An introduction to constructed languages

Constructed Languages

Beyond Esperanto

Translation (at least according to translators) is a noble profession: what could be more public-spirited than helping people communicate across the language barrier? Well, how about inventing a language simple enough for everyone to learn, thus doing away with translation altogether? It might not be our preferred option at Supertext, but we can’t deny that it’s a popular idea. Hundreds of people throughout history have come up with their own constructed languages, or ‘conlangs’. And while you’ve probably heard of the more famous ones, such as Esperanto, there’s a whole world of weird and wonderful alternatives out there…

Peace, hope, syntax

The mystical Lingua Ignota, invented in the 12th century by the nun Hildegard von Bingen, is often considered to be history’s first conlang. However, it’s likely that this a priori (invented, rather than based on features found in natural languages) language was in fact a form of secret code. Modern conlangs, by contrast, usually aim to be as widely intelligible as possible – like Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof’s Esperanto, created in the late 19th century in an attempt to overcome divisions between speakers of different languages.

Whether or not they actually achieve this goal is another question. The first Esperanto spin-off was created just a year after the language came into use, and rival universal languages have become their own cottage industry. Esperanto stands accused of being Eurocentric (most of its vocabulary comes from the Germanic and Romance language families), sexist (masculine nouns tend to be the default, with feminine forms being created by the addition of a suffix) and excessively complicated. And supporters of various constructed languages aren’t above a certain degree of petty sniping, either: Esperanto itself ‘honoured’ its forerunner and competitor Volapük by coining the Esperanto term ‘volapukaĵo’, meaning ‘gibberish’.

Logic and literature

Another rather different kind of universal language was invented in 1955 by sociologist and science fiction author Dr James Cooke Brown. Loglan (later renamed Lojban following a copyright dispute with the creator) aims to be perfectly grammatically unambiguous. It was designed for linguistic experiments such as investigating the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (the idea that the language a person speaks influences how they view the world), and continues to attract interest despite some obvious disadvantages.

On the other end of the linguistic spectrum are literary conlangs such as Tolkien’s Elvish languages, the Dothraki of Game of Thrones, and, of course, Klingon. These are often motivated by more aesthetic concerns: while Dothraki had to be pronounceable for human actors, Klingon was deliberately designed to sound guttural and alien. Not that that’s prevented fans from producing an opera in the language.

Inspired to invent your own language? Check out Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages for more cautionary tales before you start. And if that’s all too much for you, there’s always Europanto, a joke language whose website boasts ‘Mas than 100 textes!’ in its strangely intelligible mash-up of European tongues – oddly similar to the kind of linguistic crossover that shows up in the Supertext break room.

Title image via Wikimedia



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