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Most languages on earth do not have every phoneme. When creating a new language, how do I decide which ones to choose? How should I manage the relationship between different languages? I have a race of wolf-people as well as a race of humans & I'm not sure how to go about relating the wolf phonemes (which will probably be a lot more vowel, tone, & duration based) to human phonemes? The race I'm creating the language for is from the book series Codex Alera. Canim, (KAH-nimm). I'm considering making a TV series which I will need a language for.

I'm basing the writing style off of Futhark, because the characters have no horizontal lines. When writing in wood: horizontal lines would be invisible within the grain. This is why Futhark (& soon-to-be Canish) have only diagonal & vertical lines. They go against the grain & pop out visually. Even if Canim cannot produce the sounds of Futhark I can still use the characters as inspiration. Hindi, Finnish, & Astonian might be good languages to relate dog sounds to human mouths.

Some words & names include: Tavar, Gadara, Sa/Sar, La/Lar, Gradash, Varg, Sarl, Nasaug, Sochar-Lar (Socha-La), Lararl, Kharsh, Marok, Narash, Shaur, Maraul, Tarsh, Shuar, Molvar, & Anag. From these words we can assume that the phonemes include at least:

  • "ta" probably not "ta/tha" on the teeth as in the french word for "tea" due to carnivore teeth.

  • "va" but with the bottom lip in front of the teeth instead of under it.

  • "ra" & probably several different kinds of "r"s. I have a speech impediment with my "r"s so I typically use my lip & teeth to make the english "r". Canim would probably also have the uvular "r"s, especially trills. The soft french "r", the arabic french "r", & the smooth trilled french "r" would all be very useful. I definitely believe that they would have a plethora of different "r"s.

  • "da" This one is just "ta" with vocals. Both of them have very sharp sounds though, & dogs struggle to hear consonants. I may consider doing away with all of the voiced vs unvoiced sounds & lump them all in the same category. "Pa" & "ba"? Same sound.

  • "ra" as in the Japanese r/l or only one of the Spanish "r" trills. That depends on the tongue though. A thin tongue might not work as well.

  • "Sa" might be lisped or whistled. I doubt that "s" would be a common letter.

  • "La" but none of the dental "l"s.

  • "Ga" the "g" can have an "r" immediately after. Dogs' tongues are huge so tbh I think they would have a ton of "g" sounds, like how Korean has several (including "ka"). I believe they would also have those "h" sounds that are kind of growly. Maybe like the "tl" of quetzalcoatl or axolotl. (Btw "axolotl" os pronounced more like "ashochle".) I would go so far as to say that your different "ranges" of Canim would have regional dialects. Some might use velar "g"s while others might use uvular (or even dental, considering their tongues) "g"s & "g"-like sounds.

  • "sha" which is one I'm skeptical about. I believe it is post-alveolar. Maybe this is one of their versions of "s" because they cannot pronounce other "s"s.

  • "Ma" Bilabial sounds (lip on lip) might be uncommon. They might also only have bilabial stops. I'm not entirely sure if muzzled animals regularly breathe through their noses, but if they don't: it would be more like a human with a cold. "M" becomes "b". Not to mention lip dexterity. We say cats make "meow" sounds so Canim might be able to have an "m".

  • "Na" This sound would definitely have a few iterations. Dogs have such long tongues, it is similar to "g" & "k" with the "n" being at the front & "ng" being at the back. In fact, if a dog could put the tip of its tongue anywhere from the teeth to the back of the hard palate like humans (or farther), but ALSO have the tongue at a curve so that the middle of the tongue can touch those same places, then they might be able to make a series of "n" sounds as well as a series of "ng" sounds.

  • "Varg" might actually be pronounced like a pirate's "argh" rather than with the english "r" or the sharp "g" that is just a voiced "k". The species that speaks this language is, after all, a wolf species. Maybe like the velar (voiced or unvoiced) non-sibilant fricatives. I really have velar sounds bouncing around in my head for this.

  • "Sarl" is probably not pronounced like "parlay" in english. Possibly like "parlé" in french. It could be the soft "peanut butter on the roof of your mouth" "r", the soft trill, or the rough "h"-like trill. If Alerans/humans say it, they would definitely use the soft "r", regardless of whether it is growling or not.

