Artificial Languages – Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about many topics related to linguistics. We’ve talked about language history, syntax, morphology, and in this article, we’re going to talk about one of the nerdiest topics in our class: artificial languages. You might have heard an artificial language before if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings movies, you might have noticed that some of the characters in the movies have a language of their own.
For example the elves speak their own elphic language. There’s another language that is the one used for the inscription of the one true ring, and as you can see here, the inscription says ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk ash burzum-ishi krimpatul. One ring to rule them all, and so forth. So this is not a language that can be found in the world. This is the language that the author of the Lord of the Rings made intentionally. And interestingly what happened first was the language.
Tolkien made the languages out of an artistic pursuit, and then had to design a world for these languages and that world and it ended up being Lord of the Rings. He invented these languages as a hobby and for example some of them like Elvish sound like Finnish, and he – Tolkien said that when he found out what Finnish sounded like, he said “it was like discovering a wine cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine.
It quite intoxicated me.” He developed his – his hobby, what he called a secret vice, and when he finally presented the languages in the 30s, he said that it was embarrassing. There was “nothing less embarrassing than the unveiling in public of a secret vice.” He did it because he thought it was an expr – artistic expression, same as some people paint, some people sculpt. Tolkien liked created – create – creating languages that sounded awesome and beautiful to him, and there are many reasons why people invent languages.
Some of them do it to push the possibilities of human expression, to try to thi – to try to create, I’m sorry, to try to explore what’s universal across languages. There’s one called Lojban, for example, which is based on – it looks a little bit like computer functions, and then you merge them all together into messages of the language. There’s artificial languages that are invented for philosophical reasons, maybe the authors were want to pursue pacifism or feminism, and make those ideals, put those ideals into the language.
For example, Esperanto was invented by an optometrist called Ludwig Zamenhof in the 1880s in a town of Poland that was divided between Poland and Ukraine and the Russian Empire. And so he saw languages and multilingualism as a problem, and he thought that if everyone spoke a very simple language called Esperanto, everyone would have peace. Whether this is true or not, many people believed this idea so much so that 30 years later, there were meetings of Esperanto speakers across Europe with thousands of members. And it’s an artificial language that eventually gained a life of its own.
People have met in Esperanto clubs and then they have children and those children speak Esperanto as if they were a natural language so they are first language speakers of Esperanto whose parents spoke to them in Esperanto and they were babies. And I know someone like that! And so passivism is this one. For example, Laadan, there was a language – language invented by linguist called Suzette Elgin, and this was from the second wave of feminism.
She wanted to try to see if there was the language that could incorporate points of view of women. And if you read the grammar of Laadan, you will see what her ideas were about it, but I can tell you that in the first few units, the examples that she uses for the verbs include the verb to menstruate. Like this is what’s in the first unit for learning the language. Very different from our books that have the verbs to be or to go in the first few units.
Some languages are invented for other characters to separate us from the them and to make them sound, you know, like outsiders or like barbarians, like the Dothraki from Game of Thrones. There’s languages that are invented simply for artistic reasons. This is the logo of the language creation society and people invent languages for chipmunks, people invent languages and make them as tiny as possible just as an artistic challenge. And by the way if you like any of the ideas here, you can go to the Language Creation Society and they’re always looking for people to invent new languages, maybe because the writer wants language for their book, or for a movie. So these jobs appear every now and then.
Let’s focus on the other. So you may be a movie studio. We’ll ask someone to design a language for their movies or for a TV series, which is how the Klingon language was invented for the TV series Star Trek. That’s how Dothraki was invented for Game of Thrones, and how Navi was invented for Avatar, for example. And so what people do is that they built a language that sounds different from English, and by the way quick parentheses it’s – it’s interesting that usually what sounds like an other or something different ends up being sounds that are,, you know, from non-Indo-European language, so it reinforces the idea that there’s people that are others.
And many – for example, Klingon is rich on velar fricatives like the sound xa, which are sounds – which are sounds that you find in Spanish but also in Arabic, for example. Let’s take a quick look at one of these languages, Klingon. In world, Klingon is the official language of the Klingon Empire, which is Empire centered on a planet that we see there. And there’s different dialects for Klingon on the different planets of the Empire.
There’s – whenever a new emperor comes to power, their dialect becomes the official language of the Empire. And the other ones are shunned, and so forth. There’s a lot of … yes, we know a lot about Klingon, and it’s because the person who made Klingon has been very careful in crafting both the language and the world for it. Seriously, we have books that tell us like terms for how to cook in Klingon.
The language was designed by a linguist called Marc Okrand. He was working on a language from California called Cahuilla, and Klingon uses a morphology that is similar to Cahuilla. By the way I know people who speak Cahuilla and I asked them once what they thought, and thinking that maybe they would think it would be silly or something. They actually thought it was really cool that Cahuilla was the template for Klingon. Okrand also used phonology from Uto-Aztecan languages like Nahuatl from Mexico.
It used the syntax of a language Hixkaryana from Brazil, and that syntax by the way, is like the mirror image of English. So here we have an example Dave drinks coffee in English, would be Dave drinks coffee in Klingon it’s Coffee drinks Dave, qa’vln tlhutlh Dave. So you have the object first, then the verb, and then the noun – and then the subject. Object verb subject. It’s, yes, the reverse of English in many cases, or English is the reverse of Klingon. And we’ll see some more in a Python programming exercise. It’s a full language. People who speak it, people learn it, and ya know, there’s nerds all over the world that have – that have learned the language, converse in it, have conventions, and you can learn it on duolingo.
So languages like Esperanto and Klingon have taken a life of their own to the point where, for example, Esperanto is now an actual natural language because there were children who grew up speaking it. So there’s many reasons why people invent artificial languages to test the possibilities of human language. To make a language express a particular philosophy or ideal that they have about the world, to make fictional characters others, to other the characters of fiction, make them separate from us so that they speak their own language.
We speak our language and people invent languages for just artistic purposes as an expression of creativity or to capture something that they love about the world, like Tolkien loved the way Finnish sounded. Some of these languages again like Esperanto and Klingon are – have become – have gained a life of their own to the point where people use them now in everyday settings. And yeah this is – so in the next video we’re going to use Python to parse the syntax of the Klingon language.
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