A Project to Translate Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Into An As Yet Nameless Constructed Language
Building a entire new language from scratch
by Gary J. Shannon

Created Mar. 31, 2019
Last Modified Apr. 5, 2019

The Project

The object of this project to translate Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into a new constructed language that does not yet exist. Each new line of translation will require new words to be invented, and new grammatical forms to be created. My hope is that by organically growing a language in this manner the result will be a conlang with a more natural feel. By avoiding advance planning and deliberate "engineering" of the language, I will have the freedom to explore its development in a more haphazard manner, leading, I hope, to something that no longer feels artificial or contrived.

This avoidance of pre-planning includes not mapping out a formal phonology and morphology as well. Instead I will coin new words with a ear toward harmonious coexistence with previously existing words. Whatever phonology emerges from that process will be what it will be. Since nothing exists at the outset, the first few words of the translation will begin to set the tone for that eventual phonology.

The grammar will also not be planned out in advance. Each new grammatical principle will be invented so that it meshes smoothly with whatever exists so far. Since nothing exists of the grammar either, the first few sentences of the translation will more or less set the tone for the grammar as well. Note, however, that the possibility always exists for some "black swan" event that upends the previous grammar and replaces it with something radically new. I'm hoping nothing drastic happens, but one never knows with organic processes.

It should be noted that "no preplanning" does not necessarily mean "no planning". I intend to do a lot of planning of each sentence as it comes up for translation. What have not done, however, to make a grand, overarching plan for the shape of the language.

The Title

The first challenge is to translate the title of the book. Let's begin with the word "Wonderland". Is this to be a compound word, or a adjectival phrase; "The Land of Wonders"? I decided to go with a compound word with a back story to justify it.

The people who speak this language, so the story goes, have a rich mythology which includes the concept of a place to which the soul travels while dreaming. This is thought of as a real place, and not merely a work of the imagination. This place is called Uxnatax /uʃnataʃ/. (Notice that the letter "x" is pronounced as "sh", and that the "t" is palatal.)

The preposition ili is used to express the idea of "in" or "on" that place, so that Ili Uxnatax can be translated as "in dreamland" or "in wonderland". The title Alice in Wonderland would then be rendered as:

Alis Ili Uxnatax

Expanding the title to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" I can mark the name "Alice" with a genitive case ending, Alisai, followed by the plural of the word for "adventure" xahaduin (the singular being xahadu), and arrive at the complete title:

Alisai Xahaduin Ili Uxnatax

I initially toyed with the idea of making *-li a postpositioned suffix, but complications ensued. If I use pospositional suffixes or case endings then when the prepositional phrase consists of many words, such as "behind the girl with the blue ribbon in her hair", does each word of the phrase get the suffix? Does only the last get marked? That can't work because that prepositional phrase, for example, contains an embedded phrase: "in her hair". So how does it all get untangled in the reader's mind?

I finally decided that it is better to pose the question first and then give the answer. In other words, to say "behind", posing the question "behind who, behind what?" and then provide the answer, "the girl with the blue ribbon in her hair." Additionally, the preposition is short and to the point; easily digested, so that the meaning can be quickly grasped and we can move on. The rest of the prepositional phrase could be long and convoluted, and not knowing in advance how it fits into the sentence structure as a whole, the reader could get lost tracking down a mistaken parse. The preposition provides that point of connection to the rest of the sentence, and so should be established as soon as possible.

Briefly, even though postpositions are "different", and I want to be different enough to avoid relexification of my native tongue, just being different doesn't justify what, logically, seems like structure that is more difficult to mentally parse. So prepositions it is.

Cumulative Lexicon

I again dug out the old offline dictionary builder I've been using for my conlangs for the last 15 years, and, after a bit of a face lift, put it to work building the cumulative lexicon.

The two dictionary pages are English to Conlang and Conlang to English. These two dictionary pages will always represent the most up to date lexicon.

A few notes on pronunciation

Pronunciation is not nailed down just yet, but more details will be documented as they emerge. For now, I think that most, if not all words have their stress on the first syllable. "X" is pronounced "SH", and "TX" is pronounced "CH". A detailed phonology, complete with necessary IPA notations will be presented once the pronunciation begins to settle down and stabilize somewhat.

