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Making vocabulary for a language isn't too difficult (at least, not as hard as it might seem at first!). You can come up with some simple patterns of letters and syllables, and work off of those to create myriad words.

One problem I encounter is that even if I come up with a good system of vocabulary, the structure of my language is always fairly similar to English, my native language.

Here are some of the specific structural bits that I subconsciously insert (answers don't have to cover these; they are simply examples):

  • Word order
  • Conjugations and declensions
  • Adjective-noun agreement
  • Subject-verb agreement

I know that most observers won't necessarily notice this, but I'd still like to make my languages as alien as possible.

So, how can I make my languages structurally different from English (or other Earth languages, for that matter)?

See also Are there techniques for creating alien or foreign sounding names?.

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    $\begingroup$ Read The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. It talks about the common structures of all human languages, including the sounds, word ordering, vocabulary relationships, etc. It also describes the evolution of pidgins into creoles, which is a process particularly applicable to inventing your own language. $\endgroup$ – Ben Jackson Aug 31 '15 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ My go-to is Mark Rosenfelder's Language Construction Kit; vis-à-vis your question, see particularly the section "Is it weird enough?". Wikipedia also has some really interesting articles on linguistics topics: try reading up on voices of verbs, for instance. There's a lot more options than just active and passive! $\endgroup$ – DLosc Aug 31 '15 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ A few suggestions: Look at Norse where it's the verb that tells who's the subject and who's the object, not the placement. In English "Jon hits Mary" and "Mary hits Jon" is different... in Norse, it would be the verb that told who was hitting whom, not the order. Next is using many casus for the verbs - look at Roman, Finish and German for examples. Another is gender for number. For example three different words for "two"... one for male, one for female, and one for neuter. Eg. "You're four, but we have only two rooms... You may lay twe(m) and twi(f), but not two(n) and two(n)" . $\endgroup$ – Baard Kopperud Sep 1 '15 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ If you really want to dive into the topic search google for books on comparative linguistics $\endgroup$ – James Sep 1 '15 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Sep 1 '15 at 22:26

22 Answers 22

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Get to know other languages as that will give you a good feel for how languages can be constructed.

The Frankfurt International School has a set of pages that describe the differences between English and many other major languages. These pages are written in English and discuss alphabets, phonologies, grammar and tenses. Familiarity with other languages will help considerably when coming up with new languages because new features can be borrowed.

Subject-Verb-Object

Changing the order of the Subject, Object, and Verb around will the desired effect. Wikipedia has a huge list of how language construct their sentences.

As a stylistic choice when translating for the reader, just translate the words into English while preserving the Subject-Object-Verb ordering. This will help to emphasize the "foreignness" of the language.

Conjugations

Developing your own verb conjugations can be tedious but thankfully, most languages use the same conjugations for most verbs. Some verbs are taken from other languages and those older conjugations have remained instead of following the standard.

Note that conjugations are based on a particular dimension of importance to the culture that the language came from. Wikipedia gives a list of common conjugations:

person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, voice, or other grammatical categories.

A language can be made very weird by ignoring some or all of these dimensions or incorporating a dimension that isn't on that list. Ignoring past and future tenses can give rise to such cultural oddities as the Piraha people of the Amazon. They have no concept of anything that doesn't exist in front of them, right now.

Cultural Features

Remember that every language comes from a specific culture and that culture will emphasize or deemphasize a given language feature. A culture obsessed with the past may have verb tenses equating to "just happened", "yesterday", "last week", "last year", "beyond human memory".

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  • $\begingroup$ Do languages which use similar conjugations typically come from the same language family, such as the Romance languages? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 31 '15 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ It would make sense that they would though I don't know enough linguistics to say for sure. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 31 '15 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Also, conjugations aren't always based on the subject alone. Some languages don't conjugate for person or number at all (like Japanese), and some conjugate for both the subject and the object (like Hungarian). $\endgroup$ – sumelic Aug 31 '15 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ "Changing the order of the Subject, Object, and Verb around will the desired effect" - not every language is positional at all. The list on Wiki mentions Russian is "very flexible in word order; it allows all possible word combinations". Same in Polish - sticking to the example Wiki uses, you can say "Sam ate oranges", "oranges ate Sam" etc. all 6 combinations are ok, some are just weird (unusual) but not really incorrect, the point is that it shifts the semantic accent, this is what contributes to richness of the language. Written English emulates this weakly by using italic for emphasis. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Sep 4 '15 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Green Regarding the Piraha, they do actually have a concept of future and past, they just don't regard it as important so they never bothered to make words for it. The only thing they care about is the here and now. Check out this video to see how their view managed to convert the guy who was studying them: youtube.com/watch?v=KCaOJl15bwg $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Sep 6 '15 at 12:06
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I add this answer mostly for completeness, since other answers are already great.

First of all (as it has been extensively said), knowing other language is a great way to get inspiration. However, you will have to study quite strange language to get totally different structure. For example French and English are not so different in their structure. Most of the time you can just put the words in the same order (I can relate as a native French speaker).

But you have to consider that a language is not only a vocabulary and a structure. Here is a video from Tom Scott explaining why.

For example, there is correct and meaningful sentences that nobody use, because... well because that not how you should say that. If you translate brutally the sentence "My name is Kolaru and I am a native French speaker" ("Je m'appelle Kolaru et ma langue maternelle est le français") from French, you will get something like :

"I call myself Kolaru and my maternal language is French"

I am not sure it is understandable, but it the structure and vocabulary are correct. However, you do not say it that way.

