Rílin – A Conlang Review

This is a review of Rílin, an artlang created by Margaret Ransdell-Green for her personal worldbuilding project Aenith. I’ve decided to review this conlang partly because I know Margaret quite well from the conlanging community on twitter, but also because I’m huge fan of her worldbuilding project Aenith. If you want to know more about her worldbuilding, I recommend checking out her website, but also her @aenith Twitter account for tweets about worldbuilding/conlanging.

In the Aenith setting, Rílin is the language of a race of small grey skinned forest dwellers called the Ríli. When the Tosi people from the south invaded the Ríli’s territory, the Ríli were split into two groups: some travelled north into the forests and underground caverns, while others stayed behind to fight off the Tosi. This schism determines the divide between Lunauli and Sunuli dialects respectively. The grammar section on her website is mainly focused on the Sunuli dialect but she occasionally mentions Lunauli where it differs.

I really like this set-up, the varieties of the language have an easy to understand back story, while also giving a taste of Ríli culture. I really like it when conlanging and worldbuilding complement each other. I also like the sun and moon motif here: the Sunuli live above ground in the light, while the Lunauli live underground in the darkness. This arguably comes across as a bit on the nose, but I feel it adds a drop of flavouring into the worldbuilding.

Now let’s dive into the details of the language starting with the phonology:

Phonology

Consonants

MannerBilabialLabio-dentalAlveolarPost-alveolarRetroflexDorsalUvularGlottal
Nasalmnŋ
Stopp, bt, dk, gqʔ
Fricativeɸ, βf, vs, zʃʂ, ʐx, ɣh
Approx.wj
Lateral Fricativeɬ
Lateral Approx.lʟ
Tapɾ
Rílin’s consonant inventory. IPA

What I like about this consonant inventory is the focus on unusual contrasts: there is an unusual phonemic distinction between the bilabial fricatives, /ɸ/ and /β/, and the labiodental fricatives, /f/ and /v/. There are also a couple of unusual gaps, for example with most of the voiceless fricatives there’s a voiced equivalent, however for there’s no voiced equivalent for /ʃ/. This conlang is also very heavy on liquids, having three lateral consonants and a tap.

Vowels

HeightFrontBack
Closeí /i/, y /y/ŭ /ɯ/, u /u/
Near-Closei /ɪ/
Close-Midé /e/, ö /ø/ó /o/
Mide /ɛ/û /ʌ/ o /ɔ/
Openä /æ/a /ɑ/
Rílin’s vowel inventory in the romanisation system and IPA (in //)

Rílin has quite a lot of vowels, but there is a kind of loose pattern to it that keeps it from being a chaotic mess. The front vowels can be summarised as triplets: tense, lax, and rounded, while back vowels are in pair of a tense rounded and lax unrounded. There are a couple of exceptions like /æ/ which seems to be just fill a gap in vowel space. Anyway, it’s refreshing to see something other then the five-vowel system.

There are diphthongs in Rílin, but are rare. The following are considered to be phonemic: /ai/, /ei/, /oi/, /ɔi/, /yi/, /ui/, and /ʌi/. Other vowel combinations are possible but are not considered ‘phonemic’. It’s not made clear but I think the reasoning for this is that non-diphthong vowel combinations only occur at a morpheme boundary. They may also be a hiatus involved but I’m not sure. While it seems like this vagueness is some kind of flaw, I actually think it helps it make it more believable. Natural languages don’t care about how we analyse them, making them difficult to describe; but with conlangs, there tends to be a temptation to make everything neat and orderly. Intentionally throwing in complications and exceptions is a difficult thing to do, especially if you like structure like me.

Some of the vowels merge in other dialect of Rílin. In Lunauli, /ɔ/ and /a/ merge; and in another dialect called Histaxa /æ/ and /a/ have shifted slightly becoming [a] and [ɑ] respectively.

