David J. Peterson (dedalvs) wrote,
David J. Peterson
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On Conlanging

It's been a couple days since the New York Times article on Dothraki came out (and, in case you missed that, an article on Dothraki came out in The New York Times), and in case viewers of that article have found their way to this blog, I wanted to add some commentary. While it would have been ideal for this to have been written before the article came out, real life got in the way, as it's wont to do (especially around the holidays), so this will have to suffice.

As there's only so much space in a newspaper article, this one was bound to leave a lot unsaid. Of course, as it's just an article, not an archive or a history, that's its job, and I think it did its job very well. As I see it, then, it's my job to fill in the gaps, and that's what I intend to do here—specifically, one gap: the status of conlanging itself.

Most of the modern professional conlangers one hears about (Marc Okrand, Victoria Fromkin, Paul Frommer, Wolf Wikeley...) kind of emerged out of the ether. They were discovered by chance, asked to invent a language (something they'd never done before), and when they were finished, they returned to their lives. All would be asked again to create a language for some new project (and some of them did), but otherwise, they remained solitary in their achievement. They garnered success by dint of their own efforts, and owe nothing to anyone—and more power to them! Without Na'vi, without Pakuni, without Klingon, I wouldn't be writing this. Klingon itself has done more to popularize conlanging than even Tolkien—and the effect that Na'vi has had can't even be measured at this point.

That said, this is not my story, and I think that's one thing the article fails to make clear. I owe a lot to many different people—and I don't mean my parents, or my supportive wife, or even my linguistics professors, or anything like that (though I certainly owe a great deal to them): I mean to conlangers whose work has inspired me, and whose examples I've followed.

If I may back up a bit, language creation has a long and colorful history (see Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages for a fair summary). It basically went in four waves. First, there were the philosophical language creators (guys who created languages in order to "perfect" human cognition). Next came the auxlangers: Idealists who created languages to facilitate international communication, and thereby realize world peace (this was primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it's continued steadily into the 21st). After that came the solitary artists—those who created languages to embellish their fictional worlds (or created worlds where their languages could be spoken, as the case may be). Primary among them is, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, but another big name that's oft ignored is M. A. R. Barker, whose work is just incredible. And then, with the advent of the internet, came the modern conlangers, and it's these I'd like to talk about.

Back when Tolkien was creating his languages, he was alone. He knew other philologists, sure, and he knew other writers (and influenced them linguistically. C. S. Lewis tried his hand at a little conlanging under Tolkien's influence), but there was no one else like him that he knew of (in fact, the one instance in his life where he believes he overheard someone he thought might be a conlanger is treated like a divine miracle). Even now, I think this is something that conlangers are quite familiar with. Yes, conlanging has gotten a lot of press recently, and it's getting to be common knowledge, but how many conlangers have physically met a conlanger whom they haven't first "met" online? It's never happened to me. As far as I know, there are no other conlangers in Orange County (though OC conlangers: this is your chance to speak up!). The closest conlanger I know lives 160 miles away, and I'm grateful to know one who lives so close!

Given such a situation, a conlanger like Tolkien didn't have the benefit of a community. It's easy to set up a writers' group; nearly impossible to set up a conlangers' group. It's a rare calling, and one that's often far more private than even fiction, or poetry. As a result, someone like Tolkien didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of (for me, someone like Doug Ball, the creator of Skerre, whose insight, general linguistic brilliance and friendship have been invaluable to me over the years). It's a source of constant wonder to me not that Tolkien was such a good conlanger (talent is talent), but that he didn't simply give it up. I'm sure there were hundreds—if not thousands—of others in similar circumstances who did, dismissing their work as "childish" or even "crazy" (as many today still do). Without anyone else to say, at the very least, "Hey, that's neat!", how does one persist?

Myself, I'm sure I wouldn't have. Fortunately, thanks to the internet, there was an entire community of conlangers who basically did exactly that. This was back in 2000 (which, for the uninitiated, makes me a "newcomer"), and the community was an online listerv called the Conlang-List (and it's still there. If you're interested, you can join up!). I've been on the Conlang-List since 2000, and it's from there, and from the conlangers there, that I've learned the art of conlanging—from hundreds of conlangers. I could probably rattle off more than 100 names right now (Padraic Brown, Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets, Amanda Babcock Furrow, Andrew Smith, Rik Roots, Jörg Rhiemeier, Ray Brown, Gary Shannon Jan van Steenbergen, Benct Philip Jonsson, Carsten Becker—literally, I could go on), all of whom have done fantastic work. And collectively, we've gotten better at what we do. If you want to see some concrete evidence, you can take a look at my first conlang (most of which was constructed before I came into contact with any other conlanger). It's awful!

