Lortho – A Conlang Review

Lortho is an artistic conlang created by Brian Bourque in 2003. Originally, he created just a script for a friend’s strategy board game. It wasn’t until 2016 that he became more involved in the conlang community so decided to develop a spoken language and expand the worldbuilding, resulting in Lortho, which can be found on his website and various social media platforms such as Reddit.

In-world, Lortho is spoken by the Kalanune who live on the Lamona continent on the moon Dhamashi, which orbits the gas giant Kus, which orbits a pair of binary stars. That’s a brief glimpse of Brian’s intricate worldbuilding, most of which he has constructed via a technique he coins ‘The Art of Discovery’. I recommend watching his talk from the dLCC on the subject. As he states in that video, he wants both Lortho and his worldbuilding to feel like a discovery that will compel the audience into wanting to know more. I think that’s a very noble goal, as I’m a huge fan of immersive worldbuilding/conlanging.

The primary sources that I will use are the Lortho website and the Reddit posts.

Phonology

Consonants

MannerLabialAlveolarPost-alveolarVelarGlottal
Nasalm, mm /mː/n, nn /nː/
Voiceless Stopp, ph /pʰ/t, th /tʰ/k, kh /kʰ/
Voiced Stopbd, dh /dʱ/
Fricativefssh /ʃ/h
Laterall, lh [l̥ʰ]
Tapr /ɾ/
Lortho’s consonant inventory.

A couple things to note about how I’ve represented the consonant inventory: first, Brian Bourque transcribed the phonemes dh and lh /dʰ/ and /lʰ/, which are voiced aspirated consonants if taken literally. The problem is that I don’t think this possible, as aspiration is a delay in voice onset time of the following segment and wouldn’t really work for voiced consonants. So I’m assuming that /dʰ/ is just a shorthand way of writing [dʱ]. /lʰ/ is trickier, as it could also be breathy, /lʱ/, or it could be voiceless with true aspiration, [l̥ʰ]. I have decided to assume the latter as that seems to fit with its allophones, but it would be nice if there was some kind of clarification in the reference grammar to confirm this.

The other thing is that I’ve included the geminate nasals in the chart, since they seem to function like phonemes both in terms of phonotactics and the orthography.

Because of my previous post being about phonaesthetics, I thought I would apply some of that knowledge here. It seems that he was aiming for a phonology that is both euphonic and minimalist. If that’s what he was going for, then I think this does the job. I like how he has included two laterals, and the nasal geminates to increase the frequency of euphonic sounds.

What I’m not so keen on are the gaps. This is just my personal taste as I like symmetry, but I can sort of see why he’s done it. The exclusion voiced velar stops is probably intended to reduce the number of cacophonic sounds. There are two velar consonants compared to nine alveolar consonants helps Lortho sound more euphonic.

The reference grammar states that each of the consonants is ‘strictly pronounced the same regardless of placement’, but I’m not exactly sure what this is supposed to mean. I assumed it meant that there are no allophones, but this contradicted by the fact that lh is realised as [hl] word initially. He has justified this by claiming that Farsi does this too. While I know little about Farsi, I’m skeptical of the idea of a natural language not having allophones. But in a way I’m glad that the reference grammar contradicts itself, since including allophones makes a conlang seem more believable.

Vowels

FrontBack
Closeiu
Mide /ɛ/o
Opena
Lortho’s vowel inventory

Not really much to say about it, it’s a five vowel system. According to his Reddit post, he originally wanted to include [ɑ] as a sixth vowel, but he removed it because he had trouble distinguishing it from [a]. It’s good to stick with sounds that you’re able to pronounce, but I feel there is missed opportunity here since the result is a quite bland five vowel system. It would’ve been more interesting if he substituted [ɑ] with a different vowel. I think [y] might’ve worked well here. Another alternative would be to remove another vowel to create a four vowel system; I think removing [ɛ] might have worked, resulting in a nicely balanced system of [i], [u], [o] and [a]. Another possibility is that he could’ve kept [ɑ] as an allophone of /a/, not the best option but more interesting than a plain five vowel system.

There are four diphthongs: [eɪ], [aɪ], [ɔɪ], and [au]. It is interesting that some diphthongs have components with qualities that are distinct from the monophthongs: [ɪ] instead of [i], [e] instead of [ɛ], and [ɔ] instead of [o]. This feels naturalistic and slightly compensates for the mundane monophthongs.