Romanisation

There are two different romanisation systems, which differ in how consonants are romanised: one uses digraphs and the other uses diacritics. For example, /ŋ/ can be spelt either ng or . It’s quite a nice to option to romanise it either way. I personally prefer the digraph version. In the diacritic version /ɸ/ and /β/ are spelt and respectively; but in the digraph version those phonemes are spelt ph and bh which are easier to distinguish and is more intuitive. One problem I came across when creating the cover image for this post was I mistook for an f which confused me when the font didn’t give the same glyph as the sample on the website. The diacritic romanisation for the laterals is also not very clear, /ɬ/ is romanised with a subscript hook,, while /ʟ/ is marked with a slash, ł. These aren’t very clear to me, that’s why I think it’s much better to use digraphs for consonants rather than diacritics.

IPADigraph VariantDiacritic Variant
/ŋ/ng
/ɸ/ph
/β/bh
/ʃ/sh
/ʂ/hs
/ʐ/hz
/ɣ/gh
/ɬ/lh
/ʟ/llł
Romanisation of phonemes that differ in both the digraph and diacritic variants of the romanisation system.

As for the romanisation for vowels (see the vowel section above), it is mostly ok but there are a couple of choices I find counter-intuitive. For example, /ʌ/ is spelt , I feel that u is not a good choice as a base letter suggests a high vowel, especially when you consider that fact the /ʌ/ is realised as [ə] when word final. I think using a as the base letter would work much better.

Phonotactics

Margaret describes Rílin having three kinds of syllable structure: CV(C), VC(C) and CCV(V)(C). Technically there is also just a vowel, V, but that’s kind of trivial to mention so I understand why it’s not included in her description. These rules are clever since they help to keep Rílin’s syllables balanced out. For instance there cannot be clusters in both the onset and the coda.

Only nasals, voiceless stops and voiceless sibilants are permitted in the coda. The glottal stop however is only permitted between two vowels, as well as the velar lateral /ʟ/. Coda clusters may consist of a nasal or voiceless stop (excluding the glottal or uvular stops) followed by a voiceless sibilant.

Morphosyntax

Nouns

Nouns are divided into animate nouns and inanimate nouns. Animate nouns are usually words for people and animals but can also include some forces of nature, emotions, and things that move. In some contexts, usually poetry, an inanimate noun may become an animate noun in a form of personification. The animacy of a noun effects the case-marking suffixes and the articles, as there are separate sets for animate and inanimate nouns.

There are six cases: absolutive, ergative, instrumental/prepositional, dative, genitive, and possessive. There are two things that stand out here: the fact that the instrumental also functions as a prepositional; and there is a distinction between a genitive case and a possessive case.

The Instrumental/prepositional is basically a case used after a preposition, but when used alone without a preposition it functions as a instrumental case. Some prepositions may take other cases, such as ŝít meaning ‘for the sake of’ takes the dative. I find the naming of this case a bit clunky, although I understand her doing it for the sake of clarity. Personally I would have called it the ‘prepositional case’ as that is its more general usage, and I would add a footnote explaining the more nuanced use of it as an instrumental case.

The difference between the genitive and the possessive is that the genitive marks general relationship to a head noun while the possessive marks more literal ownership or direct control. What’s really interesting about this is how Margaret has used this to show some worldbuilding: a parent of a child would be in the possessive if they are really young, but would be referred to in the genitive if they are over they age of ten or twelve.

Articles

Rílin has two kinds of articles: definite and partitive. Definite articles agree in both number and noun class with the head noun: lu is used for animate nouns while bi is used for inanimate nouns. These can be both marked in the plural by adding a –n suffix. More significantly, there is the partitive article, vy, that indicates that the noun is amount of something belonging to a larger group. This functions a bit like ‘some’ in english, e.g. vy mula ‘some water’. This too can be pluralised: vyn, implying that the noun belongs to a larger group.

