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The art of language

December 19, 2016

At one point in many people’s childhoods, they dream of creating their own secret language. They imagine developing a nonsense alphabet, and using it with their friends to communicate behind their parents’ backs. For most, this progresses no further than a brief flirtation with Pig Latin, but for a few, these dreams never went away. In adulthood, they put nonsense words into vocabulary tables and organize them with fully-structured grammar, bringing them all together to create conlangs (short for “constructed language”).

Most monolinguals would think one can create a language with a minimum amount of effort: just switch out English words for made-up ones. However, they ignore the grueling truth of language, a truth that any language student could testify to: speakers cannot learn most languages with ease. Conlangers mould aspects of language most speakers would never think to question into interesting, bizarre, and sometimes even unnatural forms. For example, the practice of treating the “he” in “he hugs John” and “he eats” the same, or ordering a sentence by placing the subject first, then the verb, then the object.

So why would someone choose to undergo the brutal process of creating a language? Why choose to spend hours mapping sound tables, charting out grammatical systems, and adding one new piece of vocabulary at a time?

Contrary to popular expectation, most conlangers do not teach linguistics, or even study it in university; they usually come from much less professional origins, with reasons for developing languages that vary as widely as their languages themselves.

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Words and Worlds: Conlangs in Fantasy Universes

Most people associate building constructed languages, or conlanging, with fiction. Recently, David J. Peterson gained national fame for creating the Dothraki language for the hit TV show Game of Thrones. Peterson created almost 40 languages for various television shows and movies, most notably Thor: The Dark World, The Shannara Chronicles, Warcraft, and Dr. Strange. He helped introduce the world to a new type of conlanging, which casts off the one-word-per-show limits of the past.

As Peterson explained, he immerses viewers in a “mapped out the history of every word, devising versions of the language as he imagined it existing in the past (including thousands of words that would never be needed on the show).”

Conlangers strongly identify with fantasy writers and artists like Peterson; fictional world-building has permanently shaped conlangers’ cultural history and identity. Many in the community label J. R. R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series their introduction to conlanging, and the author as the father of American conlanging. A scholar of Germanic languages, Tolkien’s interest in Finnish grammar inspired him to create Quenya, the language of a mythical Elvish race.

“The languages came first, insisting on existence; the stories came later, and gave them a home,” language blogger Stan Carey said.

From Quenya (or more accurately, its early form Quendian), came an entire family of elvish languages, which inspired him to create language families for Dwarves, Orcs, and evil powers. Many conlangers can recall fond memories of marvelling at Tolkien’s complete dialogues in mythical languages, inspiring them to create mythical worlds — and languages — of their own.

The Klingon language, which the Star Trek universe thrust into prominence, might testify to Tolkien’s influence more than any other. Created by Marc Okrand, and improved by others, Klingon became a nerd’s shibboleth; learning it marked one indelibly geeky. The language gained a cult status over time, developing a community of fluent speakers numbering in the hundreds. It even developed its own Klingon-specific culture: in 2010, the Klingon-language opera ‘u’ (pronounce the apostrophes as part of the word) premiered in September 2010 at The Hauge’s Zeebelt Theater.

However, conlangers do not build each language from the ground up (a priori, in linguistic jargon). Many conlangers draw inspiration from hypothetical futures, where languages combine, mesh, merge, and change irreversibly, creating a posteriori conlangs.

The “Nadsat” of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange functions as the most famous. English slang merges with Russian in this futuristic youth dialect, peppering the novel (and later Kubrick film) with references to “droogs”, “lewdies”, and “the ol’ ultraviolence.” For example, the protagonist Alex said “[he was] slooshying with different bliss than before” when he “viddied again this name on the paper I’d razrezzed that night, a long time ago it seemed, in that cottage called HOME.”

