Conlangs – An Overview of Constructed and Artificial Languages
The Voynich Manuscript – An Unreadable Book Written in What May be an Unknown Constructed Language
What Are Conlangs?
There are thousands of human languages and dialects. Some are closely related, and are part of large language families (such as Indo European) while others are spoken by only a few hundred people in isolated tribal pockets. What these natural languages all have in common is that for the most part evolved through unplanned human interaction and inventiveness. Natural human languages cannot be traced back to one inventor and in many cases cannot even be traced back to a specific nation or culture. For example, English borrows heavily from Latin, French, Italian and even Hindi.
For the most part, the grammar and vocabulary of natural languages has evolved through usage. Words take on different meanings over time while other words rise in popularity or fade away. Pronunciation changes as well so that an English speaker today would barely understand an English speaker from the Elizabethan age. In large part, what constitutes proper grammar and word usage is determined by general consensus through an amorphous process of linguistic evolution that can happen quickly or slowly depending on a number of social and cultural conditions. In some cases, language purists attempt to hold back the process of linguistic evolution by setting up canons of the language. For example the French Academy publishes lists of approved French words in attempt to prevent the contamination of the language by English, and of course dictionaries and other authoritative texts provide some stability in the ever changing sea of language. Natural languages change, mutate, grow or die through unplanned use and interaction between its speakers. Sometimes the changes become so great over time that a new language is born, such as the birth of Spanish and Italian from the ruins of the Latin language after the fall of the Roman Empire.
In contrast, Artificial Languages — or more commonly, Conlangs, short for Constructed Languages or Invented Languages are invented by one person or a small group of people and spring forth almost fully formed – with a vocabulary and grammar of their own. There are several hundred constructed languages used today, and each has its own peculiar characteristics and goals. In some cases, the inventors of a particular constructed language hoped to bring mankind together by bestowing on them a universal language that would break down cultural and political barriers. In other cases the language was created as a work of art, a linguistic invention meant to supplement works of the imagination. These imaginary languages such as Klingon or the elfish tongues of Tolkien’s Middle Earth do not aspire to universality, but rather pretend to be the natural languages of an imaginary people or place. Curiously, though these languages are fictional, they have acquired in some cases thousands of real speakers.
In other cases, the constructed language was created to meet a perceived need. Some, like Toki Pona aim for simplicity of learning and expression, while the language known as Ithkuil adopts the opposite approach and uses a maddeningly complex (probably too complex) system of phonemes and symbols to express the most minute and precise distinctions.
Most conlangs, with the exception of Klingon, have utopian ideals and hope to make the world a better place by improving communication and understanding between people and nations. Klingon just wants to fight you.
The most successful of the universal languages, Esperanto aspires to create a common language for mankind.
Esperanto features a standardized grammar and a vocabulary drawn primarily from European languages. Although it has yet to achieve its goal of bringing universal peace and harmony, Esperanto has succeeded in becoming a viable auxiliary language and there is a vibrant community of Esperantists throughout the world.Esperanto is unique among the constructed languages in that it has achieved a sort of critical mass, and is self sustaining.
It has moved beyond theories in a text book or a small cabal of linguists to encompass membership throughout the world. There is a large body of Esperanto literature featuring both original and translated works that can be purchased on Amazon and on many Esperanto websites. There are even Esperanto music publishing houses that sell very nice original music by Esperanto groups. And there are annual conventions, online newspapers, paper magazines available. There are even several thousand people throughout the world who are considered native speakers. For them Esperanto is not an auxiliary language, but their first language.
The success of Esperanto, together with some of its shortcomings, has led to attempts to reform Esperanto or to create competing universal languages. In some cases these movements have taken Esperanto as their starting point while in other cases a completely different approach has been used.
Ido is an offshoot of Esperanto. It began life in 1907 as a proposed reform to Esperanto by simplifying the grammatical rules and letters. The inventor of Esperanto, Dr. Zamenhoff was in favour of adopting this form of Reformed Esperanto but the reforms were rejected by the delegates at the international Esperanto convention in 1907. This caused a schism within the Esperanto movement, with approximately 20 percent of the Esperanto community “defecting” to Ido. For a time Ido was a viable competitor of Esperanto but it eventually died out almost completely. Today it is estimated that there are only about 200 speakers of the language. Due to the similarity with Esperanto, most Ido speakers also use Esperanto.
A few works of literature have been translated into Ido but unlike Esperanto, Ido does not have a vibrant cultural milieu in which the language can be used which is an impediment to its future growth.
MONDLANGO (sometimes referred to as MONDA)
Mondlango (“world language”) is derived from Esperanto and uses some its grammatical forms but its vocabulary is drawn entirely from English. The English words are borrowed by Mondlango and can be modified by adding affixes according to Mondlango grammatical rules to create new words and usages.
One of the advantages of Mondlango is that it is very easy to learn by anyone who already speaks Esperanto or English. I am not sure if this relatively new language will take off since in some ways it occupies a niche already filled by Esperanto, but I found this language interesting and relatively easy to learn. I could understand texts written in Mondlango without any advance training. I have created a section devoted to Mondlango for anyone interested in exploring this language in better detail.
Volapuk was one of the first attempts at creating a universal language and for a time was a serious competitor to Esperanto. Volapuk was created in 1827 by a Catholic priest who claimed that God spoke to him in a dream and directed him to create a universal language. Within a few years the movement had over a million followers.
This language borrows many grammatical structures and words from European languages, mainly English and German, but attempts to standardize and simplify the grammar and vocabulary in order to make it easier to learn. The language fell into disuse after the growth of Esperanto and today there are likely only a few dozen speakers.
An example of spoken Volapuk. Volapuk has its own beauty and is a good example of linguistic engineering.
