THE BOOKSHELF: IN THE LAND OF INVENTED LANGUAGES.

It occurs to me that we are living in a golden age of language books. It took a while for me to realize this, because plenty of dumb and silly language books get published each year, just as they always have. But now, more and more, there are good books aimed at the general public and written by real linguists, something that used to be almost nonexistent. When I was growing up, the only such author was Robert A. Hall, Jr., whose Linguistics and Your Language (the 1960 Anchor Books second edition of the 1950 self-published Leave Your Language Alone!) was for many years alone in the field as a sterling example of how to present the findings of linguistics to the common reader (“Once we realize that all languages are equal in merit, we are in a position to stop treating language differences as something to worry about”). But lately, it seems that people professionally trained in linguistics are getting contracts to write books for the general public, and they’re doing a good job of it.
What brought this so strongly to my mind was reading In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent (whose given name is apparently pronounced just like Erica). When the publisher sent it to me, I thought it looked interesting, but frankly I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, and I figured I’d read a few pages here and there and see if it was worth reporting on. Instead, I wound up devouring the entire thing this weekend, and I now have much more interest in the languages and respect for the people who create and study them. Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics (as her bio says, “She flitted from language to language in school, wondering why she couldn’t just settle down and commit to one, until she finally discovered a field that would support and encourage her scandalous behavior: Linguistics”), which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. She not only studied John Wilkins‘s Philosophical Language (1668) in detail, she translated a Borges passage into it (“I hereby present you with, as far as I know, the first sentences to be written in Wilkins’s language in over three hundred years”). She not only describes how Charles Bliss got the inspiration for his Blissymbolics from Chinese characters (which he studied as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during WWII), she explains why he (along with many others) was mistaken about characters being an international medium of communication (“when a Japanese speaker sees a Mandarin newspaper, he may indeed be able to recognize a number of the characters, but that doesn’t mean he will be able to form anything more than a fuzzy guess as to what it all means”).
But don’t get me wrong: her expertise isn’t why you should read the book—it’s just the reason you can trust what you read. You should read the book because it’s a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment (artificial languages being primarily a European thing, though she mentions Balaibalan, an Arabic-Persian-Turkish mix “designed sometime between 1400 and 1700 (the documents can’t be reliably dated)”). She starts with the early attempts to create languages that would “directly represent concepts,” the poster boy being Wilkins, who lost the first (600-page) draft of his manuscript in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and had to rewrite it from scratch. The second section is on the late-19th-century craze for languages intended to bring peace to all mankind (the idea, a very silly one, being that war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages); the first to catch on was Volapük (in 1889 “the third international Volapük conference was held in Paris, and the proceedings were entirely in Volapük”), but after excessive squabbling among its partisans, resulting in schisms and a bewildering variety of “improved” versions (Nal Bino, Bopal, Spelin…), L. L. Zamenhof picked up the disaffected customers with his invention, Esperanto, still the only true success story among artificial language—not only does it have far more users than any other, it actually has native speakers (including Danish rocker Kim Henriksen). The final section is on the efflorescence of invented languages in recent decades (the most successful of which, of course, is Klingon, which Okrent learned in the course of working on the book), created in the main not for reasons of scientific or social benefit but for fun, for the joy of playing with the possibilities; this paragraph beautifully summarizes the attitude:

For these language inventors, language was not an enemy to be tamed or reformed but a muse. And they bowed down before her. Jeff Burke, a tall man who seemed nervous and shy at the podium, explained how he had been inspired to build his own family of “Central Mountain” languages by the incredible beauty he found in Mohawk when he took a course on it in college. He said the language “did something to me,” and he began to dig into the history of the language, becoming a self-taught expert in the development of the language from Proto-Algonquian. His talk didn’t focus so much on his own creation as on the real languages that inspired it. He wanted us to understand where his artistic vision had come from. As he went over the complicated details of the Mohawk pronominal system, he spoke softly, but with such love and wonder in his voice that I thought he might burst into tears.

As you can see from that passage, she cares about the people involved, not just their ideas and inventions, and that’s what makes the book not just a stimulating read but a powerfully moving experience. In between the Esperanto and final sections, she discusses two language creators whose successes were inextricably intertwined with their disasters. One is Charles Bliss and his symbols, mentioned above, and the other is James Cooke Brown, inventor of Loglan, a language originally developed in the late 1950s to test the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
Bliss, born Karl Kasiel Blitz in 1897 in the Austro-Hungarian city of Czernowitz (now the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi), having gotten his inspiration from those Chinese characters in Shanghai, devoted himself to devising a logical system of universal symbols that would make it impossible for Hitler-style propaganda to succeed—”inconsistencies and falsehoods would be instantly exposed.” After the war he and his wife Claire emigrated to Australia and lived off their savings while he wrote his book; he finished it in 1949, and “Claire sent six thousand letters to universities and government institutions all over the world announcing the publication of his fantastic new invention. They waited for the orders to start rolling in.” Alas, there was no response, and it looked like his life’s work was a failure. Then in the late 1960s Shirley McNaughton, a teacher at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Center who despaired of reaching the children who couldn’t speak, ran across a copy of Bliss’s book and gave it a try: “Once McNaughton had taught the kids the meaning of a few symbols and showed them examples of how the symbols could be put together, she witnessed an explosion of self-expression. Kids whose communicative worlds had been defined by the options of pointing to a picture of a toilet, or waiting for someone to ask the right question, started talking about a car trip with a father, a brother’s new bicycle, a pet cat’s habit of hiding under the bed. Kids who were assumed to be severly retarded showed remarkable ingenuity in getting their messages across.” McNaughton wrote to Bliss, who “immediately mortgaged his house in order to make the long trip to Toronto. Everyone was excited. When he arrived, there were meetings and talks and parties.” I won’t detail how it all fell apart, and he wound up alternately threatening to sue McNaughton and the Center and proposing marriage to her, but the whole thing is worthy of Dostoevsky, and it’s worth getting the book just for that section.
The James Cooke Brown story is similar in that he won devotees and helpers and drove them away with his need for absolute control (they went on to create the far better known Lojban), but I won’t go into it here. Instead, I’ll refer you to the book’s website, which has a section listing all 500 languages in her appendix and linking to passages in many of them, and close with a touching passage from one of the creators she profiles, Elias Molee, a Norwegian-American who spent his long life (he was born in 1845 and killed himself in 1928) creating one Germanic-based language after another: American Language (1888), Pure Saxon English (1890), Tutonish (1902), Niu Teutonish (1906)… His book Pure Saxon English is online thanks to Google Books (as are a number of the others she mentions), and the “Plea for Visionaries” (pp. 78-79) is an exemplary statement of the attitude Okrent, with her finely judged mix of empathy and objectivity, tries to convey throughout her wonderful book:

