Your mother has a smooth forehead.

Conlanging. It sounds vaguely naughty. Do you and your wife conlang? Honk if you conlang! It’s really not as salacious as it may sound (to me, at least). To conlang means to create a language. The word is an amalgamation of Constructed Languages and it refers to the process of intentionally (as opposed to accidentally?) inventing a language. It can also refer to the language itself. Esperanto is the most famous of the constructed languages that had the goal of real world use, but it is by no means the only one. The major ones include:

  • Volapük, introduced by Johann Martin Schleyer a year after Ludovic Zamenhof published Esperanto  in 1878;
  • Ido, created by an Esperanto reformist group in 1907;
  • Novial, developed in 1928 by the late, great linguist Otto Jesperson;
  • Interlingua, published by the International Auxiliary Language Association in 1951.

Real world use is not always the goal of conlanging. Sometimes the creators of fictional worlds want to offer the authenticity and credibility of a real language, without just throwing a bunch of words from various real languages into a blender and seeing what comes out (Blade Runner, I’m looking at you!). The language that Viggo Mortenson used to whisper sweet nothings into Liv Tyler’s ear in The Lord of the Rings was Elvish (or Quenya and Sindarin) and was created by J.R.R. Tolkein specifically for his epic trilogy. George Orwell, in a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which says that people cannot think what they cannot say, wrote Newspeak for 1984, his cautionary tale of government control. And of course, the most famous reindeer of all is Klingon, invented by Dr. Marc Okrand for the war-loving species who fought against the young, sexy Captain Kirk and crew in the early days of Star Trek, but who then turned ally and served next to the older, sexier Captain Picard. Now, the new kid on the block who would like to dethrone Klingon, King of Conlangs, is Paul Frommer’s Na’vi from the film Avatar.

Mmm...scruffy Viggo (Image courtesy of snarkerati.com)

These conlangs have gained popularity amongst many fans of the respective fictional works, but have not garnered a lot of interest from professional linguists. There are no scholarly journals, no specialists, and the few linguists who do try to conduct research most likely do so in their spare time. I’m sure there are many reasons: time constraints, pre-existing research commitments, funding, and the good old ‘publish or perish’ adage. Some linguists may not be convinced that conlangs can tell us much of use about language universals, or the true nature of language. It’s certainly not a prestigious field of research.

Part of the difficulty in studying these constructed languages, I suspect, is the reign of the Native Speaker in linguistics. At the core of much research on language is the idea that the native speaker has an unconscious, nearly-infallible competence in his or her mother tongue, and therefore is the person who has the answers for questions related to what language can actually do. Aside from one man who tried to teach his son Klingon from birth (it didn’t take), there aren’t native speakers of fictional languages. The situation is only slightly better for ‘real world’ conlangs. There are about 1,000 people who have grown up speaking Esperanto from birth, but they’ve also grown up speaking other languages, too. This could muddy the waters a bit, combining the study of constructed language acquisition and bilingualism, which may be too tricky to sort out reliably with only 1,000 test subjects spread out around the world. Perhaps if any of the conlangs were to develop a native-speaker community (in a more geographical sense) with people growing up speaking Esperanto exclusively, then there might be more interest and, more importantly, more grant money.

George enjoys the belligerence of the Klingons.

There is more scholarly research on the ‘real world’ conlangs than on those for fictional worlds, though sometimes they are united in a book such as Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages. And there are occasionally crossovers of those with a bit more celebrity. William Shatner is of course associated with Klingon due to his dominance in the Star Trek franchise, and did have some lines in that conlang, but he also just happened to have starred in Incubus, one of the only movies filmed entirely in Esperanto.

On a personal level, I find constructed languages interesting, but as I’ve said about codes and code-breaking, I’m more intrigued by the loyalty these conlangs inspire in their followers. I want to understand the conlangers instead of engaging any conlanging myself. From an academic standpoint, I prefer looking at the ways language is used or changed more organically, unconsciously – not deliberately. For personal use, I’d rather learn at least a little bit of different existing languages to get a better sense of the people and the culture when I travel to other countries. I like to wander around the streets, look for cafés packed with locals where I can observe and hopefully eavesdrop, or visit off-the-beaten track sites.

In the meantime, however, conlangs can be kind of fun. For example, you can tell someone that his mother has a smooth forehead (Hab SoSlI’ Quch!) and he’ll never be the wiser, unless he happens to speak Klingon better than you. Or you could use some Elvish words as a signal to your friend that the guy hitting on you at the bar is creeping you out and she should ‘get sick’ so you will have to leave to ‘take care of her’.

Here are some of the other things you can do if you are willing to spend a few minutes here or there on Fun with Conlangs:

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some important non-linguistic questions to ponder: for example, who looks better in Princess Beatrice’s fascinator: Mrs. Parker on the left or Zelda on the right?

