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This is a perpetual problem I have and I find it quite annoying. Yes, I know its kinda subjective, but that doesn't change the fact that, to me at least, my conlangs are always hideous.

For a recent example, my most recent conlang has agglutinating pronouns. For instance, the word for 'I' is 'ta' and the word for 'we' is 'tai' (pronounced like 'tie', minus the aspiration of course). That's not too bad. The issue is when I add the nominative marker -s: 'tas' and 'tais'. To me, 'tais' just sounds hideous.

In past I think it was because I used the voiceless velar fricative far too often. But even if I don't include the phoneme my language sounds hideous, and artificial to the point that its sounds robotic. Though the latter is probably because I have a hard time NOT making conlangs 'logical'.

There are of course nice-sounding conlangs out there, and even natlangs, but I just can't seem to imitate the sound of any other language for some reason, and I don't get why. And I specialize in phonology, so I don't get why I can't get the sound right. Even if my conlang has the exact same phonemes, allophony, intonation, and phonotactics as a natlang, it will sound completely different and I can't figure out why. I mean, how can I screw up the latter? What am I missing?

closed as primarily opinion-based by curiousdannii, Adarain, Sparksbet, as4s4hetic, Mithrandir Mar 27 '18 at 11:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • There's no accounting for taste? No one else can explain why you think a perfectly normal string of phones sounds "hideous". – curiousdannii Mar 23 '18 at 8:07
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    Then... don't use that word? – Circeus Mar 23 '18 at 10:32
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What you need is to adjust your phonotactics. Since you mention it in your question you apparently know what they are, but you aren't using them to get the sounds you want.

You say you find "tais" to be hideous, but you don't explain why, so let's say you don't like the way that a diphthong sounds in a closed syllable. (If this isn't the case, take this as an example for whatever the problem is.)

Once you've located the problem, you have to determine how to eliminate it by making rules for new phonotactics. You can think of lots of ways:

  • The diphthong becomes a monophthong: tais > tas, tis or tes in a closed syllable (tas might be problematic since it creates ambiguity with the singular). Or, alternatively, two monophthongs: tais could be [ta.is] instead of [tajs]

  • A new consonant could be placed to separate the diphthong: tais could transform into tayis, maybe taus could be tawus (based on a simple rule of adding y before a front vowel and w before a back vowel)

  • The diphthong could monophthongize and simple color the next consonant: tais could be pronounced [taɕ]. You could create a pattern with other consonants, e.g. tait > [tac], taid > [taɟ]

  • Even if some of these options are problematic in your case (maybe you don't want to "contaminate" your agglutinative language), you could still retain the phonemes /tajs/ and just have some of these options as allophones of it (so e.g. [e] or [e:] could be an allophone of /aj/ in a closed syllable, [ɕ] could be an allophone of /js/)

What you need to do is just determine what sounds ugly to you and create phonotactic rules that cover whatever the problem is.

  • Its primarily the 'ais' ending. I don't mind 'tai' and I don't mind 'tas', but 'tais' just sounds... not right to me. – user348 Mar 23 '18 at 10:39
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    Yes, I was suggesting that you try to figure out what i the phonotactics you disliked so you could remove it. I suggested diphthongs in closed syllables (e.g. ais, aus, ois, eus). If it's really just the ais ending and nothing else, the answer is simply to replace "ais" with something else – b a Mar 23 '18 at 11:25
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The obvious point is: Design your conlang for pleasantness.

Several conlang inventors had clear ideas about pleasantness: Zamenhof liked the sound of the Italian language and designed that into Esperanto; Tolkien liked Welsh (designed into Sindarin) and Finnish (designed into Quenya).

So "taste" different syllables and sounds, "taste" combinations of them, and than set up strong phonotactic rules forbidding ugly sounds. Whenever your morphology tries to introduce an ugly sound, think of a remedy:

  • Change the morphology
  • Apply some transformation that removes the ugly sound (this also adds irregularity, naturalness, and flavour to the language); for detailed suggestions see @b a's answer

I think getting at a list of pleasant sound combinations (and a list of ugly ones to be avoided) is the difficult part of the program, getting rid of them once you know them is the easier task.

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I have a less sophisticated explanation. Tastes change with exposure, so any new language sounds less pretty.

Also, what sounds right or pretty, after you've gotten used to a language, are words that follow the phonotactic rules.

I'm skeptical of the idea that some sounds are apriori prettier or more pleasant. Cellar door sounds good because it is a perfectly ordinary bit of English phonotactics, a language Tolkien was obviously familiar with.