You can use such concept to make your language strange, just by changing the usage of words (in the example we can see that in French you communicate your name using yourself as subject and your mother tongue using it as subject, when in English it is the other way around).

One other thing is that some concept can exist in a language but not in all (see this video). As mentioned by Green the concept of time can be absent, or the concept of individuality, or any other.

You can perhaps go a step further, by excluding grammatical concept. Perhaps there is no concept of ordering the words in a sentence (this is the case to a certain extend in Latin : since all word are conjugate according to their function in the sentence, there is no need for an ordering).

Perhaps there is no concept of adjective, a black hat is considered an other noun as a white hat. Or no concept of active verb, and you refer to somebody doing an action by categorizing the person, for example :

"Billy is being a walker in the forest" to say that "Billy is walking in the forest".

In conclusion there is plenty of way to make a structure of language looks alien, and if you thing about an idea "that is crazy, no language can work that way", first you probably are wrong, second you are getting closer to a language really looking strange.

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    $\begingroup$ I completely agree with the point you are making, but I must say that "I am called Kolaru and my mother tongue is French" sounds fairly natural to me, a native English speaker. A more literal French-to-English translation which brings out more strongly the differences between the two languages would be "I call myself Kolaru and my maternal language is French." $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Aug 31 '15 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ +1, If I put it into my own words, I would say that language conveys ideas, so any sound/structure could ultimately convey the image of "Billy currently walking through the forest" - even if the language doesn't have anything other than nouns and no concepts of certain parts of the sentence (such as present-tense). "Billy feet forest" (sounds like a very cave-man like language) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Aug 31 '15 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance Wouldn't it be more like "I, myself, am called Kolaru and my maternal language is (the) French"? $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Sep 1 '15 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ A direct translation would be "I myself call Kolaru and my language motheral is the French". $\endgroup$ – Guntram Blohm supports Monica Sep 1 '15 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ A rather more striking French example would be with topicalization: "The question, what it is?" $\endgroup$ – tripleee Sep 1 '15 at 6:47
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My best advice is to study the structure of other languages. I believe you already mentioned you had a basic knowledge of Spanish. For me, some sentences or words in English sounds misconstructed because it's not my native language.

I will take examples from 2 languages that I know : French and Mandarin Chinese

Summary: try to find something that will have no equivalent in English. Something that has no meaning in your native language, cannot be translated or only with great difficulty.

Some Chinese

  • In Chinese, traditionally, they didn't use the interrogation mark "?". They instead either use the particle (pronounced "ma") or have to repeat verb of the question. Note that, not all questions will have this structure, there are other possibilities.

    If I ask : Do you speak Chinese?

    One way to ask: Nĭ shuō hànyŭ ma. (Ni=you / shuo=speak / hanyu=chinese) It makes no sense without the ma. The other thing is the repeating verb: Nĭ shuō bù shuō hànyŭ. Bu is for a negation. Which translate into: You speak, do not speak Chinese? It certainly sound weird when translated directly in English.

    They can also ask questions without the 2 things mentioned above two such as in: How is your Chinese? Nǐ de hànyǔ zěnme yàng.

  • Chinese use a load of particles for everything. Notice that the
    particle "de" in my example before refer to your Chinese (language).

    If I want to say : One country = Yī gè guójiā

    Yī=one / guójiā=country / gè=it's hard to explain what it means but it's generally an unspecified unit used between a noun and a number. If you don't know what to use, just put gè, that is just what 5 years kids old do in China apparently. But somtimes, some words will require a specific particle.

    One book= Yī běn shū. Book has its own particle to specify the quantity. And there is no need to have a word for this in English.

  • Chinese don't have verb tense to conjugate! This is so difficult in French, Spanish and even English. Form example, they will use the particle "le", at the end of a sentence to indicate past events or a recent change. They use other ones but I don't have any that comes to mind.

    Example You have money now. Nǐ yǒu qián le. (you=have)

French:

French uses something that anglophones have a really hard time to understand : determinants. it's not something unique, other language like Spanish also have this. Example:

The table (English) = La table (French) but The telephone = Le téléphone

It's easy as breathing air for native speakers but seems to make no sense for the anglophone since they don't have a word for this: they always use "the". In French, table is feminine and telephone is masculine. Yes I know they are all made of plastic, but it's like that.

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    $\begingroup$ For the French example, a better term would be "grammatical gender." $\endgroup$ – DLosc Aug 31 '15 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ Non-English languages are still human, so it might not be a good choice for an alien language, anyway, here is quite a nice list of things that are hard to translate. $\endgroup$ – dtldarek Sep 1 '15 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, English does have a construction vaguely similar to the Chinese "counting particles", but it mainly comes up when trying to count items of something formally uncountable (e.g. furniture, cutlery, cattle, paperwork, information, ...), in which case we need to insert a dummy measure word like "piece" or "item" (as in "five pieces of furniture"). Some such nouns even have their own conventional measures, like "head of cattle". What's distinct about Chinese is that this way of counting is the norm there, not an exception like in English. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 2 '15 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ (You speak, do not speak Chinese?) That explains why my Chinese wife will sometimes answer yes to a question of the form asking which it is. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 3 '15 at 1:50
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You can take an existing language, the most different from English you can find. Then use its grammar as a base and create a new vocabulary.

