(c) 2007-2009 Jim Henry III

Glossotechnia is a card game in which the players collaboratively create a new language, and attempt to translate certain challenge sentences into this game-language. It combines competitive and cooperative elements, and probably has potential for use in teaching certain concepts in linguistics, though this aspect hasn't been tested yet.

This document describes the advanced version of the game, intended for linguists, conlangers, and other people who know at least the basics of linguistics (what a phoneme is, what a syllable onset or rime is, etc.). See also the simplified rules that are more suitable for use with players who are interested in language but don't know much about linguistics and its terminology.

The decks

There are two separate decks of cards: the main deck and the challenge deck. The main deck consists primarily of Phoneme cards (k, t, p, a, i, u, etc.), Syllable onset and rime cards (onsets describe the consonant or cluster at the beginning of a syllable; rime cards describe the vowel and what consonants are allowed to follow it), and Syntax cards (Subject-Verb-Object, Verb-Subject-Object, Head-Modifier, Modifier-Head, etc.). There are also a few Sound Change, Grammar Change and Meaning Change cards. These allow a player to do things like split one phoneme in two or merge two phonemes into one; replace one phoneme with another; add or drop inflections; or extend or restrict meanings of words. A few Action cards round out the deck, allowing players to do things like look through the deck or the discard pile for a card they want, or discard their translation challenge card and draw another.

Then there are the translation challenge decks — a Subject deck and a Predicate deck; each player draws one card from each deck to form a randomly generated translation challenge sentence. Hopefully all the subjects and all the predicates are of roughly similar complexity (in terms of number of words and average concreteness or abstractness of the words).

Other materials

Besides the main deck and the translation challenge deck, it is also useful to have a supply of scratch paper and pens or pencils, and (if the optional rule for a phoneme inventory limit is used) three six-sided dice. If a time limit per turn is to be enforced, an hourglass, stopwatch or other timer is needed. A rich game environment with lots of interesting things to point at while coining words is a big plus. An IPA chart is a plus, but probably not necessary.

Game Play

At the beginning of the game, each deck is separately shuffled. Then each player is dealt one Subject card and one Predicate card. A player may discard the challenge dealt and draw another one, if it seems too hard or if they have been dealt the same subject or predicate or both in a recent game or if they just feel like it, but if so they must stick with whatever they draw the second time. Another translation challenge sentence is dealt face up, a common goal for all players to work on together.

Each player is dealt four cards from the main deck, and play begins with the player to the dealer's left, going clockwise. [If there are only two or three players, it would probably be better to deal five or six cards to each player rather than four; and if seven or more players, perhaps each should start with only three cards.]

On each turn, a player draws one card, plays one card if possible, and coins a new word if possible. (However, use of Action or Sound Change cards may modify this procedure on a given turn.)

If you cannot play a card (for instance, if your hand consists entirely of Phoneme cards and the maximum number of phonemes is in play, or if all you have is Sound Change cards and there are no phonemes in play yet), you must discard one card after drawing a card. Alternatively, you could discard your entire hand and draw as many cards again as you had at the start of your turn.

When you play a Phoneme or Syllable card it goes face-up in the middle of the table. The Phoneme cards in play should be arranged in a phoneme table, i.e. with all the plosive consonants in one column, all the nasal consonants in another, etc., with the vowels in two or three columns (front, central and back vowels) a short distance from the consonants; the sounds pronounced toward the front of the mouth (labial, labiodental, dental, etc) should be placed at the top of each column and the sounds pronounced toward the back of the mouth (palatal, velar, glottal) at the bottom. Phonemic Contrast cards are placed near the vowels or the consonants they affect. Syllable onset and rime cards should be arranged in a column or row from simplest to most complex. Unless a Sound Change card is used, any Phoneme or Syllable card played simply adds to the phoneme inventory or phonotactics of the game language; it does not change anything already present.

Syntax cards are also placed face up on the table, some little distance from the Phoneme and Syllable card arrays. Unless a Secondary Word Order card is used, any Syntax card played replaces an existing Syntax card of the same kind, causing the old Syntax card to go into the discard pile. So, for instance, Verb-Subject-Object would replace Subject-Verb-Object, Modifier-Head would replace Head-Modifier, and Postpositional would replace Prepositional. Any Typology card played (Isolating, Fusional, Agglutinative and Polysynthetic) also replaces the existing Typology card, if any. (The default typology at the start of the game is mostly isolating, perhaps mildly agglutinative; i.e. inflectional or derivational affixes and mutations can be coined only when a player has an Add Inflection card, unless the Typology card in play says otherwise.) Suprasegmental cards (defining use of tone and stress in the game-language) also go face-up, near the Phoneme and Syllable cards, and any Suprasegmental card played replaces the one in play before.