Verbs

One of the most unique features of verbs in Rílin are the degrees of familiarity marked by pronominal suffixes. These are suffixes that mark person, number and how familiar the speaker is with the second or third person. This means that pragmatics is built into the grammar. There are three degrees: the first degree indicates intimacy but can be disrespectful; the second degree is causal; and the third degree marks high respect but can come across as cold. Usage of these suffixes can vary among dialects, e.g. the first degree is used more frequently in Sunuli. I kind of like this, as it is a grammatical feature that I don’t see often in conlangs and is a good way of showing culture through grammar.

Rílin has the three standard tenses: past, present and future; and five aspects: perfective, progessive, habitual, conative and iterative. Here I’ll only explain are the latter two, since they’re more unusual. The conative aspect represents actions that are being attempted but are not completed. The iterative which indicates an action repeated in a short space of time, this contrasts with the habitual which represents repeated actions over a long period of time.

There are three voices: active (unmarked), antipassive (-in) and passive (-ak). Rilin is an ergative language so the presence of the antipassive is expected, but an interesting choice is that there is also a passive voice. There may be two reasons for this: First is a way of including some form of accusativity which is common in natural languages (which are rarely purely ergative); Another reason would be allow for flexibility in valance reduction, allowing the intransitive subject to function either as an agent or a patient.

There are two modes: indicative and irrealis. Indicatives are unmarked, while the irrealis is marked with –ky or –kû (which is more formal). Imperatives can formed in several ways; in formal speech, they formed by simply adding an irrealis suffix to the end of a verb stem, eg. Besuky ‘Eat!’; this can also be done to a fully conjugated form of a verb: eg. besukíky, literally ‘you better be eating now!’. Infinitive forms can also be used as imperatives in colloquial speech.

There is a copula verb, ŝy, ‘to be’ but is only used for non-present tenses. For the present tense copula, a zero copula construction is used by placing a subject next to a predicate.

Syntax

Because of the noun-case system, Rílin has free word order, but it usually defaults to VSO or sometimes SVO. Noun phrases tend to be head initial, with modifiers generally following the noun. However, articles are the main exception to this since they always precede the head noun.

Negation in Rílin comes in several different forms. There is the particle be which is used to negate an entire clause; and there is ga which negates individual parts of a clause.

There are also different ways of saying ‘no’ in Rílin: la and íte; however there’s no explanation of the difference in the morphosyntax section, just examples. But I would guess la is more polite and íte is more assertive.

Yes-no questions can be formed by placing lä after the verb. But this particle may come at the end of the sentence is there’s no verb or in the Lunali dialect. Lä is can be omitted in casual speech or if there’s an interrogative pronoun/adjective. Those interrogatives mainly correspond to the wh-words in english, but there is a distinction between ‘how’ as in ‘how hot is it?’ (xûs) and ‘how’ as in ‘how do I get there?’ (kóí). The interrogatives can also be used as relative pronouns.

Lexicon

The Rílin lexicon is presented quite well, there is a section for both Rílin to English and English to Rílin; which for my own conlangs I only bother with the former as creating and maintaining both would be a lot of work. Another good thing about the presentation here is that the entries are sorted into expandable sections. This means that someone browsing the page doesn’t have to scroll through a long list to find a particular word.

There are various other sections on the website that cover more specialised vocabulary, which I’ll go through here.

Number System

Numbers in Rílin are disappointing. The ‘Numbers’ on the Aeninth Website just lists numbers one to ten, with no further explanation. I assume it’s just a base-10 system with no variation. Even Klingon, a conlang that is frequently ridiculed for it’s simple base-10 system at least had the caveat of previously being a base-3 system in-world (see my klingon review for more on that). While I understand that someone may use base-10 in their conlang to keep things simple and easy to comprehend, I believe there are more interesting things that could be done: sub-bases, different forms for different types of number etc.. For Rílin, I feel that it would be nice to some different forms for counting animate nouns to counting inanimate nouns, at least for the the lower numbers. In other words, a bit more depth to the number system would be nice.