The World atlas of language structures is a good source for your work. It basically a database about languages and grammar. A bit difficult to navigate, but full of information.

If you scroll through the "Chapters" section, you can find interstings ways to add originality to a language (like non-sex-based gender system or adjectives without nouns), a see which existing languages have each of these features.

The Languages In Danger website is also interesting. It has a map of languages, a chapter on languages structures, information on the relation between language and culture, and other stuff. It focuses on endangered languages, but can be used as an inspiration source.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the short answer. Maybe I should have put it in a comment. $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Aug 31 '15 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on the links? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Aug 31 '15 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ This could be a good answer, particularly if you describe how the links answer (and are relevant to answering) the question. As it stands, well... it's not really modhammer-delete-worthy, but I would hardly consider it a great answer either. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 31 '15 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, I think it's a good answer now. The two links are great - both went straight to my conlang resources file. The suggested strategy is an entirely feasible way to do what the asker wants to do. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Aug 31 '15 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Lostinfrance Yes, it is much better now. When I made my comment, this answer was at revision 1. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 1 '15 at 9:30
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When I was learning French in school, I liked to compare the differences between it and English in terms of efficiency. For instance, many French adjectives come after the nouns they describe; I liked this, because if you're trying to explain something while dying, you should probably say the nouns first, as it'll be easier to infer the adjectives if you can't finish the sentence.

What I've taken from this is that languages are built to perform certain functions, and some are better at certain functions than others. Thus, if you want to create your own language, you should decide what functions that language does best.

You're always going to have nouns and verbs, and these are always going to have some modifiers. But the order really is up to you. For instance, let's say you have an aggressive alien race; they might start each sentence with the verb.

Always going to have you're nouns and verbs, and always are going these have 
modifiers some. But is the order up to you. For instance, let say us have 
you an alien race aggressive; might start they with a verb sentence each. 

Now, unless you've accidentally copied some other terrestrial language (or Yoda), you've got a new, alien structure. The next step is to deal with those little articles and other such syntactic sugar. Don't like a, an, and the? Turn them into prefixes! Don't like tense suffixes? Turn them into words! Again, these decisions could be based on the culture of the aliens you're trying to make, and what kinds of information they're trying to convey with the most clarity.

The last step (that I can think of) is punctuation. In English, we speak sentences differently based on the little symbol at the end. In an alien language, ending punctuation could be at the beginning, or could apply to individual parts of sentences (maybe the subject gets one tone, and the object another). There could be contractions in places English currently doesn't allow (like those tenses you turned into words, maybe future generations didn't approve). The way your language is punctuated could be based on the previous rules you've set, or on culture again, or even on the structure of the alien's speech organs. For instance, if it's a species that breathes a lot, there should be a lot of commas.

At the end of the day, you're only limited by the fact that the language has to make sense. Try to avoid cases where sentences are ambiguous, though even in English we have that problem (alternatively, instead of avoiding ambiguity, you could embrace it and come up with some great alien jokes). Make sure that the kinds of things your aliens like to talk about can be discussed easily.

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  • $\begingroup$ One downside of adjectives after nouns is when you have written text and the line wraps just after the noun. Then you start imagining the noun before you know how it looks. "I saw a cat ..... blue and white striped". So if you are prejudiced then you will start imagining a normally colored cat (whatever that may be in your case). And then you slap on the paint on it. And in this case maybe it was the colors and stripes that was most interesting. $\endgroup$ – Viktor Mellgren Sep 3 '15 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Vixen That is a good point, and one I never fully considered. However, in your example, I would still make the argument that the 'cat' itself is the most important part. Maybe you should just stop assuming what color it is :) $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Sep 3 '15 at 14:50
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Disclaimer:

When I worked in natural language processing, I wanted to get some intuition on what kind of structures would be parsable, i.e., the recipient could understand them with some varying degree of difficulty. Thus, I created a number of artificial languages just to see how it turns out in practice. So it happens, a lot of them seemed quite alien, but still had some unifying features. What follows below are some quick conclusions drawn from the ideas back then—some might ring true, other may be just plain wrong.

On compression:

There is one not really surprising characteristic of communication: it tends to get compressed. On average, as long as they are understandable, shorter phrases win. To give you some examples, for example we use "I'm" instead of "I am", there's "gonna" or "I'd" which can mean both "I had" and "I would". Observe that the most frequent words are short, and longer words are rarer—like an evolving Huffman coding algorithm.

It might be quite obvious, but it has great ramifications. To give you some concrete examples, it might be one of the reasons behind

  • structures like "I ate an apple and a banana." rather than "I ate an apple and I ate a banana.", or even more complex like "I gave a teacher an apple and a policemen a flower.",
  • dropping subject, e.g., "Give it to me!",
  • multiple other omissions, e.g., "What a stupid!",
  • popularity of pronouns, e.g., "He did this." instead of "Nabuchodonozor did this."

The thing is, in my opinion, any alien language will also obey this law, after all, communication is an expenditure of energy. Moreover, there is a well-known tradeoff between complexity and compression, and understanding/processing what the other person said is also costly.

Thus, certain constructions will be preferable both in human and non-human languages. Also, aliens of lesser intelligence might use more verbose language, smarter creatures will use more complex structures. Here I'm using "more verbose" or "complex" from the alien perspective, that is, their brain might be constructed in a way that makes some things trivial while other troublesome. To give you a funny example "The rat the cat the dog chased escaped." might be a valid and short sentence of English, but it would be easier for humans if expanded, still it could be easy for an alien who starts reading in both directions (left->right and right->left) simultaneously.

