Artificial languages

A fascination with linguistics often leads to an occasional interest in artificial languages. It is not an active subject for me, but for amusement I have included a few notes and projects from younger days here, which some might find interesting, or I would simply have deleted them as unworthy juvenilia.

When a schoolboy gets frustrated with the oddities and apparent illogical aspects of French and German he might give up. Alternatively he might become interested in linguistics. I became interested in linguistics. It has been many years since my schooldays but I have stayed interested.

Artificial languages are a minor area of linguistics. There are however a phenomenal number of artificial languages around. Indeed, while natural languages are shrinking in number man-made ones are increasing. Mind you there might be just one speaker, or none, of any given man-made tongue. There is even a Language Creation Society in America.  For a flavour of the variety of projects, some venerable material remarkably still on the web has been published by Richard Kennaway and William W. Patterson.

This was once a real minority pursuit, but science fiction has found a new purpose for it.  Long before films took it up, JRR Tolkein invented languages for the races of Middle Earth, but Tolkein was an extraordinary linguist and philologist, enjoying his subject.  In this generation, it is Sci-Fi films: ever since the Star Trek films required a language for the Klingons to speak, “conlangers” have been called in by studios to build languages for Elves, Na’vis, Vulcans and all sorts. (The Klingon language was designed to be different from any human language and hard to learn, while Esperanto was distilled from European tongues and designed for simplicity: today though Klingon has more speakers than Esperanto many times over. Perhaps
that is a lesson on the unruled nature of mankind, and I like it.)

There are many reasons for someone to want to devise an artificial language, and many have done so. I have written one myself. One man might want to find a way for all the peoples of the world to talk together in peace in a common language. For another it is an intellectual exercise to keep the brain in trim. Another treats it as an amusement, to fill the time. Yet another has it as a way to take his frustrations out on his very words, bashing them into order and enjoying the nominal power over them.

My reasons are all of those except the first. The whole idea is ridiculous. Who could think the French would want to abandon the language of Voltaire nor the Germans the speech of Goethe. I would certainly not shrug off the tongue of Shakespeare and  Dickens. I have none of those silly delusions which sustain, for example, Esperanto. Instead I enjoy being pleased with myself for being bright enough to make a good go of the man-made language game. The doing of it has also taught me a lot more of depth about the several languages I already knew and brought a new appreciation for English itself.

My childish exercise, immodestly called “Baanzish”, is on its own
Baanzish webpage. It was the work of a young mind. A later idea for a project, which did not go very far but explored a different path as a contrast, was to be an inflected language called “Marklendsk” based on Old Norse: though I gained through my studies too much of a love for genuine Old Norse to want to ruin it.

Another man-made language I particularly like is “Degaspregos” by Thomas Weir (now only on the Internet Archive). The scheme of Degaspregos is completely different from  most ‘simplifying’ projects but it does show what can be done with a language that is entirely logical and it does manage to express subtleties of concept which are impossible even in English.

The Degaspregos page also has a most elegant and eloquent description of why anyone should do such an odd thing as to compose an artificial language.

You might be interested in Damin, a secret language among the Lardil aboriginal people of Australia, thought to have only 250 words in its whole vocabulary. The only  information I have on it is an article: ‘Lardil and Damin Phonotactics‘,
and an archived piece by Rick Harrison.

No exercise like this is ever finished. The English language is still unfinished after 1,500 years of use. I found, as will you if you do the same, that I was always coming up with new logical problems and having to think of new subtleties. I am a determined sort, and once started an my little intellectual exercise I could not stop until the end, which never came. Language is not a simple matter. Perhaps the old, illogical, irregular but real languages are better after all. Do not let that stop you from trying the same though if you are thinking about it.

Rupert A H Barnes