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A Conlang FAQ

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conlang
: 1 (noun) a constructed language. 2. (verb) to create, use or discuss a conlang.

conlanger: (noun) anyone who conlangs.

1. What is a constructed language?
2. Who creates conlangs?
3. What's the point of creating a language that nobody is going to use?

4. Why create another language when so many already exist?
5. Why not learn a real language instead of creating one nobody speaks?
6. Are there any conlangs that have become widely known?
7. Doesn't creating a language take a lot of time?
8. What makes creating a language so enjoyable?
9. Isn't conlanging just replacing English words with nonsense or made-up vocabulary?
10. How do you create a whole language?
11. Don't you have to know a lot about languages, or linguistics, in order to create a language?
12. What do you do with a conlang when you're finished?
13.  How can I get someone to make a conlang for me?
14. Where can I find out more about conlangs and conlanging?

Selected Resources

* * * * *

1. What is a constructed language?
[top]

A constructed language, or conlang, is a language created consciously, usually by one person, rather than one evolving over long periods of time in a community of speakers. Conlangs are also called "model languages," because, like models, they may not necessarily be intended to do everything a full scale language does (although many do). Like a model, however, they allow study of the workings of the real thing on a more manageable scale.  Most conlangs are known (and cherished) only by their creators and perhaps a few friends. Although computer languages such as Fortran, C and Basic could be called constructed languages, these might better be designated as artificial languages. Unlike these computer languages, most conlangs are languages which people could learn and speak (or write, or sign) with other people. Thus, they're more similar to natural languages (natlangs).

Some other names you may encounter are auxlang, or auxiliary language, and artlang, or artistic language.  An auxlang, like Esperanto, is meant to serve as an international auxiliary language -- a bridge between speakers of different languages.  Sometimes such a language is also called an IAL, or international auxiliary language.  An artlang, on the other hand, is usually created purely for the delight of the creator, and makes no claim beyond reflecting that creator's linguistic taste.

2. Who creates conlangs? [top]

A surprising number of people. (This FAQ concludes with some links to lists of conlangers' web pages). J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the more famous conlangers of the previous century, devising numerous languages; he called conlanging his "secret vice."  The medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen supplemented her vocabulary with almost 1000 words of Lingua Ignota, her "unknown language," when she wrote in Latin several hundred years ago.  The German mathematician and philosopher Leibniz was also interested in constructed languages. 

The following information, from conlanger Jeff Henning, comes from a substantial Languages list of e-mail lists under Artificial Languages:

The hobby has a disparate group of adherents that do not [often] communicate with one another. Model languagers or language modelers can be found among writers, game players, computer game designers, science-fiction and fantasy fans, professional linguists and teachers. The community of hobbyists is a large one, with approximately 40,000 people in the United States having invented their own languages and some 250,000 having used model languages such as Esperanto, Quenya and Klingon.

Numbers are hard to estimate, but these figures would seem to reflect the degree of interest, activity, publishing, web pages, etc.

3. What's the point of creating a language that nobody is going to use? [top]

Fun!  Most conlangers create for their own satisfaction and enjoyment. As Tolkien noted, conlanging is "[a]n art for which life is not long enough, indeed: the construction of imaginary languages in full or outline for amusement, for the pleasure of the constructor or even conceivably of any critic that might occur." Conlangers may imagine other people learning or asking about their creation, but the primary reason is simply for fun. Some conlangers share information, and some know about each other's conlangs, and offer suggestions, encouragement, etc., through listservs like the Constructed Languages List. And a few conlangs are used by many other people.  (For instance, the number of speakers of Esperanto has been estimated to be between 100,000 and 1 million.) In addition, most conlangs could be used.

4. Why create another language when so many already exist? [top]

Because most conlangs are created for fun, they aren't intended to supplant or even compete with existing languages. Most songwriters, for instance, don't stop singing and writing just because other songs have been written and sung. Neither is a new song written to replace an old one. Conlangers feel free to create new languages, too. Few conlangers would say, "All the best language ideas have    been taken." If some do feel that way, they often just "borrow" what they like from an existing language. Most languages resemble a home with new rooms, additions, remodellings and partial renovations. A conlang is a chance to design a language "from the ground up," so that it may be more "livable," accurate, consistent (if consistency is desirable), or learnable (if learnability is a goal).  Some conlangs are languages designed or intended to express meanings which other languages may ignore, neglect, suppress, etc., such as Laadan, created by Suzette Haden Elgin for her novel Native Tongue as a way to talk about women's language.