Romanisation

There doesn’t seem to be an official romanisation system described anywhere. In the lexicon, he uses Lortho’s native writing system with narrow transcription IPA, but he does occasionally use romanisations in various other sources. The romanisations I give in the charts above are guesses based on these casual transcriptions. It seems to be straightforward, the only spellings that are slightly counter-intuitive would be ph [pʰ] and th [tʰ], as these would likely to be mispronounced as fricatives. I bet many of you pronounced Lortho something like /lorθo/ rather than /lorto/. However I’m ok with this, as there isn’t really a better way to transcribe these phonemes without resorting to diacritics or special characters. Overall, this is a very respectable romanisation system, it’s simple to use, intuitive, and it looks fairly elegant.

Phonotactics

The basic syllable structure is described as (C)(C)V(C), where V includes both monophthongs and diphthongs. Lortho has a limited number of consonant clusters, with most of them only permitted between two syllables. The only two allowed at the beginning of a word are /pɾ/ and /kɾ/.

An interesting curiosity is that the clusters np and nk can be realised as either [mp] and [ŋk] or [np] and [nk] respectively. The nasals have assimilated to the stops in the former set but remain unchanged in the latter set. I love to use assimilation on nasals like this, but I’ve never considered making it optional. I assume the assimilated nasals would be used in rapid, casual speech; while the unchanged nasals would be used in more formal speech.

The reference grammar notes that more consonant clusters are yet to be discovered. This interesting moment of immersive writing reminiscent of the writing in Marc Okrand’s ‘The Klingon Dictionary’ and ‘Klingon for the Galactic Traveller’ (see my Klingon review). It also implies the Brian Bourque has built up Lortho’s phonotactics organically, adding consonant clusters when he feels it’s appropriate for a particular word. This results in an eclectic feel to the language and seems to fit well with the ‘art of discovery’ method.

Stress

The reference grammar establishes as the basic rule that stress is usually on the penultimate syllable of a root/stem and never falls on an affix. There are some exceptions, but the way it’s presented is really confusing. The reference grammar states the following rule as an exception:

“pluralised nouns will shift their stress to the penultimate syllable”

Lortho Reference Grammar – Brian B. Bourque

Didn’t it say that the penult is usually stressed? How is that an exception? It also states that a noun root two syllables long would have stress on the first syllable, which is a redundant statement, as that is still the penultimate syllable.

Fortunately, the Reddit post clarifies this with some examples. Basically, stress in a verb will always be on the same syllable no matter how it conjugated; while with nouns, the stress is always on the penultimate syllable. I think that’s how it works. I certainly feel stressed. This makes sense in the Reddit post, but the reference grammar isn’t very clear about it.

Lexicon

There’s no section on derivational morphology in the reference grammar, but there is a section on the second Reddit post about agentive nouns. A noun describing the doer of the verb can be derived from that verb by adding the prefix mo– and a gender suffix. Which gender is applied I think depends on the actual gender of the referent (this is not made clear), so the verb soman ‘to travel’ gives us the nouns mosomani ‘male traveller’ and mosomanu ‘female traveller’. Sometimes specific genders can give narrower meanings, as with the neuter form of traveller – mosomana – which means ‘nomad’.

A lot of entries seem to give a decent amount of worldbuilding details. Neilanu [nei.ˈla.nu] is a coniferous tree with foot-long needles resembling a willow tree. There is also nuphi [ˈnu.pʰi] a ‘fox-like’ insectivore apparently resembling a deinogalerix that feeds around the roots of a neilanu tree. The neilanu tree can entrap a nuphi in its roots as a defence mechanism, hence the word nuphi can also mean ‘idiot’ or ‘unlucky person’.

Fan art created by Stephen Escher – based on the work of Brain B. Bourque

The more you dig into the lexicon, the more uncover about the worldbuilding. Thartero [tʰaɾ.ˈtɛ.ɾo] means to ‘communicate telepathically’, which shows telepathy exists in his world. Nnau [ˈnːau] is the sound of the vibration of the universe, and its character functions as a logo for Lortho.

One thing I really don’t like is the inclusion of things that don’t seem to be part of his worldbuilding. For example, italani refers to the conlang Itlani created by James E. Hopkins. I suppose that’s nice, but it seems to be out-of-place considering the goal of Lortho. Brian Bourque wanted it to feel like an ‘archaeological discovery’, but I feel that breaks in immersion like this are contrary to that goal.

Grammar

Nouns

Nouns are marked with gender and case. There are three genders, each marked by a final vowel: feminine (-u), masculine (-i) and neuter (-a). Most of the ten grammatical cases are indicated by suffixes that follow the gender suffix. The exception being the vocative, which is marked with a prefix. There are also prefixes for possessors marked for person number and gender.