Let me, before closing the first part of this work, put in a plea for a milder consideration of visionaries, as distinguished from “cranks.” A crank is a sickly, one-sided person who has gone crazy over an idea. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon, cranc; German, krank; Icelandic, kankr, and means sick. Cranks are, as a rule, narrow-minded and uncultivated. The visionaries, on the other hand, are characterized by ideas not necessarily in opposition to their neighbors, but ideas so selected, and so highly colored as to appear like mere visions in the sky, a fine midsummer-night’s dream. It is a great thing to be able to quietly bear the evils of life, and to rate its transient delights at their true value; but he whose visions can create for him a flower-garden, who can inhabit his air-castles with the same pleasure as if they were solid stone, is a happier man than a philosopher. He who can shape out of the air a paradise of his own, believe in it and live in it, is more to be envied than a man with mere hard common sense. Life is not bread only. It is possible to be too practical — too matter-of-fact. Reason can tell us that the rainbow is mere sunshine and water, but the grand destiny of nations can not be solved without the aid of inspiration and poetic visions. Imagination alone can understand inspirations — pictures of institutions to come. We are all, more or less, visionaries. What are we in the world for, except to improve it? Visions of future improvements and future enjoyments lure us onward. This imaginative faculty is conspicuous in youth, and the longer any man or woman, the longer a people, is able to retain it, the more will they do and the more lasting will be their enjoyment while upon the stage of life. O that we could always be like children, and find beauty and pleasure in scenes that imagination paints for us in the clouds! … Whenever a people ceases to be moved by anything except hard common sense, it is getting to be too old, and too timid for future progress. Like most men of three-score and ten years, it is satisfied with what it has already accomplished. Imagination and love of mankind can alone preserve the youthfulness of the soul.

“We are all, more or less, visionaries”: exactly so, and I find myself no longer able to look down on those whose visions, even if unrealizable, are full of such inspiration and creativity. May their tribe increase!

Comments

  1. komfo,amonan says:

    Oh, I’m glad this has appeared. The author attended the Lojban conference in 2006 to research the book & was very interesting to talk to.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    The book sounds great.
    The French linguist Marina Yaguello published a book on the same topic a few years ago called Les fous du langage, which was translated into English as Lunatic Lovers of Language. The Yaguello book emphasizes the French-speaking contributors to the enterprise, so it would probably be a parallel rather than a rival to the Okrent book.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. I see from Wiki that she has published another book on the topic: Les Langues imaginaires : mythes, utopies, fantasmes, chimères et fictions linguistiques (2006).

  4. Another difference, I believe, is that Yaguello deals with a wider variety of imaginary language than just consciously invented. So instance, she has a chapter on N. Ja. Marr’s Japhetic theories (mentioned here some time ago).

  5. And apropos of the recent Star Trek linguistics discussion, see Okrent’s history of Klingon on Slate.

  6. Wow! I must get a copy of this book. And the Yaguello book too.
    One minor niggle. In Icelandic it’s krankur. In Old Norse it probably would’ve been krankr, but neither is kankr.

  7. Oh, and another thing… Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver was preceded by a cryptographic puzzle that turned out to be written in John Wilkins ‘Real Character’ language, so Okrent’s sentence was only the first in 3 years.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    The Yaguello book also mentions “languages” spoken in some kind of trance, and other oddities.

  9. That book sounds fantastic!
    Also, multi-billionaire financial guru type person George Soros is a native Esperanto speaker.
    And if I remember correctly, George’s father wrote books in Esperanto.

  10. michael farris says:

    kellyparkers: “I am prefer English best.”
    Then why don’t you use it?
    Anyhoo, a couple of years ago I wrote here that one of the few remaining acceptable linguistic prejudices was against planned languages (a term I prefer over ‘invented’ and to be clear, I’m referring especially to hat).
    It’s nice to see that thru books like this it might be easing.
    One of the things I think is interesting is when planned languages display features not found in real languages (of which defy unambiguous description). If a planned language has a feature that’s unattested in natural languages and/or contradicts a supposed universal when does the universal stop being a universal, when the language is in the project stage? when there are some competent (or fluent) speakers? when there are native speakers? Do rules about linguistic universals ‘count’ for planned languages? especially if the universal was contradicted on purpose?
    Finally, per Soros, it’s very probably that he could speak the language at some time, I don’t know of any evidence that he still does.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    MF: Interesting point, but do you have examples of such contradictions? “Universals” are so called because they seem to be general features of known languages, and they are always subject to revision if they are contradicted by a newly discovered or described natural language. But precisely because they seem to be universal, they might just reflect universal features of human brain function.
    In order to consciously plan a language that goes against attested “universals”, one would have to know what those universals are. For instance, a universal is that all languages have consonants and vowels (in varying number and proportion). A language which did not have any consonants, or any vowels, would go against this universal, but a language deliberately planned to be without consonants or without vowels, or alternately with very large numbers of both types, would be unlikely to be generally adopted. Another universal is that some features seem to entail others. For instance, some languages have no prefixes, only suffixes, but those with prefixes also have suffixes. Planning a language to have prefixes but no suffixes would therefore go against the universal.
    A planned language cannot be too different from natural languages or it will repel potential speakers, including the language planner. Unlike a natural language, a planned language will be learned by adults (until some of these adults raise their children in it) and adults are affected by their own languages in trying to learn another, so a planned language cannot be made considerably more difficult to pronounce and memorize and than most natural ones. The success of Esperanto comes largely from the fact that it has a simple grammar, based on IE languages but without most of the complexities and constraints of the actual languages. Even though its general structure might be unfamiliar to speakers of Chinese or Arabic at first, its regularity makes it relatively easy to learn even for non-IE speakers.