5. Why not learn a real language instead of creating one nobody speaks? [top]

Many conlangers do study or speak more than one language. Often this linguistic experience is the spark that led them to create their own language. Most conlangers aren't interested in having lots of speakers for their languages (though it's great when others appreciate the "product" of your hobby). However, some conlangs are spoken by thousands of people. In addition, if "real" means that people actually speak and write it in everyday life in preference to any other languages, then Esperanto can be considered a "real" conlang. And if "real" means that the language even potentially could be used in that way, then most conlangs are "real." The same minds that create "real" languages also create conlangs.  One writer, Henry Jacob, suggests in his 1948 essay On Language Making that such created languages can play an important role in natural language development:

We have seen that the problems that beset the making of a language are the problems presented by our ethnic tongues and that, in fact, the development of a constructed language overlaps with the development of language in general as I have tried to show.

6. Are there any conlangs that have become widely known? [top]

Esperanto is probably the most well-known example, and is actually intended to be an IAL, or international auxiliary language. Another IAL is Novial, designed by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen.  A relative newcomer inspired by the TV series Star Trek, Klingon was created by another linguist, Marc Okrand. Klingon has recently become better known in large part because of the popularity of the series, full-length movies and spin-offs. Devotees of Tolkien's Middle Earth can often speak a phrase or two (and sometimes much more) in one of the Elvish languages the author created. Several sites exist for discussion of these languages.  One of them is Ardalambion.  Other examples include Lojban and Loglan, constructed after extensive logical and scientific analysis and developed by a linguistic community of interested conlangers. Author Suzette Elgin created Laadan, which features in several of her novels, to test the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses that languages shapes the realities of their speakers, and that women's meanings get lost or remain unexpressed in men's languages.  To range further afield, in the early 70s, poet Ted Hughes developed a language called Orghast, which actors spoke in a play of the same name (about the Prometheus myth), directed by Peter Brooks.  Finally, Talossan is the language of an entire (albeit fictitious) kingdom.

7. Doesn't creating a language take a lot of time? [top]

Like any art or craft, conlanging requires as much time as you care to devote to it. Just as artists and craftspeople spend a long time mastering their art or craft, a conlanger can spend years refining a conlang. But it's also possible to sketch the first outlines of a conlang in half an hour. Afterwards, it may lie forgotten in a notebook for a decade, or come to life after a few days or weeks. Not all conlangs are intended to be full-fledged languages; some are intended to work out design problems, or to test an idea.  Some conlangs are lifelong projects, not intended ever to be finished. In many cases, the fun is in the doing, not just in the "finished" product.  And in that case, "taking a lot of time" is part of the fun.

8. What makes creating a language so enjoyable? [top]

Like many arts and crafts, conlanging at its best is completely engrossing. Many conlangers create out of an interest or preoccupation with language. While it's not necessary to know another language, many conlangers have learned something about other languages because languages naturally interest them. In addition, a conlanger can create (or practice) while waiting for the dentist, during a coffee break, on a bus, etc. Pen and paper (or a computer) help, but they aren't absolutely necessary. When a word just feels right, and fits, when a grammar begins to come together, when new meanings emerge that haven't existed before in any language the conlanger knows, when the language starts to come alive and take on a distinct character, so that the conlanger is no longer inventing, but following the outlines of a growing, organic language--that's why I, at least, keep conlanging.

9. Isn't conlanging just replacing English words with nonsense or made-up vocabulary? [top]

While it's true that some conlangs may be a kind of code for English (or a relexification, if you want to show off), many are, depending on your viewpoint, delightfully unlike English, and more like--or unlike--other languages. Certainly it's more of a challenge to do something different. Besides, English has already been "done." Some conlangs  may be "related" to existing languages in the same way, for example, that Italian is related to Spanish, both being "sisters," and "descendants" of a form of Latin. But many conlangs aren't related to any other language. Further, some conlangs have been elaborated to the point that they have not only their own grammar and vocabulary, but also their own history, associated culture and writing system. Tolkien once said (in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) that he wrote the Lord of the Rings in order to create a setting in which his conlangs could be spoken.

