By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM
If you couldn’t read the title, don’t worry. It says “Hello” in Klingon, “Welcome” in Sindarin, and “Let’s talk about language” in Esperanto. These expressions may seem to be totally unrelated, but they are all from constructed languages.
Have you ever considered how effective communication could be if everyone could speak the same language? Did you ever wonder what it might take to create a language? Even though most natural languages developed without intentional efforts to shape and engineer them, languages have also been constructed over the years for various purposes.
Most natural languages evolved slowly along with human society, but new methods of communication sometimes occur more spontaneously. For example, language contact can lead to the creation of pidgins and creoles, and deaf children can create hand signs to communicate with family members. Although these are not classified as constructed languages, they are driven by our desire to communicate more effectively.
Auxiliary languages such as Esperanto are the most common type of constructed languages. They are called ‘auxiliary’ languages because they are created to be a lingua franca, a common third language to be used by two or more different language groups. They are designed to be easy to learn, thus enabling communication across linguistics groups irrespective of the speakers’ native languages. To date, Esperanto is the most popular auxiliary language with about 2 million speakers around the world.
Languages are also created for research purposes, and these are referred to as engineered languages. They can be used by linguists to test hypotheses about different language features. For example, Kēlen is a language proposed by linguist Sylvia Sotomayor to test the possibility of a language with no verbs, which would contradict the theory that verbs are a universal feature of natural human languages. In addition, philosophers have tried to create languages that can better serve the purposes of certain philosophical and logical discussions. Toki Pona is an engineered language created by Canadian linguist and translator Sonja Lang. Toki Pona was designed based on the philosophical principle of minimalism and was meant to encourage positive thinking. While Toki Pona may not be used by a large number of speakers, the therapeutic value is what makes this constructed language unique in its own way. Languages can also be created for spiritual or religious purposes.
I find artistic and fictional languages the most interesting of all, and they are probably the most well-known constructed language to the general public. J. R. R. Tolkien is known for the Elvish languages he created in ‘Lord of the Rings’, although creating languages for his fictional world was not his only accomplishment with constructed languages. Tolkien had a passion for glossopoeia, the creation of constructed languages for artistic purposes, from a very young age. He published the essay ‘A Secret Vice’ about his experience with constructed languages, where he pointed out that mythology is an important part of artistic languages. Therefore, the languages Tolkien created were closely based on the stories of his fantasy world.
Very few fictional languages were as systematic as Tolkien’s creations. Many fictional languages started with very basic concepts and were added onto through the years, sometimes by the creators, sometimes by fans. Languages such as Klingon and Valyrian have various online databases and tutorials built by enthusiasts. They are even available on language learning apps such as Duolinguo.
Regardless of the various purposes of creation, constructed languages shared a common creation process. They often take inspiration from existing human languages. The creators of auxiliary languages tend to focus on features such as the most commonly used sounds among languages in order to make the constructed languages more accessible to a large population. Tolkien based many of his created languages on Welsh, Finnish, Latin, and Ancient Greek.
With the advance of technology, constructed languages continue to evolve and play their parts in shaping our linguistics landscape. Conlangers, people who are involved in constructing languages, are now commissioned to create fictional and artistic languages for popular media such as video games and TV shows. Many Canadians are active in creating or speaking constructed languages. This article about a conlanger in Halifax explores the use of coded language in the history of LGBTQ communities. In 2022, the World Esperanto Congress will take place in Montreal, with the topic “Language, Life and Land”. Esperanto speakers around the world will gather together and discuss indigenous languages of Canada using Esperanto.
From fictional world to philosophical discussions, from linguistics theories to international auxiliary languages, whichever form they take, whatever their functions are, constructed languages will never cease to amaze us.