Invented Languages and the Science of the Mind

October 24th, 2019 by Hildegard von Bingen was something of a medieval genius. She founded and was Abbess of a convent at Rubensberg in Germany, she wrote ethereally beautiful music, she was an amazing artist (one of the first to draw the visual effects of migraines), and she invented her own language. The language she constructed, Lingua Ignota (Latin for “Unknown Language”) appears to be a secret, mystical language. It was partly built on the grammar of languages Hildegard already knew, but with her usual creativity, she invented over a thousand words, and a script consisting of 23 symbols. The Lardil, an Aboriginal people of Northern Australia, as well as their day-to-day language, also used a special ritual language, restricted to the adult men. This language, Damin, is the only known language outside of sub-Saharan Africa to incorporate click sounds into its words. In fact, the sounds of Damin are a creative extension of the sounds of Lardil, showing a deep level of knowledge of how linguistic sounds are made. The Lardil say that Damin was invented in Dreamtime. It certainly shows signs of having been constructed, with careful thought about how it is structured. While most languages have emerged and changed naturally in human societies, some languages are constructed by human beings. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota was created for religious purposes and Damin for social and ritual reasons. More recent constructed languages (or ‘conlangs’), like the Elvish languages J. R. R Tolkien developed for The Lord of the Rings, or the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages David Peterson created for the TV series Game of Thrones, were developed for artistic or commercial reasons. However, constructed languages can also be used in science to understand the nature of natural languages. There’s a long-standing controversy amongst linguists: are human minds set up to learn language in a particular way, or do we learn languages just because we are highly intelligent creatures? To put it another way, is there something special about language-learning that distinguishes it from other kinds of learning? Constructed languages have been used to probe this question. There are some striking results which suggest there is indeed something special about language-learning. One example where constructed languages have been used scientifically is to explore the difference between grammatical words (like the, be, and, of, a) and words that convey the essence of what you’re talking about (like alligator, intelligent, enthral, dance). This difference is found in language after language. Generally, grammatical words are very short, they tend to be simple syllables, and they are frequent. They signal grammatical ideas, like definiteness and tense. Core meaning words tend to be longer, more complex in their syllable structure, each one is less frequent. Read more: Psychology Today

Why We Love to Learn Klingon: The Art of Constructed Languages

September 14th, 2019 by In 1996, linguist D’Armond Speers became notorious for attempting to raise his baby son Alec as the world’s first native speaker of Klingon, an invented language from the Star Trek universe. Speers eventually abandoned the experiment when his son showed a marked reluctance, at the tender age of five, to use the language, but that hasn’t stopped other Klingon enthusiasts from attempting the same feat. Which just goes to show two universally acknowledged truths: one, linguists often enjoy experimenting on small babies; and two, people can get very obsessive about artificial languages. Conlangs ‘Constructed language’, or conlang, is the term commonly used to describe invented languages created by language enthusiasts. Unlike natural languages, they don’t develop organically from a speech community. Nonetheless, they can tell us a lot about how human languages work. And it’s clear that they inspire a certain kind of deep devotion in some people. Since the Middle Ages, when the unofficial patron saint of nerds, Hildegard von Bingen, invented Lingua Ignota around 1150, there have been hundreds of artificial languages created. Now you might ask: Why would anyone create an entirely new language when we already have around 6,000 natural languages in the world today? Unlike many critically endangered languages, Klingon, which was invented by linguist Marc Okrand in 1984 and has a vocabulary of just a few thousand words, is currently experiencing an exponential growth in the number of learners. (Fun fact: Klingon has a myriad of words for hi-tech futuristic concepts, but does not have words for basic things like table or hello.) Why are artificial languages embraced while some natural human languages languish in obscurity? One frustration language idealists have about human languages is that it’s a messy business. Languages are not always logical or regular—as much as some may want them to be—and exceptions abound. They’re not easy to learn. They’re constantly changing, misbehaving, splintering off into dialects, seemingly unstable to some of the more linguistically conservative among us. How, some have wondered, will the world’s many different cultures ever manage to communicate with each other, much less understand one another? Read more: JSTOR Daily

Want to build a language from scratch? Start with the question who will speak it, and why

