Nightmare Tongue 2: What Does it Sound Like?

In my (limited) experience, there are three ways you can start creating a language. 1) Focus on the grammar. This is what the creators of lojban and its predecessor loglan (mostly) did, basing their unambiguous language on mathematical predicate logic. 2) Focus on the sounds. I imagine this is what Tolkein did in creating Elvish, but I have no hard proof other than it’s a very good- and real-sounding language, which means at the very least that he paid a lot of attention to the phonology. 3) Focus on the alphabet. This is the route I usually took, because when I was young and impatient (well, more impatient), that was the only part fun enough to hold my interest. (Now that I’ve grown into the obsessive freak of nature that I am, I can focus on anything.)

For the Nightmare Tongue project, I’m taking Option 2: Start with the phonemes. Since I want this language to sound bizarre and creepy and evil, we need bizarre and creepy and evil phonemes. (Not that it’ll necessarily be evil and creepy; as I learned in German class, screaming Ich müss meine Hose finden! makes you sound like an irate and psychotic drill sergeant. Only in German (as far as I know) can “I need to find my pants!” sound threatening).

When you learn another language, you find out very quickly that speakers of different languages attach very different meanings to sounds and even to equivalent words. For instance, in German, saying “I ate…” translates (very roughly; for some reason, they didn’t think learning the past or future tenses was terribly important) to “Ich aß…” which, when you say it, sounds like Alfred Hitchcock, in his haughtiest possible British English saying “Eek! Ass!” Even as a supposedly mature adult college student, I had to force myself not to smile at that. And considering how wild and diverse languages are, it would seem like each would have its own independent set of grammars and meanings. For instance, I learned from the incomparable Dr. Ralf Thiede that there’s an Aboriginal Australian language in which you add meaning to sentences by adding prefixes and suffixes to words, which means most sentences are all of one word long.

That said, there do seem to be some common principles underlying most or all human languages. For one thing, the “deep structure” of the grammar (including things like the existence of nouns and verbs, et cetera) is almost invariant across language. Paraphrasing the late Sir Terry Pratchett (I’m sad that I have to add “late”…), you can’t have a language that has “No nouns and only one adjective, which is obscene.” That’s not how human languages work. This seems to be tied to the structure of the human brain and mind, and the way we recognize objects and people.

But on a deeper level, it’s possible that human languages don’t assign their sounds to meanings (and vice versa) completely arbitrarily. I’m going to put up a famous picture of two objects. One is called bouba and the other kiki. Or, if you prefer, keki and booba or booboo and keekee or boubou and keek decide which word names which thing:


Which one did you decide to call kiki? If you picked the spiky one on the left, you’re in the majority (the above-ninety-percent majority, according to one study). The study in question found that American college students and native speakers of Tamil in India called the spiky shape kiki over 90% of the time. (Fun fact: Tamil is among the longest-lived languages in everyday usage, its history going back to at least 100 BCE. Sanskrit, which today is almost exclusively used for religious studies and ceremonies among Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, probably existed in a recognizable form before 1000 BCE. India’s cool.) Anyway–the bouba/kiki effect seems to hold across language barriers, and can even be identified among those who can’t read. Some say it might be related to synesthesia, a bizarre and awesome perceptual effect in which some people unconsciously and automatically experience certain stimuli (often numbers, particular letters of the alphabet, tastes, or days of the weak) as having qualities belonging to a different sense entirely. Famously, the mathematical savant Daniel Tammet (whom I’ve mentioned before) reportedly experiences colors, images, shapes, and movements, a specific one associated with every integer from 1 to 10,000. More frequently in synesthesia, the digits from 0 to 9 will each have their own color. This effect might be more common than we think, too: I’m not a synaesthete, but I find it difficult not to associate zero with black, one with white, two with blue, three with a red triangle, and four with a green square. And it’s been suggested that the bouba/kiki effect is a more universal example of the same phenomenon: a particular shape is automatically associated more strongly with one sound than another. I don’t know Mr. Tammet personally, but I imagine if you tried to ask him to imagine a beautiful white number 6 (a number he dislikes and whose image he finds hard to grasp), he’d get a little upset. It just doesn’t make sense to him, the way he sees numbers. And maybe that’s why so many people called the pointy thing kiki.

