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.
‘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?
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