In short, in my opinion information theory matters to aliens too and you need an in-story reason to break its principles (and I don't think it is worth it).

On linearity:

If your aliens communicate with sound, then there is a great chance that their language will be linear.

On the other hand, although it might be unfeasible to transfer arbitrary 2D structures this way (for any living creature there is a limit to a precision it can distinguish harmonics), it could be multi-channel transfer. In fact humans do it already:

  • mimics and gestures,
  • emotion in the voice,
  • emoticons (it's quite rough, but you can think of it as a separate channel).

To make the language more alien you could incorporate some more channels that would transmit some alien-characteristic meanings of the sentence.

An example:

In fact, one way to make a language alien is to just dump the whole linear structure thing. Here is a sketch of the idea behind one of the languages I constructed at the time.

We start with no word order, and the structure of a sentence is driven by inflections. However, instead of the usual inflections, we make them more abstract: just for now, let's suppose that each word has a prefix with an identifier of its parent in structure, and suffixed with another indentifier that can be used by its children, for example "I ate an apple and a bannana" could be written as (the root and leaves have only one identifier).

3_I_ _ate_3 4_an_ 5_apple_4 3_and_5 6_a_ 5_bannana_6 .

diagram

or equivalently as

6_a_ _ate_3 4_an_ 3_I_ 3_and_5 5_bannana_6 5_apple_4.

or a bit more succinctly (the "and" is unnecessary) as

3_I_ _ate_3 4_an_ 3_apple_4 6_a_ 3_bannana_6 .

Now, the information theory comes and spoils the fun (although not all the fun), because:

  • the word order is additional information that is right now just thrown away, to this end we use the word order for emphasis.
  • structures like "3_a_6 6_bannana_" are quite inefficient, instead we have special prefix and suffix for that case and similar others: next word, previous word, parent of the previous word, grandparent of the previous words, etc.) e.g.

    3_a_<next word> <previous word>banana (a banana)

    nw_I_ _ate_2 pw_apple_ pp_banana_ pgp_went_3 pw_home (I ate [an] apple and [a] banana and I went to home)

  • the above also make some word orders more preferable
  • identifiers like 1, 2, 3 carry too little information, instead we should use something meaningful, for example syntactic like <subject>, <object>, <object2>, <verb>, <verb2>, or perhaps semantic like <action>, <beneficiary>, structural <root>, and so on; we resort to <token_42> very rarely

    _ate_r v_I_ v_apple pw_an v_banana pw_a

  • all the prefixes and suffixes should easily merge with the words into just a few sounds, the language should flow and be easy to pronounce (from alien perspective).

There are many more nuances here, but I will stop now, I think you will get the idea. There is one more final ingredient, after some phrases become very frequent, the boundaries between words and identifiers will blur and some expressions will become words on their own. Although such a language will be most probably agglutinative, it is bound to have certain irregularities, fusions and other quirks.

For any language you construct, before it's ready you have to make it alive, even for a moment. Let it evolve for a bit, in your head, or when discussing with a friend. After that, you will need to redesign it a little, fix some flaws, but then there will be some spirit in it.

Closing remarks:

So that's the example, I hope you like it. There are myriad of ways you could combine it with other features (like the multiple channels). However, please don't make an overkill. Not all the readers/viewers/whatever will be as smart as you, and very few (if anyone at all) will dive deep enough to understand and appreciate such a language. If you make it really alien, it will just confuse them and it might negatively impact on your story. In particular, even if the language is alien, the audience might feel quite good about themselves, when they will guess the rough meaning of an untranslated phrase based on a few previous usages. It might make for a fun, subtle spoiler and perhaps a nice Chekhov's device, but won't work if the language is too complex.

I hope this helps ;-)

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  • $\begingroup$ The amount of compression vs. redundancy will also depend on how reliable the communication is. A language that evolved in a noisy environment will probably have quite a bit of redundancy, so even if part of the message gets lost in the noise, it's still understood. While in a silent place, the less redundant, shorter version will win. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 1 '15 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk Agree 100%, it will also promote certain sounds, for example, so that in a noisy environment an alien version of lip-reading is possible (additional communication channel for redundancy). $\endgroup$ – dtldarek Sep 2 '15 at 6:31
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Most of what I wanted to write has been conveyed in some form by all the previous answers. Nevertheless, I thought I could add some summary and complement.

What constitutes a languages? Well the vocabulary, of course, as you mentioned, but not only. The grammar as well. And at the end, it is a complete mind process that is translated in a way to express oneself.

If you want to get a different feeling that English, you have to think that English sentences and more importantly words are pretty fixed. You rarely get away from the typical

Subject + Verb + Complement

and the nouns as well as the articles or even verbs barely change depending on other words. So you need to introduce all that to reinforce the feeling of strangeness to English speakers.

As the others, I would say that the first step is to know other real-life languages. Which features do they have, and why and so on. But let us introduce some concepts which might get immediate changes to the feeling of your conlang.

Conjugation

Verbs are quite fixed in English, with basically three tenses, and in most, only a change on the third person singular.

Think about Spanish, where every variation within a tense has to be clear enough to omit completely the pronoun as a subject.