23 thoughts on “Your mother has a smooth forehead.

  1. Wow, they are both stunning – while I think the Fascinator suits Zelda’s coloring better, I find that Mrs. Parker has the better shape to carry off such a piece. I’m nervous to leave a comment, as I admire your knowledge of words and don’t want to screw up and look like a linguistic doofus. But I can’t help myself. I found your post fascinating. My brother taught himself a variation of Elvish and used to keep his journals in that written language in his teens – no one will ever be able to read them – EVER. (The ultimate defense against a little sister.) He and I (and now my daughter and I) would sometimes pretend to speak a non-existent foreign language in a public place like an airport. Even though we weren’t speaking words, it was interesting to note that we still understood the basics of what each other was saying. In reading your post, I was also thinking about the unique spoken languages that some twins develop at a very early age (often before they learn to speak their native tongue) – and whether or not they retain the ability to use that language once they grow up. That’s something that I think I’ll look into. Love your blog!

    • Please, please, no need to be nervous! I do appreciate that you care how you express yourself (I wish more of my students did!), and I’m glad that you commented :)

      I think confusing siblings and keeping them from snooping is really one of the most important functions of fictional languages ;) Having grown up with four nosey, bossy siblings, I’m kicking myself now for not thinking to learn Elvish when I was 11 and starting my first diary.

      We get a lot of information from ‘extra-linguistic’ features – intonation, pitch, facial expression, gestures, exaggeration…How often do you actually say the words “I don’t know” distinctly? And how often does it come out more like “Ah-do-no” ;) You could leave out every consonant and just mush your mouth around some vowels, but with that same “I don’t know” intonation (especially the exaggerated tone that suggests annoyance), you will be perfectly understood. Try it out sometime – see how far you can get in a simple conversation by just using intonation and maybe subbing ‘hmmmm’ for the actual words.

      As for the twin language – did you read a couple of weeks ago, the post entitled ‘This just in…babies make noise”? (and there’s a bit of follow up in ‘I guess you had to be there’). I actually addressed the issue of twin language (forgive me if they come across a bit grumpy ;)

      Good to have you around! Hope you continue to enjoy it and comment some more.

  2. I say Zelda on the right! The white and blue combination looks appropriately princessy :)

    Does translating names into Elvish really work? What do they look at to translate: etymology? i.e. in my case: Flora, Roman goddess of flowers, and flos, floris, the Latin for flower? would they look for cultural equivalents? Or translate letter by letter (I seem to recall the Elvish alphabet being different)… Anyway… just wondering.

    • She is a little princess, that one :)

      That’s a good question and it seems there may be more than one answer. The link that I included for translating names in Elvish seems to be one variant, but then I did some more poking around and I found another website (http://www.arwen-undomiel.com/elvish/names.html) that gives a list of names based on etymology and translation. My name is derived from Helen, which means ‘light’, and translated, would apparently be Caladhiel, which is totally different from the other site. Your name, as you said derived from flower, and would be Lothiriel.

      I wonder if part of the issue is that Tolkien created more than one language for the series. They were pretty clearly based heavily on Celtic languages, particularly Welsh (oh, how I love Welsh accents!) but there were some differences. So I wonder if we all have more than one Elvish name! :)

      The writing system was letter-by-letter, with vowels being written above consonants, except silent e and I believe y.

      • Thanks for looking that up! The first site you included gave me a different name (though also starting with an /l/). I definitely prefer this one :)
        If our Elvish names are based on etymology and consider just one notion (light, for you; flower, for me), I suppose that makes it a language similar to Chinese, where you get names like Lotus Flower and Pearl. Or has the Elvish word for flower been modified, making “Lothiriel” a derivative form, like “Florence” is a derivative of “flos”? I suppose we’d need an expert in Elvish – or Tolkien himself :) Sorry, by the way, to obsess over something like my Elvish name: I just happen to be a fan of The Lord of the Rings (and of course, of Viggo Mortensen!), and I can therefore relate more to Elvish than to Esperanto…

      • Huh…your question prompted more searching, and I found this: http://www.councilofelrond.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=Semantics&file=index&volume=4
        (I read the blurb on the other site a bit more closely, and that list was generated by a person who was getting their rules from The Council of Elrond site above, and also adding things here or there to make the names sound more…elf-y)

        As I suspected, they list three different languages, so that’s one explanation for different ‘generators’ giving different answers. But the variations may also be due to what meaning of the name is being translated. When I put in ‘Helen’, it came up with words for light, sun, sunlight, torch, moon. It seems there is the real etymology of the name, and different aspects of that etymology can be connected to a word in one of the Elvish languages.

