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.
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.
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:
- Find out your Elvish name (mine is Nienna Nólatári)
- Write your name in Elvish
- Send a tweet in Klingon
- Translate into Na’vi
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?