Oqolaawak – A Conlang Review

Classical Oqolaawak is a conlang created by the You-Tuber Biblaridion. He started creating it in 2015 for his own world-building project. In-world, Classical Oqolaawak is a language spoken by the Oqolaayo people and is part of the Oqolaawak language family.

Reference material for this conlang was released in 2019 in the format of a video titled ‘Conlang Showcase – Oqolaawak’ Unfortunately, this is the only reference material on Oqolaawak that has been released to this date. Obviously, this will be the main source for this review and I recommend that you go and watch it first if you haven’t seen it before.

On the twitter poll for the subject of this post, a commenter suggested that compared to the other options there wasn’t enough material to review. While I do agree that there is less material here, it is called a ‘Conlang showcase’ suggesting that it presents the best of this conlang. Also, the video is packed full of information and there is a lot of stuff presented on the screen which is not narrated.

Phonology

A spoken sample of this conlang can be heard at 0:56. Aesthetically, this conlang sounds beautiful. It has a nice continuous flow which is satisfying to listen to.

Consonants

BilabialAlveolarPalatalVelarUvularGlottal
Nasalm /m/n /n/
Stopp /p/t /t/k /k/ q /q/
Afficatets /t͡s/ch /t͡ʃ/
Sibilant Fricatives /s/sh /ʃ/
Fricativef /ɸ/hl /ɬ/kh /x ~χ/h /h/
Approximantl /l/y /j/w /w/
Oqolaawak’s consonant inventory, based on chart at 1:21

I really like Oqolaawak’s consonant inventory. He has made some interesting choices in what to include and what to exclude. There is no phonemic distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants. I also like the inclusion of a lateral fricative /ɬ/, which sounds really cool. He also uses a bilabial fricative /ɸ/ instead of a labial dental fricative.

What I sort of don’t like, and this is incredibly subjective, is the uvular stop /q/. I am starting to feel that /q/ is a bit of a conlang cliché. This is sort of hypocritical since I have used /q/ in Liyashi (and I sort of regret it). So I’m not saying it is wrong to use it, but I am encouraging fellow conlangers to try to avoid it. I feel that a lot of time, it’s just thrown in to make a language sound more ‘guttural’. A better alternative would be to use some other uvular consonant or a pharyngeal consonant. That being said, I don’t think that the uvular stop’s presence in Oqolaawak is to make it more ‘guttural’. I’m not completely sure why he has included it, but /q/ does have a slightly interesting effect on vowels. However, there are loads of other things he could have done to spice up the vowel system; so I don’t think it would make much of a difference if /q/ was left out.

Vowels

FrontBack
Closedi /i/, ii /iː/u /u/, uu /uː/
Mide /e/, ee /eː/o /o/, oo /oː/
Opena /a/, aa /aː/
Oqolaawak’s vowel inventory, based on chart at 1:21

Oqolaawak has a basic five vowel system, each having short and long variants. While I personally think this a bit dull, it’s not technically wrong. Five-vowel systems are very common, so at least it is believable. However, there is a vowel harmony system and some allophones which makes this a bit more interesting.

When preceded by /q/, the vowels /i/ and /e/ (both short and long variants) become /ɨ/ and /ə/ respectively. This is a common effect that uvular consonants tend to cause vowels to move back and become more open. This allophonic rule makes the vowels and the inclusion of /q/ slightly more interesting.

Romanisation

Most of the romanisation system is straight forward and intuitive for English speakers. Although, I am not entirely sure what the exact intent of the romanisation system is. If it’s supposed to be intuitive to read, then there are a few problems.

First I would like to point out a confusing error within the you-tube video. The consonant chart at 1:21 lists phonemes in IPA and the romanisation in brackets. However, there is no romanisation listed for /j/ suggesting it is written with a y. However, I noticed that in the sample text both and are present. It turns out that actually represents [ʒ] an allophone of /ʃ/ that occurs between two voiced sounds. Likewise, z is used to represent [z] an allophone of /s/ that also occurs between voiced sounds. The romanisation of these allophones may seem a bit unnecessary, but it results in more intuitive spellings. The word [xaːzwai] is more intuitive when spelt khaazwai compared to *khaaswai. There is no need to distinguish [s] from [z], but the inclusion of this distinction makes the spelling more intuitive.

While most of this romanisation system is intuitive, there is a problem with how long vowels are represented. Long vowels are written as doubled vowels. This may sound straight forward, but it becomes problematic with ee /eː/ and oo /oː/, as English speakers may misread these as /i/ and /u/ respectively. Personally, I would prefer to use diacritics instead, macrons would be the best option. However, by not using diacritic marks, this romanisation system does have the advantage of being more keyboard friendly. Almost anyone can type Oqolaawak words without requiring special software. This may actually be the purpose of this romanisation system, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt.