There is a sort of distinction between alienable and inalienable possession. There’s the alienable genitive suffix –nau, but there’s also the suffix –tho as in Lortho which is an inalienable genitive. Apparently the –tho suffix is archaic, which implies that the –nau suffix is being used for both kinds of possession. I think this is an interesting use of historical linguistics that adds subtle depth to the language, making it feel more believable.

Plurals are marked with the suffix –ne for feminine and neuter nouns. For masculine nouns, an infix –en– is placed before the gender suffix. If the masculine noun ends in –ni, then –em– is used instead. A nice touch to the plurals is that they’re only used if the quantity is unspecified. The plural is not used if there’s a number.

Pronouns

Gender1S2S3S1P2P3P
Masculinehinmanniiminannaminnimi
Femininehunmannuumunannamunnimu
Neuteranamannima
Lortho’s personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are marked for person, number and gender. There are no neuter pronouns for the singular first person. There is a second person neuter plural pronoun, naman, which is used to address audiences, but strangely, there is no first person pronoun for the neuter plural. What if the group being referred to was a mixture of genders? Which pronoun do you use then? This is not very clear.

I’d also like to point out that this pronoun system of specifying gender in the first and second person doesn’t support non-binary identities. While this isn’t a problem in terms of worldbuilding, as this could be a way of suggesting the culture doesn’t recognise those identities, which is not a good thing, but I suppose that’s realistic. However, I imagine that if there are any NB people in this culture, they would probably create neologisms to refer to themselves in the first person in a gender-neutral way to make a statement. I would have like to have seen this represented in the reference grammar, especially as I think it’s supposed to be descriptive.

Verbs

Verbs agree with the subject in person, gender, and number. The reference grammar shows conjugations for the present tense, but does not mention any other tenses. Is this a mistake? It seems like a very odd thing to omit. Looking at the sample sentences, there is apparently a past tense; but I would like to see one conjugation table for the past tense. Come to think of it, the reference grammar doesn’t mention aspect either, which is pretty fundamental thing to leave out.

Fortunately, the Reddit posts does given some details on cover this. There three tenses: past, present and future; and two marked aspects: ‘perfective’ and progressive. He calls one of these aspects a perfective in the post, but in the comments he refers to this as the perfect aspect. This is a simple mistake to make, so I will clarify it here: ‘Perfective’ and Perfect are not the same thing. The perfective aspect is when a verb is analysed as an instantaneous point in time with no internal structure; this is the opposite of the imperfective, which analyses a verb as ongoing. The perfect is different: it refers to an action has taken place in the past (or sometimes the future), but shows that the action has some kind of connection to the present, and it places some emphasis on the result of the action. I know It’s very confusing, as the two terms are annoyingly similar so this could simply be a mistake; I probably have mixed two up before. For further information on this topic, I of course recommend Mark Rosenfelder’s ‘Advanced Language Construction’ which has great information on aspect in its ‘Morphosyntax’ section and Artifexian’s video on aspect.

The reference grammar mentions various grammatical moods. Imperatives are formed by using the just the root of a word, usually paired with a noun in the vocative case. Subjunctives are formed by using the verb hankhan ‘want, wish’ with the infinitive form of the modified verb. There are also additional affixes for the passive voice and negation.

Syntax

The syntax section is also very brief. Lortho’s basic word order is Verb-Subject-Object, an exception to this is that the word order can optionally be Subject-Verb-Object when in the ‘vocative case’. I’m not sure what this means exactly. Which noun is in the vocative the subject or the object? Or is it the clause following a vocative like ‘O lord, the dog bit me’. A sample sentence would be nice here.

Questions are formed using interrogatives or a question particles. Again, no samples are given, and neither any of the interrogatives nor the question particle are even listed. The reference grammar doesn’t even clarify if a question particle is always required (like in Japanese) or if it can be dropped if there is an interrogative (like in Chinese).

Fortunately, I found the interrogatives in the lexicon, so here’s a list if you want to know:

  • Kaura /ˈkau.ɾa/ – question particle
  • Dhar /dʰaɾ/ – who
  • Khar /kʰaɾ/ – when
  • Hladar /ˈhla.daɾ/ – how
  • Malar /maˈlaɾ/ – why
  • Mashar /maˈʃaɾ/ – what
  • Ammar /ʔaˈmːar/ – where

Writing System

Lortho has a script called Dhadakha, which Brian Bourque refers to it as an ‘alphabet with features of abugida’. To be honest, I don’t quite understand what he means by that, since it’s a segmental script with consonants for base letters and uses diacritics to mark the following vowels, that sounds like a straight-up abugida to me.