Ironically, most conlangers consider the most famous a posteriori conlang a horrible example of the form. Burgess designed Nadsat as a dialect of English, so it still uses English grammar, syntax, and almost entirely English vocabulary. A true a posteriori language (or so proponents claim) completely merges two, three, four, or even more distinct languages, or makes some sort of radical restructuring to a current languages grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

This practice ties more to reality than many other conlangs. For example, Old English sounds like an incomprehensible mess of Arthurian Norse to modern ears, but through slow changes over time, and an infusion of Norman French vocabulary, it becomes the modern English society knows and loves. Even a priori languages try their best to emulate the natural process of language change. When Tolkien completed his universe of languages, all the languages of Elves and (most) of men had sprung from one mother tongue, named Oromëan.

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From Speech To Reality: Conlanging as an Experiment in Human Cognition

While many conlangers create languages adhering strictly to natural processes, embedding in their language all the flaws and defects of any organic tongue, just as many, and perhaps more, fiercely deny that organic evolution has any place in their language, and often go so far as to dismiss it as backwards. While conlangers focused on world-building often emphasize the humanity (or other being-ness) of constructed languages, other conlangers see constructing languages as an avenue to experiment with theories on language, meaning, and human cognition. These can range from John Wilkins’s “philosophical language,” a 1668 attempt to create a hierarchy of all words, to Láadan, a female-centric language created by the feminist Suzette Elgin.

Sam Smith

Many of the most famous experimental languages seek to prove The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: the idea that an individual’s language determines their thought process and worldview. John Quijada’s Ithkuil, a recent language gaining notoriety over the past two decades, experiments with this proposition in a direction reminiscent of an 18th-century rationalist Jacobin. Ithkuil attempts to express every possible human meaning an a rigorous, logical, and rational system. The language removes all metaphors, jargon, and idiomatic language of any sort, leaving only a rigorous framework of words to express all human concepts. Quijada designed it as a back-brace for human thought; by forcing speakers to avoid ambiguity and obscurity in every way, it attempts to force their thought process to also avoid ambiguity and obscurity. It constructs elaborate, lengthy words, rife with prefixes and suffixes, to avoid awkward phrases, neologism, and every other possible “defect” of human language. 

However, even Quijada admits Ithkuil, and languages like it, boasts numerous flaws. Constructing a complex sentence can take over five minutes, even for experienced speakers, and critics often accuse its writing system of incomprehensibility. Ithkuil’s reputation would make one think only trained enthusiasts could use it in any capacity, and NC students do not do anything to challenge that suspicion. The Chant asked multiple students to pronounce a relatively simple Ithkuil sentence “uss uextarp tu pšaluëlceptu,” meaning “everything I do seems to happen by chance.”

In contrast to Ithkuil’s ultra-rationalism, Sonja Lang designed Toki Pona on Taoist and Zen principles, attempting to build a language with the smallest vocabulary possible. With prominent world languages ranging from 100,000 words (French and Spanish) to 500,000 (Japanese and Korean), Toki Pona’s vocabulary utilizes only 120 words, doing away with the complexity Lang sees as destroying actual meaning in communication. Toki Pona only takes 30 hours to learn completely, but can function as a complete language — a language capable of expressing every human thought — just as well as any language spoken in the United Nations.  

A vocabulary so small forces users to convey exactly what they mean, no more and no less, and express exactly how they relate to objects in the world. In a recent Atlantic article, Toki Pona creator Sonja Lang described Toki Pona as arising from a simple, yet powerful idea: “If you can express yourself in a simple way, then you really understand what you’re talking about, and that’s good. If something is too complicated, that’s bad. You’re putting too much noise into the equation. That belief is kind of hardwired into the language.”

For example, when at a table, one could translate “apple” as kili moku loje (“red fruit to eat”) but translate it as kili pali jelo (“yellow fruit to pick”) when on a farm.