Action, Sound Change, Grammar Change, and Meaning Change cards all go into the discard pile after they are played (unless the instructions on the card specify otherwise). Some Sound Change cards can cause Phoneme, Syllable onset or rime, or Phonemic Contrast cards already in play to go into the discard pile.

If there are Phoneme cards in play, a player can also coin a word on their turn (after drawing and playing a card). They say the word, and demonstrate its meaning to the other players by using charades, miming, pointing out examples, drawing pictures, making nonverbal sounds, or using previously coined words of the game-language. If the word-coining player cannot get the other players to understand the intended meaning of their word via charades, pictures, etc. within a reasonable time, the other players confer and decide what the word is to mean. (The other players are the judge of what a "reasonable time" is; when all other players have given up trying to guess your charade, your turn is over.) On the other hand, if a player makes the meaning of their word understood exclusively by using the game language, with no pointing, charades, pictures, etc., they get to draw another card at the end of their turn, increasing the size of their hand.

There is a similar bonus for the player who first translates the group's challenge sentence — they get to draw an extra card, increasing their hand size.

Once the other players have correctly guessed the basic meaning of the current player's new word, that player may further clarify its meaning in English.

Words coined must use only the phonemes in play and the syllable forms in play, but a simple single-consonant onset or a simple single-vowel rime is allowed at any time, whether there are any Syllable onset/rime cards in play or not. (Apparently all natural languages have CV syllables, whether or not they allow more complex syllables.) So if it's the second round and people have so far played the /k/, /n/, /i/ and /o/ Phoneme cards, and the VN (vowel + nasal) Syllable rime card, you could coin words like "ni", "noki", "kin", "konin", "ninonki", etc. Later on, after the /s/, /t/, and /e/ Phoneme cards and the FP (fricative + plosive) Syllable onset card have been played, your options would include "steni", "tinseko", "kinston", and so forth.

If later on the /e/ Phoneme card is played, and later someone plays a "Phoneme Merge" card to discard the /i/ and say that /i/ merges into /e/, then words already coined with "i" in them change it to "e": "keno", "nek", "konen", etc. Most other Sound Change cards also affect the form of existing words. Sound Change cards that substitute one phoneme for another, whether everywhere or just in certain contexts, require the two phonemes to match on at least one feature. If you aren't sure what this means, you can look at the featural descriptions found on the phoneme cards. For instance the /m/ card has the description "bilabial nasal"; if you have it in your hand, along with a Sound Shift card, you could substitute it for any phoneme already in play whose descriptive caption contains either the feature "bilabial" (such as /b/ or /p/) or "nasal" (such as /n/ or /ŋ/). Players may wish to require more realistic sound changes by, for instance, insisting that substituted phonemes must match on all features but one (so you couldn't, for instance, change any rounded vowel to any other rounded vowel, regardless of their points of articulation); or may wish to relax the rule slightly to allow sound changes that change the manner of articulation while moving to a fairly nearby point of articulation (e.g., /m/ to /v/, bilabial nasal to labiodental fricative).

The Chain shift card may require another example. It adds one phoneme, discards one phoneme, and causes several other phonemes "in between" to undergo a chain shift. E.g., with an existing vowel inventory /i, e, ɑ, o/ and a /u/ card in your hand along with a Chain Shift card, you might add /u/ and send /i/ to the discard pile, causing shifts i > e, e > ɑ, ɑ > o, and o > u.

If a Fusional, Agglutinative, or Polysynthetic Typology card is played, after that, players may choose (or be obliged) to coin an affix or mutation rather than a new word on their turn. Or when no Typology card is in play yet, a player may play an Add Inflection card to coin an affix or mutation rather than a word. Players demonstrate (or describe in the game language) the use and meaning of the new affix or mutation with two or more existing words. For instance, if /ger/ and /tlim/ have already been defined to mean "cat" and "sword" respectively, a player might draw pictures of several cats and several swords, captioned /liger/ and /litlim/, to demonstrate the use of a new pluralizing prefix.

One player should be designated the Lexicographer, and keep a dictionary of the words and affixes coined so far. If on paper, this lexicon should leave some blank space in each entry for alterations of the sound or meaning of words caused by Sound Change or Meaning Change cards played later on. It might be helpful to maintain more than one copy of this so that multiple players can look at it at once; sometimes we've played games where every player kept their own copy of the lexicon &mdash but keeping them all in sync, especially after multiple sound changes, can be a problem.