As a reader pointed out not too long ago, I ramble like an absentminded professor who’s had too much coffee. That’s because, apart from the Ph.D. and the status (and the coherence, and the chance to teach the next generation of scholars…) that’s pretty much what I am. But my rambling is never without purpose: my point is that there are some sounds that are going to fit better in a Lovecraftian nightmare language than others.

Speaking of Lovecraft, consider the famous incantation: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. This is, of course, a poor mimicry of the language of the Elder Things, which human tongues cannot speak. But consider fhtagn. If you pronounce it “FFT-AGH-NNN,” it sounds scary. Like a wolf growling, almost. If you pronounce it “FT-AY-NNN,” it loses most of its teeth. And if you pronounce it “FFT-AG-EN,” you just make me think of this


which doesn’t exactly scream “cosmic horror whose mere presence brings reality-splitting madness.”

Or, returning to Tolkein, consider the name of the nine wringwraiths, the fearsome Black Riders: Nazgûl. That is fucking scary. I feel like I accidentally put a hex on my neighbors just by typing it. Something about that Z sound. You find it in a lot of scary names,

Beelzebub, for instance:

or Azazel, whose reference is uncertain but often used to refer to demons.

Speaking of demons, I think demon names are going to be my main source for phonemes. I’m not religious enough to be a Satanist, so don’t worry, I’m not tumbling into madness (or at least not that particular flavor of madness), but I am, after all, creating a Nightmare Tongue. Why not take its sounds from the names of the most horrible things in folklore and mythology? What follows is a reference more for my sake than anything else, so don’t feel obligated to read the whole thing. These are just some of the places I’ll be drawing my phonemes from. Incidentally, although I hate to do it since it might alienate the non-linguists out there, I’m going to have no choice but to start bringing International Phonetic Alphabet symbols (or rather, the X-SAMPA versions, which will always be the first item in the parentheses) into this. I’ll try to sound them out wherever necessary.

From Nazgûl: N (X-SAMPA: n), A (X-SAMPA: A, American and British English: father), U (u, American English: food)

From Azazel: Z (z), AZ (Az, A as in father), ZAZ (zez, in American and most British English, e = fate or crate)

From English slither, which is both my favorite word and my pick for English’s creepiest word: S (s), L (l or l`, think “love” as pronounced by a creepy villain in a horror movie), TH (D, English: then. I will, of course, be using the awesome Old English/Icelandic character eth (ð) for this sound, and thorn (þ) for the un-voiced th sound at the beginning of words like thorn and throw.)

From Spanish and French: R (R\, the rolled one; this is funny because this is one sound I can barely make even on a good day, despite being able to pronounce almost all of the IPA chart).

From my crazy-ass head: TS (this is the first of the “really weird” phonemes I’m adding; to pronounce it, press the tip of your tongue to the back of your upper teeth and make a quick “S” or “TS” sound, like you’re trying to warn a cat off clawing at the curtains; the X-SAMPA symbol for this one is s_>. Fun fact: Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet will give you spells of what look like Tourette’s Syndrome. I’d like you to imagine me, sitting at my computer, reading Wikipedia articles on consonant articulation, and every few seconds going “TS!” as I try to figure out where in the mouth the sound is articulated. This is why you should never do linguistics in public.)

From everywhere: F (f), V (v)

From English liquid: QW (kW, k is the standard English voiceless velar plosive as in kick and kill and kettle, and W is a breathy, voiceless approximant a little like a cross between hwa and fwa).

From everywhere and my crazy-ass head: T (t_>, a bit like the English t in tea and touch, but pronounced with an audible pop by curling back the tongue and pressing the tip against the hard palate, building up air pressure in the throat, and releasing).

From some dialects of British English and a few cool Eastern European languages like Armenian and Georgian: > (k_>, a velar ejective, like the K in kite and kick, a sort of cross between a regular K and a click).