[yo] como; [tu] comes; [el/ella] come; [nosotros] comemos; [vosotros] comeis; [ellos] comen

And adding some more variations with tenses: one or more future, one or more present, two-three pasts forms. And different moods. For example, French and Spanish have 4 of them.

Declination

That is known from Latin, Russian or German. Depending on the position/function of the nominal group within the sentence, the words change. For example, in German

der Tisch (Nominativ), des Tischs (Genitiv), den Tisch (Akkusativ), or dem Tisch (Dativ) in German.

German is quite simple in this, but from what I know of Russian, they have more cases, and worse, similarly to other slavic languages, they have declination depending on the gender (male/female) of the subject and/or the number.

Japanese and Korean have some forms of declination (I am not sure what's the best word for it) to indicate the politeness, or the level of respect given to the interlocutor.1

Mutation

Some languages have mutations. This is due to the fact that pronouncing the words as they are can be quite difficult. To get an idea as English speakers, when indicating a possessive form of a plural word, you often omit the second "s". Like

The Smiths' house is the one over there.

The "correct" Smiths's would result in some complex expression. Some languages go further and actually change the letters.

In Breton, kiger (= Butcher) gives ar c'higer or ar gigerez (= the butcher) depending if its a male or a female person.

Position of the verbs

The order of the words may vary. For example, in English, there are many verbs with particles. For example,

make, make out, make up

have completely different meanings. Nevertheless, the verb and its particle tend to stick quite close to each other. This is, for example, not the case in German, where the particle is sent... at the end of the sentence.

making up an excuse on my way to work becomes making an excuse on my way to work up

And this has an effect on conversations. Indeed, the verb is the most important part of most sentences. That is the one which carry the meaning. If you can't grasp the meaning of a sentence until the very end, you are forced to listen to that person until then. Whereas Romance languages speakers tend to interrupt each other much more frequently. Japanese is similar to German for that having their verbs always at the end of the sentence.2

More grammar words

It was mentioned in an earlier answer, but French, Spanish, and other have a much larger variety of determinants and linking words. But to illustrate this concept, I would use Japanese as an illustration.

わたしはアメリカにいきます。I/me-wa USA-ni go = I go to the USA.

They have some particles to indicate the grammatical function taken by what precedes. wa indicates the subject. ni the destination of the verb to go.

Shuffle around

The use of such extra words allow Japanese to move nominal groups around. Their function being indicated by the following particle. Other languages do the same. For example, in Breton

Pesked a zebran alies

Alies e tebran pesked

Debrin a ran pesked alies

all mean the same thing (I often eat fish), but the order of the words is moved around. The main idea, is that the emphasis is placed upon the first group. So depending on the intention of the locutor, the whole sentence looks pretty different.

All those are somewhat simple rules from real languages that could be included to make the sentence sound less English.

1: Most languages I know have some form of politeness in it. But contrary to, e.g., Japanese and Korean, they merely choose a different subject and do not change much more than that. Yet English lost that distinction with the now deceased thou/...

2: In German composed modals, or composed tenses also send more than just the particle at the end of the sentence.

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  • $\begingroup$ Of course the punctuation could be changed as well, spaces may or may not be added, etc. Anyhow, my main motivation for that answer was to write about the Breton language ;-) $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Aug 31 '15 at 21:40
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If you want to make a language that truly sounds weird, try messing around with what grammatical bits and pieces are and are not required. This is ___ main reason why Russian speech sounds strange to ___ American ear: ___ word "___" does not exist in Russian.

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In addition to the other great sugggestions here, I want to point out that changing the morphological structure of your language can be a big help. English has a very distinct morphological structure, so copying it too closely can make your languages seem English-like even if the phonology is very different.

Languages generally fall somewhere in a spectrum between synthetic and analytic. More synthetic languages tend to express grammar with morphology—they add affixes and mutate the structure of words. In English, the plural is expressed synthetically—we add a suffix (s or es) to the base word to make it plural. The past tense is also expressed synthetically; we add a suffix -ed to regular verbs to make them past tense.

Languages on the analytic side like to use syntax and extra words to express grammar. In English, we express the nominative/accusative distinction analytically; in The man loves the girl, the man is the subject, so it appears before the verb, while the girl, the object, comes after the verb. Some languages express this distinction synthetically, e.g. Latin Vir puellam amat—the suffix -am on puella, "girl", marks it as accusative.

Synethesis can also be divided into two types—agglutinative and fusional. In agglutinative languages, distinct concepts are expressed with distinct morphemes. E.g. in Japanese, "I read" (lit. "read") is yomu, "I can read" (lit. "can read") is yomeru with the suffix -eru, and "I cannot read it" is yomenai with the suffixes -eru and -nai. Notice how the separate ideas "can" and "not" are expressed with separate suffixes that stack up, sometimes causing phonological changes as they do. (The truth about Japanese grammar is far more complex, but I won't go into it here.)

In fusional languages, several grammatical concepts will be bundled into a single affix. E.g. in Spanish, Hablaron means "They spoke". It comes from the root habl- and the suffix -aron, which means third-personal plural preterit (a type of past tense). This suffix has no internal structure to it; there isn't a piece that means "third-person", a piece that means "plural", and a piece that means "preterit" like there was in the Japanese example. (Note that the preterit tense also conflates several different concepts, but I won't go into that here.)