When the main deck has been used up, the discard pile is reshuffled and turned over to become the new draw pile.

A note on the use of the word "charade"

In a traditional game of charades, one is trying to get one's fellow players to guess at an English word or phrase, or perhaps a proper name. One strategy is to break it up into syllables or other sub-parts which are, or sound like, other words, and do successive charades for each syllable. However, this strategy doesn't fit very well with the spirit of Glossotechnia; here, you are trying to get your fellow players to figure out the meaning of your newly coined word, not the English word or words that could be used to translate it. That is the whole point of using pictures, charades and so forth instead of simply defining your words in English.


A player wins by being the first to translate their translation challenge sentence into the game-language in such a way that the other players understand what is being said. However, no one can win with their private challenge until the group challenge (placed face up at the beginning of the game) has been translated.

Alternatively, after a player has translated their challenge sentence into the game language, they draw another pair of challenge cards and play continues; the winner is the player who has translated the most challenge sentences by the time external circumstances force an end to the game. In this form, the group's challenge sentence is collected by the player who first translates it, and is replaced in the center of the table by another face-up common challenge Subject/Predicate pair.


The purpose of the game, as distinct from the rule for determining the winner, is to have fun exploring the possibilities of language. Try to make the sounds and meanings of words, and the grammatical structure of the language, different from English in interesting ways.

The complexity of language can't be compassed in a few pages of rules and a hundred-odd cards. At points where the cards in play don't specify the structure of the game-language, don't just default to the way English does something; feel free to propose and discuss other possibilities. For instance, the Syntax cards specify the typical way that Subject, Verb, and Object are ordered in a sentence; there are only six ways to order these parts and the cards can enumerate all of them. But what exactly is a Subject, or Object, or Verb, in this language? Are subjects of intransitive verbs treated like the subjects of transitive verbs, or like their objects? Are adjectives a kind of verb or a distinct part of speech? Are numbers treated like adjectives or verbs or a separate class of their own? Does the language have articles and if so, how may they/must they be used? What parts of speech, if any, must agree with what others? There are far too many possibilities for a few cards to enumerate them all; devise your own answers in every game.

Composition of the decks

The Phoneme cards of my original deck consisted of most of the phonemes of English, plus a few which many Americans will have a nodding acquaintance with from high school German, French or Spanish classes. Some of the most common phonemes in the world's languages occur more than once in the deck. The advanced deck includes a few more non-English (and non-European) phonemes.

The exact deck composition — what cards occur more than once and how many cards of different kinds there are in the deck — is subject to change after further playtesting, and modification for particular groups of gamers — for instance, a simpler version for children, and a more complex version for linguists and conlangers. The cards currently in my decks are listed and described here.

Optional rules

In quick start mode, one begins a game by shuffling the main deck, going through it and laying out face-up the first two consonants and the first two vowels that appear; then reshuffling the deck before dealing each player their hand. This saves time because players don't have to wait for Phoneme cards to be played before they can start coining words.

There can be a phoneme inventory limit: a maximum number of phonemes which can be in play at a given time. If this rule is used, the initial limit is set by rolling three six-sided dice and adding twelve (for a range of 15 to 30 phonemes); the limit can be changed during play by certain Sound Change cards which increase or decrease the limit. If the maximum number of phonemes is already in play and a Decrease Phoneme Limit card is played, one or two phoneme cards in play are discarded, and the player whose turn it is specifies what other existing phonemes they merge with. If this rule isn't used, the Increase/Decrease Phoneme Limit cards are removed from the deck. [I no longer use these cards in my advanced deck; the one time I've playtested with the phoneme inventory limit rule, the results were unsatisfactory. However, let me know if you figure out way to make it work better.]

If the maximum number of phonemes is already in play, a Phonemic Contrast card may not be played; and if the phoneme inventory is near the limit, a contrast card's effect is limited to a certain subset of phonemes, specified by the player placing it down. E.g., if there are 15 phonemes in play and the current limit is 20, a new voicing contrast might be limited to the nasal consonants instead of affecting all consonants.

A time limit per turn (probably at least one minute, maybe two or three minutes) can be set. The player to the current player's right is responsible for keeping track of their time limit and calling a halt.

Instead of having other players confer on the meaning of a word when the charading player can't convey its meaning nonverbally, use of English [or whatever languages the players are fluent in] can be allowed as a last resort if the player cannot make the meaning of their new word understood by other means. However, it carries a penalty: the player to their right draws a card at random from the English-using player's hand, and discards it, reducing the size of the player's hand by one.

