Deconstructing the Constructor: An Interview with Mark Rosenfelder

When it comes to the putative title of “Master of the Constructed Language,” Mark Rosenfelder’s claim to it has some serious merit. He has quite literally written the book—four, in fact—dedicated to conlangs and helping readers with crafting their own. The most recent of these, The Syntax Construction Kit (SCK), was released in November. Mr. Rosenfelder has graciously agreed to be interviewed.

A New Book for a Young Field

Rosenfelder has a deep appreciation for syntax as a linguistic concept, so much so that when asked what his goal was in writing the SCK, his response was, “To share my love for syntax.” He went on to explain that syntax was the first field of linguistics he delved into beyond the study of individual languages themselves. Syntax is, as a field, comparatively young—by way of contrast, take the study of phonology, where one would be remiss not to note the Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini—and Rosenfelder is captivated by the possibilities for discovery within it.

Rosenfelder describes the field of syntax as “very likely [to be] the section in most conlangers’ grammars that needs the most help.” Popping into linguistics fora such as the Zompist Bulletin Board (about which more will be said later) or the Conlangs Bulletin Board would appear to back up Rosenfelder’s assertion, as a quick look reveals a significant population of posts with a bent towards the phonological, or sound-related, aspect of a conlang.

The SCK is a unique book amongst Rosenfelder’s nonfiction work. As syntax is a young field, there have been a number of competing theories such as X-bar theory or minimalism; one encounters the now-generally-discredited school of phrase structure grammar in the field’s halcyon days. “I had to cover the basics of several schools of syntax,” says Rosenfelder, “including at least three representing Noam Chomsky’s stages of thought—and point out the disagreements.” This is in contrast to other works such as the Language Construction Kit, wherein there is much less controversy and uncertainty in those fragments of the greater school of linguistics.

What Is Past Is Prologue

Rosenfelder has written other works previously, both fiction and nonfiction. The first book he wrote was The Language Construction Kit (LCK), whose aim was “to cover everything conlangers would need to known to create languages.” However, as Rosenfelder puts it, “there were more things to say about linguistics, so I wrote a sequel,” namely Advanced Language Construction (ALC). A third conlang-oriented book, The Conlanger’s Lexipedia (CL), followed after that; the CL is a mixture of word origins, history, philosophy, and science intended to help stimulate linguistic development and new ideas for the same.

Rosenfelder has written books geared towards worldbuilding as well, including The Planet Construction Kit (PCK), The China Construction Kit, and The India Construction Kit. The Planet Construction Kit is, roughly, an analog of the LCK for those who want to build worlds and contains a healthy spoonful of various sciences ranging from geology to psychology. The China Construction Kit and The India Construction Kit, by contrast, are case studies in the histories, demographics, languages, and characteristics of those respective regions with the aim of helping broaden the imaginations of its audience, who are likely of Western origin. “If you want to create things,” says Rosenfelder, “the more you know about the real world the better.”

There are also works of fiction in Rosenfelder’s catalogue. These include two novels—In the Land of Babblers, a high fantasy tale set in his conworld Almea, and Against Peace and Freedom, a sci-fi work in a universe where humans can travel between the stars but are hamstrung by the speed-of-light barrier.

Why Self-Publish?

All of the aforesaid works have been self-published. The choice to self-publish was driven mainly by the content and intended audience of his books, according to Rosenfelder. Conlanging is very much a niche art, with exceptions such as J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and David J. Peterson (who developed Dothraki for the Game of Thrones TV series) proving the rule. Rosenfelder feared that publishers would not be familiar with conlanging and not see the possibilities for a customer base within the community.

Another factor in this decision was a sort of tortoise-and-the-hare mindset. “A friend of mine was traditionally published,” says Rosenfelder. “It was neat seeing his book in my local bookstore…but it disappeared after a couple of months. Traditional publishers like one-time hits. By contrast my books tend to sell in small numbers, but year after year.” He quotes a figure of over 30,000 books sold at the time of the interview.

How to Get Words on the Page

When it comes to writing, Rosenfelder draws a distinction between the workflow for nonfiction versus fiction. “The nice thing about non-fiction is that it’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “Learn stuff, think about it, then write down what you know. The downside is that the research process may take a long time!” With regards to fiction pieces, Rosenfelder identifies one pervasive question: “And then what happens?” He says that the answer is not always known or obvious to him, and that finding or realizing it is a process that can take years. To Rosenfelder, maps and languages are the easy part—crafting distinctive cultures is harder for him, and even this is overwhelmed in difficulty by the process of coming up with a plot.

In the past, Rosenfelder’s tools of choice included pens and typewriters, but in more recent years, he’s upgraded to keep up with the times. Of late, he is given to use a Mac loaded with Microsoft Word. Adobe is another favored brand—he uses Illustrator to create diagrams and Photoshop for drawing other images and maps.

“I suppose everything we read as teenagers has an outsized influence [on writers],” says Rosenfelder. He specifically cites J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, and Alfred Bester. Roleplaying games are another source he credits with inspiration—his constructed setting of Almea owes its existence to Dungeons & Dragons. On a lighter note, he says that “Lots of things influenced my sense of humor, from Mad Magazine to Monty Python to Pogo.” The atlases of Colin McEvedy, he adds, “are still amazing to me for the way they effectively present such a mass of information.”

Words to the Wise

“I liken [conlanging and conworlding] to drawing a picture of a dragon,” says Rosenfelder. “No one knows what a dragon looks like, so no one can say you’re doing it wrong. Have fun and do what you like.” He goes on to add that keeping to one genre will lead to impersonations of that genre “and never get past their limitations.” He emphasizes the importance of knowing about the real world and what is in it.

For one last piece of advice, Rosenfelder says not to begin by creating the main or focus culture of a given work. “Your first attempts won’t be your best,” he says, “so work on the main culture later.” (The fact that his world of Almea was not created according to his advice is not lost on him.)

Mr. Rosenfelder was a joy to interview, and his books are well worth the investment for the aspiring worldbuilder or conlanger. On the Zompist Bulletin Board, you stand a chance of interacting with him yourself. Have you read any of his material? What did you think?

 

Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington