Jan 12, 2015

Constructed Languages – Where Linguistics Meets Imagination

written by Jeanette Koenig

As if there weren’t enough languages in the world, people go on forming new ones, whether intentionally or not. Languages that are developed deliberately, as opposed to naturally, are called constructed languages, or conlangs. There are three primary reasons for developing conlangs: ease in communication, increased realism in a fictional setting, and simple experimentation.

Esperanto is the most widely known and used conlang that was invented to aid in communication. Developed in the late nineteenth century by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, Esperanto was intended to promote international understanding by removing language barriers, serving as a culturally neutral language that would be easy to learn with its regular, simple forms and lack of exceptions. It is estimated that learning Esperanto takes about a tenth of the time it takes to learn English. Esperanto tends to be more of an analytic language, meaning there is a minimum of forms to learn to express a variety of meanings. For example, it has only one past tense, as opposed to the four in English (“Mi faris,” vs. “I did,” “I have done,” “I had done,” and “I was doing”).

Esperanto is most widely used in Europe, southeast Asia, and South America, with about 100,000 people speaking it actively and 1,000,000 understanding it passively. 

In addition, Esperanto is taught in some schools as a precursor to learning other foreign languages, just as the recorder is taught in many music programs as a basis for learning other musical instruments. One study showed that secondary-school students who spent a year learning Esperanto and then another three learning French spoke French better than students in the control group, who studied French for all four years.

However, Esperanto is not without its detractors. The primary criticism is that it is very Euro-centric, with its vocabulary and grammar based largely on Romance and Germanic languages. While very easy to learn for native speakers of European languages, it is more difficult for Asians. That has not stopped them from learning it, especially in China, Korea, and Japan. However, when taken against the total population of the world, the percentage of Esperanto speakers a century after its invention is indeed very tiny. Perhaps a reason for this is that often people study a foreign language in order to get to know a culture better, and Esperanto, by design, is not associated with any culture.

Languages have also been fabricated to give fictional settings an air of increased authenticity. The fictional language with the greatest following is Klingon, which was developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek movies and television shows. It began as a handful of random phrases (conjured up by actor James Doohan for the first movie) and expanded to having a fully developed grammar, phonology, and vocabulary. Despite the fact that its lexicon, which consists of thousands of words, is limited mainly to warfare and technology, devotees are able to carry on mundane conversations and have managed to translate entire works of literature into Klingon (including Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The play “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” which was performed in Klingon but with English narration, was first released in 2007 and was such a success that it has gone on to repeat performances. The most ambitious project to date is undoubtedly “u,” a four-hour opera that was performed entirely in Klingon.

It is estimated that there are about twenty or thirty fluent speakers of Klingon worldwide. To learn Klingon at all takes dedication, as it is rather a difficult language, at least for English speakers. For one thing, the word order is opposite to that of English: in Klingon, the object comes first, then the verb, and finally the subject. It is also an agglutinative language, meaning that suffixes are piled onto roots to make complex words. Klingon is rather synthetic, in that it has distinct morphemes for very specific meanings. For example, it uses a different first-person prefix on verbs, depending on the direct object: jI- for no direct object, qa- if the direct object is the second person singular, Sa- for second person plural, and vI- for third person (singular or plural). Still other prefixes must be learned for other subject-object combinations. The tense system of Klingon is more analytic, however, in that context determines past, present, or future.

While the use of Klingon has certainly been extended beyond its original purpose, the language still was created with some utility in mind. To be sure, Okrand experimented with exotic phonological, morphological, and syntactic features when he developed Klingon, but in the end, he created the language because he was paid to bring added realism to a set of films and television shows. In that respect, Esperanto and Klingon have in common that they were developed with specific end goals. In my next blog, I will discuss languages that were created for no purpose other than pure experimentation.

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