10. How do you create a whole language? [top]

Some people begin by playing with sounds and words that they like--a sort of improvisation until something catches their attention. It's also possible to begin with a desire to test some idea for its viability. Features of an existing language may intrigue you, and you may want to extend them into your own language. Usually if a conlang takes root in your imagination, it will need some plan or pattern (a grammar), so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel with every word you create or sentence you build. To make one step easier in the process, some conlangers have written programs to generate vocabulary for a conlang. After you decide which sounds and sound combinations you'll permit in your conlang, these programs can help you create a list of "possible" words in your language. (Every language has a group of sound preferences, which is why "sred" isn't normally acceptable as a possible English word, but "shred"--a real word--and "gred"--not a real word, but a "possible" one in English--are both fine).  There are several links in the list at the end of this FAQ which can help you get started with your own conlang.

11. Don't you have to know a lot about languages, or linguistics, in order to create a language? [top]

Not really.  Of course, it helps you when you get stuck if you know how other languages besides English solve a design problem.  And if you only know English, it may be harder to break free of the influence of English on many aspects of your language.  But many--probably most--conlangers invent and learn as they go.  Besides, nobody else ever needs to see it or know about it, or at least not until you're good and ready.  That's why Tolkien called it his "secret vice"--and he was a teacher of medieval literature and knew several languages.  You're not creating in order to win a prize (well, not yet anyway), but rather to satisfy an urge to be creative that happens to take this form.

12. What do you do with a conlang when you're finished? [top]

Just as with playing music, the goal of conlanging is ultimately delight. If a conlang is ever "finished," the conlanger may continue to refine it, or just begin another conlang. Some conlangs contribute to the realism of a novel, movie, or other work of art. Some never leave the notebooks and imaginations of their creators. Others are designed to solve serious problems of communication, or provide insight into the way the part of the mind works which is involved with language. Some people keep a journal in their language. Some teach their children and their friends, some use it in their religious practice, and so on.

13.  How can I get someone to make a conlang for me? [top]

If you REALLY want to deprive yourself of the pleasures of conlanging, you can find conlangers willing to create a language for you.  Need a conlang for a book, art project, film, historical re-enactment, etc?  Contact the Language Creation Society for more information about a project of any size.  (LCS provided the conlanger David Peterson who created Dothraki for HBO's The Game of Thrones based on the George Martin series, and has provided conlang support for producers, painters and writers.)

14. How can I find out more about conlangs and
conlanging?
[top]

If you've read this far, you may want to investigate some of the numerous conlanging resources on the Net. A short list follows. It doesn't claim to be complete, but leads to pages of links that are active and interesting, and provide enough information for you to find out for yourself if you want to invent a language, or need help, inspiration, feedback or community in the process.

*  *  *  *  *

Selected Web Resources for Conlangers [top]

Mark Rosenfelder's thorough Language Construction Kit deserves careful reading.  His website as a whole bears the stamp of an original mind, and includes conlang humor, his own elaborate conlangs, some excellent conlang culture building, and much else.

Pablo David Flores seeks to provide complementary info to Mark's Kit with his How to Create a Language:

Here's the Language Creation Society once again -- a good jumping-off point for conlanging.

Lexical Semantics by Rick Morneau is no longer updated (last update Sept. '06), but remains a stimulating and serious work by a trained linguist who proposes an efficient, linguistically rigorous and logical way to construct phonology and vocabulary, and to minimize the strain on memory of the language learner.  You can't work through this and ever again claim conlanging can't have thorough linguistic support.  His comprehensive documentation of his conlang Latejami (formerly known as Ladekwa, Latenkwa, Nasendi, Katanda) is not for the faint of heart--it runs to 300+ pages.  It's really not for those new to conlanging, though Morneau takes pains to avoid jargon as much as possible.  His project offers valuable insights for those who would like to create a truly original conlang -- actually an interlingua for machine translation is what Morneau himself intends.  He also provides several related Essays on Language Design (all worth reading) on various related aspects of conlanging, such as phonology, morphology, syntax, metaphor, anaphora, and so forth.

Omniglot is a source of information on many scripts and languages.

Conlangs on Livejournal gives a sense of current interests and directions in part of the Conlang community online.

Esperanto.net offers useful information and helpful links for one particularly successful conlang.

The Linguistic Creed of the Summer Institute of Linguistics is a statement of language rights by a respected linguistics organization.

Klingon Language Institute is the official Klingon language site. TlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a', anyone?

Amazon Books, of course, is an extensive on-line book source for linguistics and specific languages.

Visit the homepage of the Conlang Mailing List where you can subscribe to the List, search its archives of a decade and more of postings for specific topics, etc.

 
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