With the base letters, there seems to be a pattern where the letter that represent similar sounds resemble each other. The letter that represents [pʰ] is basically [p] with an extra stroke, the same applies to [tʰ] and [t]; [lʰ] and [l]; and [ʃ] and [s]. Also [dʰ] and [kʰ] appear similar to [d] and [k], but with tighter loops. The geminate nasals seem to be derived from the regular nasals by adding an extra notch.

There are two styles of Dhadakha: Bookish and Simplified. The base letters seem to be the same between the two of them, and the major difference seems to be in the diacritics where the bookish style has longer stokes that wrap around the base letter. This gives the bookish style a more ‘gothic’ appearance resembling black-letter calligraphy.

There are also numerals, but it’s just a base-10 system with a numeral for zero. He doesn’t elaborate, but I assume it’s a positional system. To be honest, I’m quite disappointed, as it’s basically the same way we count in English. I would say it’s almost as bad as Klingon’s numbers, but at least Klingon tries to justify it with some worldbuilding. To anyone who does who doesn’t know what to do with their numbers, I would like to recommend this site called ‘Of Languages and Numbers‘ which documents counting systems in different languages, including conlangs. And I’m not saying that because he has added a page on Nìmpyèshiu recently. Actually, that’s a lie – maybe I am.

Conclusion

In the Reddit post, Brian provided a list of questions for feedback. So I thought I would finish this review by going through them:

What features are the most interesting and why?

The parts of this conlang that I feel are really strong are the lexicon and the writing system. The lexicon is full of great worldbuilding, and that’s the sort of thing I look for in a conlang. The writing system is alright for an abugida functionally, but it really excels in aesthetic appeal. These two things make the conlang really appealing on the surface level.

What features are banal and why?

I feel that a lot of features, particularly in the grammar, were too Indo-European. Which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, but feel that Brain could improve his conlanging by stepping out of his comfort zone. I would highly recommend to him researching a non-Indo-European language just to get a taste of how different other languages can be. I also recommend researching aspect as that seems to be a weak point. Also, the numbers are really boring. It’s just base-10 positional with a numeral for zero – it felt like absolutely no creativity went into that.

What features do you find the most realistic and why?

There are some little things I found very believable, such as the archaic genitive that suggests inalienable possession and how nasals only sometimes assimilate. Natural languages are complicated, and little nuances like that give the conlang a spark of life.

What features do you find the most ridiculous or unrealistic and why?

I don’t think there’s anything particularly unrealistic, nothing that really broke my suspension of disbelief. But there were some entries in the lexicon that refer to other conlangers, which I just felt slightly broke the immersion.

What do you like about the formatting?

Nothing much in particular. It’s in the standard reference grammar style. I am thankful for it being concise, to the point and used clear language. Reviewing Lortho was way easier than reviewing the Mondir book, which was a complete mess in terms of presentation. However, I have some Issues with the presentation of Lortho…

What recommendations do you have to improve formatting?

First, I felt there was a general lack of detail. While this may be an intentional part of the discovery method, by not giving too much information away, but I feel should be a bit more.

The other problem is that the Reference grammar seems to be out of date. The Reddit posts have much more detail, and I’d say they have much better presentation. I think the reference grammar should be the source that is kept up to date. As it’s called ‘reference grammar’ and it’s presented on the Lortho website, visitors are going to assume it’s the primary source of information.

One last thing I would like note: his dLCC talk suggests that he wanted the audience to feel like they have made an archaeological discovery. So I feel that the reference material for Lortho could have benefited from being in an immersive style. For instance, the reference grammar could of began with some flavour text describing how archaeologists discovered Lortho and how they translated it. An excellent example of immersive writing for a conlang would be Marc Okrand’s ‘The Klingon Dictionary’ and ‘Klingon for the Galactic Traveller’. Say what you like about Klingon itself – those books are really fun to read thanks to their immersive writing style.


Anyway, I hope answering those questions has helped you, Brian. Now I will do my regular sum up and give a rating:

Pros

  • Great Integration of worldbuilding into the lexicon
  • Dhadakha is a beautiful writing system
  • The organic approach to phonotactics
  • Subtle variations to usage of the language, eg, the archaic genitive

Cons

  • Uncreative base-10 number system
  • Lack of NB representation in pronouns
  • Confusing information regarding aspect
  • General lack of detail, particularly with the grammar

Overall, I would say that Lortho is a decent attempt of a conlang – it has a few flaws but at least it has a firm foundation. It feels like it’s undeveloped in places, but the upside is that it has the potential for improvement. So I’m giving Lortho a rating of 6/10 – quite good, but could be much better.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Do you agree with my opinions on Lortho? If not, call me a nuphi in the comments. And if you did, then consider supporting me on Ko-fi.

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