Conlang/FAQ

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FAQ

Beginner 

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions related to conlanging.

What's a "Language"?Edit

There are many ways that people communicate with each other, but we don't usually call all of them "language". So presumably, any definition of the word should be somewhat selective.

When linguists talk about language, they usually refer to communication that uses very specific parts of the brain (the Broca's and Wernicke's areas), and that has, as a result, some very peculiar characteristics that may be due to the architecture of those areas. For example:

  1. Languages can be learned "natively". As children, we learned spoken languages from our parents and friends, without any need for formal instruction. You can't say this about arithmetic or even written language — those had to be learned consciously, either by having someone teach you, or, at least, through some conscious, rigorous study on your own. This is also the difference between a language you actually speak and a language you took in school — the latter you had to memorize and so forth, so you probably aren't that fluent in it; the former you soaked up, so you speak it natively.
  2. Languages have rules. No, we're not just talking about the rules you learned in English class, and hated. (Trust us, we hated those too.) Every language has intricate, complicated rules that are coded right into our brains when we learn it. Most of the time, we don't even realize we're following them.
  3. Languages use words. Yeah duh, you say. But think about it this way — when someone says "bird", there's nothing in their mouth, on the "b", or the "ir", or the "d", that's got anything to do with a bird. But it means bird anyway. That's the power of words in a language, since words can abstractly represent things without actually looking or sounding like those things. (Of course there are words that break this rule, like "splash" and "crash", but the point is, not ALL words have to be like that.)

If we follow all of the above rules, then there are just two or three basic sorts of languages in the world — spoken languages, like English or French or German (it doesn't matter if they're sometimes represented in writing); sign languages, like American Sign Language; and, to some extent, written languages. Encodings, like Morse code, Semaphore, etc., aren't language in themselves, although they can be used to directly represent language.

The status of written language is a bit complicated. Writing is often treated as just a representation of spoken language, in which case it's an encoding and not language in itself. There exist conlangs that are purely written, though, with no spoken form at all, like X; these clearly aren't encodings of something else. They might fail the test of being learnable natively — but most conlangs are never learned natively by anyone (the biggest exception being Esperanto, with perhaps a thousand native speakers), so whether most conlangs could be learned natively is already a matter for speculation.

When a spoken language has an extensive literary tradition, the spoken form of the language tends to change faster than the written form, so that after a while the language has two different registers — a formal (or "literary") register and an informal (or "vulgar") register. This effect is called diglossia. The different registers aren't usually considered separate languages as such; but since, for example, written English is often the common language shared by native speakers of English and American Sign Language, some have suggested that perhaps written English should be considered distinct from both. That would mean that if you both speak and write English, you're bilingual.

Also, when any encoding is used intensively for direct communication, rather than just as a transcription of speech, the encoding tends to develop idioms of its own that don't come from the language it supposedly represents. In Morse code, for example, the "abbreviation" for laughter is HI, because of how it sounds in Morse code (not because of how the represented letters sound in spoken language):  dit-dit-dit-dit  dit-dit. That doesn't make Morse code a language, but it's one small step in that direction. Written languages may develop small flourishes like that as well, like emoticons.

Other forms of communication, like traffic signs, hand gestures (that are not structured signing), dogs barking, bees dancing (even assuming that is communication, which is debated), etc. are not languages, in the linguists' sense.

Are there simple and complicated languages?Edit

Yes — but probably not in the way most people think.

Some languages have been written down for a long time, have lots of literature and poetry to go with them, and have thick grammars too. These languages are "richer" in the sense that they may have a bigger vocabulary and a richer library of cultural links and so on. But they are not more "complicated".

Linguists have found that pretty much all languages, from those spoken by the simplest nomads to the builders of great empires, are all about similarly "complicated", in the sense that they all have the complex structures necessary to convey human thought and reason. The aboriginal languages of North America, for example, have been found to have massive verb tables that put Latin and Greek to shame. And while languages like English and Chinese don't have these verb tables, they do have complicated systems of syntax (or sentence structures) that put those North American languages to shame.

