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Some examples of loan words:

  • Human names like "Paul" or "Bhavya".
  • Proper nouns like "White House" or "United States".
  • Using any word at all from the other language ("which" from English, "the", etc., even if the conlang doesn't have these words). Basically this might be like how we use syntax highlighting (<- like that) to designate "code" when doing software documentation.

What I am wondering is what are the different ways you can "safely" import these words into another lang? Say you have the word bin in your conlang, which is a taboo/swear word for example. Then when you import/use an Arabic name like Aktham bin Sayfi, technically that might make an impression of the swear word, even though it would be used out of context. Then in English, we have the word "bin" (container), which when used in a conlang sentence like "I closed the bin" (mea closa tha bin), where those first 3 words are theoretical conlang words and the bin is English, like saying "Give me back my perro" and we know that it is being used (Spanish perro).

What I was thinking of doing is wrapping each foreign/import word in an opening and closing sound, like i-<word>-o or something. Then it would be like i-barak-obama-o, but that seems like it would be a lot if you used multiple loan words one after the next.

Then there is the question of, do you change the pronunciation or use the native pronunciation? Sometimes you hear Spanish (Mexican) speakers say "I lived in Méheeko" rather than the regular "Mexico". But other times, like when we pronounce Arabic or Hebrew words like "Israel", we just say it with an American accent.

Or instead of adding affixes or manipulating pronunciation, you could come up with a completely new name (like Chinese does, which I think partially solves the problem of things meaning weird things, like I read with CocaCola initially was phonetically translated and meant something strange like "bite the wax tadpole", which they changed to be "happiness in the mouth").

But in my case, I have a conlang which only has words in these patterns (c = consonant, v = vowel):

  • cvc
  • ccvc
  • cvcc
  • cvcvc
  • cvccvc
  • ccvcvc
  • cvcvcc

There are about 500 cvc, 1000 ccvc and cvcc, and 100k cvcvc, 300k+ 6-sound. But maybe only 20k of those will be used. I am picking all the "good sounding" ones to be real words at first, and then the less-good sounding ones are left over. I don't want these necessarily to be used as names, they would be the least-pleasant sounding words. So I am not really sure how to handle generating the names. But you mix this with the problem of importing foreign words, and I might have "paul" mean "past tense" in the conlang, then you import "Paul" the name and it reads initially as "past tense", which is less than ideal.

So what are the techniques you can use to "safely" import foreign words (and do things like importing foreign names)? Figuring out how to name things within the language is a separate problem, but importing foreign "people" names and proper noun names just seems hard to do, and I'm not sure what a clean approach would be.

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  • Maybe I should be taking inspiration from Chinese mostly.
    – Lance
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 2:53
  • When you mention things like syntax highlighting, are you talking about distinguishing the loans in writing or in speech?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 5:25
  • Possibly relevant: conlang.stackexchange.com/questions/635/… Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 12:02
  • Also possibly relevant: conlang.stackexchange.com/questions/466/… Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 12:03
  • You should make a distinction between loanwords and names; the former can be adapted to your conlang morphology, whereas the latter can easily be marked with intro/outro markers, or remain unchanged. Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 13:59

2 Answers 2

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What I am wondering is what are the different ways you can "safely" import these words into another lang?

In natlangs, the one overarching purpose behind everything in a language is to communicate. If some aspect of the language is getting in the way of this, then evolutionary pressures will remove that obstacle over time.

Homophones, in general, don't seem to pose an obstacle. English-speakers are generally fine with the fact that "dam" (block the flow of water) and "damn" (mild profanity) are pronounced the same, because they're used in such different contexts; even when there's an actual ambiguity, like a frustrated engineer shouting "damn this river!", it's a source of puns and humor more than actual confusion.

And the same is true when they involve loanwords. The loanword "junk" (a type of ship, going back to Chinese 船) is pronounced identically to the native word "junk" (trash, worthless things) but actual confusion is rare. And if a problem arises, you can just add another word to disambiguate it, calling it a "junk ship" or the like. Some people consider this redundant, but it happens all the time with loanwords: "chai tea", "naan bread", "miso soup", etc. Some conlangs, like toki pona and a handful of others inspired by it, require this: loans and names have to be used as adjectives, not nouns, which means they're always attached to a native noun showing what sort of thing they are.

Then there is the question of, do you change the pronunciation or use the native pronunciation?

In natlangs, it generally depends on how speakers see the word. At first, generally, the word will be seen as thoroughly foreign. It will be written in italics*, imitating the original orthography when possible, and people will do their best to imitate the pronunciation (and usually not succeed, because every language's phonology is different). It won't inflect in any way or combine with other morphemes.

Eventually, if the word catches on, it'll be naturalized and incorporated into the language more thoroughly. It will be adapted fully into the surrounding phonology and morphology and not seen as something distinctly different from the rest of the language.

For example, look at some Japanese loans in English. Ukiyo-e and gaijin tend to be italicized and pronounced with particular care, and people don't tend to say *gaijins for more than one. But dojo and shogun can be pluralized like any other English word (dojos, shoguns) because they've been more thoroughly integrated into English. This difference can show up more starkly in languages like Latin and Greek, which have more mandatory inflection on both nouns and verbs; it tends to be very clear which foreign words are treated as foreign and indeclinable, rather than being adapted to the rules of the borrowing language.

* This is an English convention, not universal.

Or instead of adding affixes or manipulating pronunciation, you could come up with a completely new name (like Chinese does, which I think partially solves the problem of things meaning weird things, like I read with CocaCola initially was phonetically translated and meant something strange like "bite the wax tadpole", which they changed to be "happiness in the mouth").

This is because of the writing system, not the language. Chinese is written logographically, which means you can't write a foreign word without referencing existing morphemes.

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  • "toki pona and a handful of others inspired by it" ah that's key, that would be an interesting case to study.
    – Lance
    Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 18:52
  • 1
    @Lance toki pona is an interesting case study in terms of minimalism, though do note that it's an artlang—it's meant as an art project, to experiment with what can be revealed by putting your thoughts into a different framework, rather than as a useful means of communication. (If people actually learned it as a native language, it would immediately acquire a lot more words and phrases with fossilized meanings.)
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 18:57
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Toki Pona, a rather-successful minimalist conlang, has a (IMO) really nice process called tokiponization. The steps are these:

  1. If possible, it should be avoided. Simply translate things like "White House" or "United States".
  2. If that is not possible, find a "head noun", which goes in front of the loaned word. This can be any noun.
  3. Then, the word itself is "tokiponized", which is basically just changing pronunciation.

Examples:

  1. Paul -> jan Pali (jan is a noun meaning person)
  2. Bhavya -> jan Bawiwa
  3. White House -> tomo walo ni (a phrase meaning that white house)

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