  12. I wouldn’t dare suppose to speak for the conlangers directly, but a major contributor to SpecGram is also an avid conlanger: creating languages, organizing conferences, etc, etc. I think their languages are better described as “invented”, not “planned”. Planned languages are the ones like Esperanto that have a purpose and a goal other than enjoyment and fascination. Some of the conlangs (oh, which I should have mentioned is short for “constructed language”, which is probably the most apt description anyway) never really get finished, either..
    As for violating universal features of natural languages, I think there is no reason why conlangs could not do so. I believe it was in Anderson’s Amorphous Morphology that I encountered the idea that some of the supposed universal constraints on languages are actually constraints on (or strong statistical trends in) the natural evolution of languages as they are transmitted from one generation to the next. So, there may very well be certain constructs that humans could easily learn to use, but which are not attested in any human language because the path of change from any existing language to such a construct is vanishingly unlikely to be taken.
    You can learn a lot from looking at what you can think of as creolized artificial languages: language games. Pig Latin, for example, seems to almost certainly be an artificial construct, but people, especially children, can become very, very fluent in it.
    I wince at most descriptions of Pig Latin that talk about moving one letter, or one sound, or all the consonants to the end of the word and adding “ay” to the end. The dialect my family speaks (and which my Mom can speak at full speed) is much more complex and language-like than that.
    Briefly, the unit of transformation is a metrical foot, not a word; the onset of the first syllable is moved to the end of the foot and “ay” is added; feet that start with a vowel have no movement but take a “-lay” ending; words consisting of only one vowel (of which there are only a few, like “I”, “Oh”, and “a”) take “-yay” as an ending; unstressed vowels that are in their own foot are stressed. In rapid speech, short fixed phrases that are a single metrical foot can be transformed as a unit.
    Examples (playing fast and loose with the transcription):
    pretty standard:
    dog -> og-day
    cat -> at-kay
    easy to understand:
    am -> am-lay
    I -> I-yay
    examples of metrical feet:
    yesterday -> ester-yay ay-day
    become -> EE-bay ome-kay
    The “be” in “become” is pronounced just like “eBay”.
    And in very fast speech:
    thank you -> ankyou-thay
    A minimal pair involving aspiration and a violation of English phonotactics:
    takes -> akes-tay (aspirated t)
    steak -> eak-stay (unaspirated t)
    Now, I am going on at length about this because I think it demonstrates a point about constructed languages and supposed universals.
    I don’t think this is a system that could easily develop completely naturally from an existing language. You could argue that it could develop, and I might not disagree, but it seems very very unlikely, which is why such a system is unsurprisingly not attested in a wholly natural language (even if it were possible for it to evolve in theory).
    Now, this system is oddly language-like in that the particular speaker (my mom)’s competence is separate from her explicit understanding of the system, as is often the case with native speakers of natural languages. I had to learn the system by observation because the way my mom described it was quite wrong. She would say one thing.. you operate on words, you move the first sound of the word.. then do something completely different: “eBay omKay” and “ankyouthay”. When I pointed this out, she denied that her description was wrong until I made her say “become” slowly in Pig Latin. At this point she’d been speaking it fluently for decades (as a kid herself, and to us when we were little), and she never noticed. But if I gave her an unfamiliar word.. like “phonology” (I was in grad school in linguistics at the time–she’d certainly never heard of phonology), she’d say it slowly a few times to get the rhythm, and then, blammo, out it would come in Pig Latin, following the rules I had deduced and which she had denied. (EE-fay, ology-nay.. she didn’t know the schwa in the first syllable was a reduced “o”, so she stressed it as “ee”.. when I showed it to her written down, she changed it to “o-fay ology-nay”).
    So, I think that any more-than-descriptive claims about the limits of universal grammar and universal limits on what is possible in human languages has to take such things into account, or it is incomplete in my eyes.
    Bringing this all back to the original topic.. that’s another great thing about conlangs.. they can push the limits of the human language faculty in directions natural languages can’t (or statistically never will) go. Pig Latin is a phonological example, Loglan/Lojban is maybe a semantic example. From this point of view, Esperanto is pretty dull, no?
    Of course, you have to have people who are fluent in an artificial language to prove the point. I know two fluent speakers of my crazy dialect of Pig Latin (me and my mom, though she’s still better than me, I’m too self-aware now and I have no native intuitions left). I don’t know if there are any fluent speakers of Lojban.
    What other interesting constructed languages could push the (empirically descriptive) limits of human language? How do we get more people to speak them?

  13. Oh.. and whatever you do, you should *not* try to acquire a copy of Lunatic Lovers of Language, because I’ve been looking for a copy for less than $100 for about 10 years, and any of you looking to get one will only drive the price up. ;)

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Trey, your points are very good, but Pig Latin is not a language in itself, it is very obviously a form of playful deformation of the existing language English, and likes most forms of organized play it has its own specific rules. Similarly, there is a form of playful deformation of words in French called “javanais” (same word as for Javanese) which inserts “av”, for instance turning “français” into “fravançavais”. Such play builds on the wonderful language capacity of older (typically pre-teen) children, who have already mastered their own language and can therefore manipulate it deliberately, but it does not create new languages, or contribute to the evolution of the language itself. You and your mother are rare in having continued to use Pig Latin among yourselves, usually children abandon this form of play by the time they reach their teens. But this may be partly cultural: there are apparently more complex though similar forms of play among adults, documented in at least one community in the Philippines, where there are competitions organized on special occasions, just as with sports. Language play is certainly a form of language ability, but it is deliberate and restricted to certain contexts outside of normal language use.
    Of course, “conlangs” according to your definition (thank you, by the way) are not meant for practical communicative use like Esperanto and the inventors can therefore break any rules or universals they care to, but the use and development of those conlangs are likely to remain the province of small groups of aficionados, like esoteric sports.

  15. Near the beginning of your post, Language, you mention Robert A. Hall Jr’s Linguistics and Your Language. I don’t recall seeing that book; the writer who introduced me to the study of languages was Mario Pei: The Story of Language, All About Language, and Language for Everybody.
    Like Okrent, I started 4 languages before Linguistics was introduced at my university, and what a pleasure!
    I enjoyed Mario Pei again a decade after graduation, the work he wrote when Professor Emeritus: The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages.

  16. One minor niggle. In Icelandic it’s krankur. In Old Norse it probably would’ve been krankr, but neither is kankr.
    I’m betting that’s a typo in the original book.
    per Soros, it’s very probably that he could speak the language at some time, I don’t know of any evidence that he still does.
    She discusses this in the book. After describing how his father Tivadar, an active Esperantist, changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, Esperanto for ‘will soar,’ she says: “On his way to becoming one of the world’s richest men, Soros was for a time actively committed to the Esperanto movement… He also extolled the virtues of Esperanto at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park… But he has long since stopped having anything to do with it. A Belgian woman I spoke to at the Havana conference told me bitterly, ‘He could do so much to help now, but he is a traitor. He hates Esperanto.’” But Humphrey Tonkin, who translated the elder Soros’s memoir, said “He doesn’t hate Esperanto. He hasn’t given up on its ideals, but his position is that it had its chance and it blew it. Which is a perfectly respectable view.”

  17. the writer who introduced me to the study of languages was Mario Pei
    I also read Pei’s books as a kid and enjoyed them thoroughly, but later grew disillusioned with him; I actually had a section on him in an early version of this post, pointing out that he was really a philologist and polyglot rather than a linguist in the modern sense and makes enough mistakes that I can’t recommend his books, but I deleted it because 1) I no longer have my annotated copies of his books (all these moves take their toll), so I can’t cite examples, and 2) the post was quite long enough already.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    As a very basic introduction for people who are completely new to the subject, Pei will do, but R.A.Hall jr is much, much better in the details as he was a real linguist working at the beginning of modern linguistics. However, his work is now theoretically dated (which does not mean wrong, as it will give you the indispensable basics, but the major preoccupations of linguistics have changed in the meantime).

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Trey: Please email me.