English has a very distinctive character even among European languages: it's very far to the analytic side, but it retains these little bits of synthesis, as we see in the plurals and the verb tenses, and usually tends towards fusional rather than agglutinative. Most European languages are more synthetic than English—some just a little (French, Spanish, German), some drastically so (Russian, Lithuanian, Greek). Among world languages, Chinese and Vietnamese are even more analytic than English, while many languages are more synthetic. European languages tend to be fusional, as do the related Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Farsi, Sinhalese). Turkish, Japanese, Korean, and many Native American languages are more agglutinative.

If you'd like to read more about this, Mark Rosenfelder's Language Construction Kit, mentioned in an earlier comment, has a great explanation.

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It depends how alien the aliens are. For example, supposing they are utterly logical and have an enormous short-term memory. Then they could use something akin to some computer or mathematical constructs. For example:

A Post canonical system, as created by Emil Post, is a string-manipulation system that starts with finitely-many strings and repeatedly transforms them by applying a finite set j of specified rules of a certain form, thus generating a formal language.

Post canonical system From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

I think you need to specify first what the alien brains are like and how the aliens think. Then you will be able to depart from humanising their language.

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While it is not specifically about aliens, I think the book "The Languages of the Pao" by Jack Vance might be an interesting read for you as it constructs a world where the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (or linguistic relativity) plays a central role. The strong version is used here, which states that language shapes thought.

The book describes how giving different groups of humans different artificially constructed languages changes the way those groups think and behave. For example, a language constructed to emphasize overcoming adversity, strength and military success shapes the group that uses the language to be soldiers. An example of an English translation of this language (paraphrased and from the top of my head, it has been a while since I last read the book) could be:

Alice overcame the the hardness of the tree with fierce swings from her axe.

Instead of the neutral:

Alice chopped down the tree with her axe.

Imagine that a language would not allow the simple and neutral form, but put everything in terms of winning, conquering, enduring, et cetera. Other example from the book include a trader language that emphasized honorifics and contracts and a technical language that emphasized precision.

I believe illustrations like the above might help you make the a language more alien by incorporating the concepts that the aliens find important, as other answers have mentioned, heavily into the language. Unless creating an alien language only needs to look alien of course, and the English translation of what it conveys is not important.

Another thought that I am certain I have read in another SF or fantasy book somewhere is a language that solely consists of references to stories/legends to convey meaning. This might also make your alien language very strange to human ears if taken to the extreme.

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    $\begingroup$ Two examples of a fictional languages consisting solely of references to sources already known to the speakers are the Star Trek Next Generation episode "Darmok" en.memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Darmok_(episode) , in which every utterence referred to legends or historical events, and the Asician language in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascian_language , in which every utterence had to be an approved goverment propaganda slogan. Both are depicted plausibly, but I always wondered how children would learn such languages. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Aug 31 '15 at 22:23
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I'm going to refine the "study other languages" suggestion in many of these answers: study one other language and learn how it works. Your language will sound more plausible if you didn't take "one from column A, one from column B" when considering word order, conjugation, declension, aspect, and so on. But on the other hand, since most of your readers probably won't know the language you chose, you can copy elements and still seem "foreign".

Pick a (non-Romance) language and look for a grammar that explains it. (If you're weak on formal grammar you'll want to work on that first.) If you get lucky you'll find a book that explains how the grammar works as compared to English; I found such a book when studying Hebrew. You don't actually need to learn a lot of vocabulary; after all, you're going to make your own. But learning a little will help you understand the grammatical principles of that language.

If you're not a linguist or already multi-lingual, I would stop here and construct a language modelled on your exemplar. Yes, it'll be (say) Bulgarian with the serial numbers filed off, but you won't have to invent every aspect of the language yourself. If you need to adapt the language because, say, your aliens have three genders and your language is gendered, then go ahead and so something that feels consistent to you.

As you work more with your invented language you'll probably get more comfortable with making minor tweaks. You probably don't want to completely change how you, say, construct prepositional phrases, but you can (a) introduce minor variations (in English there are lots of ways to say the same thing; why not in your language too?) and (b) build out stuff that you didn't do much with initially.

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Take as your model one or more "non-Western" languages (Asian or African). Most of them are very different from English.

The problem with using European languages is that English is derived from either Germanic or Latin languages, and most share features with English. The European group of languages least like English is the Slavic languages.

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  • $\begingroup$ Slavic and English are related, and, in the grand scheme of things, rather closely related. There are European languages (as in, spoken on the European continent) which are completely unrelated to both English and the Slavic languages, like Basque and Finnish. Then there are languages which are members of the Indo-European family which are fairly distantly related to both groups, like Latvian and Albanian. It depends on how you define "likeness", but by most measures, these are a lot more different from English than most Slavic languages (though there are variations within this group, too). $\endgroup$ – tripleee Sep 1 '15 at 6:46
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Note that language is more than vocabulary and grammar. For example, I've been told that in Korean, you use different words for the same things, depending on to whom you speak. In Chinese, the pitch plays a role in the meaning, with the result that you cannot accurately sing Chinese text; the melody interferes with the correct pronunciation.

So you see, there are many ways to make your language alien. For example, maybe your aliens consist of two "classes" or "castes", who use slightly different language. Maybe the upper class uses gender forms (I mean, pairs like "actor"/"actress") only when speaking about members of their own class, while using a completely different, gender-neutral form when speaking about lower-class people. The lower-class people use the same gender forms for upper-class people as the upper-class people use, but also use gendered forms (but different ones) for people of their own class. For animals, both classes use only the gender-neutral forms. If they want to specify whether it's a male or female animal (or, for upper class people, a male or female lower class person) they explicitly say e.g. "male cat"/"female cat" (except, of course, using words from their own language).