  • "Kharsh" has an interesting spelling. Why the "h"? Is it to emphasize the fact that it is unvoiced? Is it to imply that the "k" is not a stop? If so, then it would be more like "charsh" from "loch" or "gharsh" from pirate "argh". Again, dogs struggle to differentiate consonants.

  • "Marok" might have similar sounds for the "r" & the "k" if they are pronounced like "argh" & "loch". "Marghogh" might sound like Magok,Marok, or Maror to us, but to people who are used to that sound (especially a species that struggles with consonants) it may sound more varied.

  • "Molvar" So another person making a muzzled language said they ruled out "v" (& the unvoiced "f") but the Canim have that sound. Not only that but the "l" is able to be used before it. I have mentioned this before, I'm sure: "v" might be able to be pronounced if the bottom lip is in front of the teeth rather than below. The "l" & "v" also have to be compatible. "olv" is a very human sound & I doubt a snouted animal would be able to make those sounds the way humans think of them.

(I already did some research on this: I need(ed) information about what sounds dogs could physically make, but all of the information online was "If your dog [whimpers, yips, barks, etc] it means that they are [happy, feeling threatened, etc]." Yeah, thanks, but what phonetic sounds are involved in a bark?)

Keep your eyes out for a follow-up question about words & language rather than just phonemes!

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome! These are a lot of questions, and more about the specifics of the language rather than its role in a fictional world. Have you considered asking this on conlang.SE? $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jan 21 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ "Phoneme" : Rather than my own words I'll use Googles "distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat" / so that is going to depend entirely on what sounds both of the two species can actually make with their vocal (or other sound making) apparatus / so as worded your question is unanswerable, we need to know what sounds your wolf-people can make / your creation so your choice really, you can claim any minor divergence in tongue & other vocal apparatus to normal wolves you like. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 21 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ I'd hazard a guess that you'd want to include the phonemes of the language in the writing system (if the language uses an alphabet for writing (some languages don't have an alphabet)). You will have to exercise your authorial discretion to decide what phonemes are used by your language. Questions where the answer is up to authorial discretion aren't a good fit for this site since they result in many equally valid answers. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 21 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps our sister site Constructed Languages might be informative and of help to you. $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ Why would questions about language design nessecarily yield more than one answer and be closed as "opinion based" .. and questions about weapon design, or creature design yield only one answer and not be opinion based, I wonder ? voted against the close proposal. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jan 22 at 1:31

2 Answers 2

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Build the Bridge :: They will come

Since this is worldbuilding, I'm going to present a worldbuilding perspective, rather than an invented language perspective.

Essentially, languages of the sort you're describing serve as bridges between cultures and races of people. Two races in sufficient contact that they would find some sort of common interlanguage to be useful indicates that there is likely some kind of shared experience. Perhaps they are two races who inhabit a fantasy world, or two cultures that meet for trade and intercourse in a space station, or perhaps one has arrived on the other's planet for the first time and thought they would stop by and say howdy.

Given your descriptions of the two races, and the fact that you have presupposed that both have a compatible language capacity, compatible cognitive abilities and so forth, I think your job will be fairly easy.

The language itself doesn't have to be constrained by this or that set of phonemes. Humans quite naturally build interlanguages --- pidgins --- very easily when two groups sharing no common language meet. Culturally, you're going to be more interested in the two races points of commonality: why are they in contact and what do they need or want from each other?

You're going to become very interested in lupine anatomy and physiology to give you an idea how a wolf makes sounds; and then will likely expand from there to determine which sounds a wolf could make would make it into a language. So, you'll want to consider the wolf folk's language in and of itself. You'll also want to consider the human folk's language on its own as well. Once you've got an idea of which sounds they use in their respective native languages, you'll be able to discover how each will handle any language sounds the other can make.

Your task, in so far as worldbuilding goes, won't be so much picking from the list of all phonemes on the IPA chart, as it would be discovering which phonemes from the two lists you've already got will best facilitate communication between the two groups.