Toki Pona also attracts many speakers with its relentless positive attitude: “There are limited concepts, so one word can mean everything,” Toki Pona speaker Marta Krzeminska said in The Atlantic. “The word pona is everything that’s good in the world: pineapples, bananas, cute kittens. If I call my friend a jan pona, I’m calling him a good person. Often, if we’re both tired and everything is too much, we just say, everything will be pona. You’re a beautiful person, and everything is beautiful, and everything will be beautiful. And then, everything is better.”

The most radical exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, however, lies in Lojban. More akin to spoken computer code than language, Lojban takes Ithkuil’s emphasis on maximum precision in a completely different direction. Placing less emphasis on avoiding ambiguity and expressing precise meaning, Lojban instead tries to focus on structuring the relations between words in the most regular and logical way possible, while creating a language spoken in common conversations. What Ithkuil has in brevity and complexity, and Toki Pona has in simplicity and ambiguity, Lojban has in constancy and regularity of expression. Lojban has no nouns, only verbs and grammatical particles, which, when arranged correctly, cater to the rigorously logical section of the brain so that a human could directly communicate with a computer with no code necessary.

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The Language Politik: Conlangs as a Political Force

Not all conlangers like to philosophize, and for many, conlanging means more than a thought experiment. The most well-known and impactful conlangers throughout all of history have not been authors creating languages for fantastical races, or amatuer linguists exploring the relations between language and thought. No, the most influential conlangs in history have founded political movements, and served as the backbones for revolutionary ideologies.

International Auxiliary Languages (IALs or auxlangs) attempt to unify diverse groups of people under one language. The groups they seeks to unify can vary, as well as their reasons for unifying them, and they can originate from both leftist and rightist ideologies.  But the one constant factor in all auxlangs, above all other things, lies in their intense political activism.

Courtesy of
Interslavic in the Roman Alphabet, Interslavic in the Cyrillic Alphabet, and English translations of the Interslavic website.

Many right-leaning constructed languages stem from nationalism, and gained prominence in the decades before World War I. For example the auxlang Interslavic seeks to create “a generic Slavic language that would be understandable for all Slavs alike,” whether Russian, Polish, Croatian, Czech, or Bulgarian. Interslavic combines shared features of Slavic languages, ignoring different grammatical features or sounds, and creates its vocabulary by looking back at Old Church Slavonic, the originator of all Slavic languages. Interslavic played a large role in the pan-Slavic movements of the 19th century, serving as a focal point for advocates of a unified Slavic state. Advocates of Interslavic, along with other pan-slavists, sought to unify what they saw as a people broken apart by sectarian tensions — Czech vs. Slovak, Russian vs. Ukranian, and Serb vs. Croat vs. Bosnian. As World War I stemmed from tensions between different Slavic nationalities, one can only wonder what historical consequences would follow the wider adoption of the Interslavic agenda. Similar languages have arisen to unite other groups of people, most notable speakers of Romance languages (Interlingua and Lingua Franca Nova) and Germanic languages (Folkspraak). 

Interslavic, and all other national auxlangs, represent a posteriori and naturalistic languages, trying to build a uniting natural language from pre-existing examples. However, while many famous and influential auxlangs may try and build off of what already exists, the two most famous auxlangs in history do not not follow this trend: Volapük and Esperanto. To contrast national auxlangs, Volapük, Esperanto, and others seek to unite the whole world under one linguistic banner.

Father Johann Schleyer created Volapük in 1880 by as an attempt to unite all the whole world under one flag. Volapük vocabulary incorporates English, with some taken from French and Schleyer’s native German. English speakers can easily recognize some words, like nem from English name, but the language morphs most others beyond all recognition. For example, live in English becomes Volapük lödön, and English teach becomes Volapük tidön.

After his original publication in 1880, a movement quickly sprung up around the language. Schleyer held the first Volapük convention in 1889, which had about 200 attendees, speaking mainly in German. By the third convention, the proceedings occurred entirely in Volapük. Sadly though, Volapük fell victim to vicious infighting within its community of speakers, with about half leaving for the Volapük derivation Idiom Neutral, and most of the remainders leaving for Esperanto. Nevertheless, the legacy of Volapük serves as a testament to humans’ willingness to love and connect with their fellow humans, as epitomized by the quote on Schleyer’s memorial Eine Menschheit – eine Sprache. One mankind – one language.