  20. marie-lucie: While Pig Latin is not a language unto itself, it has many language-like features that theories of language should account for. If Pig Latin were learned as a language, and not a deformation of language, it would be less interesting because there would be no transformational component.. just a little infixation for inflections.
    And that’s why language games like javanais, Oppish (very similar, infix “op”), and Cazarny (“Carnie talk”.. infix “az”, I think), are less interesting to me. They are all infixation. Natural languages do that, too.
    Verlan, another French game in which parts of words are inverted.. the details escape me, but syllables get swapped around: l’envers (“lan-ver”) -> verlan… is also very interesting.
    So, given the fluency people can achieve with these transformations, it is not that hard to imagine a language that is the same as English, except with a fully formed subjunctive mood that is indicated by “pigging” (what we call doing the Pig Latin transformation) the verbs in the contra-factual clause: “I wish she ould-way all-kay me.”
    My difficulty in speaking such a language would be in remembering when the subjunctive is applicable, not in the phonetic transformation of the verb. So, a native speaker of French who learned to use Verlan fluently at an early age could speak such a language, and teach it to their children.
    I’m not sure how such a language could evolve naturally, but I don’t think it puts unrealistic strain on humans’ innate language abilities the way excessive center-embedding does, and so it should be accounted for in any theory of phonology competence. A theory that doesn’t allow Pig Latin transformations to happen may have explanatory power in terms of the evolution of languages across generations, but not in terms of human linguistic competence.

  21. SnowLeopard says:

    Trey: Consider searching for ISBN 0838634109.

  22. I didn’t see any mention of Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language. I started it twice but never got very far.

  23. SnowLeopard: I searched the ISBN at addall.com and found 4 copies.. but they range in price from $117 to $260! It’s easy enough to find.. just not cheap. … … … A bunch of google searches later I’ve found it in Australia for about ~$75 USD shipped.. still a little high priced, especially since I already have a photocopied copy of the book. Do you have a better source of used books you’d be willing to share? My cheapskate target price is under $40, preferably below $30. I’m willing to live with the idea that that’s unreasonable.

  24. SnowLeopard says:

    Trey: In this case, I apparently have slightly better sources. E-mail me for details.

  25. *browses Okrent’s list*
    …, Klingon, Lojban, Vorlin, …
    *bell rings*
    Vorlin?
    *digs around in dusty filing cabinets*
    Yep, here’s a pile of zines from the early ’90s called variously vidpuni and Journal of Planned Languages by Rick Harrison, along with a Vorlin 1.2 grammar. And, of course, that now has its own domain, as do most of these, I imagine. And he has a site and a new self-published periodical, which includes a description “of a language that appeared in a 19th-century science fiction novel.” Perhaps after reading In the Land of Invented Languages it’d be obvious what that is, but I might just spring for it anyway.
    Obviously, I was never very serious about this stuff. (I see that the CONLANG list is still going strong.) But it’s amusing now and again. And I always welcome vindication for not throwing something away.

  26. J. W. Brewer says:

    On popular books with linguistic content encountered in ones youth, it seems to me that any unsophisticated public library with one or more titles by Mario Pei was at one point required by convention to stock a copy of the Loom of Language. The editor (Hogben) was not what you’d call a scholar of linguistics, although he was the inventor of an Esperanto rival (Interglossa), but the author proper (Bodmer) is claimed by wikipedia to have been the fellow whose 1955 retirement from the MIT faculty opened up a spot to hire some young punk named Chomsky.
    On Esperanto, I was in Trieste about three years ago, idly looking for evidence of the supposed recognized status of Slovenian, when I saw a sign indicating that I had missed by a few days the opportunity to attend a Solemn High Mass celebrated in Esperanto (it was apparently the centenary of some ass’n of Roman Catholic Esperantists). I have no truck with Esperanto etc., but it did seem like a transnational institution like the Vatican ought to provide for services in some broadly-known language not currently associated with any individual nation-state or ethnic group. It seemed so obvious once focused on that one wondered why the fathers of Vatican II hadn’t promoted such a reform.

  27. Etienne says:

    There’s so much to write about, but first of all, an error that needs to be corrected: Mohawk derives from Proto-Iroquoian, not from Proto-Algonquian.

  28. michael farris says:

    “I also read Pei’s books as a kid and enjoyed them thoroughly, but later grew disillusioned with him”
    Does anyone not get disillusioned with him? On the other hand, despite the frequent misleading or just out and out wrong stuff in his books, I still they’re just fine for the bunny slope of language interest (as long as the reader is willing to let go of large amounts of what they read in them).
    Yeah,

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Trey: a native speaker of French who learned to use Verlan fluently at an early age could speak such a language, and teach it to their children.
    I forgot about verlan, because unlike javanais it is not just a language game played by children but has been adopted extensively first in the suburbs (which in France are the social equivalent of American “inner cities”), and then somewhat in youth language in general. At first it was meant as a secret language, but it became so widespread especially about minority youths that some of them think it is normal French and this of course causes problems for them in school. According to what I have been told, its popularity has been fading, perhaps because it was no longer so secret.
    But there was in the 19th century an other, Pig Latin-like secret language which arose among butchers, called louchébem, which you can read about on Wikipedia.
    As for phonological theory needing to accomodate Pig Latin and other such phenomena, I don’t think there is any problem: a typical English syllable CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) is not a solid block but can be interpreted as onset-nucleus-coda, and there is no theoretical reason why something cannot be inserted within the syllable, usually between the onset and the nucleus. The same morphological process of infixation is at work, whether the inserted material is a meaningless sound sequence like “javanais” av or a grammatically meaningful infix, as in many Philippine languages.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. of course, inserting “-av-” (for example) into a CVC syllable will make it into two syllables, CavVC. Moving the first C to the end and adding “-ay” can also be considered morphological processes, unusual perhaps but not at all incompatible with phonological theory.
    Of course, the rules necessary to transform the normal syllable are not used in the standard language, but they are added to the basic grammar in order to derive the forms of the “play” or “secret” language: the rules for Pig Latin start from the sound structure of present-day English, the “secret language” is not a dialect that has evolved alongside the standard from an earlier common source.

  31. SnowLeopard says:

    Trey, I’m having some problems with the e-mail address I provided, so I’ve gone ahead and sent a message to the e-mail address listed on your URL. Hope it helps.

  32. Etienne says:

    Artificial languages are less specifically European than the author appears to believe: the Initiation language Damin (the only non-African language with click consonants), used by Lardil and Yangkaal speakers in Autralia, is believed by Robert Dixon to be a consciously invented language (and one which, unlike most other known artificial languages, is actively used, or at least was until recently).
    It seems to me that linguists in general are mistaken in setting too rigid a line between artifical and natural languages: if an artificial language becomes actively used as a community language it will become a natural language. Which brings up two interesting (and related) questions to my mind: 1-Could natural languages with highly unusual typological features today have started out as artificial languages which later nativized? And 2-Which linguistic features are learnable by child L1 learners which would never appear in a target language through the course of natural (i.e. unconscious) language change?

  33. Thanks for the emails, marie-lucie and SnowLeopard!
    As for phonological theory needing to accommodate Pig Latin and other such phenomena, I don’t think there is any problem: a typical English syllable CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) is not a solid block but can be interpreted as onset-nucleus-coda, and there is no theoretical reason why something cannot be inserted within the syllable, usually between the onset and the nucleus.
    That works for Oppish and javanais, but Pig Latin is not infixation.. it’s sub-morpheme level movement of a sort I haven’t come across in any other language.. which isn’t saying all that much, but it’s one of those things I would’ve thought I’d’ve heard about because it’s so weird.
    Considering how many phonological theories and papers in the early 90s went to extravagant formal lengths to say that “lines can’t cross” in phonological trees of syllable, onsets, codas, and such, this looks like a problematic case of lines crossing like crazy. I haven’t kept up with current phonological theory in the interim, so maybe it’s no problem nowadays, but back when I was thinking about it in 1993, it was a problem.

