyllabic words were stressed on the first syllable.   In words of three or more syllables, every other syllable was stressed, starting with the first, with the final syllable invariably receiving stress as well.  In polysyllabic words containing an even number of syllables, this resulted in two contiguous intra-word stressed syllables (the final two), which occurred nowhere else in the language. 


 Here the regular historical sound shifts that occurred in CM are sketched. 


(x) The dental coronals {t, s, n} palatalize before stressed and unstressed front vowels {ɩ, ɛ}; and after stressed {ɩ, ɛ}, they also progressively palatalize.

{t, s, n} > {tʸ, sʸ, nʸ} / _{ˈɩ, ˈɛ, ɩ, ɛ}

{t, s, n} > {tʸ, sʸ, nʸ} / {ˈɩ, ˈɛ}_

(x) Word-initially and before stressed and unstressed front vowels {ɩ, ɛ}, ŋ is lost. Before a stressed or unstressed rounded vowel (other than word-initially), ŋ is assimilated to m; and before a stressed or unstressed central vowel (other than word-initially), ŋ becomes g, which is then devoiced to k.  With these changes, ŋ ceases to exist.

ŋ > ø / #_

ŋ > ø / _{ˈɩ, ˈɛ, ɩ, ɛ}

ŋ > m / _{ˈʊ, ˈɔ, ʊ, ɔ}

ŋ > k  / _{ˈa, a}

(x) With the consonant loss in change (x), compensatory lengthening rules first apply.  These rules become a persistent feature of CM and give rise to its three-way vowel length distinction, apparently without any pre-existing length from an independent source, which is ordinarily taken as a requirement for compensatory lengthening to occur.  The compensatory lengthening rules work to preserve overall length following the shortening or loss of sounds.  The rules can be summarized by assigning length values to various types of segments, and by providing for the shift of a segment’s length value (in whole or in part) to another segment (typically to a vowel) when the segment is lost or shortened.  Relative to short (i.e., unlengthened) vowels, which equal 1, simple consonants have a length of 0.5; mid-long vowels a length of 1.5; and long vowels a length of 2.  The vocalic length values correspond approximately to actual relative vowel durations–i.e., a mid-long vowel is held about 1.5 times as long as a short vowel, and a long vowel about twice as long.  In this case, the first vowel preceding a lost ŋ will become mid-long if it is short; or if this vowel is mid-long, it will become long.  If there is no preceding vowel, the first vowel following a lost ŋ will become mid-long if it is short, or long if it is mid-long.  These processes occur from left to right across the word until all lost consonants are compensated for.

(x) It is likely, but not demonstratable, that mid-long and long vowels in unstressed syllables briefly take on at least a secondary stress, until the shift of stress patterns in change (x) below.  However, no trace of such secondary stress remains after the shift, and this secondary stress, if it existed, seems to have exerted no discernible phonetic influence.

(x) The persistent relationship between extended vowel length and tenseness among the high and mid vowels appears.  Mid-long and long {ɩ, ɛ, ʊ, ɔ} become tense.  Hereafter, mid-long and long high and mid vowels will always be realized as tense, while their short counterparts continue to always be realized as lax.

{ɩˑ, ɛˑ, ʊˑ, ɔˑ, ɩː, ɛː, ʊː, ɔː} > {iˑ, eˑ, uˑ, oˑ, iː, eː, uː, oː}

(x) Unstressed short vowels {ɩ, ɛ, a, ʊ, ɔ} are syncopated.

V > ø

(x) Compensatory lengthening applies with the vowel loss in change (x).  The first vowel preceding a syncopated vowel will become long if it is short; if the first preceding vowel is non-short, the first vowel following a syncopated vowel will become long if it is short; if the first following vowel is non-short, the first vowel preceding a syncopated vowel will become long if it is mid-long, and if it is not, the first vowel following a syncopated vowel will become long if it is mid-long.   In cases where there is no following vowel and this rule calls for lengthening of the first following vowel, that part of the rule is ignored.  The length of any syncopated vowel that cannot be compensated for (in whole or in part) by the foregoing is simply lost. These processes occur from left to right across the word until all syncopated vowels are compensated for, to the degree that they can be.

(x) Syllable length sandhi rules first apply.  Like compensatory lengthening, these become a persistent feature, but they are ranked above compensatory lengthening and prevent it (and other changes) from occurring when the rules would be violated.  The rules prohibit non-short syllables from occuring consecutively in a word, where the length of a syllable is determined by the length of its vowel; thus, a short syllable must always intervene between two non-short syllables.  The sandhi processes can be summarized as follows, using the length values of segments as discussed above: sequences of two or more consecutive non-short syllables are divided into groups of two non-short syllables each, from left to right across a word, with no syllable belonging to more than one group, and with any leftover non-short syllable momentarily ignored.  The first syllable in the first group loses one or more increments of its length, such that it becomes short, and the lost length is then shifted to an adjoining syllable–preferably, to the preceding syllable, if there is one, or to the following syllable, if there is not, or if the preceding syllable cannot receive the shifted length (for either of the reasons described hereafter); shift of length will not occur, however, if it results in a sequence of two consecutive non-short syllables, and/or if the syllable that would receive the shifted length is already long.  Short and mid-long syllables may receive only enough shifted length to make them long, and they may receive the entire quantity of shifted length, if able, or only part of it; and any length that cannot be shifted as described above is simply lost.  Once the first group is thus altered, these processes are repeated with the second disyllable group (if there is one), and so on, from left to right across the word.  If, after all groups are altered,  there remains any sequence of two consecutive non-short syllabes, these syllables are treated as their own distinct group, irrespective of and separate from the other previous groups, and are subjected to the foregoing processes.

(x) Mid-long and long high and mid vowels become tense.

{ɩˑ, ɛˑ, ʊˑ, ɔˑ, ɩː, ɛː, ʊː, ɔː} > {iˑ, eˑ, uˑ, oˑ, iː, eː, uː, oː}

(x) Stress patterns shift, perhaps in response to some of the previous changes.  Monosyllabic words no longer receive stress; and disyllabic words become stressed on the second syllable.  In words of three or more syllables, every other syllable is still stressed, but starting with the second; and final syllables are stressed only if they receive stress by the foregoing pattern.  In all lengths of word, mid-long and long syllables are all likewise stressed, and the syllable following a mid-long or long syllable is always treated like the beginning of a new word–i.e., the stress count starts over, so that the syllable immediately following a mid-long or long syllable is left unstressed, the syllable after that is stressed, and so on.  These stress rules become a persistent feature, but they are ranked below both the syllable length sandhi and compensatory lengthening rules and may be violated by either of them, or by certain other changes; but they are consistently reapplied following violation by any change.


Those familiar with Algonquian and/or Nishnaabemwin will see a few inspirations from there in the above.

Among fantasy writers, few besides Tolkien have paid much attention to the languages of their worlds; and while Daszeria’s conlangs share no formal similarities to Quenya or Sindarin, and are about as different from them as Mandarin is from English, I owe him a huge debt–he is, in my opinion, the founder of artlanging; he showed that it was possible to do stuff like this–to work out the history of fictional languages in realistic and detailed fashion, and to connect them to culture and myth in a compelling way.

(Reading through the above excerpt from the Central Mountain paper, I’m struck at how different my academic writing style is from my fiction style; my academic writing reads like Bloomfield, while my fiction is closer to Thomas Wolfe–two worlds that are about as far apart as you can get.  I often feel like a different person when doing one type of writing vs. the other; I pay attention to different details with each, and my entire way of seeing things and expressing them differs.)


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