September 13th, 2019 by It’s well known that JRR Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings cycle to create people to speak the languages he had invented. But, in the television age, artificially created or invented languages – we call them conlangs – have been gaining increasing attention with the popularity of television series such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones, and films such as Avatar. Fantasy and science fiction are the ideal vehicles for conlangs. Marc Okrand, an American linguist whose core research area is Native American languages, invented Klingon for Star Trek, while Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California created the Na’vi language for Avatar. The fantasy series Game of Thrones involved several languages, including Dothraki and Valyrian, which were created by David J Peterson, a conlanger who has invented languages for several other shows. Most recently, fantasy thriller The City and The City which featured the language Illitan, created by Alison Long of Keele University in the UK. I teach how to construct languages and one question my students usually ask is: “How do I make a perfect language?” I need to warn that it’s impossible to make a language perfect – or even complete. Rather, an invented language is more likely to be appropriate for the context – convincing and developed just enough to work in the desired environment. But here are a few things to bear in mind. Read more: Scroll.in

How to build a ‘perfect’ language

September 6th, 2019 by It’s well known that JRR Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings cycle to create people to speak the languages he had invented. But, in the television age, artificially created or invented languages – we call them “conlangs” – have been gaining increasing attention with the popularity of television series such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones, and films such as Avatar. Fantasy and science fiction are the ideal vehicles for conlangs. Marc Okrand, an American linguist whose core research area is Native American languages, invented Klingon for Star Trek, while Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California created the Na'vi language for Avatar. The fantasy series Game of Thrones involved several languages, including Dothraki and Valyrian, which were created by David J Peterson, a “conlanger” who has invented languages for several other shows. Most recently, fantasy thriller The City and The City featured the language Illitan, created by Alison Long of Keele University in the UK. I teach how to construct languages and one question my students usually ask is: “How do I make a perfect language?” I need to warn that it’s impossible to make a language “perfect” – or even “complete”. Rather, an invented language is more likely to be appropriate for the context – convincing and developed just enough to work in the desired environment. But here are a few things to bear in mind. Read more: The Conversation

Speaking in Tongues: From Elvish to Dothraki, the rise of invented languages

August 25th, 2019 by In the language spoken by the Dothraki on the violent and popular HBO show Game of Thrones, the word for cat is keli. Reasonable, you might think. The show is based on the books written by George R.R. Martin, surely he can come up with whatever words he likes for the animals living in a universe he has dreamed up—that’s the fantasist’s prerogative. But Martin did not invent the word for the Dothraki cat. It’s named, in fact, after an individual real-world cat belonging to David J. Peterson, who has a web site which lists 13 separate languages of his own invention. Peterson has an M.A. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, and his bright blue, 1990s-chic web site has an alternate black-and-white version, in case you find it easier to read that way. Peterson is a conlanger, and he can do whatever he wants. “Conlang” is short for “constructed language,” which is just what it sounds like: a language that has been constructed. There are a lot of them, of various sorts. International auxiliary languages like Volapük, Esperanto, or Interlingua are one specific type of conlang. Invented to facilitate international communication during the great techno-utopian-modernist thought-boom of the last two centuries, they never got terribly popular. Conlangs do not necessarily have to be useful. As Peterson explains in his new book The Art of Language Invention, conlanging is an art as well as a science, something you might do for your own pleasure, as well as for the entertainment of others. He is a conlanger for hire—besides Game of Thrones, Peterson has also worked on Syfy’s Defiance, in which humans and aliens coexist in postapocalyptic Missouri—an artist who will put words into the mouths of the characters, words which are part of a fully functioning language. You might ask, “How long has this been a job, and may I have it?” Fortunately, The Art of Language Invention answers this question, for it is both a textbook for the amateur conlanger—a guide to inventing your own language spoken by aliens or squid or submarine antelope or whatever—and a brief history of conlanging itself. And the story of conlanging is, as with so many other bodies of knowledge, the story of old-fashioned research inflated to surreal proportions by the internet’s bellows. Yes, you can be a professional conlanger, but the competition is stiff. Read more: The New Republic

Authenticity in Alien Worlds: The Art of Creating Languages

June 27th, 2017 by Whether you’ve ever consciously thought about it or not, chances are you’re familiar with a constructed language. From Star Trek’s Klingon, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish, to Avatar’s Na’vi, to Dothraki and Valyrian in Game of Thrones, these fictional languages have lent a degree of authenticity to the worlds they occupy. According to Christine Schreyer, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UBC Okanagan (and the creator of the Kryptonian language for the film Man of Steel), the act of constructing languages (or ‘conlanging’) is not only a natural human inclination, it’s one way that Hollywood immerses their audiences in new worlds. Why Alien Dialogue Should Not Be in the Audience’s Native Tongue When it comes to videos, movies, and games that involve fictional or alien cultures, nothing draws an audience in like a constructed language. “Sometimes the viewer loses that immersion feeling if their own language is used,” Christine says. “The more you can use a created language the more immersive it is. Even if the dialogue shifts to English later on – at least it’s had that draw at first and an emotional connection has been made.” Read more: Voices.com