Anyway, little by little I got better, mainly by looking at the fantastic work of others. And that's what's so wonderful about community, in general—and it's what's transforming conlanging from a hobby (or a "neurosis", as the uncharitable used to say) into an artform, albeit slowly.

And what's been amazing for me has been to watch how quickly the community has grown over the years. Back when I joined the online conlanging community, everyone knew each other. Even as late as 2004, I'd say, if there was someone creating a language somewhere, someone in the community had probably heard of them or knew them. By 2008, that was no longer possible—and now it's not even possible to keep track of the communities themselves! For example, though the Conlang-Listserv has been around since the mid-90s, the Zompist Bulletin Board (ZBB) has been around for more than ten years, if I'm counting right, and may be the largest conlanging community not dedicated to a single conlang. And after awhile it gave birth to another bulletin board, the Conlangers Bulletin Board (CBB), focused more on international conlangers. And there were other splinter communities—and then still others. Omniglot, a site dedicated to writing systems, now has its own forum, with an active subforum dedicated to conlanging. There are (at least?) three different Facebook groups, innumerable fora dedicated to conlanging in languages other than English, and a number of communities dedicated to specific languages (shout out to the lajaki over at the Dothraki forum!)—and while there's some overlap in membership, the percentage is surprisingly small. In short, I don't think we can even call it a community anymore. It's huge!

I wanted to make the above clear, because I wanted to at least mention some of the work that I find incredible, but I don't want anyone to feel slighted. There was a time where we could actually list everyone's conlang website in one blog post. Those days are long gone. But anyway, if you've come to this blog post from a google search because you read the article in the Times, or because you've heard of Dothraki on Game of Thrones, I wanted you to know there's more out there than Dothraki, than Na'vi, than Klingon—even than Tolkien (though if you want more information on Tolkien's languages, the place to go is Ardalambion). Here are some links to get you started:

  • The Smiley Award: Every year since 2006 I've given out an award to an outstanding conlang. Check out the ones that have gotten awards thus far; they're some of the best examples of conlangs we have, and each one has served as inspiration not just for me, but for many, many conlangers. This is a good place to start.

  • CALS: Based on WALS, the Conlang Atlas of Language Structures has a large number of conlangs listed, many with detailed typological descriptions and translations.

  • FrathWiki: FrathWiki is kind of like Wikipedia for conlangs, but rather than encyclopedia-like descriptions, many conlangers use FrathWiki to host all the information about their conlang (for a nice example, take a look at Pete Bleackley's Khangaþyagon).

  • Conlang Blog Aggregator: Many conlangers blog about their conlangs, and we try to gather all those blogs and rebroadcast that content on the Conlang Blog Aggregator. If you have a feed to spare in your RSS reader, subscribe!

  • The Conlanger's Library: For more general information about conlanging (and also some links to some great resources), check out the Conlanger's Library, which catalogs information about conlanging that appears in various media.

  • Since they don't seem to fit anywhere else, check out the incredible Akana World Building Project, and then also Denis Moskowitz's Rikchik language, signed by aliens with 49 tentacles who lack the ability to produce speech sounds.
I could go on, but I don't want to overwhelm the non-conlangers who are just here for a quick intro.

Also, while I'm here, I did want to comment on one thread that has run through some of the comments on the Times article, since it's come up before (indeed, if you thought you were being original posting a comment with content similar to this, you are sadly mistaken). The gist of it is this: Why would anyone create a language when there are so many natural languages vanishing from the face of the Earth?

In repudiating this notion, I think Mia Soderquist said it best: "Creating a new hobby language doesn't affect natural languages any more than playing Monopoly affects the economy." But even though that rather succinctly summarizes the silliness of the entire argument, let me take a moment to tease out all the implications of what's being suggested.

First, there's a general ignorance about language that underlies a claim like this, and it's one that linguists—not just conlangers—have had to deal with for years. As linguists say, an astrophysicist doesn't have to deal with any old person off the street coming up to them and telling them they're wrong. Linguists do. The reason is quite simple: All humans use language, in one form or another. This fact leads many humans to believe they have an informed opinion about how language works, and that their opinion is as good as any "expert's" (why humans don't think this about, say, the biology of the brain is a good question [after all, every human's got a brain! Their opinion about the brain is as good as any neuroscientist's, right?]). So it's not surprising to see comments like this in an article on conlanging. We've seen it all before, and we'll see it all again. Keep it coming!

Artistically, there's about as much relationship between creating a conlang and a dying natural language as there is between writing a novel and a dying human's oral history. Novelists, though, don't have to deal with questions such as, "Why are you writing a story about fake people? The stories of real people are vanishing from this planet everyday!" Neither do filmmakers who make fictional films rather than documentaries. Basically, whether one thinks conlanging is art or not (or if it is, whether it's "high" art or not), a conlang is a work of fiction. To question it, is to question fictional endeavors themselves, and I think that question has been answered many times over; we need no longer take such questions seriously.

The issue regarding language preservation is a bit more tangled. Personally, I think when the question is raised, it's linguists who should be insulted—field linguists, specifically. "Why invent a conlang, when you can be saving an endangered language?" one asks. Why indeed! I have a few free hours, why don't I just go and do that little thing? For that matter, why doesn't the questioner do so, if it's apparently that simple? And, indeed, we conlangers have endless resources at our fingertips. Every morning I wake up and wonder, "Gee, should I hop a plane and head down to South America and work on a grammar of the Amahuaca language, or should I create me a conlang? Eh... Airplanes are lame. Conlanging it is!"

Seriously, though, as someone who's worked on an underdescribed minority language (Moro, a Niger-Khordofanian language spoken in Sudan), it's not that simple. It requires specialized training just to be able to do passable field work, and then it requires institutional support to be able to conduct it. It's not something that can be done on a whim, and it's not something that anyone can do without training.

Furthermore (and this is important), simply recording an endangered language does nothing to save it. Sure, in one sense it "saves" it for posterity, but to imagine that writing up a dictionary and a grammar for a language spoken by twenty people is going to lead to some magical revitalization is, again, insulting. Take a look at the situation with the Ayapaneco language, for example. There are two speakers left, and they refuse to speak to one another. The story is so interesting that the language has gotten a lot of press. Is that going to save it, though? Sure, linguists are producing a grammar and dictionary (two, in fact), but in order for a language to be saved, it needs to be spoken by a community—and you can't force a community to use a language they no longer want to use. The best one can hope for is to start up a new community based on what little information there is, and build it up little by little, as happened with Modern Hebrew. Even in that situation, though, the resulting language will be different from the original: there won't be an unbroken chain.

No, language death is far more complicated than simply having a dictionary on the shelf, or even a speaker or two. Language isn't a thing: it's a habit. It's a behavior—and a communal one, at that. A language can't exist apart from a community, and the creation of a fictional language isn't going to do anything to revive a community, or to harm it. Ayapaneco speakers aren't turning away from their language because they want to learn Dothraki: They're turning away because they want to learn Spanish—and English. They want to learn the language that's going to give them the best chance to succeed in a modern economy, because to them (as it is for most humans on Earth), language is a tool—not a work of art. If they find a better tool, they'll switch.

But you want to know something? The ones who don't think that—the ones who value the diversity of language and the diversity of culture—are, more often than not, conlangers. Ask any conlanger how many language grammars they have—how many teach yourself manuals they have, how many languages they've tried to learn—and then ask a non-conlanger. In fact, I did ask conlangers recently (a rather informal survey; got about 70 responses). I asked conlangers how many languages they'd sat down and actually tried to learn (not just glanced at, but tried to learn to use). The average was 6.5. Languages are like cake to us: We can't get enough! We'll sit down with a grammar of an obscure language for fun. As a wedding present, in fact, my friend Doug (mentioned above) got me a grammar of Fijian. I couldn't have been happier. (My wife was less thrilled, but as a former linguistics graduate student herself, she could appreciate it.)

As a final note, though conlanging is more mainstream than it was ten years ago, it remains an esoteric practice. As the circle expands, it will reach new audiences, who will continue to have the same reactions that conlangers have been getting for years. My message to conlangers: Don't sweat it. Keep at it, and don't be shy about what you do. Little by little things will expand; things will improve.

Happy conlanging!

Edit: By the way, if you're a conlanger and you have a website (and it's not mentioned already), feel free to leave a link to it in the comments!

Second Edit: Eric Bakovic (mentioned above) wrote a response to the comments in the Times article as well on Language Log. You can read it here.
Tags: conlang, dothraki, personal
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