  34. Artificial languages are less specifically European than the author appears to believe
    In the first place, the author didn’t say that, I did. And in the second, nobody said they’re exclusively European; I wrote that they were “primarily a European thing,” which is unquestionably true. And I’m sorry, but “believed by Robert Dixon to be a consciously invented language” does not equate to “is a consciously invented language.” Even if his hypothesis is true, one example hardly counterbalances the many hundreds from Europe and America.
    if an artificial language becomes actively used as a community language it will become a natural language.
    Well, if that ever happens we can discuss it. The only case in which that has a shot at happening is Esperanto, and it still has a long way to go. “Used at occasional gatherings and a few households” does not equate with “is a community language.”

  35. For those who are interested in learning more:
    1. http://library.conlang.org – compendium of books on conlangs by Donald Boozer (Cleveland Public Library & Language Creation Society librarian)
    2. http://podcast.conlang.org – next episode will be an interview with Arika Okrent about this book
    3. http://conference.conlang.org – Annual(ish) conference for & about language creators; video available on Google and through the above podcast.
    Or feel free to email us at lcs@conlang.org.
    Thanks,
    Sai Emrys
    President, Language Creation Society

  36. Well, if that ever happens we can discuss it. The only case in which that has a shot at happening is Esperanto, and it still has a long way to go. “Used at occasional gatherings and a few households” does not equate with “is a community language.”
    I personally know of two L1 speakers of Esperanto (and they weren’t even related! They taught the Esperanto DeCAL at Berkeley I took). And Esperanto has become real enough that at least one acquisition study has made it its subject. Grant Goodall, a linguist down at UCSD who is also an Esperantist, uses the article in his class on first and second language acquisition (it’s about the acquisition of the accusative -n by a child of Esperanto-speaking parents). So, at the very least, the acquisition folks are treating it like a natural language.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Very interesting, Etienne. I don’t know anything about the language you mention, but there are some attested others with similar purposes, and they seem to differ in degree rather than nature from fully natural languages. Modern artificial languages (Esperanto, etc) intended for practical communication across languages rather than for secretiveness within one language are consciously crafted to include common features of existing languages, but that has not always been the case, for instance with the “universal characters” of earlier centuries, which started not from linguistic features but from philosophical considerations of what a perfect language ought to be and do. From this point of view, it seems that initiation, shamanistic, or even playful “secret languages” approximate natural languages in their structure (usually the basic language, or a foreign one known to a portion of the population), even if they have added some unusual phonological and/or morphological distortions for purposes of secrecy.
    1-Could natural languages with highly unusual typological features today have started out as artificial languages which later nativized?
    It seems like a possibility, but if an artificial language became nativized it would mean that it had lost its primary purpose of secrecy and had been learned by the general population, thus eventually as a first language by children. This would probably necessitate unusual social conditions. It would also depend on what the “highly unusual” features were: some such features may be residual ones preserved in isolated and therefore linguistically conservative societies, rather than consciously created by them.
    2-Which linguistic features are learnable by child L1 learners which would never appear in a target language through the course of natural (i.e. unconscious) language change?
    I think that it is always dicey to speculate on what could or could not be learned by a child, since children learn as L1 whatever language is spoken around them and especially to them, no matter how difficult that language may seem to an outsider. Also, “natural” language change is not always unconscious: natural tendencies such as weakening of consonantal articulation in rapid or consciously “sloppy” speech can be consciously resisted: we can all repeat words slowly and articulate them carefully if needed for a small child, foreigner or other not very competent speaker. Alternately, we can also consciously distort our speech to a certain extent (older children are particularly good at this). For instance, in some traditional native literatures, the major animal characters are identified by the way they distort normal speech, each in a different way, often using consonants which are not part of the normal language and are nevertheless produced by normal speakers in the story-telling context only. Conscious exaggeration of features of one’s language associated with a particular group is also possible, for instance in the well-known study which showed how educated men from Martha’s Vineyard coming back to their island do their best to adopt the local fishermen’s dialect, but in an exaggerated way by which they seem to try to compensate for having been away from the group.
    But it is good to bring up these questions, which deserve more careful study.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Trey:
    “infixation”: That works for Oppish and javanais, but Pig Latin is not infixation… it’s sub-morpheme level movement …
    I agree, that’s why I added another comment on Pig Latin after the one on javanais which was too specific.
    Considering how many phonological theories and papers in the early 90s went to extravagant formal lengths to say that “lines can’t cross” in phonological trees of syllable, onsets, codas, and such, this looks like a problematic case of lines crossing like crazy. I haven’t kept up with current phonological theory in the interim, so maybe it’s no problem nowadays, but back when I was thinking about it in 1993, it was a problem.
    Well, I haven’t kept up that closely with the theory either, but it seems to me that there shouldn’t be a problem unless the theory declares that there should be one, which is another kettle of fish. I personally don’t like the current idea that theories of language should be about discovering “constraints” rather than “possibilities”, while speakers make a language evolve precisely by exploring its possibilities.
    (Have you written a paper about this? if so I would like to read it).

  39. Trey: $42.
    Bookfinder.com is God.

  40. Trey: $42.
    Bookfinder.com is God.

  41. In Peter Freuchen’s book on the Eskimos (Inuit) he reported that after his first encounter with the Eskimos they were a bit standoffish, though friendly, for a few days but seemed to be having some sort of important council off by themselves. After three days the council ended and they came back to teach him Eskimo. He was very pleased with his rapid progress, but after many months found that he could understand scarcely a word of what they said among themselves. It turned out that they had devised a pidgin Eskimo language to teach him.

  42. In Peter Freuchen’s book on the Eskimos (Inuit) he reported that after his first encounter with the Eskimos they were a bit standoffish, though friendly, for a few days but seemed to be having some sort of important council off by themselves. After three days the council ended and they came back to teach him Eskimo. He was very pleased with his rapid progress, but after many months found that he could understand scarcely a word of what they said among themselves. It turned out that they had devised a pidgin Eskimo language to teach him.

  43. I personally know of two L1 speakers of Esperanto
    Right, I’m aware of L1 speakers, as I said above, but that does not mean “community language,” which (to my mind) implies the existence of a continuing (year-round, not coming together occasionally) community (larger than a household or two) that uses the language for everything.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    I read a similar story in one of Farley Mowat’s books, perhaps People of the Deer. FM learned the simplified form of the language that was used when talking to him and could not understand why so many other white people thought the language was so difficult, until he went to a larger village and found he could not understand the inhabitants.
    Technically the Eskimos were not “devising a pidgin” since a pidgin arises when there are at least two language groups trying to communicate, and they were not trying to use English in speaking to him, instead they were using a form of Eskimo “baby talk” (which is not what babies themselves say but a simplification that adults use in talking to babies and sometimes to foreigners.

