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Conglanging: The Not-So-Secret Vice

On March 20-22
at Brown University, the Language Creation Society hosted the
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).

(from con
structed 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

diversity is falling in parallel with biodiversity, “faster than ever before in
human history”, according to Tove
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)


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 (nat
ural 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


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


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

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

Language and Mythology

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
.” 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

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 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
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 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


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.
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
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.


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