There may be penalties for charades and pictures contrary to the spirit of the game, that is, charades or pictures that allude to English homophones of the word that would be used to translate the meaning of the game-language word, or of its individual syllables. If another player objects to the nature of someone's charade or pictures, the other players vote on whether to penalize the current player; if they agree the charade or picture was invalid, the player to their right draws a random card from the offending player's hand and discards it, reducing the size of the player's hand by one. The other players then confer on what the word is actually going to mean.


Especially early on when few phoneme cards are in play, players can decide among themselves that those phonemes will have a certain range of acceptable allophones; for instance, if /ɨ/ is in play but /i/ and /I/ are not, players can decide that /ɨ/ in existing words can freely be pronounced /i/ or /I/, until and unless a card for one of those latter phonemes is played.

Fictional culture rules

In this form of the game, each player on their turn draws a card, plays a card, coins a word, and adds an element to the fictional culture of the game-language's speakers. Things players say about the culture of the language's speakers should be additive, not contradicting things earlier players have said, and preferably tied into the things already specified about the culture in some way.

There are a few additional Culture Change cards in the deck; "War", "Revolution", "First Contact", "New Technology" and "Wildcard". These allow players using them to change things already specified about the fictional culture, telling a story about how the change happened.

Note that the fictional culture rules tend to significantly increase the length of each player's turn, and thus reduce the complexity of the game-language that can be devised within a given amount of time.

Point-based constraints

Instead of using the translation challenge deck to select translation challenge sentences for the group and for individual players, the game starts with a round where each player devises one or more constraints that might could be met by sentences composed in the game-language, and the other players decide how many points each constraint is worth (either in absolute terms, or on a scale depending on how well the constraint is met). Then, during gameplay, any player can try to satisfy as many of these constraints as they wish by composing sentences in the game-language (whether they were devised by themselves or another player), and at the end of the game (whenever circumstances oblige the players to stop playing, or after an agreed-upon span of time or number of rounds), the person who has accumulated the most points with the sentences they've composed wins.

Some standard challenges that might be used in any such game (in addition to challenges invented by the players in the opening round) include:

Possibly every sentence composed that's non-trivially different from previous sentences is worth a certain number of points, and those which additionally satisfy the constraints introduced in the setup round are worth a larger number of points. And perhaps the base points for the originality of the sentence are multiplied by the point value of any contraints it satisfies. But we haven't yet devised an entirely satisfactory rule for calculating point values of new sentences based on their dissimilarity to previous sentences, however. A tentative rule might be:

There should probably be an upper limit to the number of base points; say, 10.

In this version of the game, the Action cards that refer to challenge sentence cards (draw a new one, swap yours with another player, etc.) are removed from the main deck. Alternatively, these cards could allow players to alter constraints instead of translation challenges.

Advanced use of Sound Change and Phonemic Contrast cards

The Chain Shift card can be used in combination with one or more Phonemic Contrast cards, affecting whole ranges of phonemes at once. E.g., play it in combination with a Voicing contrast card, replacing an Aspiration card already in play, and causing existing unaspirated plosives to become voiced, and aspirated plosives to become unvoiced — then draw another card at the end of your turn.

A player introducing the Rounding or Vowel Length card can optionally specify that the language now has three degrees of vowel rounding or length, as in Swedish or Estonian respectively — or perhaps even four or more (unattested in any natural language as far as I know) if the other players don't beat him to death for suggesting such a thing.

An Eliminate Contrast card can be used to eliminate a contrast only in certain contexts (e.g., voicing is no longer phonemic at the end of a word, or vowel length is no longer distinguished in unstressed syllables); if the contrast is still relevant in other environments, the contrast card does not go to the discard pile.


We've talked about possibilities for game-mechanics to create an orthography for the game-language other than IPA; presumably, if the players agree in advance to use an alphabet rather than a syllabary or some other kind of orthography, each time a player adds a phoneme to the inventory, they would also create an alphabetic letter for that phoneme, or perhaps a digraph of two previously created letters... Sound Change cards would presumably change the pronunciation of existing words but not their spelling, and there might be one or two Spelling Reform cards in the deck which allow a player to bring the spelling partly or wholly into conformity with the mutated phonology of the language. — But this is all nebulous so far; we haven't codified or playtested these rules.

Main Glossotechnia index page
General overview of deck composition
Very detailed deck composition
Main Conlang page
My home page
Last modified April 2009