The major problem with the romanisation system is with the diphthongs. Yes, Oqolaawak does have diphthongs, but it’s not made very clear in the video. I asked Biblaridion on twitter about this and he responded:

“Both diphthongs and hiatus are very much allowed. Anytime an unstressed /i/ and /u/ come next to another vowel they become /j/ and /w/ respectively.”

Now he could have romanised these glides as either i and u or y and w. But If you look at the sample text, you may notice some inconsistencies. There seems to be both and , and there is also which doesn’t appear to contain a high vowel or a semi-vowel. I asked him about this as well, and he answered:

“In the romanization, I alternated between using <ei> vs <ey> and <ao> vs <aw>, but there’s no actual difference (I’ve been meaning to go back and standardize it for some time).”

The big mistake has made here is that he is being inconsistent with his approach to romanisation. It seems that he tried to write his diphthongs an intuitive way, but also tried to write each semi-vowel as a y or w. Maybe by mistake, he has created these contradictory spellings.

To be fair, he seems to regret this and says he will fix it in the future; and that’s great, but I would still like to give some advice to anyone having similar problems. When romanising diphthongs, it’s better for each component of the diphthong to match the monophthongs. For example, ao may seem quite intuitive but it suggests [ao] and not [aw]. Intuition for English speakers is great, but vowels and diphthongs are a mess in English spelling, so it’s best to keep things simple and logically consistent. Secondly, transcribing semivowels with y or w in the coda of a syllable can mess up the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, for example ay suggests /ej/ and not /aj/. To avoid this, follow this general rule: If a semivowel is followed by a vowel then spell it y or w, if it is not followed by a vowel then spell it i or u respectively. For more advice, see my post on romanisation.

Morphophonology

Oqolaawak has both a vowel harmony system and a consonant harmony system. A harmony system is when certain phonemes are grouped together, and only phonemes belonging to the same group can co-exist within the same word. There are usually some exceptions. In Oqolaawak, compounds and loan words are unaffected by its harmony systems.

Oqolaawak has a height-based vowel harmony system, where the closed vowels cannot be in the same word as the mid vowels. For example, a word containing /e/ cannot co-exist with a /u/. Also /a/ is considered neutral, which means it can occur in any word.

The other harmony system in Oqolaawak is sibilant harmony. This is where the alveolar sibilants /t͡s/ and /s/ cannot co-exist with the post-alveolar sibilants. Both of these harmony systems are interesting and unique, and their inclusion was definitely a good choice.

Vocabulary

Derivational Morphology

Oqolaawak has some interesting derivation rules. Verbs can be nominalised by simply adding the noun class suffix (see Grammar > Nouns) to the verb stem.

Oqolaawak seems to have head-initial compounds. But there are also some dvandvas, which are compounds where neither component is the head. The most straightforward example of this is molai ‘mother’ + paahii ‘father’ = molpaahii ‘parent’. Here a word is derived by listing two more specific examples. A more interesting dvandva in Oqolaawak is ihlao ‘singing’ + tunwa ‘drumming’ = ihlatunwa ‘music’.

Loan Words

There are only a couple of loan words mentioned in the video. Uteeyam ‘obelisk’ is a loan word from a language called Sūmá’a originally having a more narrow meaning of ‘a monolith used in astrological rituals’. Tiihoo ‘an obsidian tipped javelin’ is borrowed from Ts’ap’u-K’ama and originally had a wider meaning of ‘spear’. These two words alone show a lot about the Oqolaayo and surrounding cultures.

Grammar

Nouns

Oqolaawak has a unique noun class system divided into five classes: Ethereal, Elemental, Material, Kinetic, and Exalted. These noun classes can be arranged into an animacy hierarchy with Ethereal being the least animate and Exalted being the most animate. These noun classes determine the form of a suffix that marks number. Also, the higher up the animacy hierarchy, the more distinctions in grammatical number are made.

The nouns also have prefixes that mark possession. There’s a set for both alienable and inalienable possession. In other words, Oqolaawak makes a distinction between objects that can be removed from their possessor and those that can’t.

Prepositions

Oqolaawak has prepositions that can be inflected. Inflected prepositions agree with their object in noun class, number and person. The history behind this is really quite interesting. Prepositions in Classical Oqolaawak are derived from nouns with possessive prefixes. Proto-Oqolaawak did not distinguish alienable and inalienable possession. One of the inflected prepositions evolved into a set of inalienable prefixes. I like this because it is a good example of how Biblaridion chooses features that complement each other, which makes the conlang seem well planned out.