        I am also a fan of The Lord of the Rings. I first read The Hobbit when I was very young and I adored it. I somehow kept picking up the books of the main trilogy at the wrong times in my life and couldn’t get through them on my first few attempts. It was strange. I’d be really into the first book, but then suddenly lose interest before I finished. Then, my interest was sustained through about halfway through the second book, and then it just ‘turned off’. When I finally picked them up for the third or fourth time, I devoured all three books in about a week. Couldn’t get enough. I am a believer in the idea that there’s a right time for a book, and it took a couple of false starts before the right time for those books came along!

        If I were ever to dabble in actually learning any constructed language, I think it might have to be Elvish. I love the script.

  3. I think Zelda looks very regal. It’s as if she was born to sport a fascinator, but I also must give Mrs. Parker her props–I’m rather partial to tabbies.

    By the way interlingua sounds rather sordid, too!

    Interesting post! :)

    • Pretty much anything with ‘ling’ sounds a bit…adult shall we say? It’s because of the connection to the word ‘tongue’. And conlanging technically does involve the tongue, unless it’s strictly a written language. :)

      I’ve got a soft spot for tabbies, too. I love the stripes on her belly! And the ones on her face give her a particularly goofy look sometimes, which suits her. She’s the goofball. This morning she woke me up by tumbling onto the bed from the windowsill, where she’d gotten her head stuck in the tissue box. It’s hard to go back to sleep when laughing hysterically.

  4. Thanks for all the info – it definitely cleared up my questions!

    I too think there is a right time to read certain books: I cannot resist buying a book when I come across something I’ve been looking for for ages or that really interests me, and then, more often than not it ends up spending a very long time on the shelf before I actually read it…

    My mother read The Hobbit to us aloud as a bedtime story when we were kids, but I think she enjoyed it more than I did, actually. It’s lovely, but I definitely prefer the Lord of the Rings, even though it’s quite a mouthful to swallow! I read it four years ago when I was in bed with mononucleosis and had nothing else to do, and I couldn’t put it down. Tolkien’s writing is incredible!

  5. Where to start … I am so deeply fascinated by these constructed languages. I knew that Elvish and Klingon existed (= I have a background in nerdism?) Thank you for all the links and new information to dive into.
    Oh, and your cats are absolutely adorable! :3

    • I’m still giggling over the background in nerdism :) I’m glad I gave you some new resources. I don’t know if you saw some of my replies to Miss Darcy, but I also found a few more for Elvish if you are interested. There is http://www.councilofelrond.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=Content&file=index&action=ViewContent&cid=31 which has tons of information about the languages Tolkien wrote for his books.

      And the cats thank you for the compliment! (I took one look at those girls in the shelter and it was all over :)

      • Fascinating stuff! Thank you. :)
        My mother has a saying (which only rhymes in my mother tongue), “The one who takes a look at the cat must have it.” (“Den, der ser på katten, skal ha’ den.”)

      • That’s a really great phrase and I’m trying to figure out what it means. Because you can’t have my cats ;)

        Nevermind…I’m being a bit dense today! I didn’t realize at first it was a reply to another comment of mine and not to the post itself. :) I clearly need this semester to finish!
        (Still a really great phrase!)

      • Haha, aw.
        But yeah, it really just means that if you go look at a cat in a shelter or find an abandoned kitten, then you are really, really likely to want it because they are so cute.

  6. Pingback: Quid plura? | “Und das zehnte Wunder zieht an dir vorbei…”
  7. Zelda totally rocks the fascinator.

    So, due to my insane schedule, I’m very late to this commenting party and I’m only able to contribute these two asinine points which are hardly worthy of yet another one of your highly enjoyable and well thought-out posts. But here goes:

    1) I love you even more because you dubbed Captain Piccard sexy. I totally dig bald guys and Patrick Steward has long been on my laminated “list of 5” men that my husband must give me a free pass with, should one of them invite me to bed.

    2) “Conlang” does sound vaguely naughty. Confession: I can’t read the title of your blog with out silently repeating the follow-up double entendre: “Is he a cunning linguist?” Every. Time. :-)

    • *laugh* The cunning linguist is one of the few dirty jokes we have and it’s a good one! :) The other one I remember is “Linguists do it with their tongues”

      I’m tellin’ ya…the Stig and Patrick Stewart…great minds think the same men are hawt! :)

      • You complete me.

        I’m not feeling like such a great mind since I now noticed I mistyped Patrick Stewart’s name and a stray space made its way into “without.” Doh – I gotta start bringing my “A” game when I comment here. :-)

  8. Hi Lenore,

    I just happened to bump into the fascinator, er, this post. Enjoyed it! And I learned something new, or else re-learned something I had forgotten. However I do not remember the term “conlanging”. So thank you for the refresher!

    With respect to you Mrs Parker or Zelda, I think both pull of the headgear equally regally if you will pardon the hinkety pinkety.

    Trust you are keeping well. Cheers,
    Chris

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