From Xibalba, the awesome Mayan word for the underworld, the X which is really more like English SH (s`). Fun fact, with spoilers if you haven’t read the Popol Vuh, which you totally should: In Xibalba, there’s a Mayan handball court where the ball is somehow both spherical and razor-sharp. There’s a river of blood and a river of pus. There’s a demon dedicated to making people vomit blood. There’s a house that’s constantly full of flying daggers, a house full of decapitating screeching bats, and a house where you have to smoke cigars without burning them up, or else you die. One of the Mayan hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanqe (Xbalanqe is pronounced very roughly “ZH-BALL-AN-KAY”) plays death-basketball with his brother’s severed head. And the skull of Hunahpu’s father One-Hunahpu sits in a tree and gets a girl pregnant by spitting in her hand. (Yes, I know there’s more to Mayan mythology than blood and death; the rest of the Popol Vuh has stuff like giant malevolent crocodiles, a group of two hundred boys that might be some sort of hive mind, and a fairly friendly creator deity called Q’uq’umatz whose name translates to the no less awesome “Sovereign Feathered Serpent.”) Also, the Mayan gods took three tries to create humanity. I may have the order wrong, but I think the first time, they tried making humans out of mud, and the results were horrible and deformed and most died before the gods mercy-killed the survivors. The second batch were made of wood and were terrifying fucking soulless automatons. That’s right: soulless wooden Mayan robots. Now there’s a sentence to make you sound like a delirious homeless dude on the bus. The third batch were made of clay (I think) and came out okay.

From everywhere: P (p)

From English words mixaxox, and hex: K (ks)

From everywhere: W ( w )

From English words like noodle and super and (roughly) from German words like über: U (u)

From a lot of places, including the sound between “u” and “oh” in “uh-oh”, the end of the Cockney pronunciation of “cat”, and the British and sometimes American button (the buh-un form): ? (?, the glottal stop)

From everywhere: D (d)

From everywhere: G (g)

From everywhere: O (o, American English gross, American and British English: boat)

From everywhere: B (b)

From English leisure ZH (Z)

From English pin: I (I)

From English keen: E (i)

I think I’ll make a master list that sits in its own post. For now, though, I need to go rest my brain and my tongue. I’ve pronounced more weird consonants in the last hour than a Polish man and his Welsh wife reading Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars series to each other.

(I don’t know Welsh or Polish. I do know that there’s a Welsh town named Cwmbran, which I would pronounce “KOOM-BRAN.” There’s another Welsh town called Pwllheli (pronounced (very roughly) POO-KHELL-EE). And there’s the Czech city of Brno, which always looks odd to me when I write it.)


4 thoughts on “Nightmare Tongue 2: What Does it Sound Like?

  1. …I’m sorry, but people need to be told how to pronounce word-quarks? This is kindergarten. And it’s nothing to do with grammar, which is the art, some might say, of arranging words into sentences as best one can within the rules of the language itself. Syntax and theory deal with American english that is of a piece yet longer than one sentence.

    New languages: in 20 years maybe 200 have come into existence, and most now lie dead or dying. If course, I refer to coding language. As an accidental it guy (hobby, still professional-level), the best code is the simplest, briefest, most coherent, most easily understood language that also fulfills the syntaxtical needs of the machine and what it understands — a program cannot open a java project, eg, because in essence it has no idea what the gibberish is about, but it’s getting worried.

    It is believed early humans sang before thet spoke bit this seems a terribly obvious false dichotomy, or presenting anfalse choice — in this case presuming without evidence iser that singing would preclude and lead to speach when it seems ridiculous song and speech would not be implied simultaneously… As they always have been…

    Why nouns? There is stuff we want ot fear or will kill is or we want to copulate with and people without eidetic memory need to label everything. Why verbs? So you run because a tiger is about to — yeah… Killed you. Why gerunds? Because the beat goes on! Why adverbs? Because people can use them without having to know what they are. Why adjectives? Your leftovers stink and will kill you.

    Why the confusing of the tongues? It developed along the coast of Pangaea as humans settled the world. And apes are tribal and obsessed with their place within the group so they see the half of them who are shrinks… And feel the need to communicate every little stupid thing they did again in the lazy susan life they cannot enjoy.

    Linguistics is more interesting approached with the ithet disciplines. Studying and obsessing over phonemes… As a writer and speaker of american english, you’ll end up without glottal stops, (oh there isn’t a thing that is silent th or whatever it was. Unless a eadical and untenable sonic departure from speech.

    You wan guttural, hard, assertive tones agressive and alien. Mix Arabic and Tutsi.

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