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.)


The Nightmare Tongue, Part 1

This series is going to be a little different. A sort of ongoing project. Don’t worry, I won’t let it derail my other bizarre ramblings.

Anyway, here’s the project: I’m going to construct a language. There’s a whole community dedicated to that, but it wasn’t for nothing that my grade-school teachers kept writing “Doesn’t play well with others” and “Is not very good at taking turns” and “Shithead” on my papers. I’m going to go at this more or less alone. (Unless any of my readers are compelled to hop on this loony rollercoaster with me.)

The premises and requirements of the Nightmare Tongue are simple. Not like lojban, a constructed language based on freakin’ mathematical logic which is so sprawling and complex that the language itself has its own Creative Commons License (I think). I want the premises to be simple, but there’s a reason I’m calling the language The Nightmare Tongue. I want it to be the kind of language demons or evil aliens or sentient hyenas would speak. I want a language that sounds scary. I want a language in which you can use a phrase to express weird thoughts James Joyce couldn’t express in English. (Re-reading that last sentence makes me realize I really need to get more sleep…) Why? Fun, mostly. Because I’ve dabbled in creating languages in the past, but I want to take a serious shot at it. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I learned just how much effort and love J.R.R. Tolkein put into Elvish. Tolkein is a famed and respected writer, and Elvish is a beautiful and nuanced language. I remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring on freakin’ VHS when it first came out, and how the actress playing Arwen said she loved speaking Elvish.

Tolkein is a famed and respected writer and scholar (if I remember correctly, he did his own translation of Beowulf). I’m a madman on the Internet with too much time on his hands. The Nightmare Tongue isn’t going to be nearly as pretty as Elvish. But here’s a list of the things I do want it to be:

  • Pronounceable. I don’t want to turn this into some jackass art project where I deliberately try to be as dense as possible. Despite my sentient-hyena example from earlier, I want the Nightmare Tongue to be pronounceable by the human vocal tract. I do intend to stuff as many weird clicks and other bizarre consonants in there as I can, but I want it to be the kind of thing that a person can, with practice, speak fluently and with a nice rhythm.
  • Weird-sounding. Icelandic is an infamously complicated language. Years ago, everybody panicked because an Icelandic volcano erupted and pretty much blocked the flyways through Europe for a week. The name of that volcano is, of course, Eyjafjallajökull. (It probably says something about me that I spelled that right on the first try, but that I still get the I and the E the wrong way around in “receive”…) Eyjafjallajökull is roughly pronounced (forgive me, Icelanders–even in text I’m going to mess it up) “EY-aff-yaht-lah-YO-kut-th.” Those double-Ls are a weird-sounding phoneme we don’t have in English: a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. It’s (roughly) the kind of sound you make when you try to say the English letters “K” and “L” at the same time. You’ve probably seen this consonant before without realizing it. The name of the feathered serpent, the badass Aztec god Quetazalcoatl has one at the end, so if you want to pronounce it authentically, unless you speak Nahuatl (there it is again), you’re going to end up spitting on the person in front of you. Random fact: I used to work with a guy from Mexico who spoke Nahuatl fluently. It sounded awesome.
  • Complex.  Once again, I don’t want to descend too far into navel-gazing (for one thing, navels are kinda gross). By which I mean I don’t want an impenetrable mess of a language that’s purposely too difficult for anybody to learn. It wouldn’t be hard to make a language like that. After all, as Lewis Caroll once pointed out (I’m paraphrasing), you and I are imperfect speakers of English and imperfect doers of arithmetic because it takes us a lot of effort to decipher the perfectly grammatical sentence “What is the sum of one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one and the largest prime factor of one plus one plus one plus one all multiplied by one plus one plus one plus one.” I’m sorry you had to see that. My point is, I want the grammar to be bizarre, complex, and alien, but I don’t want some abstract-art nonsense that’s impossible and pretentious.
  • Writeable. The Nightmare Tongue will have a written alphabet. When I first got interested in created languages (thanks to Tolkein), the invented writing was one of my favorite parts. Plus, one of my cousins gave me some sweet calligraphy pens for my birthday, so I’ll be able to write that alphabet in BLOOD RED. (I really need to get more sleep…)
  • Complete. Or as close as I can get. This site is all about thought experiments, but it’s also about fleshing things out. I don’t want this to be an unfinished concept-art project like all the other languages I’ve tried to create. My goal, by the end of this, is to have a weird-sounding, twisted, evil language that you could write a competent dictionary for, and maybe a grammar reader for children. (I’ve seen The Exorcist. I know children can learn demon tongues.) Perhaps someday I’ll find a way to crowbar it into a novel or something.