  45. Etienne says:

    Damin is more than a mere cryptolect: its structure is in many ways quite unlike any of the “ordinary” languages of its users: thus, it only has two pronouns, one first person singular and the other non-first person singular: furthermore it has a very reduced number of lexical morphemes, each of which is semantically much broader in meaning than the average lexeme of the users’ ordinary languages.
    While I am skeptical of many of Dixon’s claims I must agree with him that Damin definitely looks like a deliberately, consciously created artificial language. And I do remember reading about a similar such artifical language used in initiations, used somewhere in West Africa (I might be able to find the reference if anyone is really interested).
    The fact that Esperanto has a few native speakers (thanks David!) is interesting, as its extreme regularity in derivation as well as inflection makes it quite “unnatural”. Children clearly can acquire languages which are deliberately constructed and which differ structurally from natural ones.
    Phonemic clicks being only found in Damin and in Southern Africa, let me ask an outrageous-sounding question: could clicks in Southern Africa be due to a Damin-like artificial language created long ago? More broadly, could clicks be a feature which children can acquire, but which a clickless language cannot create through processes of normal language change?
    I believe that Ladefoged had wondered (in THE SOUNDS OF THE WORLD’S LANGUAGES) why clicks are so rare crosslinguistically and why they were only found in Southern Africa: well, the above guess (I daren’t call it a theory) would answer both questions…

  46. M-L, I’ve read both books, and my story was probably from Mowat’s. Thanks.

  47. M-L, I’ve read both books, and my story was probably from Mowat’s. Thanks.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne:

    Damin is more than a mere cryptolect: its structure is in many ways quite unlike any of the “ordinary” languages of its users: thus, it only has two pronouns, one first person singular and the other non-first person singular: furthermore it has a very reduced number of lexical morphemes, each of which is semantically much broader in meaning than the average lexeme of the users’ ordinary languages. … I must agree … that Damin definitely looks like a deliberately, consciously created artificial language.

    If this very interesting “language” is only used for initiation ceremonies, it does not have to meet all the normal communicative requirements of an ordinary language used in all the circumstances of life, and it can afford to be less precise: if there are only two pronouns, perhaps the specific 1st person pronoun is used by a central participant in the ceremony, either the single initiate or the person directing the ceremony for a group of initiates, and the other pronoun used for everyone else is one of general meaning like “on” in French or “man” in German, which depending on the context can be interpreted as replacing any or all of the other normal pronouns. The much vaguer vocabulary may be using hypernyms, such as a generic word or euphemism for “animal” instead of specific words for individual species of animals. In this case the reason for the vagueness may be the need not to refer directly to powerful and potentially dangerous spiritual forces, or to leave those forces in doubt as to what exactly is being said, at a time when the initiate is particularly vulnerable to their influence.
    A real “constructed language” intended to replace an actual one in all of its functions (as for instance Esperanto) could not make do with such limited resources. This ceremonial “language” or rather “mini-language” may have been deliberately designed for the purpose, but that is not the only possible explanation for its minimality: it could also be preserving a few remnants of a language spoken earlier, the other components of which have been forgotten for lack of use.

    could clicks be a feature which children can acquire, but which a clickless language cannot create through processes of normal language change?

    I seem to remember that clicks have been borrowed from the Khoi-San languages into Southern Bantu languages such as Zulu, although the reason given escapes me. This would be described as a “contact-induced change” rather than a “natural change” likely to occur in the course of the evolution of a single language. But there is no reason why clicks could not arise within a single language such as Damin (after all, how did they get into the Khoi-San languages in the first place?), perhaps originally as an expressive (therefore probably deliberate) feature comparable to glottalization in some other languages, which later lost its expressive function and became just a feature of some words or some morphological process.

  49. Damin … is believed by Robert Dixon …
    I believe the claim was Ken Hale’s. Dixon’s specialty is avoidance languages, where a different lexicon is used with the same grammar.
    Prof. Hale also studied other special languages, such as Tjiliwirri. Dixon declines to discuss these, except in the most general terms. Someone more knowledgeable than I will know what is proper in Internet discussions and I’m sure LH will adjust this post if necessary.

  50. Hat: the late-19th-century craze for languages intended to bring peace to all mankind (the idea, a very silly one, being that war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages)

    What’s at issue here is what “understanding” is being understood to mean.
    I suppose you hold a view along the lines of “wars are due to aggression, or conflicts of interests, which arise independently of whether the warring parties understand each other’s languages”. But I remember a different background to the “one language to bring peace to all mankind” idea.
    That was the belief that wars are started by the relatively few who hold political, military and economic power, and that the subordinate populations wanted no wars, because these destroyed lives and livelihoods. The members of these populations, in different countries where different languages were used, were on the whole unable to understand each other. The idea was that, if they could talk with each other on the basis of a common language, they would discover that none of them wanted a war, and some mutually approved alternative could be found. At the very least, they could thus form their own opinions about what the others thought.
    The belief, stated this way, may be simplistic, but it’s not “silly”. It is at the root of rule by law in polities. And it is behind the legal requirement that translators must be provided for defendants who do not speak the language of the court.

  51. (the idea, a very silly one, being that war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages)
    The silliness of this idea was nicely highlighted by its inversion in the case of the Babel Fish:
    “the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all
    barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation”

  52. The prophetic parable of the Babel Fish is a form of the argument traditionally made by politicians and experts down to this day, when they claim that the unpolished, untrained members of “races and cultures” can’t understand the issues, even when they do understand the languages of politics and expertise.
    The parable is a standard warning against freedom of speech and of assembly – problematic as these things can be, as everyone knows. It makes quite clear, however, that the questions of who has power and control are the fundamental issues, to which “understanding language” is merely being held hostage.

  53. What about polari (remember Julian and Sandy anybody? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL364HPoBz4 From 0.36.)
    Or has this been discussed already deep in hatland,

  54. The belief, stated this way, may be simplistic, but it’s not “silly”.
    I consider it silly because some of the most vicious wars have been between people who spoke the same language (civil wars in US, Russia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, religious wars in Germany, etc. etc.). My response to the idea that if we could only understand each other, we’d all get along: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

  55. Well, Hat, the view expressed in your last comment doesn’t seem to fit well with the final sentences of your post on Okrent’s book: “We are all, more or less, visionaries”: exactly so, and I find myself no longer able to look down on those whose visions, even if unrealizable, are full of such inspiration and creativity. May their tribe increase!
    You haven’t taken up my point that, historically, the “universal language” ambition has been associated with the political hope of being freed from the whims of warring rulers. What do you make of Esperanto being suppressed by Stalin as “the language of spies”? Is it that the presence of a mundane political component automatically, for you, removes “universal language” from the realm of the visionary?
    “To understand” has various senses, as you know. To understand-1 what someone thinks, you must at least understand-2 the language he speaks – or think that you do. This does not imply that you understand-3 him in the sense of sympathizing with his views. I think I mentioned here once that I have been through three or four stages with German. Within each stage, I thought I understood everything that was going on. At each new stage, “the language itself” moved further into the background, while everything else shifted and rearranged itself into things new and unexpected. It’s happening now, in a small way, with my French. Whether or not “universal language prevents wars” is a silly idea, I think “universal language” itself is an extremely naive notion, albeit visionary, no matter what the uses to which it is to be put – just like Universal Grammar. I myself no longer look down on translators, and I mean of prose, not of poetry.
    By the by, I wonder which of the inventors of Volapük, Esperanto and so on actually held the crude belief that you formulate as war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages, with an implied caused solely. In the Wikipedia article on Esperanto to which you linked, Zamenhof is quoted from a letter as saying something of a more cautious nature:

    The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.

