Na’vi, Klingon, Elvish – films and novels have finally brought constructed languages or conlangs out of the closet and into widespread attention and interest, and more and more people are taking up what Tolkien called his “Secret Vice” and discovering the delights of conlanging. There are thousands of websites and forums and even international conferences sponsored by the LCS, the Language Creation Society. But what many conlangers find they need is some basic linguistics, so they don’t reinvent the wheel, and so that they dream big enough.
There is plenty of material online, of course, but some of the most useful references and resources are only in print form. Here’s a selection that covers a range of topics, from the sounds and structures of language, to patterns of language change over time, to the ways grammars work.
Look around and find used editions when possible, particularly with linguistics books – you can often save yourself some substantial money. While several of these texts stay in print because they’re still widely read and used in college linguistics classes, they can still be pricey, even in paperback, because they’re usually not mass-market fiction, but imprints (and reprints) from academic presses.
Linguistics is an increasingly widening field, and after a small library of core texts, what may be useful to you as a conlanger can vary with your taste, goals, language background and linguistic expertise. The best place to check out the conlanging world itself is online. Plenty of forums and websites exist, and can provide you with a community to share your interests, numerous examples to inspire you, a source of encouragement and critique, and an audience which will actually appreciate that nifty new feature you just added to your created language.
Finally, if you’re a conlanger yourself and you have a different, better or bigger list, please share it: the more the better, to make our craft better known and loved.
Mark Rosenfelder's The Language Construction Kit is a substantial expansion of the online original text. This is an excellent first book for the beginning conlanger, and can help get you started with your own conlang.
David Crystal's accessible How Language Works is a good second book. Crystal is a widely known and respected authority on language, and author of many other books also useful to conlangers.
Another popular intro text, now in its 9th edition (look for earlier ones and save yourself some $ -- older is usually less expensive!) is Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman's An Introduction to Language. This book assumes no previous knowledge of linguistics. This is a widely used text in intro classes, and it’s fun – cartoons, jokes, interesting exercises, a wide variety of languages used in examples, etc.
Historical Linguistics: An Introduction by Lyle Campbell can give you a sense of how languages change predictably (and sometimes unpredictably!) over time. With examples from numerous languages, you could create a believable new language derived from already existing languages, by rules you also create -- a subset of conlanging that many conlangers find deeply engrossing. Again, there are many examples online, often published in loving and elaborate detail.
Leonard Bloomfield is another name to pair with Sapir's, and his simply titled Language remains another classic in the field. Like Sapir, Bloomfield studied Native American languages, which are substantially different from the more widely known European tongues. They're worth learning, and learning about, and can also give you new and fascinating alternatives to what you think a language can or can't do -- or sound like!
The next classic is more controversial, because some of its ideas have been challenged and partially discredited, but if you explore conlanging and linguistics further, you'll either ask yourself some of the same questions, or run across Benjamin Lee Whorf's name and his book Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Why not see what Whorf has to say about whether the language you speak influences how you perceive experience the world? Another provocative resource for a conlanger -- think how many conlangs exist in alternative worlds already -- that's a lot of influence!
Gregory Sampson's Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction provides a good overview of how different writing systems of the world actually work. While this aspect of conlanging may not immediately interest you, chances are it eventually will, just as it has other numerous conlangers. Consider Tolkien's flowing Elvish script, the angular Klingon letters you can see in the Star Trek films, and so on.
Carl Buck's A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages: A Contribution to the History of Ideas can be expensive, even in paperback -- you might want to check it out at a university library first to see whether it would be useful for you. But as a survey of the core vocabulary of the major European languages, the book can help you design a vocabulary that reflects a culture. It can also help you discover links between concepts and words, and incidentally teach you a lot about European history, languages, and historical linguistics. This is partly why I claim no conlanger is really ever "wasting time" -- we're learning neat stuff as we go. Nerds rule!
MIT professor Steven Pinker's very readable The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.) may well turn you on to psycholinguistics and other similar fields of study. Publisher's Weekly calls it "a beautiful hymn to the infinite creative potential of language." What more could you ask for?
I've included Lakoff and Johnson's classic Metaphors We Live By here because it comes at Whorf's hypothesis from a different angle, demonstrating with numerous examples that how we see the universe certainly gets encoded in our language. For a conlanger, designing a metaphorical system for your language can be a fascinating excursion into the myth-making, archetypal consciousness, and profound (and often obscure) perceptions embedded into the deepest roots of language.
Mark Okrand, the linguist hired by Paramount to design Klingon for a series of Star Trek films, is a serious conlanger. His Star Trek: Conversational Klingon will get you started feeling your inner conlang warrior. There are a also dictionary and a few other books available, too, if you get hooked. Ever wanted to read Hamlet in Klingon? You can with The Klingon Hamlet -- it's bilingual.
Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius is a tour of the artificial language world, a subset of conlanging: conlangs or invented languages designed to solve a particular political or linguistic problem. A New York Times reviewer remarked that Okrent's book is a "lively, informative, insightful examination of artificial languages—who invents them, [and] why ..." Learn about Esperanto and other dreams of easier communication through improved language design.
Linguist and Tolkienist David Salo was hired to prepare a version of one of Tolkien's Elvish languages, Sindarin, for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. His A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is detailed and also reflects the work he did filling in the gaps in one of Tolkien's many conlangs in order to make it the vehicle of part of a movie script. Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen each mastered enough to sound authentic.
Not a linguistics book, but a comic novel interspersed with lessons in one of the first widely spoken artificial languages, Volapuk, Andrew Drummond's A Handbook of Volapuk both teaches the basics and pokes fun at the artificial language movement.
From here, follow the bent of your genius, the beat of your own drum, the inner flame of your language passion ... well, you know what I mean. Good luck ... maybe we'll share linguistic notes on Facebook's conlang forum.