Either way, that said, work will begin, with updates as developments warrant. If you’re not interested in this kind of thing, you won’t hurt my feelings by skipping these posts. Don’t worry, I’ll be getting back to my bread and butter–ludicrous thought experiments–as soon as my brain gets unstuck.

Be safe out there.


That *wouldn’t* make a good name for a band.

I reckon it’s time for a bit of linguistic analysis. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but almost any phrase taken out of context seems like it would make a good name for a band. “Any Phrase Taken out of Context” would make a good name for a band. That got me wondering if there were any phrases which wouldn’t make a good name for a band, because if not, then “would make a good name for a band” is an empty concept with no more meaning than saying “is a group of words.” Let’s wander around in the configuration space of English letters and see if we can put some together in such an order that they wouldn’t make a good name for a band.

Ghkkkkk. This is the sound of someone choking on a pencil or being strangled. I think I stole it from a “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon. It seems like it wouldn’t make a good name for a band, but when you consider that there is a dance-punk band called !!! (most often pronounced chk-chk-chk), Ghkkkkk doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

Rubber-Legs and the Don’t Give a Fuck Brothers. This name has the distinction of turning up zero relevant Google hits, but that’s mainly because it’s barely a phrase at all. It’s a bunch of weird words that I strung together in an strange order. Which, paradoxically, probably would make it a good name for a band, especially one of those pretentious avant-garde bands.

Wouldn’t Make a Good Name for a Band. Funnily enough, this one sounds less like a band name than the other two. It would be a hard band to introduce. Imagine an emcee saying “Put your hands up for Wouldn’t Make a Good Name for a Band!” It’s hard to tell where the previous phrase stops and the band name starts. We’ll call this a partial success.

Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite Trilobite. This one definitely wouldn’t make a good name for a band, since the number of Trilobites is much larger than the human brain’s pattern-buffer capacity of seven plus or minus two. But this one feels like cheating somewhat, since it’s a bad band name, but it’s also a meaningless and poorly-formed construct from a grammatical point of view. If your friends are saying “Trilobite” twenty-four times in a row, the best thing to say is probably “Are you all right?” not “That would make a bad name for a band.”

The Number of Trilobites. This would make a good name for a band. I’m thinking Scandinavian metal.

Some Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Now we’re getting somewhere. If this was the name of your band, you would force all of your fans to sound like uncooperative hipsters whenever they talked about your music. Same goes for You’re Too Mainstream, which, much to my surprise, doesn’t seem to be the name of any actual bands.

You Will Be Gangbanged by Timber Wolves. I’m cheating again. I actually think this would make a good name for a band. The kind of band where you’d be afraid to go to the concert without a Bowie knife and a tetanus shot and the mosh pit is filled with blood instead of mud.

That That That That Woman Wrote Me. Technically, it should be “That ‘That’ that that woman wrote on my wall.” This is another one that’s technically grammatical, but you’re not likely to encounter often enough that you could reasonably hope, someday, to jump in and say “That would make a good name for a band” afterwards. Plus, you would be torturing any of your fans who happened to have a stutter.

The. If this was your band’s name, it would be impossible for anybody to talk about you without sounding like they were in a demented Abbot and Costello sketch. “Have you heard The’s new release? No, not these new release, The’s. The band The. Yes The’s. No, not these.” 

Fucking Cunt. I am actually surprised a Google search didn’t turn this up as a real band. It’d make a terrible band name because, for one thing, it’s a very nasty-sounding phrase, and for another thing, everybody’s going to try to stick asterisks in your band’s name, and you’re certainly going to have trouble getting on the iTunes charts. Incidentally, there is an actual song called, and I quote, “Nigga Nigga Nigga.” That YouTube video, however, suggests you purchase some other song called “Ni**a Ni**a Ni**a,” which reads like it’s full of exotic hard-to-pronounce consonants like tl and !.

 We Said [Clap]. This would be an interesting one, but the effect would be ruined by two things: One, all your fans would lose all their friends because they suddenly began clapping in the middle of sentences; and Two: People would inevitably transcriber your name as “And We Said Clap” or “And We Said [Clap].”