The Schedule

In my previous 30-day conlang project I averaged better than 75 words of text translated per day. If I translated at the same rate, the roughly 30,000 words of Alice would be completely translated in about 400 days, just a little over a year. I'm going to start out with a goal of 75 word-per-day (plus or minus 10 words or so). As time goes on and the language becomes more settled, and I become more familiar with it, I may find I can translate considerably more words than that in a single day.

The Cumulative Translation

Once I get past the first dozen paragraphs or so, I will build a page to house the full translation as it stands each day. In this way, when the translation is finally complete, the whole document will already be gathered up into a single file and ready to be read.

April 1, 2019 -- The first 64 words to translate

CHAPTER I. Down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'

Right off the bat, I need to make a very significant decision that will have a deep and lasting effect on the whole project. To translate the chapter title "Down the Rabbit-hole" I need to find out if this language has a definite article. In the past I've almost always included definite and indefinite articles in my conlangs simply because I'm so accustomed to using them in my own native tongue. I think, therefore, to force myself out of my comfort zone and explore new territory, I will declare that this language has no definite article.

Next, consider the phrase "Down the rabbit-hole". It's not a sentence, and doesn't have a verb, but will I translate "down" with a preposition meaning "down/downward", or with a nominal form of a verb for "to descend". Think of how the infinitive of a verb in English can act like a gerund and exhibit noun-like characteristics as in "I like to swim." vs "I like swimming." Perhaps I should cast the title in the form: "In Rabbit's Hole to-Descend", "In Rabbit's hole Descending", or "Descending in Rabbit's Hole." I already have the preposition ili for "in", and the -ai genitive ending, so I would only need roots for "rabbit", "hole/burrow", and the verb "to descend".

Consider this version:

Down the Rabbit-Hole

With the new lexicon entries pelangu (Rabbit), txibu (hole/burrow), and Zurex (to descend).

Now here's a peek behind the curtain at how I go about collecting words. The word for "chapter" might also mean "fragment", "section", or "portion". Off the top of my head, I like the Swahili word "sehemu" (part piece portion share) which could become *xemu or *xema. But I'd rather not borrow words directly. Instead, I like to "be inspired" by existing words. When I coin words from scratch they tend to have jagged edges and don't roll off the tongue very well, so I like to start with words that have had the sharp edges smoothed down by usage.

Using Google Translate, I type in two lines "Chapter One / Chapter Two" and then click buttons for all kinds of different languages to see what words come up. I use two lines so I can tell which word of the translation is "chapter".

The Maori "upoko" is nice. The Lao "bodthi" could be warped into *boxi or *boji. The Bulgarian "glava" might become *klava, but that seems a little too close the the Spanish "clave". The Tajik "bobi" harkens back to the Lao-inspired *boxi, so maybe if I warp that just a little more and make it boxto... And I think we have a winner.

I should note at this point that I have nouns ending in -o, -u and -x, so for now I will consider those be be nouns of three different classes, each with its own unique declensions and pluralizations.

Now what about cardinal numbers. I could cheat and just write Boxto I. but I might as well come up with the first few cardinal numbers while I'm at it. I think I'll just start at the beginning of the alphabet and go with aba for "one", and txek for "two" and dox for three. For those I just scanned down a computer-generated list of syllables I keep on hand.

Now is "Chapter One" to be translated Boxto Aba or Aba Boxto? Maybe, since aba is cardinal Boxto Aba is appropriate. If the ordinal number (maybe something like Aban) where used then Aban Boxto would be better.

So now we have the complete first line:

Zurex Ili Pelangai Txibu

Examining the First Sentence

I'm backtracking here, to be sure I understand the translation of the first sentence. I want to get off on the right foot so that I don't get lost later on.