- Volapûk.com – lessons, online dictionary and written materials in Volapuk
- A blog written in Volapuk
- Why I Learned a Language No One Speaks, article from the Village Voice
Uropi (think Europe) is a relatively new constructed language developed by Joel Landais in the 1990s. Its grammar and vocabulary borrows Indo European languages and aims to create an international auxiliary language for Europe. The concept is that anyone speaking a natural European language would already now a large number of root words and grammatical principles, so as to be able to easily learn this common language.
As with many constructed languages, Uropi lacks a critical mass of users to start creating any cultural artifacts such as original music or literature. Its literature is still confined to grammars and word lists. Uropi currently has a vocabulary of about 10,000 words.
Solresol is one of the most interesting of the constructed languages. It aims to use music and musical notes as a language. While it is often said that music is the universal language, Solresol takes a literal approach and uses musical notes as parts of speech. Combinations of musical notes form words and sentences and have different meanings depending on their order. While this would certainly create a very melodious language, I fear that it would be a monster to learn for someone as tone deaf and unmusical as myself.
Solresol was first developed around 1827 and suffered a sharp decline in the face of the Esperanto movement. However there are still a number of Solresol enthusiasts scattered throughout the world but united by means of the internet.
Romeo and Juliet Preformed in the Musical Language of Solresol.
Developed by a Toronto linguist in the early 2000’s, Toki Pona is a minimalist language with a very simple grammar and a very small vocabulary. It uses only 123 words. Toki Pona may seem the constructed language equivalent of Twitter postings; its simplicity is meant to convey zen like observations. Despite its small vocabulary, Toki Pona borrows words from many diverse cultures – from Europe to Papua New Guinea. There are very few fluent speakers but some people have begun using it for special purposes on the internet.
The small vocabulary means that words have many different meanings. For example, the word for ear can mean to listen to, to obey, or to hear in the context. There is inherent intentional ambiguity in this language, which makes it the complete opposite of Lojban.
The so-called Logical Language was developed in 1987. It borrows vocabulary from some of the most widely spoken natural languages: Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, but then applies a grammatical structure developed from logic. The developers of Lojban claim that the grammatical rules have been tested by computer to ensure that they are unambiguous. This allows for the conveyance of very precise meanings and also the creation of modular words by which a root word can be modified almost endlessly by adding various affixes.
Ithkuil – the not-so-universal language which requires a lot of brain power.
anguage was the magnum opus of a government employee in California who developed this language over the course of many decades in his spare time.
ITHKUIL is maddeningly complex and perhaps the polar opposite of TOKI. It has a vast number of phonemes which can be assembled into very precise linguistic constructs, in a way that is alien to current human languages. It even uses its own alphabet and writing system to convey the parts of ITHKUIL speech.Ithkuil is so complex that it is likely too difficult for most people, except for trained linguists, to learn. As such it represents a radical departure from the ideals of Esperanto and other universal languages which aim for universality and accessibility.However has several advantages which have gained it a cult following, particularly in some countries of the former Soviet Union. It is known that language shapes how we think and how we view the world. Many believe that using Ithkuil allows the brain to think faster, more efficiently, and to access and express concepts that could not otherwise be considered using existing human or constructed languages.
- thkuil Community on Reddit
- Ithkuil Website
- Utopian for Beginners — New Yorker article about the fascinating history of Ithkuil and its inventor.
Interlingua is promoted as an international auxiliary language. It borrows heavily from the grammar and vocabulary of existing Romance languages and aims to create common language. Anyone who speaks a Romance language such as Italian or French should be able to understand a text written in Interlingua without any special instruction or prior knowledge of the language. It is one of the most widely used constructed languages but has very few speakers compared to Esperanto.
LATINO SIN FLEXIONE (also sometimes called Interlingua)
Latino sin Flexiones (or “Latin without Inflections”) uses the Latin vocabulary but simplifies the grammar by removing all of the declensions and cases that make Latin a nightmare to learn. For example: In Latin, the phrase “Art imitates nature: is written as “Ars imitatio naturae est”. But in Latino sine flexione, the same phrase reads “Arte imita natura” (which in terms of sentence structure is identical to English, just using Latin words. Anyone who speaks a European Language, especially if they have some smattering of Latin, should be able to read texts written in this simplified Latin fairly easily. However the language has been criticized as having too few grammatical rules, which sometimes makes it difficult to understand exactly what is being said.
TOLKIEN’s LANGUAGES OF MIDDLE EARTH
When Tolkien wrote his books about Middle Earth he created a detailed background history and language for each of the races of Elves, and other creatures inhabiting Middle Earth. Tolkien has the distinction of having created over 20 constructed languages, the greatest number of languages ever created by one individual.
Though meant as works of fantasy and imagination, these artificial languages have taken on an unexpected life and are today spoken by several aficionados of the Tolkien universe. There is a growing body of literature being created in the language of the elves.
- The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship
- Overview of Entish – “Say Nothing that isn’t Worth Saying”
- Khuzdul Documents and Dictionaries
Klingon is another constructed language which started out as a work of fantasy, but has become a real spoken language. Fans of the Star Trek series have developed the artificial language supposedly spoken by Klingons, to reflect their warlike and guttural manners of speech. Several thousand people now speak Klingon and there is a growing culture associated with this artificial language.
The Future of Invented Languages
These are only some of the more interesting artificial constructed languages; there are several hundred more. The proliferation of these so-called universal languages, each competing for the attention of a public which increasingly uses dialects of English or at least Mandarin and Spanish, suggests that these attempts have, with perhaps the notable exception of Esperanto, proven to be noble failures. We have yet to be able to turn back the tide of Babel which has fragmented the world’s people into different linguistic and cultural groups. But it is an effort that is worth pursuing and which may still pay dividends in the future.