Colloquialisms

Rílin has some interesting slang terms derived using metaphor. My favourite examples include: mû /mʌ/ ‘a naïve person’ from ‘duckling’; tynga /tyŋa/ ‘a sexually enthusiastic person’ from tyngek /tyŋɛk/ ‘fiery tongued’; and vy tsutla /vy tsutla/ ‘a silly person’ which literally means ‘some syrup’.

Flora and Fauna

This section should just be called ‘Fauna’ as it currently doesn’t list any flora. Despite it’s incompleteness, I do think this kind of thing is quite good to include: It’s basically a short list of animals native to the setting with a brief description; which makes it a good way of presenting both the conlang and the worldbuilding. I would really like to see this section expanded a bit more: the most obvious improvement is adding the ‘flora’ promised by the title of the page, but also small things like illustrations, medicinal uses, associated symbolism etc. to help with immersion.

Names

This section is another disappointment. It’s a brief description of how names are formed plus a list of given names without any etymologies. There are no family names list, nor anything on titles that would make this section interesting. There’s nothing wrong with having a simple list like this, but if there nothing interesting to present then I would just keep it for privately for reference.

Writing System

Aesthetically speaking, Rilin’s writing system looks quite unique compared to other conlangs. It has a lot of similarities to the Greek alphabet, and I think the familiarity helps with the aesthetic appeal. However functionally it’s a bit disappointing, as it seems to be an alphabet with a glyph for each phoneme.

This sky consumes the horizon
We continue on across the vast mountains
Forgetting the past.

– a Nezeletŭn by Margaret Ransdell-Green

What is quite nice is that Margret has provided a font which can be downloaded from this page. I used it to create the text in the featured image of this post. It’s easy to install and works well in Affinity Designer (the graphics software I used to create the featured image). The individual glyphs look nice; but I find the kerning to be bit off, as the spaces between words are very similar to the spaces between individual characters. I’ve got around this by applying justified alignment to the text, which increased the spacing between words so that the text spanned the width of the text-box.

Samples

What stands out about Rílin is how Magaret has utilised the conlang to create poetry and music:

The main genre of Rílin poetry is called Nezeletǔn which translates as ‘journey-stories’. These poems were created when the Ríli were forced from their homeland by the invading Tosí; and they often involve themes such as nature, the cost of war, and family. And I’ve got to say , I’m really impressed with these. Some of read quite well in English, which is something I don’t necessary expect from a translation but it’s a nice bonus. I think the key to making this work is the use of rich metaphors and imagery which works in any language. The combination of this use of natural imagery with the concise writing style, reminds me a lot of Haikus.

Margaret has also produced some music for Aeniith, including a song called Phatakap Bí Xabhét with the lyrics in Rílin, which is really good. She has done this for some of her other conlangs and I’ve heard that she’ll be producing a sea shanty soon.

Conclusion

I’ll conclude with the usual pros and cons list:

Pros

  • Excellent use of the conlang in poetry and music
  • Interesting approach to phonology with a focus on unusual contrasted rather than just throwing in exotic sounds
  • Unique vowel system with a large number of vowels yet carefully chosen to prevent a mess
  • Good use of phonotactics to help balance out syllables
  • Marking of familiarity on verbs leads to interesting implications about culture
  • Easy to navigate dictionary with both directions
  • Great set-up and excellent use of worldbuilding

Cons

  • Number system is a bit dull
  • Writing system seems to be just a simple phonemic alphabet
  • Presentation is a bit rough in places: Some sections feel incomplete; and there’s inconsistent switching between romanisation and IPA

Overall I quite like Rílin, it’s a well made conlang despite there being a couple of areas that could have a bit more depth, such as the numbers and the writing system. I would say I personally prefer Biblaridion’s Oqolaawak, but it’s certainly on par with it in terms of quality. I feel that Margaret has done a very good job of utilising her worldbuilding in this conlang, making it the opposite of Liu Tinghao’s Mondir (which I really don’t like). So I’ve decided to give Rílin a star-rating of 8/10 – Overall very good, but there’s a couple of area I feel need to be more developed.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Do you agree with my opinions on Rílin? If not, feel free to call me vy tsutla in the comments.


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