This latter, constructed example also shows how social aspects can influence language. That the upper class uses the same genderless form for lower-class people which they also use for animals shows how they see (or historically have seen) the lower class. The differences in the language also codify that movement between classes is probably hard, if not impossible.

But also in terms of grammar there's a lot of room of doing things differently. For example, we are used to signify the tense by the verb. But who says this has to be the case? The tense could just as well be put on the subject, so that instead of saying "The dog barked", that is "The dog barks in the past" you say something like "The doged barks", that is, "The dog in the past barks". Thinking about it, the formulations I used as explanations also are examples of an alternative way to form tenses.

Also, maybe the alien language doesn't have our types of words (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.). Maybe they have only nouns and adjectives, and a form of "to be" is implicit. For example, instead of the verb "to bark" they'd only have an adjective "barking", and "the barking dog" is a complete sentence meaning "the dog barks" while "the brown barking dog" means "the barking dog is brown", while "the brown and barking dog" means "the dog is brown and barks".

The hoping me, helpful thised.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or: "the barking dog" means the same as it does in English, but "the dog barking" means "the dog barks." Adjectives in Koine Greek work somewhat like this. $\endgroup$ – DLosc Aug 31 '15 at 21:37
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Some remarks:

  1. If I were creating a language, I'll make grammar simple and take the inflection of English (that is, analytical), except for tenses (do we really need 12 (at least) tenses?), so maybe more like Chinese. However, if you're more keen on complexity, you may check out Ithkuil, a constructed logical language with great multitude of sounds and inflection categories (by Wikipedia article, the number of cases alone is 81, and there are 153 inflecting affixes).
  2. Some answers are about getting rid of natural categories, like verbs, which happens in some conlangs. Apparently, it also happens in vivo – look for Riau Indonesian, which is even called grammarless. Oh, and it seems to lack second person as well.
  3. However, maybe introducing more categories than usual would be more exotic? E.g. (with distinct inflection): animate nouns, inanimate nouns, abstract nouns, verbs of state, verbs of action, verbs without apparent agent (as in 'it rains', 'it is cold', 'it seems').
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  • $\begingroup$ That's a great answer. I was about to write an answer about some languages that categorize words differently than English. For example, Korean doesn't really make a difference between adjectives and verbs. Adjectives are replaced by descriptive verbs: basically, Korean knows "to be pretty" but not "pretty" itself. $\endgroup$ – Taladris Jan 20 '17 at 4:46
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While not wholly centered around story, this article captures some of the methods used for the alien writing in Infinifactory.

It may be an interesting read for you.

Furthermore, to directly answer your question;

If you want to make a language that is structurally non-english, you need to break the rules of english.

In this sentence, for instance, I use commas to separate words, and the word 'and' to separate ideas. In your language, you may not use them at all, or add a 'iqu' to the end of words that are part of a series.

An example:

I have a cat, a dog, and a fish.

Would become:

I have catiqu dogiqu fishiqu.

If your language is different enough, the addition wont look so strange.

J'dani de zatiqu bakaniqu ghotiqu.

Furthermore, you can make sure that there is no one-to-one comparison of words, unless necessary.

So instead of a word for airplane, you'd use 'sky' and 'wing' together.

tl;dr:

Break the rules, they're more like guidelines anyway.

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This might be not exactly an answer to this question. It is just a complement over other answers here.

To make your language the most alien-like, lets try to get its syntax as the most unheard, strange and unnatural for humans.

Natural human languages have things like nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, etc. What if you have a language where one or many of them are completely absent? I really can't think how something could be without nouns. So, let's see if we can take out everything else and keep only the nouns!

Instead of "Attack them with the lasers", let's use something like "Hords lasers enemies". The order "Hords lasers enemies" also follows the temporal ordering, first we have the hords, them the lasers and then the enemies. Although English allows "lasers" to be a verb, I am intending that it is a noun.

Applying it to something more complicated like "The dog happily chased the yellow cat in circles", we can have it as "dog happy cat yellow prisioner foot external also repeat circle". Where "prisioner foot external" means "to flee" and then "prisioner foot external also" is "to chase". This complex phrase is expressed entirely without any verbs.

To make it more alien-like, lets instead reverse the time order. So we have "enemies lasers hords" as "Attack them with the lasers" and we have "circle repeat also external foot prisioner yellow cat happy dog" as "The dog happily chased the yellow cat in circles".

Human languages flexes words by number (plurals), genders, size, time, etc. We can either take out all of those humanly flexions and instead use something more weird, like:

  • Color. So blue thing flexes in a way, red in another way, also for green, orange, pink, purple, black, gray and white. Also aliens have a vision very different than humans although still biologically plausible (with anything from mid-infrared to soft x-rays), so we can also have infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray and combinations that makes no sense for humans like color J that is "a mix between soft x-ray and yellow", color K that is a "middle-infraredly pinkish green", color L that is an "brown-cyan graying-near-ultraviolet with a bit of near infrared"... Also, since they have a much larger visible spectrum than humans (not necessarily in a single range), they might be able to see trillions or quatrillions of colors, so this might ended being very important in their language structure.

