(c) 2007 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.

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 cards (Consonant-Vowel, Vowel-Consonant, Consonant-Vowel-Consonant, etc.), 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 is the translation challenge deck — a collection of translation challenge sentences, hopefully all of roughly similar difficulty. An alternate form has two separate decks, a Subject deck and a Predicate deck; each player would draw one card from each deck to form a randomly generated translation challenge sentence.

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) two six-sided dice.

Game Play

At the beginning of the game, each deck is separately shuffled. Then each player is dealt one translation challenge card [or one Subject card and one Predicate card]. A player may discard the challenge card dealt and draw another one, if it seems too hard or if they have been dealt the same challenge card 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 card 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 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.

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. Syllable 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.

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, such as Phoneme Merge and Sound Shift, can cause Phoneme cards already on the table to go into the discard pile.

If there are Phoneme cards in play and at least one Syllable card in play which allows these phonemes to be used together, 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, pointing out examples, drawing pictures, or using previously coined words of the game-language. Use of English [or whatever the players' native language is] is allowed as a last resort if the player cannot make the meaning of their new word understood by other means, but 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. On the other hand, if a player makes the meaning of their word understood exclusively by using the game language, with no pointing or charades or pictures, 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.

Words coined must use only the phonemes in play and the syllable forms in play. So if it's the second round and people have so far played the k, n, i and o Phoneme cards and the CV and CVC Syllable cards, you could coin words like "ni", "kino", "nik", "konin", "nonki", etc.

If later on the "e" 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.

One player should be designated the Lexicographer, and keep a dictionary of the words 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.

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


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 challenge card 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 card.


The purpose of the game, as distinct from the rule for determining the winner, is to have fun and explore 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 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 consist 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. There are also two Wildcard phoneme cards which can represent whatever phoneme the player placing it down specifies.

Among the Syllable cards, the V, CV, VC, and CVN syllable shapes occur more than once; among the Syntax cards, the most common primary word orders (VSO, SVO, and SOV) occur more than once.

The exact deck composition 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.

Optional rules and advanced play

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 two six-sided dice and adding eight (for a range of 10 to 20 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 how this affects existing words using those phonemes (do they disappear or merge with certain remaining phonemes?).

The advanced deck, used for the first time at the Language Creation Conference, has several more non-English phonemes and a set of Phonemic Contrast cards. These introduce a distinctive feature contrast for a whole set of phonemes at once: rounding, nasalization or voicing for vowels, or palatalization, labialization or voicing for consonants. There are also two additional Grammar Change cards, "Eliminate Contrast", which have the effect of sending a Phonemic Contrast card currently in play to the discard pile.

If the maximum number of phonemes is already in play, a 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.