A constructed language (also known as artificial, planned or invented language, or conlang) is a language the phonology, vocabulary and grammar of which have been consciously created by an individual or group, either from components of existing natural languages or from scratch, for the purpose of human or human-like communication. Constructed languages are typically classified into auxiliary languages (devised to ease communication between speakers of different natural languages), engineered languages (used for experimentation in logic, philosophy or linguistics), and artistic languages (which add realism to fictional or other constructed worlds, and include secret and mystical languages). Other reasons for which languages have been created include esthetics, universality, simplification of thought or, on the contrary, allowing a refinement of expression. Some conlangs are “naturalistic” in displaying irregularity and complexity, and imitating natural linguistic change processes, while others streamline processes for easy use. Below you may glimpse what may be deemed the oldest, the most successful, and the oddest of invented languages – discover their history and main characteristics, and test your linguistic skills against the samples provided.
One of the earliest known constructed languages is Lingua Ignota (‘unknown language’ in Latin), created in the 12th century by German abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a writer, composer, philosopher, visionary and Benedictine mystic. She authored three volumes of visionary theology, a variety of musical compositions for use in liturgy, a morality play, botanical and medicinal texts, and a large body of letters including records of her sermons.
The purpose of the allegedly divinely inspired Lingua Ignota remains unclear. Some scholars believe it was intended as an ideal, universal language, while others regard it as a secret language used either for mystical purposes or to increase solidarity among Hildegard’s nuns. Based on a 23-letter alphabet, Lingua Ignota seems to have been a partial relexification of Latin, which means it substituted new words into the existing grammatical structures of Latin. 1011 such words survive in a glossary which begins with Aigonz (God) and other religious terms, followed by terms for human beings and family relations, body-parts, illnesses, religious and worldly ranks, craftsmen, days, months, clothing, household implements, plants, and some birds and insects. Note that the glossary categorizes Ualueria (bat) and Argumzio (gryphon) as birds.
Nowadays, the most used constructed language is unquestionably Esperanto, with an estimated number of speakers ranging from 100,000 to 2,000,000 worldwide, about 1000 of whom acquired it as one of their mother tongues. The creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), was a Jewish ophthalmologist born in present-day Poland who imagined an easily learnable, politically neutral language that could engender international peace and communication between speakers of different languages. He did not design it to replace ethnic languages, but to function as an auxiliary, universal second language. After a decade of translating literature into Esperanto and writing original works, Zamenhof published the first grammar book in 1887, under the pseudonym of Doktoro Esperanto (‘Doctor Hopeful’), hence the name of the language. The Esperanto movement gained momentum, culminating in the 1920s, when the League of Nations encouraged member states to include Esperanto in educational curricula and almost adopted it as its working language. On the other hand, its potential for international understanding later triggered persecution in totalitarian states. In Nazi Germany, Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust and the language was forbidden, being considered a plausible tool of world domination in a Jewish conspiracy, especially because of Zamenhof’s ethnicity. In the Soviet Union, Esperanto gained some support at first, possibly because Stalin had studied it himself, but was subsequently banned as “the language of spies”, and its supporters were either executed or exiled.
Recognized by UNESCO in 1954, Esperanto has its own community flag, a strong online presence (including Wikipedia and Google Translate), and since 1905 it has been the focus of annual World Congresses. Most learners resort to self-directed study, but Esperanto is also experimentally taught in primary schools as a basis for learning other foreign languages. It has been argued that Esperanto is easier to learn than many natural languages because it is far more intuitive, relying entirely on innate reflexes and allowing reliable generalizations. For instance, one German study comparing the time it takes French-speaking high-school students to attain comparable levels in foreign languages showed that only 150 hours of studying Esperanto correspond to 1000 hours of Italian, 1500 hours of English and 2000 hours of German. Other research has shown that learning Esperanto, which is grammatically simple and culturally flexible, as one’s first foreign language, increases linguistic awareness and accelerates subsequent language learning. As it is easier to learn than English, Esperanto is sometimes regarded as an alternative or addition to the former as an international language, although the current small number of speakers seems to indicate otherwise. There are over 25,000 Esperanto books, both translations and originals, and several dedicated magazines. The language has been used in several films (in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, for instance, shop signs in the Jewish ghetto are in Esperanto), including two feature films the dialogue of which is entirely in Esperanto.