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    $\begingroup$ Makes me think on what they did with the film "Solo", Chewbacca's meeting with Han, the sound of Chewie's name in his (?) own language compared to Han's translation - it was a heavily reinterpreted instance of the same sounds, makes your point I think. But they started with some common languages of course. $\endgroup$ Jan 22 at 5:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ARogueAnt. -- That's the basic idea! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jan 22 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much! I really appreciate this & find it useful. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "interlanguage" though. Is that like the Metis dialect with Cree, Indigenous, English, & French words all mixed together? Next, do you have any good places I can research physiology? Last, this is a language I'm creating for the Canim in my Codex Alera film/series adaptation so I already have some source material, yay! $\endgroup$ Feb 1 at 18:10
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Let's do 3 groups of phonemes, and relate them to the canine mouth..

Voiceless consonants

With their agile tongue, dogs will be able to perform a lot of consonant phonemes, like humans do. Most of your examples, actually.. and probably a lot more. Sounds like c, d, G (harsh), g, h, sj, zj, j, k, r, s, t are certainly doable.

Phonemes "w" and "v" will be softer, or too difficult. Human teeth have a flat top, canine teeth are pointy. It will be difficult to let it sound loud.. or they'll trick it.

Some consonants will be hard. Canines don't close their lips perfectly, like we can. A dog will have to do a trick, to perform phonemes that sound like b or p: humans can build up pressure and release it, a dog can't do that easily. Both "b" and "p" will be realized far up front, using only the air enclosed behind the lips.

Voiced consonants

There will always be air leaking through the teeth and through the bumped lips on the side of the mouth. The "m" will probably be out of reach for canines.

Also, (imho) a dog will have difficulties doing z, l, n sounds, which are realized using the tongue, but they are voiced consonants, which have properties of..

Vowels

You did not mention vowels in your list. These are really difficult for most animals having large teeth. The teeth don't allow the animal to close the mouth on either side..

Vowels and voiced consonants are actually 2 resonances of the mouth cavity, determined by width and height of that cavity. There should be 4 closed wands for 2 formants.

Technically, you'll get 2 spectral peaks. These peaks characterize the vowel for the listener. For English vowels, the result voiced phonemes for F1 (horizontal) and F2 (vertical) are ordered as follows:

enter image description here

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vowel_diagram

Humans have flat, straight lips. When they produce a vowel, with only the lips opened, they will have both resonances at their disposal. Humans also have musculature to manipulate these two dimensions independently, that is why we can make a very wide range of vowels, canines will have limited variation in above triangle.

When canines close their mouth, they will only have one prominent formant, in vertical direction. That is not sufficient to make a wide range of different vowels.

Vowels that canines will be able to do: listen to howling and crying.

Vowels like è (pair) and e (hay) need two strong formants, you won't hear them from dogs. But take the above vowel diagram, draw a straight horizontal line across. Canines will be able to produce (only) these vowels, depending on their mouth size. It should be vowels with a pronounced, single formant, something like U (like in do) or u (phonetic: y, like German ü not in English) or i. Canines howl and cry these sounds, there will be many examples on Youtube to listen to.

Nasals

A third "nasal formant" does exist.. The nasal formant is made by humans, using the nasal cavity for resonance. It can produce phoneme "ng" like in "thing" and in fact "n" is nasal as well. I think it won't work in dogs, because their nose is very separate. Not sure though..

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    $\begingroup$ !!!!!!! THIS IS SO SUPER USEFUL! Tysm for the in depth answer, I am so excited to translate this into my writing! Vowels on youtube will be pretty easy to access. Thanks for mentioning nasal stuff & lips! Those were great points. Since I am a human, I think I will be able to translate Canim sounds into human/latin sounds just as well as the humans in my world. This was a huge help & I think I just need to double down & write now. $\endgroup$ Feb 1 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thx @thatonefriend61, hope you'll upvote it.. As for consonants, keep in mind dogs could use tricks humans won't use and achieve the same sound. When you look at the mouth of a parrot, biologically, you don't expect advanced things.. but they can learn a lot ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Feb 1 at 20:32

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