Finally, to round out the list, Esperanto serves as the mother of all constructed languages, the only conlang with speakers enough to rival small natural languages, and the conlang everyone has heard of.

Courtesy of
A short passage in Esperanto, with its English translation.

A Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof first published Esperanto in 1887, in a book titled Unua Libro, and the language almost immediately exploded in popularity. Unlike Volapük, with its complex verb inflections, multiple noun cases, and English-based vocabulary, Esperanto took vocabulary from many different European languages, about one-third Germanic and two-thirds Romance (a somewhat 19th-century idea of “international”), and allowed patrons to understand it with only 16 regular rules of  grammar. In addition, the political message Esperanto carried attracted many early converts, in Zamenhof’s words, to make “the Chinese wall dividing literatures disappear. [E]ducation, ideals, convictions, aims, would be the same, and all nations would be united in a common brotherhood.” 

After the publication of Unua Libro, Esperanto gained more and more speakers, attracted by its relatively simple grammar and claims of universal brotherhood. By the 1900s, its World Congresses attracted thousands of people, who took Esperanto back home with them, giving it a larger population of speakers than any other conlang in history. In the 1920s, Esperanto communities had sprung up all around the world, and The League of Nations (precursor to the UN) voted to make it the world’s international language. The League accepted the motion with an almost unanimous vote, to Esperantist cheers, but in a foreshadowing move, the French delegate, the only “no” vote, used his veto power to strike it down. French functioned as the language of international communication at the time, and the French government saw Esperanto as a threat to that hegemony. Perhaps they would have reconsidered if they knew their hated enemies, the English, would sweep that control out from under them in a few short decades.

At the dawn of World War I, Esperanto looked well on its way to becoming a truly international language. Second-generation Esperanto speakers were born — a historic first for conlanging — and many nations added Esperanto to their official school curriculums. Sadly, though, war ruins all worthy dreams. The frenzy of war, and subsequent depression, saw a universal language become the last thing on politicians’ minds. Esperanto made a brief recovery by the end of the depression, but a second world war destroyed it once again. As fighting consumed the globe, and new imperialist, totalitarian regimes in Russia and Germany executed Esperanto speakers for treason, it seemed as if Esperanto would go the way of Volapük, and fade into obscurity, its lasting legacy a footnote in a future history book.

Conlangers of all doctrinal persuasions — even those who hold overall negative views of conlanging as a political activity — see Esperanto as “the most successful invented language ever,” but not because of any uniquely impressive grammar, syntax, vocabulary, or even political activism. Conlangers rally around Esperanto because of its popularity into the modern age, uniting its speakers under the banner of international brotherhood and friendship. Today, Esperanto has around 1,000 native-speaking families, and around 100,000 second language speakers. Native Esperanto speakers range from Nobel prize winners to one of the richest men in the world, with daily-growing numbers of speakers from all classes, races, and ethnicities. Society boasts thousands of Esperanto novels, films, and a vibrant Esperanto music scene; news organizations from China to Cuba to the Vatican that publish Esperanto editions. Esperanto continues to fulfill Zamenhof’s goals of diplomacy, world culture, and anti-nationalism to this day.

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2 Responses to “The art of language”

  1. Juana Elena on December 19th, 2016 7:53 PM

    I found this article incredibly enlightening! Prior to reading it I had no idea of the history, depth and philosophy behind Conlang and the desire of the historical and current community to use it to build bridges among people. I also enjoyed the explanatory graphics, especially the Ithkuil example. Well done!



  2. Pierre Suisand on February 11th, 2017 6:30 PM

    This piece was truly captivating and was extremely interesting to read. The Author is clearly a good journalist and reporter.



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