Esperanto was constructed based on several European languages: its phonology and much of its semantics are substantially Slavic, vocabulary is primarily Romance, but it is also influenced by Germanic and, to a lesser extent, Slavic languages and Greek, while pragmatics and other linguistic aspects that Zamenhof did not define are grounded on the mother tongues of early authors: Russian, Polish, German and French. As a defining trait, word formation heavily relies on prefixes and suffixes, the latter of which distinguish parts of speech: all common nouns end in –o, all adjectives in –a, and all derived verbs in –e. The alphabet is derived from the Latin script, including six letters with diacritics: ?, ?, ?, ?, ? (all of which are not used in any other language) and ?, and excluding q, w, x and y. Esperanto engendered other language projects, called Esperantidos, designed to correct or improve certain facets of the language. The only Esperantido that is fairly used nowadays is Ido.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most popular constructed languages originate in fiction, especially fantasy or SF works. The best-known example is perhaps Klingon, the conlang spoken by the homonymous extraterrestrial species in the Star Trek series. Klingon was first heard in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) in eleven short phrases made up by actor James Doohan. Based on those words and sounds, linguist Mark Okrand created an entire linguistic system which appeared regularly in later films, where translation difficulties were used as a plot device, and untranslated words mixed with conversation translated into English.
Although it includes some phonological and grammatical features of Native American and South Asian languages, Klingon was deliberately designed to sound “alien”, different from existing natural languages, particularly English. Okrand therefore selected infrequent linguistic traits and combinations, reflected, for instance, in word order and the asymmetric consonant system. Klingon is also characterized by “ungrammaticality”, i.e. dropping superfluous sentence parts especially when speed is required. Its 3000-word vocabulary is centered on spacecraft or warfare, which may render everyday conversations quite difficult; for instance, since there is no word for ‘hello’, Klingon fans have to utter the equivalent of ‘What do you want?’. Interestingly, this artistic language originally contained no counterpart of the verb ‘to be’, but it had to be added when one of the characters quoted “to be or not to be”. Klingon also displays strong cultural correlations: there are several words for ‘fight’, each with a different degree of intensity, and an abundance of curses, as Klingons consider cursing to be a fine art. The language is usually transliterated to a variant of the Latin alphabet where uppercase letters represent sounds that differ from those expected by English speakers, but on-screen Klingons use a different writing system, pIqaD, derived from the letters on the Klingon battle cruiser and from Tibetan writing, the sharp letters of which recall Klingons’ interest in blades.
The language is promoted by the Klingon Language Institute and studied around the world, although fluently spoken by only a small number of Star Trek enthusiasts. One of them tried to raise his son as an English-Klingon bilingual: the boy’s pronunciation was “excellent”, but he rarely responded in Klingon and ceased doing so around the age of 5 as he obviously did not favor the language. Klingon translations of literary masterpieces, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing, have been published. Moreover, there are plays (such as Klingon Christmas Carol) and operas (‘u’) primarily or entirely written in Klingon, and Klingon language software for most computer platforms. There are Klingon language meetings and frequent Klingon references in the media, where the “old Klingon proverb” Revenge is a dish best served cold is recurrent.
The Lord’s Prayer in Esperanto
Patro nia, kiu estas en la cielo,
sanktigata estu Via nomo.
Venu Via regno.
Farigu Via volo,
kiel en la cielo, tiel ankau sur la tero.
Nian panon ciutagan donu al ni hodiau.
Kaj pardonu al ni niajn suldojn,
kiel ankau ni pardonas al niaj suldantoj.
Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton,
sed liberigu nin de la malbono.
Car Via estas la regno kaj la potenco kaj la gloro eterne.
The Lord’s Prayer in Klingon
Suto’vo’qorDaq Dabbogh vavma’;
Suto’vo’qor rurchoHjaj tera’,
DaHjaj tIr ngoghmaj ghonobneS.
‘ej yemmeymajmo’ ghobIjneSQo’;
maHvaD yembogh nuvpu’ DIbIjbe’mo’.
‘ach mIghwI’vo’ ghotoDneS.
reH SoHvaD taHmo’ wo’, HoS je, batlh je. taHjaj wo’.
(to be continued)