…. This one’s pretentious enough that, once again, I’m surprised nobody’s used it yet. You’re supposed to read that name as one second of silence. There are silences in ordinary conversation all the time. Basically, if this was the name of your band, people would constantly be talking about you. All conversations would pretty much start to sound like this: “…but I didn’t wanna be the kind of guy who takes an old woman’s seat, you know? Jefferson Starship Jefferson Starship Jefferson Starship.” “Yeah, I know what you mean. I know chivalry and stuff isn’t as popular as it used to be, but some habits Jefferson Starship some habits are just really hard to break Jefferson Starship Jefferson Starship.” There’d be more band names floating around than actual words. We’d have a John Cage 4’33” situation. 4’33” is actually the most-played song on both my computer and my clock radio. It is the only song that can be played equally well by iPods and pine trees. You are currently listening to a pirated copy of 4’33”. You spend most of your life listening to pirated copies of 4’33”. I don’t know whether to punch John Cage in the groin or call him a genius. (4’33”, in case you don’t know, is a song consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Which you can buy on iTunes for $0.99. There’s a thought for you.)

Starlight++. The name of this band must never be spoken, because every time you say it, you have to add another “Starlight” to the end.Yeah, I went to see Starlight at Hawkins Park. You’ve never heard of Starlight Starlight? What’s that? No, the band’s name is Starlight Starlight Starlight. That’s what I said: Starlight Starlight Starlight Starlight.” It would be interesting, though, to actually form Starlight++ and see how many of our fans we could get committed to psychiatric hospitals.

There is actually (kind of) a point to all this. Notice how several of these horrible, horrible band names are actually grammatically-valid (for example: Wouldn’t Make a Good Name for a Band, Some Band You’ve Never Heard Of, That That That That Woman Wrote Me, and Fucking Cunt). That actually tells you something interesting about humans and language: just because a phrase is grammatical doesn’t mean that it’s meaningful. And just because a phrase is meaningful doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. “That that that that woman wrote me” is perfectly grammatical, but it’s also confusing and really hard to parse. “Some band you’ve never heard of” is both grammatical and reasonably easy to parse, but because it sounds like it’s part of another phrase, it interferes with understanding and therefore probably wouldn’t count as a good phrase according to any speaker of English. “Fucking Cunt” is grammatical, meaningful, and also dead-easy to parse, but it’s not considered a “good phrase” in most circles (especially among, say, feminists or people who object to swearing).

Basically, the border between what would and wouldn’t make a good band name shows you that humans do more complicated things with their languages than just string words together according to a grammar: not every grammatical sentence is meaningful, and not every meaningful and grammatical sentence is acceptable (for one reason or another). It all depends on context, ease of parsing, and what is socially appropriate. 

Which is a really pretentious and academic way of saying yes, every phrase “would make a good name for a band.” So we should probably stop saying that. We should probably also stop saying things like “fucking cunt,” which, gender issues and offensiveness aside, is just fucking rude. 


I like to say “furan.”

Furans are pentagonal molecules made up of four carbon atoms and one oxygen atom. They look like this:


Hold on. That’s a diagram. Furans actually look like this:


That’s a bottle of tetrahydrofuran, which is like the molecule in the diagram, but without the double bonds.

But I’m not a chemist. What this whole post comes down to is that I really like the way “furan” sounds. It doesn’t matter how you say it. “Fyur-an.” “Fur-an.” “Few-ran.” “Few-ron.” (I’m partial to “fyur-an” myself.)

Aside from the fact that it’s fun to say (Seriously: say it right now. Say it many times. Pay no mind to those people giving you funny looks. Say it. You know you want to. Furan. Furan. Furan. Furan.), furan is useful in the chemical industry, and furan’s chemical derivatives are also useful. Useful means the same thing as “able to cause excruciating burns” right?

You see, there’s a class of chemicals called furanocoumarins, most often found in plants like celery, parsnip, and, worryingly, lime peels, which, when they get on your skin, don’t do anything. Until, that is, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, which the sun produces in inconveniently large quantities. When struck by UV, the furanocoumarins generate oxygen radicals that cause inflammation and HORRIFYING BLISTERS, pictures of which I will not show here because I know not everybody shares my morbid fascination with pathology. Here’s one of the culprits:


This nasty little skin-sensitizing bastard is bergapten. See the pentagon on the left side? That’s a furan.

Actually, I’m starting to get worried about furans. They seem to hang around in bad company. Like, for instance, the company of carbofuran:


It’s always the spiky-looking molecules that cause trouble, isn’t it? (That is a well-informed scientific opinion, I’ll have you know.) Carbofuran is a pesticide. Carbofuran is a nasty pesticide. In terms of its toxicity to humans, carbofuran is the third most toxic pesticide. That’s not horrifying at all. If you get exposed to enough of it, your heart rate drops dangerously low, you stop breathing, various bowel muscles open up, and you stagger around until you fall down and die. So that’s nice.

But in the end, I don’t care about all these toxic chemicals and industrial molecules. This entire article was an excuse for me to read the word “furan” over and over again. I am, in essence, an infant.