  56. michael farris says:

    Hat, I think you’re misunderstanding what Grumbly Stu is claiming. His claim is (roughly AFAICT) the idea that a common (not universal) language is a good thing for peaceful relations is based not in language per se, but in _class_.
    In short, the ruling classes sometimes perceive it is in their interests to have wars, the rest of us almost never share in that perception. The reasoning is that if everyday people have an easier way to communicate across various barriers then it will be harder for rulers to sucker them into supporting wars that aren’t in their interests.
    Now that may be simplistic, but it’s a very different argument from the strawman “a universal language will prevent wars” and trying to rephrase that way is beneath you.
    I’d say the esperanto agenda (to the extent that there is such a thing) has changed, a lot. Still, while there’s not much open talk of homaranismo* anymore the general ideals are very much there. Basically, if I could generalize (and simplify) a lot of esperanto speakers regard their involvement at least partly as a kind of self-improvement (not least from having direct contact with people from a lot of different countries on equal footing).
    *it’s in wikipedia but the English translation of part of the declaration is too awful to recommend or link to).

  57. Thanks, Michael. That is what I was saying. I had avoided the word “class” because I didn’t want Hat to get the idea I was a Commie or sumpn.

  58. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: yes, clicks can indeed spread from one language to another through diffusion (the Cushitic language Dahalo also has clicks: one gets the impression that pre-Bantu Southern Africa was a SPRACHBUND, wherein clicks were a shared areal feature): my point was that *perhaps* a language which lacks clicks and is not in contact with a click language cannot create clicks on its own.
    That Damin is “reduced” compared to Lardil and Yangkaal is indubitable, but the same could be said of pidgins, some of which have nativized to become creoles, and which in the process of becoming a community language (and thus an L1) have “expanded”, i.e. created (or borrowed) new structures and morphemes, becoming a fully adequate language in the process. Damin being an artificial language used by “initiates” of two ethnic groups speaking mutually unintelligible languages, I could easily imagine a scenario whereby a mixed Lardil-Yangkaal group could have used Damin as a community language, during which course a similar linguistic expansion would have taken place.
    That typologically excentric language isolates might originally have been artificial languages which were nativized does not strike me as inherently unlikely: indeed, I wonder if the linguistic genetic diversity of many parts of the world might not owe something to such a process.
    Pure speculation, I know. But inasmuch as nobody seems to have ever speculated along such lines in the past, I thought it was worth mentioning (especially since, if anybody ever did produce such speculations in print, this crowd is likelier than any other to know about it).

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I fully agree that such speculations are good to entertain and pursue, and I am glad you brought up the subject. I just hesitate to use “constructed” for the languages you mention. Pidgins are not “constructed” in the same sense as Zamenhof and others set out to construct new languages, they evolve little by little from efforts of two separate groups to communicate in limited circumstances, and many of them disappear if those circumstances change (eg the Basque-Micmac pidgin, or Chinook Jargon or “Russenorsk”). I don’t know if you have run across a description of incipient pidginization among prisoners of war from various countries in some German prison camps during WWII, for instance.
    It is true that if pidgins become true community languages they evolve rapidly and develop features of whole languages, but even though I agree that Damin may have started as a pidgin if it derives from two separate languages, from the way you describe it and its use it does not seem to be a true “community language”, or else it would probably have maintained or acquired a full set of pronouns, for instance.

  60. David Marjanović says:

    Okrent’s Klingon pronunciation is surprisingly bad. The first and the last glottal stop (‘) are simply missing, the I in the second-to-last syllable is more or less rounded, and the final S isn’t retroflex. And why does she sing so crazily? In front of the three glottal stops she does pronounce, her pitch jumps up like crazy. We should kill her where she stands. <vehement nodding>

    For instance, in some traditional native literatures, the major animal characters are identified by the way they distort normal speech, each in a different way, often using consonants which are not part of the normal language and are nevertheless produced by normal speakers in the story-telling context only.

    In less formalized ways, this method is probably much more widespread. For example, there’s a (very uncommon, but still universal) way to express extreme scorn in German by repeating something unimaginably stupid someone else said with all vowels nasal and all vaguely alveolar consonants (/d t n l s ʃ/) shifted to dorso-palatal (…amazingly, /s/ and /ʃ/ stay distinct… imagine them at opposite ends of the Standard (!) Mandarin range of x) and the velar ones pulled forward.
    There’s an Austrian TV ad for VISA, the credit card company, where the famous (tragi)comedian Roland Düringer talks like this while explaining why you should pay by VISA instead of in cash, because the latter way your money is gone immediately, while the other way around it stays in your bank account for up to 6 weeks longer. It’s extremely annoying to listen to. :-)

    More broadly, could clicks be a feature which children can acquire, but which a clickless language cannot create through processes of normal language change?

    Start with labiovelar plosives. These are common in West Africa and some places in New Guinea. (Really labiovelar ones, not boring labialized velar ones.) Then subtly shift the timing of the velar and the labial release.
    In other words, just say Kpatindé or Gbagbo 10 times fast.
    That gives you the bilabial click…
    I think it’s now consensus that the clicks must have come from consonant clusters.
    ==============
    On the… relative simplicity of Esperanto, let me mention this perspective. I cannot resist the urge to quote Bruno Kreisky, the (tragedy, farce…) most admired Federal Chancellor of Austria ever: Wer Visionen hat, braucht einen Arzt “if you have visions, you need a doctor”.
    Really, the Fundamento has to be seen to be believed. “Sixteen grammatical rules” my ass.

  61. An old Esperantist once told me that the name Soros was merely a traditional Hungarian surname, and that the “will soar” thing is wordplay that someone else came up with later.

  62. After the war George Soros’s father continued to use the name Teodoro Schwartz or Ŝvarc within the Esperanto community.