Verbs

Verbs can have one of three tenses/aspects: perfect, imperfect, and future. Verbs also agree with both the subject and the object.

Oqolaawak is quite minimalist with auxiliary verbs. There are only three: ni ‘be’; a ‘at’; and oma ‘leave’. These have completely irregular conjugations, but they still have some reason to them. For example, ni and a both have reduplicated perfects, which suggests an older method of marking the perfect aspect. This illustrates the effect of working on a conlang’s history, something that Biblaridion seems to be very good at and puts a lot of effort into.

Word Order

Oqolaawak has a rather unique word order. The basic word order is VSO, but each noun also has to be placed according to its place on the animacy hierarchy. If the object is more animate than the subject then the passive voice is used to move the object in front of the subject. Other voices may be used to maintain the order of animacy.

There are also a special set of noun suffixes called applicative suffixes, which promote a prepositional object to a direct object. This is certainly interesting, but don’t quite see how this is necessary. Wouldn’t a prepositional phrase do? I personally think these suffixes could be omitted because less is more.

Animal Registers

Fan-art inspired by Oqolaawak. Iilwa script designed by Biblaridion.

My favourite thing about Oqolaawak is the animal registers and it was the inspiration for the fan art I made above. These are special forms of Oqolaawak where the speaker assumes the character of an animal from Oqolaawak mythology. The registers listed in the video at 15:04. Creodont, Terror Bird and Chalicothere are all real prehistoric animals. Biblaridion explains in his second Q&A video (at 12:57) that his world has an alternative natural history, hence the presence of extinct creatures. Khaazwai and Achulkha seem to be Oqolaawak words, so I presume they are fictitious. Finally, there is Monkey; and if you don’t know what that is, then you have the intelligence of a chalicothere.

In the video, Biblaridion glosses over the details of these registers; but I was able to extrapolate some more information from the examples given. The main feature of these registers is that seem to use an ideophone that corresponds to that animal: Khaazwai uses Khaa at the beginning of the sentence, Chalicothere uses Naa (also at the beginning of a sentence), and Achulkha uses yokh at the end of a sentence. Also, Monkey apparently uses tsitsi, but this was on the list of ideophones (15:48) so I don’t know exactly how it is used. There seems to be some grammatical changes too. For example, the definite suffix is dropped in the Chalicothere register.

Writing System

Oqolaawak has native writing system called the Iilwa script. It’s a beautiful script, and like everything in Oqolaawak, it has a convincing in-depth history.

This script is quite difficult to classify, it’s a segmental script somewhere between an abjad, an abugida and an alphabet. Like an alphabet most the vowels are written. However, like an abjad, the vowel /a/ is left out (unless it’s at the beginning of a word). If a consonant is not followed by a vowel, then it is assumed to be followed by /a/. A diacritic mark is used to distinguish consonant clusters from a consonant plus vowel sequence. This deletion mark is also used above the iteration marker when it occurs after a vowel. Another diacritic mark that seems to occur is a dot placed below the glyphs for /i/ and /u/; these indicate their semivowel equivalents /j/ and /w/ respectively.

Numbers are written using the first letter in that number’s name. There are a couple of exceptions to this since some numbers will begin with the same letter. These exceptions actually help make this conlang more believable; if each number began with a different letter, then it would look quite forced. Numbers are marked with a special punctuation mark, a bit like how Ancient Greek numbers were written.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Interesting vowel harmony and sibilant harmony systems
  • The noun class system is cool and I like how it affects syntax
  • Good work on historical linguistics in all areas
  • The animal registers are really unique and evokes good worldbuilding
  • The writing system is both beautiful and interesting.

Cons

  • Inconsistent romanisation of the diphthongs

I would like emphasise that the single con listed above is a very small one. The fact that I really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for flaws shows that Oqolaawak is a really good conlang. And that’s why I’m going to give 9.5/10

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Do you agree with my opinion? Or am I as stupid as a Chalicothere? Feel free to let me know.

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One comment

  1. […] Nouns have four declensions and there are a plethora of exceptions. This makes Mondir feel extremely naturalistic. Of course, this is a result of copying a real-world set of sound changes, However, I think if a Conlanger understood the principles of historical linguistics they could achieve a similar level of quality with a unique set of sound changes. Biblaridion’s Oqolaawak is a good example of this, which I covered in my previous review. […]

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