I want to design a mildly weird phonology with the following features

  • Not particularly difficult to pronounce for speakers of average European languages
  • Feeling somewhat unnatural or weird

The weirdness should be noticeable (like the OSV word order in Klingon is). It may include statistical effects (some phones are used more frequent than others thereby producing the effect of weirdness).

What techniques can I use to achieve this effect?

  • 2
    A skewed frequency is a perfectly normal property of many linguistic inventories (eg word distribution across a text etc), so it would probably more 'weird' if all phones would be used with an even frequency distribution. – Oliver Mason Jul 19 at 8:22
  • This question has been voted primarily opinion-based. I'd like to note that @jknappen asks for techniques for a goal, and linguistic difference from European languages isn't so opinion based. 'Unnatural' or 'weird', however might be. But although being words that are ultimately opinion-based, I believe most potential respondents know what techniques achieve such an effect. – Duncan Whyte Jul 23 at 10:45
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Probably the best technique is making the language weird by absence. Instead of giving the language weird phonemes, make it lack the most common phonemes. A language with 5 vowels but no /a/, /i/ or /u/. A language with several consonants, but no /p/, /t/, or /k/. Or totally without bilabials. Or with no stops.

  • This would be my answer. It could be improved by adding a sentence explaining why this is the "best technique": deleting sounds rather than adding them keeps the language easy to pronounce. – DLosc Jul 29 at 21:49

You should start with consonants, I don't think you can make a vowel inventory as weird as a consonant inventory (maybe complex tones? creaky voice?). After that, it depends on your opinion of "particularly difficult" and "unnatural and weird".
- Click consonants can be easy enough if you don't overdo it (more like Bantu languages/Damin and less like Khoisan languages, so only the simple ones).
- Retroflex consonants are also not very European and sufficiently easy to pronounce, but maybe not noticeably weird.
- Ejectives and implosives are similar, but much more noticeable.
- Linguolabials sound and look weird (especially the trill) and are very easy to produce. Same goes for bilabial trill.
- Prenasalization, unclosed plosives and similar modifications are non-European (I don't know much about their ease of pronunciation).
- You could go with something like Kaybop and have manual percussives (Kaybop has clap [bimanual percussive] and facepalm [faciomanual percussive]), which is very unnatural (maybe a bidigital percussive?). These are weird no matter what you say. Also from Kaybop: Phonemic hats.

Klingon frequently uses velar and uvular voiceless sounds, which gives it its typical Klingonyness. You can also remove areas of the IPA (note that it is unadviced to just remove certain sounds), where you can choose randomly from removing all voiced, voiceless, labials, alveolars, velars, plosives, fricatives and so on, or make phonemes from any area noticeably more frequent.

Then there are phonotactics. Many European languages have consonant clusters, so a syllable structure like CV or CVC has an exotic feeling (just look at Austronesian languages like Hawai'i). Ithkuil on the other side is weird because it has so many consonants (and vowels) and very complex clusters.

This concludes my advices, but there are probably many more things fitting your description.

  • An acquaintance of mine was playing with conlanging at one point, and came up with the idea of removing all voiced consonants... – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 19 at 11:51
  • @JeffZeitlin Seems radical (enough). How did it sound? Btw: Removing consonants can be used as an opportunity to add consonants with other features, like removing voiced and adding palatalized. – Richard Jul 19 at 17:38
  • It turned out not to be extremely radical; it was for a race that didn't have vocal cords. Effectively, the language was simply whispered. – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 19 at 17:51
  • Reminds me of Parseltongue (from Harry Potter) (which is probably not the language your friend created). Because snakes don't have human mouth anatomy, not even lips, it couldn't use voicing or labial consonants. – Richard Jul 19 at 20:12

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