What about people who say, for example, that "Spanish is easier to learn than German"? Well — a lot of this depends on the way the language is taught in schools, the amount of sheer memorization demanded of beginners, and how similar the language is to your native language. If you're a native English speaker, for example, you may find Japanese baffling, but Korean people usually find Japanese easier to learn than English!

Simple languages do exist, in two ways. Pidgins are broken, halting "languages" that people who can't speak each other's languages end up speaking. If these pidgins are taught to children in a community, however, they tend to become full languages within a generation — what we call creoles — so a pidgin can be seen as a new language in the process of birth. On the other hand, dying languages are languages that few people speak, and therefore aren't really being taught to children — these languages tend to get simpler and then die out.

When did language begin?Edit

It's very hard to know, since we didn't have tape recorders back then. We are reasonably sure, however, that language has been spoken for a very very long time, tens of thousands of years at least, many centuries before agriculture or civilization began anywhere in the world. This is because all people everywhere today, in every corner of the world, speak languages as complex as everyone else's.

By the way, languages did not begin in Egypt or Sumeria (as far as we know, anyway). Those were just the first cultures we know of to write down languages that they already spoke. Languages must have been spoken by all human beings many millennia before that.

What's the difference between a language and a code?Edit

A language has a unique grammar, phonology, vocabulary, and set of "roots" from which new words can be derived. All natural languages are descended from parent languages, as well, though for conlangs this is not strictly necessary.

A code or cipher, on the other hand, is merely a way of changing one language into something else. Codes and ciphers have no set grammar, vocabulary, or anything like that, and usually exist solely for the purpose of obscuring communication.

Too many people will get a dictionary and create a single counterpart for every word in there and then proclaim, "Look! I invented a language!" No, there's more to a real language than that. And a real language is what real minds create!

Is there a conlanging community?Edit

Short answer: There is now. A central place to look, from which to work outward to all the other parts of the modern conlanging community, is the Language Creation Society.

Before the Internet, conlanging was mostly done privately by individuals who had no way of knowing if anyone else shared their peculiar pursuit. In a (now classic) lecture about artlanging in 1931, called A Secret Vice, J.R.R. Tolkien described an experience as a soldier in World War I:

We were listening to somebody lecturing on map-reading, or camp-hygeine, or the art of sticking a fellow through without (in defiance of Kipling) bothering who God sent the bill to; rather we were trying to avoid listening, though the Guards' English, and voice, is penetrating. The man next to me said suddenly in a dreamy voice: 'Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!'

J.R.R. Tolkien helped make artlanging somewhat respectable: as an academic and scholar of ancient languages, he not only came out publicly as a committed designer of artistic fictional languages, but used those languages to create a hugely successful series of fiction novels. When the internet came along, people who had never before been able to find others with the same eccentric interests began to discover each other and form on-line communities, and one of these groups was conlangers. The conlanging community especially formed around the Conlang Mailing List, created in 1991, which was the origin of the term "conlang". The first annual Langauge Creation Conference was held in 2006, and the Language Creation Society, which amongst other things now runs the annual conference, was formed the next year.

Is there a language with <feature>?Edit

Some conlangers enjoy inventing weird features for their conlangs, but then discover some time later that there is actually a natural human language that has that feature. A classic case is the "Monster Raving Loony" alignment (we'll discuss alignment in the Advanced level), which was devised by members of the Conlang Mailing List who named it Monster Raving Loony because it would create inherent ambiguity in the language — making it impossible to tell which of the two arguments to a transitive verb is the subject of the sentence — and therefore seemed absurd. Only then someone noticed a language in Iran that actually has that sort of alignment.

This phenomenon is so common that conlangers have a name for it. It's called anadewism — which is an acronym for another natlang already dunnit, except worse.

So, when you're having fun with some really weird feature in your conlang, don't let it interfere with your enjoyment when you discover there's a natlang that does something like it!

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Last modified on 28 January 2014, at 16:19