  • Textures. With the big number of colors that they may be able to see, it is imaginable that we might have some complex visual textures. So things might flex if it is transparent, opaque, bland, checkers-boarded, chaotically random, gradient, striped, wavy.

  • Shape. Words for triangular things flexes in one way. For square things in another. Same for hexagons, cubic, pyramidal, spheric, rod-shaped, tree-shaped, spider-shaped, wavy, straight...

  • Person or thing job. So, we can have words flexing differently for workers, kings or royalties, gods, unemployeds, criminals, children, working machines, broken machines, hollow objects, compact objects, etc.

  • Place were the event happened. So, we can have words flexing differently for over ground, underground, air, space, over water, underwater, over ice, frozen in ice, over lava, molten in lavas, air bubble in solid or liquid.

  • Speed. We have different flexions for speedy things, slowly moving things, things at rest and retrograde moving things.

  • Pitch. Birds frequently communicate by using different pitches. The aliens do the same and their words flexes with pitch, so a grave "foo" is totally differently than a mid-pitched "foo" which also is totally different from an acute "foo".

For nouns that represents fellings or simple substantives, we all do know that:

  • The word for "Water" flexes for being water-color (a bluesh-violet with a tint of X-rays, since water absorbs IR and UV light and absorbs part of the red, orange and yellow hues) spheric transparent slowly-moving underwater. And it should be spoken in a high-pitched voice to not be confounded with a crab-like photosyntesizing creature that lives on rivers which is pronounced by the same word but using a low-pitch.

  • The word for "Happy" flexes for being a near-infraredly blueish, tree-like underwater childish speedy feeling. This should be spoken with a middle pitch. Pretty obvious, isn't it?

  • The word for "Love" flexes for being a yellowish x-ray striped hexagonal broken machine retrograde-moving feeling on the sky. Should be spoken in an acute voice in the first half of the word and with a grave voice in the second half.

  • The word for "Smart" flexes for being something associated with an opaque grayish near-UV spider-shaped worker stopped over the ground. It should be spoken in a grave voice in its first and third parts, but its middle has a middle-pitch.

See? I think that everyone agrees that this scheme of word flexion makes perfect sense for someone who normally speaks English!

Finally let's give a look into programming languages. The aliens are very smart and could speak something that has the structure of object-oriented programming featuring things like aspects, closures, properties, listeners and design patterns. However, unfortunately for us humans, it also features weird, but wonderful, things based on colors (not restricted to what humans considers visible), textures, shapes and pitches. It is truly a very interesting and rich language. And their language scheme and richness is an essential part of what made them superintelligent beings capable of spacetravel.

However, even if you manage to learn their language and understand what the aliens speak, you will never be able to speak it directly with your own lips, even if you learn to quickly and precisely change your voice pitch. The reason is that their talking apparatus and their hearing system is completely different than what happens with us humans. So, their phonemes sounds very different from the humans one. Humans have phonemes that are either vowels or consonants. Aliens, on the other hand, uses phonemes that could be categorized as groars, barks or flutes.

In the end their their phrases, texts and speaks would resemble the structure of a very advanced, but also very esoteric programming language, in which the words (or tokens) sound for our ears as a random, but still patterned, very strange music composed of a very complex mix of clicks, slams, growls, roars, screechs, quacks, barks, sounds of drunken elephants trying to imitate cows, broken bells ringing underwater and drug-addicted birds singing while having diarrhea.

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Some minor suggestions:

  • For a written language, eliminate blank spaces between words.
  • Alternatively, come up with weird rules when words are compounded without blanks and when they retain blanks.
  • The different persons in a conjugation could look/sound quite different. "I am" vs. "you are" vs. "he is" taken to extremes. That makes it difficult for readers, of course.
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I will second here the idea of studying other languages and get inspiration from their structures.

You need not even go too far: in German, for example, the verb generally comes last in relative clauses. It also happens that when a verb is composed of two words (like in "I was skiing") the second word is pushed back to the end of the clause. Such a structure is quite different from English.

However, for an even greater difference, I would recommend looking into artificial languages. Not languages like Esperanto, languages like Loglan.

The language’s grammar is based on predicate logic, which is why it was named Loglan, an abbreviation for "logical language".

Specifically:

Loglan has no distinction between nouns and verbs. The predicate words can serve as verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs depending on where they occur in a sentence. Each predicate has its argument structure with places for arguments, which may be variables.

Now, that is really different.

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If you want a major change from English, look to changing the syntax of the sentences. An easy change might be to add adjectives after nouns instead of before. Deletion of all prepositional phrases should make the language sound more formal. Depending on the storyline, delete or merge all pronouns or mess with tenses. Try to show something has happened in the past without using past tense verbs.

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Great answers, to which I'll add two concrete suggestions:

  1. Get the book "Word Play: What Happens When People Talk" by Peter Farb. A fascinating look at languages.

  2. One of the things I learned about from that book was trade languages (Pidgin, lingua franca). For example, in a trade language you might create a plural by repeating a noun. So "boy" becomes not "boys" but "boy boy".

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I find that one could subtly modify the perception of a language by using the E-Prime rules. Readers would not notice anything amiss for a while, then the discourse would begin to appear weird.

I have also always appreciated another variation that people usually call Spockspeak, even if I find it much more taxing.

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  • $\begingroup$ So what is Spockspeak? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 20 '17 at 0:37

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