Conglanging: The Not-So-Secret Vice

On March 20-22 at Brown University, the Language Creation Society hosted the 3rd Language Creation Conference, a tribal gathering of self-described language geeks, (a label I proudly wear along with my newly acquired LCS pin, with its symbolic Tower of Babel).

Conlanging (from constructed language) is obsessional, hermetic, prolix, and involves Deep Chops, combined with the spirit of play. It’s geeky, even cosmically geeky, as Jeff Burke (aka White Thunder), creator of the Central Mountain Languages, puts it.


Linguistic Diversity

Linguistic diversity is falling in parallel with biodiversity, “faster than ever before in human history”, according to Tove Skutnabb-Kangas of the University of Roskilde. Europe is the poorest continent in linguistic diversity, while “Indigenous peoples, minorities and linguistic minorities are the stewards of the world's linguistic diversity.” Nigeria alone has 410 languages; Papua New Guinea (850 languages) and Indonesia (670) between them hold 25% of the world’s languages.


Figure 3: “Fight Linguistic Extinction--Invent a Language!” (David Peterson's Kamakawi script)Figure 3: “Fight Linguistic Extinction--Invent a Language!” (David Peterson's Kamakawi script)


Linguistic diversity and biodiversity are correlated; when one is high, the other generally is as well. But languages are disappearing faster even than butterflies—except in the conlang community, where linguistic creation and experimentation is bubbling up out of a primordial soup of natlang (natural language) parts, with plenty of mutations, variations, and hybridizations, as well as new orthographies (written systems that may or may not represent the sounds of a language). Emergent forms of languages—visual, both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional, gestural, sculptural, languages with no spoken form, and lots of alien languages, are all part of the mix.


The Shakespeare of Conlanging

J. R. R. Tolkien is, of course, the Shakespeare of conlanging. His essay, “A Secret Vice,” details his own experiences and speculations about language creation, which possessed him from an early age. Many, if not most, conlangers began some form of the activity in childhood. Tolkien calls conlanging “a new art, or a new game” and indeed, the activity is perfectly suspended between these impulses. And secrecy plays itself out in various aspects, beginning perhaps with the delight of children in having secret languages and societies to bond their group. Later come secret scripts for maintaining the privacy of journal writing.


Deena Larsen’s Rose language/code serves such purposes. In her own words: “It is based on English, but has 75 characters. Each letter has variations that connote emotion. When I write, I unconsciously use these forms. Then when I reread, I find out what I was feeling. Then I can get to my "inner thoughts."


Figure 4: Deena Larson's Rose Figure 4: Deena Larson's Rose


A wry take on the secrecy—or privacy—of conlangs from “Leah” on the alt.language.artificial list: “As for a lang having interest to someone other than the creator, that can vary with time. When I finished my first conlang, I offered to teach it to people I know, and they refused, UNTIL I started keeping my personal journal exclusively in my conlang. THEN, the interest started. Of course, they want to spy on my most private thoughts. Therefore, my conlang became my stealth lang.”

Stealth language is also Tolkien’s term. For him, a stealth language can “satisfy either the need for limiting one’s intelligibility within circles whose bounds you can more or less control or estimate, or the fun found in this limitation. They serve the needs of a secret and persecuted society, or the queer instinct for pretending you belong to one.” (Think pidgins, creoles, slave languages). Tolkien began the Silmarillion, the first parts of his “mythology for England” and the mythical basis for The Lord of the Rings, during WWI, in hospital, recovering from the injuries and horrors of trench warfare in the Battle of Somme.

Bradford White’s conlang story is a strange parallel. His adventures in conlanging began as a child, inventing a language to pass secret notes in school. This impulse resurfaced in Marine bootcamp, with exposure to the special military jargon; he and his buddies made up more, for their own uses. His conlang Friivoliik came about while recovering from war injuries recently at Camp Lejeune, including snapped tendons in his foot and a nasty case of flesh-eating staph infection advancing up his leg. “While bed ridden, I tried to write down the things that had happened to me, and exactly how they made me feel. Some of the things that I had been through, and some of the things I had seen were difficult to deal with, and I was searching for a way to more accurately express myself.” His language includes a special “emotive case” which expresses different relations to emotions experienced, relating to their intensity. As he explained to me, sometimes it is not strong enough to say merely “I felt this;” he has a means of expressing the quality of an emotion that utterly possesses one, the difference between saying “war gives me depression” and “war gives me to depression.”