Taking a close look at the sentence in English, we see that it is of the form [SBJ COP ADJ] where the subject SBJ="Alice", the copula COP="was begining to get" and the adjectival phrase is ADJ="very tired of ... etc.". We see, in addition, that the compound adjective "very tired" takes an argument introduced by "of" and followed by what is essentially a sentence with the implied subject "Alice" or "she". We might decide that this language requires a resumptive pronoun and clarify that construction by making the argument of the adjective be "she was sitting by her sister on the bank, and was having nothing to do".

That embedded sentence is, itself, composed of the subject followed by two conjoined predicates: "was sitting by her sister on the bank" and "was having nothing to do.". The first predicate is further composed of a verb followed by two prepositional phrases: "by her sister", and "on the bank". Looking at the structure, then, we find this sort of thing:

Sentence (SNT)
Alicewas beginningto becomeverytired of(she)was sittingbyher sisteronbank ANDwas not havingthing-to-do

The Translation

Verbs will be conjugated with tense and person suffixes. "was beginning" will be translated as "become-3SG.IMPERF" and "to become" will, of course, be "become-INF". I'm going to make certain modifiers like "very" become prefixes, so that the adjective "very-tired" becomes a single word. (e.g. kare "tired" and makáre "very tired") A relative pronoun will introduce the argument to the adjective, which will be a full sentence by introduction of the resumptive subject pronoun le "she" in the relative clause. The words "thing to do" will be a single word meaning something like "occupation", not in the sense of a job or career, but in the sense of some activity to occupy your time.

With those parameters in mind we can build up a first sentence something like this:

Alisiréndetemakárehilenérandesámbreku anuxlisirákeanidímendepányaxa
Alicewas-becomingvery-boredthatshesitsnearher sisteron(the) bankandlacksoccupation

Here are a few grammar rules that we can extract from that sentence:

NOTE: This translation was revised on day 3.

The two dictionary pages are English to Conlang and Conlang to English. These two dictionary pages will always represent the most up to date lexicon.

April 2, 2019 -- Day Two: finishing the first sentence

NOTE: day three was spent revising the translations made on day two.

CHAPTER I. Down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'

BOXTO ABA. Zurex Ili Pelangai Txibu

Alis iréndete makáre hi le nérande sámbre ku anux li sirák e anidímende pányaxa: Abal e inute moti renéndepa ili otaxa hi anux sayóndete mina ili otaxa sirendaite nus raxui e txitxerai, 'e waskem sabende otaxa,' sinótendepa Alis, 'anidímex raxui nus txitxerai?' 'e waskem panudende otaxa,' sinotepande Alis, 'anidimende raxuen nus txitxeran?'

Alisiréndetemakárehilenérandesámbreku anuxlisirákeanidímendepányaxa
Alicewas-becomingvery-boredthatshesitsnearher sisteron(the) bankandlacksoccupation
Abal e inutemotirenéndepailiotaxahianuxsayóndete
Once and again
inbookthat which sisterread
Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading,
3PL Perfect
but in (the) book existed no pictures or conversations,
Alice to lack
'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'lacking pictures and conversations?'

The two dictionary pages are English to Conlang and Conlang to English. These two dictionary pages will always represent the most up to date lexicon.

April 4, 2019 -- Days Three and Four - Revising

Days three and four were spent in revising the translations from the first two days. My son and I used to quip that when we did a project we had to build a thing three times. The first time it never worked. The second time, it worked but was ugly, clumsy, inefficient, etc., and the third time we built it, having learned from our mistakes, we got it right.

April 5, 2019 -- Forging ahead with paragraph two

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

Kwenda le tsuréndete ili ku ketasu (an pluxku sum biléndepa, txi din matam leum bendete exrai du malavezh e sualezh), yava nenjavo du nemánox samála du txaskui eskarándewo ku preyano du ustáx e suberáx txaskui, twaru asapére ápasahándepa sambre leum pelengu sate du kandukai satielozhe.

yavanenjavodunemánoxsamáladutxaskuieskarándewo kupreyanoduustáxesuberáxtxaskui
chainofdaisiespay for
herlaborofstand up
thensuddenlyrun away
nearher-ACCrabbitwhiteofeyes pink

As always, the two dictionary pages are English to Conlang and Conlang to English. These two dictionary pages will always represent the most up to date lexicon.