Inventing a Language

Here’s a topic that’s ripe for creativity research: constructed languages, or “conlang” for short.

This week I read two articles about conlangs. The first was a book review in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, of David Peterson’s new book The Art of Language Invention. The second was a book chapter, “Constructed Languages,” by Douglas Ball, in a book that I also have a chapter in: The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity.

The oldest conlang that you’ve heard of is probably Esperanto–created in 1887 by Polish physician L. L. Zamenhof to promote international peace through mutual understanding. It’s known as an “international auxiliary language” or auxlang. (Esperanto was preceded by Volapuk, created in 1879 by a German priest, Johann Schleyer.)

Most conlangs have been created as part of a work of fiction. The oldest are those created by J. R. R. Tolkien, included Sindarin, the language of the Elves in his imaginary world. Probably the most famous today is Klingon, from Star Trek— widely known because of the hit TV comedy Big Bang Theory, where the geeky lead characters demonstrate their geek cred by speaking Klingon. (I heard Klingon spoken when I was a student at MIT decades ago; yes, it’s really geeky!) Peterson’s book also describes Dothraki, created for Game of Thrones, which Peterson himself extended from a version originally created by novelist George Martin. Princess Leia spoke a conlang with Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Peterson created an elvish language for the movie Thor  and also worked on the Syfy channel’s Defiance  (creating Castithan, Irathient, and Indojisnen).  Avatar  used the conlang Na’vi (created by Professor Paul Frommer); The Land of the Lost  used Pakuni, created by linguist Victoria Fromkin; and Dark Skies  used Thhtmaa, created by linguist Matt Pearson.

Peterson’s book focuses on the languages he created for movies, but Douglas Ball’s book chapter says a lot more about historical and social background. Ball discusses “engineered languages” or engelang, like Loglan, created in the 1950s by James Cooke Brown to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–that different languages result in different thought patterns. (Other engelangs include Lojban and Laadan.) Other conlangs are designed to have aesthetic qualities, and these are known as “artistic languages” or artlangs.

Ball goes way, way, back, to the first recorded conlang, Lingua Ignota, created in the 12th century by Hildegard von Bingen. In the 17th century, conlangs were downright trendy–it seems every famous scholar had one, including Descartes and Leibniz.

My favorite conlang is Solresol, which is based in the idea that music is the universal language. The basic syllables of the language are the seven pitches of the Western diatonic scale (referred to by their French names, since this was created in 1827 by Frenchman Jean-Francois Sudre). Here’s an example:

dore mifala disofare re dosiresi. (Which means 1SG desire beer and pastry–> I want some beer and a pastry.)

Ball’s chapter describes the online conlang community, including the Conlang Mailing List and the Conlang Relay (an insider game for conlangers). Then, he gets to the interesting linguistic and creativity stuff: How do these languages get created? What options do creators have? Which languages are successful, and why? How do you create a lexicon and syntax? And then, a really big question:

Is conlanging an art?

His answer:

Even if conlanging is to be considered an art, it seems as though it must be regarded as a niche creative endeavor, since its consumption is not straightforward.

These books just scratch the surface of a fascinating creative activity. Conlanging would be a great research topic for creativity researchers to pursue.

To learn more:

Douglas Ball, “Constructed languages.” In The Routledge handbook of language and creativity, 2015, edited by Rodney H. Jones.

Henry Hitchings, review of Peterson: “Mastering Dothraki”. WSJ, October 3-4, 2015, p. C6

David J. Peterson, The art of language invention. Penguin.