Language and Mythology

Tolkien’s Silmarillion is the mythology of his Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin. For Tolkien, language and mythology are deeply intertwingled. “I must fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language, it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant. Not solely because some pieces of verse will inevitably be part of the (more or less) completed structure, but because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavour, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology….The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology.”

In contemporary conlanging, this principle is in force in a significant number of conlangs: they come hand in hand with the imagined worlds in which they communicate. Sally Caves, a professor of English at the University of Rochester (as Sarah Higley), whose creation of Teonaht, a language and a world, began at age nine, expresses this principle eloquently: “Those unbitten by this bug will undoubtedly want to know why we do it: why invent something so intricate, so involved, that only a few people, maybe even no one, could ever share in its entirety? To begin such a thing is whimsical at best, but to persist in it is surely madness. However, I'm not alone in my pursuit. The discovery of Conlang, a listserv devoted to glossopoeia or the artful construction of languages, introduced me to a world of compatriots who share my love of language—not just the natural languages, but the experiments one could make with syntax, morphology, typology, lexicology, historicity, and myth. . . . glossopoeia is like building a strange, new, mythical city. You start with the foundations and move up, stone by stone. Or sometimes you start with the roof and work down. Sometimes your paths are crooked, others straight; sometimes you erect cathedrals, canals, and bridges. Sometimes you tear everything down and start over. Gradually it takes on a character and populace of its own, and all its own rules, and you come to know its streets and houses and people as unique. You have relexified your world.” (emphasis mine) Sally (as Sarah Higley) is the author of Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language. Conlanging, as well as music, was part of Hildegard’s productive frenzy.


Ideal Languages, Differently Dreamed

If Tolkien is the Shakespeare of conlanging, surely Paul Varkuza is its Rimbaud. A synaesthete with plenty of attitude, Varkuza claims to have named himself after his language, Varkuzan, “because he himself and his work is only an extension of the greater idea(s) that Varkuzan represents.” To him, conlanging is a laboratory akin to a psychoactive substance where new versions of reality (not just descriptions) can be created. An intimate connection with one’s conlang indeed. Varkuza has utopian intentions of “complete objectivity” yet combines metaphorical as well as mathematical and technical means to accomplish his ends.

Andrii Zvorygin states, “a formal language that unites all the ideas of humanity (math, science, religion, society) is my goal.” He is also “in the process of founding a religion with a universal conlang as a grand unifier.” Sound like Hesse’s Glass Bead Game?

Sai Emrys, founder of the Language Creation Society, posts a many-year, much revised “Design of an Ideal Language.” In his own words, “I make no presumption that my particular desires are in any way objectively best; only that one can objectively take a look at some particular set of desires, make tradeoffs where needed, and then go about fulfilling them optimally in a systematic way. There are therefore an infinite possible set of perfect languages, for each of an infinite set of desiderata.”

Umberto Eco calls it, “The Search for the Perfect Language.” But of what does linguistic perfection consist? The answer is as old as the mythology of the Tower of Babel which considered linguistic diversity a bug, not a feature. One “perfect” language? Or many, each with their own perfections? And on something like this point, (and many others too subtle or too noisy to detail) the Great Schism occurred (circa 1999) on the conlanging list, with truce attained by splitting into two lists, conlangs and auxlangs (auxiliary languages, like Esperanto) and only occasional border raids by proselytizing Esperantists and the like. (You can tell which list has my loyalty.)


Linguistic chops

Deep linguistic chops—really knowing the rules—are Sylvia Sotomayor’s launching pad for breaking them with her conlang, K?len. “Learning about universals made me wonder what a language would be like that violated them. So K?len became my laboratory for exploring the line between a human and a non-human language. There are a few inherent difficulties to this task. For one thing, since we haven't found any intelligent aliens, there are no non-human languages to look at for comparison. So, my strategy was to take a universal and violate it.” K?len replaces verbs with a closed class of “relationals” that perform the syntactic function of verbs. Sotomayor has created, out of an early fascination with all things Celtic, several beautiful K?len scripts.


Figure 8: Kelen regular scriptFigure 8: Kelen regular script


Certainly one of the most complete—and sophisticated—aesthetic realizations of an orthography (Tapissary itself is coded to English) and conculture is found in Steven Travis’ work of the past 30-plus years. A pictographic language, Tapissary, inspired by American Sign Language, has about 8,000 characters. “I enjoyed the beautiful movements of Sign Language and experimented with stylizing motion into script,” Travis reports. Venticello is a miniature ceramic village, constructed in his backyard over many years. There are also illustrated journals, ceramics, and sculptures. Tapissary 101 (YouTube) is a timeline of the language’s development. Hieroglyphic Collages were shown at the Conference exhibition, and they are stunning. Pictures of Venticello are inserted into the glyphs; the glyphs become windows onto the world. These were shown at the Amos Eno Gallery in NYC in May, 2008.


