Thursday, March 11, 2010

The why of conlanging, part 94

The good readers of the New York Times have been posing questions about constructed languages to a couple of conlang experts. Never one to miss an opportunity to fill out a questionnaire, here are my answers to some of the questions raised:

What is the process for "making up" a language? Do you just go on inspiration, or is there some preconceived structure to your work? In what order do you proceed? Where do you start?

There's lots of ways to construct a conlang. Some people like to follow a set of instructions or guidelines (such as the ones given in the Language Construction Kit), others prefer a more freewheeling, iterative approach to the endeavour, tackling whatever problem or issue takes their fancy at that time. Some people like to create language families, starting with an ancestor tongue then deriving new languages through shound changes (diachronics) and the like. I'm an iterative conlanger, myself, though I have used the cookbook approach on occassion.

Is any care taken to design the language around (or specifically avoid) the rules of Universal Grammar?

I tend to avoid all things Chomsky - on the rare occassions that I've wandered into linguistic theories I've found cognitive linguistics has been more helpful. Linguistic Universals, on the other hand, are much more fun - especially when it comes to working out how to break some of them in a conlang without breaking the conlang itself.

Do you create an alphabet first? When languages are invented, how do the creators choose the set of vowels and consonants the language will have? Do you utilize the International Phonetic Alphabet?

For my first conlang (Gevey), which I started working on when I was 12, I used the tools I had to hand - namely the sounds of the English language; as time goes by the phonology and orthography of the conlang have changed to meet my changing needs and desires for it. For more recent conlangs (such as Ákat) I've made more of an effort to decide on a phonology and sonority rules (for the syllable stuff) near the start of the construction process - if only to save my sanity: changing the phonology and orthography for a well-developed conlang can be a right bugger, especially if that conlang already has a significant web presence.

IPA is, in my view, an essential tool for any serious conlanger - it's the simplest way of describing the sounds of a conlang without having to resort to recording and posting snippets of the language.

How much (of a language) does one have to INVENT before constructing simple sentences?

Surprisingly little. The simplest conlangs are 'naming languages', for which all you need is a few ideas about how the conlang should sound together with a few roots and derivation rules allowing you to pull together nominal words and phrases for naming landmarks and settlements. Adding verbs into the mix is the point when things start to get interesting.

How do invented languages make room for pidgin or dialects or other natural language developments?

That's entirely up to the conlanger: what do they want their conlang to do, how do they want it to do stuff. Gevey has room for dialects, though I haven't done much work to develop them (yet). Ákat is a different matter, as I designed it to be a language constructed by philosophers within my constructed world Kalieda.

Do you invent a language from scratch without using one or more existing languages as models, or do you base the syntax or grammar on the syntax or grammar of an existing language?

My track record of learning natural languages other than my birth tongue is embarrassingly poor; all my conlangs are a priori, developed from scratch.

Is it preferable for a language (invented or non) to have a relatively small vocabulary?

This depends entirely on what the conlanger wants from their language. Having a well-developed set of derivation and neologism rules can help overcome the need for a large stock of original roots. Deliberately restricting the number of roots available was a key design strategy for Ákat, while no such constraint exists for developing the Gevey lexicon.

Given the mixed success (ongoing but limited speakership) of constructed languages like Esperanto meant to be used in daily life, what room is there for future constructed languages outside of the realm of science fiction/fantasy? Why else would someone construct a language, and how could one feasibly catch on without, say, a spaceship or Peter Jackson involved?

I approach conlanging as an art form; my conlangs are artlangs. I would be astonished if someone told me they wanted to learn one of my languages: I'd probably think they were nuts. I've never had an interest in developing an International Auxillary Language - with all due respect, IAL enthusiats scare me. I see my work on conlanging as a sort of Outsider Art; it's important to me but of little or no interest to others, which is fine.

What’s the best way to create a language for a book or series? … What are the most important things that readers would need as signposts to understanding?

A good naming language can really help add flavour to a book, as can throwing in the occasional oath or invocation. But too much flavour can ruin the narrative. Like most things in life, there's a balance to be had, and what works wonderfully for one reader will lead to another reader hurling the book across the room in frustration (book-wall interactions, as I like to call them).

How long a shelf life do movie languages have?

To be honest, not long. Of all the conlangs, philosophical languages and IALs developed in the centuries prior to the mid-20th century, only one continues to exist beyond the realms of a few diehard enthusiasts. Maybe the internet will change the average half-life of conlangs, maybe not. We'll see.

Wouldn’t it be fair to say that regardless of their inventiveness or complexity, and regardless of the work put into developing them from the "top down," none of these artificial languages (from Klingon and Elvish to Esperanto itself) will ever be more than an elaborate game of codification and translation, until a generation of children grows up speaking it from the "bottom up" (i.e. as a first language)?

This question only refers to IALs, yes? Like I said, why would anyone want to learn my conlangs? The beauty in a good artlang depends not in the numbers that speak the language (often 0 - I can't speak my conlangs fluently) but rather in the inventiveness of the conlanger's imagination and their ability to translate their vision into the concrete reality of the conlang itself.

What are the benefits of learning a constructed language that relatively few people use instead of a non-invented language that could help one communicate with others across the world?

Beyond self-satisfaction, there are no benefits to learning a conlang. Some people study natlang grammars for the fun of it.

What makes one invented language "better" or more realistic than another? Which constructed languages do you think have the most complete grammars?

See above. There's dozens of conlangs with comprehensive and well-written grammars online. For my part, I prefer to display my conlangs in a less formal manner.

Do people who invent and study made-up languages get grief from those who study dying "natural" ones?

No idea. Most conlangers I've met online are not linguists, though some younger ones have been inspired to study linguistics at college as a direct result of their conlanging interests.

Why not revive and disseminate an endangered language rather than make up a new one? Why would one choose to invent a new language (aside from the whole "wildest academic dreams" thing) rather than revive a "dead" language or a dying one, like Cornish or Manx?

'Reviving' a natlang is more a scientific and social endeavour than an artistic one. Heck, I failed my French exams twice: what hope have I got for leading the revival of a near-extinct language. For what it's worth, the best placed people for reviving a near-extinct language are probably the people from the communities that used to speak that language - why not give them the tools and support and see what they can do?

Why waste time with a language that has not aged, like a good wine, in barrels of love and passion?

My conlangs are aging very nicely in a bodega of love and passion, thank you for asking. Though my wine probably tastes like drain-cleaner to the rest of the world.

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