Figure 9: Sylvia Sotomayor in Kelen ceremonial vestmentsFigure 9: Sylvia Sotomayor in Kelen ceremonial vestments

Conlanger Games

While conlangers have not yet erected a Rosetta stone, perhaps because a stone would hardly contain this Cambrian explosion of linguistic diversity. Imagine a wall with hundreds, yes, hundreds of symbolic systems side by side, each with their version of the Babel text, the Biblical passage about the erection—and fall—of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages henceforth among the human races. This is the text most often translated by which conlangs can be compared. While auxlangers dream of the one perfect language that will unify the planet and end all communicative confusion and misunderstanding, conlangers tend to be pro-Babel, taking freedom of speech to new levels. Noetic license, indeed. Another group activity among conlangers are the relays—like the children’s game of telephone, only translating an original text through several conlangers’ languages. More games: at the conference, Jim Henry’s Glossotechnia, a conlang creation card game, was played. I’m not even going to try to describe it, but here are the conlangers in the heat of play.


Alien Languages

Conlangs such as Jeff Burke’s Central Mountain Languages exist in alternate histories of Planet Earth. Once you move off-planet, say, to the second planet of Alpha Centauri A, entirely new possibilities open up. Denis Moscowitz’ Rikchik language, for instance. “The rikchik body consists of a large (~2 ft. diameter) sphere, which contains almost all the rikchik's organs, supported by 49 long (~6 ft.) tentacles. In the front of the sphere is a single eye with a circular eyelid. The 7 tentacles immediately below the eye are shorter and lighter, and are used for talking…” thus, Rikchik is a signed language, with no sonic component, and written Rikchik is a speechless orthography. Rikchik is also unusual as a cooperative venture by Denis with his brother Marc. Pair/group conlanging is very much a rarity. For more information, contact the Rikchik Language Institute.


Figure 14: Rikchik morphemes, based on tentacular formations


My own work in the Glide language is similarly extraterrestrial, transdimensional, visual—with no spoken component—and produces dynamic as well as static forms of writing, in two and three dimensions (LiveGlide). Its myth of origin lies 4000 years in the future when the language was given to the Glides by the hallucinogenic blue water lilies they tended. Glide began as a gestural language, later written down to become the basis of a game played in mazes made of Glide glyphs. The story is told in the novel, The Maze Game. Some of the theory around Glide is on my Xenolinguistics website, a sketchbook for current Ph.D. work on linguistic phenomena in the psychedelic sphere.


Conlang: The Movie

It had to happen, and out of Iceland: Baldvin Kári Sveinbjörnsson is the writer/producer of a short film, Conlang, created as part of his MFA work in film at Columbia. Sveinbjörnsson uses the Uscaniv language created by Kári Emil Helgason as a language of love in this in turn delightful, campy, touching and hilarious (at least to conlangers) story of young love in the time of role playing games. The movie is directed by Marta Masferrer, also at Columbia.


The Exhibit

A highlight of the conference was the poster exhibit. Part of the exhibit was material from Donald Boozer’s 2008 exhibit, "Esperanto, Elvish, and Beyond: The World of Constructed Languages" at the Cleveland Public Library. The exhibit includes a history of conlanging, and many samples of conlanging in science fiction and from the conlang community. Boozer created A Conlanger's Bookshelf: Books, Movies, Television, Games & Web Resources for the Beginning to Advanced Conlanger as a companion to the exhibit.

Some of David J. Peterson’s extensive conlang work—books, games, many languages, orthographies, and scripts—were shown. An early work in Megdevi combines drawings and language in a fairytale format.

Jim Rosenberg, an artist of hypertextual, interactive, electronic poetry, attended the meeting and suggested that the time had come for a conlang literature. Such an anthology is now under discussion on the list.


Fiat Lingua!

I find myself developing my own meta-myth about conlangers as language-bringers. In the spirit of play, in the rigor of serious linguistic exploration, in the willingness to live in one’s own highest myth for extended periods of time, for explicitly not putting aside childish things, I think we are one of the points where the incursion of novelty in the run-up to 2012 reveals itself—in this case in a geyser of glyphs, a flow of new sounds, and newly ordered ways of making meaning.


A version of this article with more pictures can be found at Diana Slattery’s Xenolinguistics blog. Many conlangers maintain extensive websites for further reference.