  63. michael farris says:

    David, the anti-Esperanto site you link to is funny in some places and I actually agree with some things, but on the whole it’s more about linguistic prejudice than humor or sound principles of language building or inter-lingual communication.
    One double bind that Esperanto faces is that if it’s too ‘simple’ (which term I’ll leave undefined) people would think it’s boring, which it would be. Believe me, I could devise an Esperanto substitute that would be super easy to learn and use (including for those of non-European backgrounds) that would address most of the issues he mentions and no one would have any interest in learning it. That’s my problem with Interlingua, it usually seems too …. bland, it makes me wish I were reading Spanish or Italian instead). In a nutshell, one of the things that makes languages interesting are weird things and quirks.
    On the other hand, the quirks that can make Esperanto interesting (and there’s a fair amount of weird, quirky stuff in there) can easily be used against it as being too weird to take seriously.
    Can’t win.
    As for the 16 rules and fundamento; all language communities have myths about their language, file the 16 rules there.
    The fundamento is basically an attempt to forestall the urge to tinker (called reform in artificial language circles) instead of use.
    I agree that many Esperanto speakers put far too much faith in the fundamento (personally I’m in favor of periodically revising standards in light of actual usage). But still, I understand the logic. Nothing takes the wind out of a planned language’s sails like constant tinkering. Novial is actually one of the cooler early Esperanto competitors but the creator took too much advice and spent all his effort in revising than using the language and it went nowhere.
    A useful criteria for IALs that somebody else had on the AUXLANG forum way back when was ‘good enough’. Esperanto is ‘good enough’ to do what it was designed to do (whereas Volupuk* wasn’t). Trying to move from ‘good enough’ to ‘perfect’ or even ‘better’ is usually wasted effort.
    *I’m thinking more in terms of ease of use for its beginning target audience rather than any particular feature of Volupuk which is basically kind of cool.

  64. David, the anti-Esperanto site you link to is funny in some places and I actually agree with some things, but on the whole it’s more about linguistic prejudice than humor or sound principles of language building or inter-lingual communication.
    Yeah, I found it amusing but disappointing — he was having too much fun being snarky to make a convincing critique.
    Stu, Michael: You’ve convinced me I was being overly dismissive, and I withdraw the “silly.”

  65. Bill Chapman says:

    How good to see such interest in this topic.
    Esperanto “remains the only true success story among artificial languages” because it is so practical and useful. I’ve used it in about fifteen countries, including Cameroon. Esperanto has certainly enriched my life by making it easier to find out how ordinary people. IWith Esperanto, you’re no longer a tourist or a visitor but an insider.

  66. In short, the ruling classes sometimes perceive it is in their interests to have wars, the rest of us almost never share in that perception
    Stu, Michael – do you actually believe this assertion or is this just a restatement of what idealists believed at the end of the 19th century? My experience in Yugoslavia leads me to believe that this is not always true – the common people do sometimes believe war is in their interest and sometimes ruling classes have to “ride the horse” to stay in the saddle.

  67. michael farris says:

    I’ve seen analyses of the Yugoslav conflicts that indicate that nationalism was basically a cover for the elites as they carried out enthusiastic turf wars against each other (and more than one former resident of the area I’ve known agreed with that analysis).
    In other words, yes, the common people can be talked into thinking that war will serve their interests (Iraq anyone?) but that if they have free and easy communication with the potential enemy it’ll be harder, not impossible, especially when historical grievances and religious differences can be played upon (as in Ruanda and Yugoslavia) but harder, any little hindrance helps. A
    nd note, that a secondary characteristic of the various Yugoslav and Ruanda conflicts was in fact language with elites doing their best to tear apart the language commonality in Yugoslavia and the various sides in Ruanda using post-colonial French and English as political proxies against the language both sides share. In neither case have the language policies of the post war elites had the interests of the majority of the population at heart.

  68. michael farris says:

    Just to clarify in case anyone is mistaking me for a ideal-crank. No, Esperanto would not have helped one little bit in Yugoslavia or Ruanda and I only marginally suscribe to the argument about non-elite inter-lingual communication encouraging peace.
    I do think the argument is usually distorted and made fun of. As Stu put it, it’s maybe simplistic but not silly (or worthy of the mockery it usually gets).

  69. Etienne says:

    I actually met a Croat who told me that the existence of a common language (Serbo-Croatian) was, if not a cause, at least an aggravating factor in the disintegration of Yugoslavia: as she argued, Serbs and Croats have radically different and incompatible national mythologies, and because of the common language the incompatibility was there for all to see: Croats could all see that Serbian national mythology depicts them as a nation of treacherous collaborators, lacking courage as well as honour, whereas Serbs could all see that Croatian national mythology depicts them as a nation of backward, violent hicks.
    She claimed that, had Serbs and Croats each had a separate language, it would have been possible for a pan-Yugoslav elite to gloss over these incompatibilies and for the average Serb and Croat to each go on leading separate but parallel cultural lives within the bosom of a common state.

  70. If it weren’t too neat and tidy to be real, it would be a bit of a paradox for linguists: on the one hand they want all the different languages to flourish, and on the other they want to get everyone discussing peace.

  71. David Marjanović says:

    One double bind that Esperanto faces is that if it’s too ‘simple’ (which term I’ll leave undefined) people would think it’s boring, which it would be. Believe me, I could devise an Esperanto substitute that would be super easy to learn and use (including for those of non-European backgrounds) that would address most of the issues he mentions and no one would have any interest in learning it.

    Ehem.
    You do realize that about half of the people in the world who learn languages for the fun of it are already here on this blog?
    Regarding the difficulties of Esperanto, Zamenhof himself acknowledged in 1894 that insisting on case and number agreement of adjectives (“on the fussy end of the scale even by European standards”, remember) was “superfluous ballast”, but then it was already too late. I’ve read that East Asian esperantists have lots of trouble with this, which doesn’t surprise me at all. (It’s almost even weirder that the article shows no concord at all, English-style.)
    BTW: You want snark? Go here.
    ––––––––––––
    Concerning the Yugoslav wars, the blame can be placed very simply on communism. During the communist era, it was an article of faith that all national problems had been solved in the best possible way; any doubt was heresy and meant prison. In other words, a heavy lid was put on all the old prejudices from WWII and before, and nobody thought of turning the heat off.
    Soon after Tito was dead, large masses of people were very quickly convinced that the others in all seriousness wanted to kill them, and the rest is history that I saw live on TV.
    Rwanda appears to have been a Malthusian catastrophe. In places without Tutsi, the richest Hutu rests in pieces…

  72. marie-lucie says:

    From the “snark” site recommended by David: It is TRUE that William Shatner starred in a sixties horror movie with Esperanto dialogue..
    In the same vein, am I right that the words written on shops in the town where Chaplin’s The Great Dictator takes place are in Esperanto?

  73. Incubus is available on DVD, or at least used to be.
    The US Army used Esperanto (taught using this) as the enemy’s language in field exercises.

  74. There are Esperanto speaking natives and signs in Idiot’s Delight, too, but I am unable to find a clip / image.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the video, MMcM, I recognized some of the signs from seeing the movie years ago. I think that Esperanto was an inspired choice in suggesting a European state without identifying the country.

  76. YouTube of shop signs.
    Amazing—I had no idea! And I agree with m-l that it was an inspired choice.

  77. I’m not a Yugoslavia expert at all, but it doesn’t make sense to me to blame Tito for keeping the lid on the place for 50 years.
    I do remember one structural problem in the federation, that the Croats were the most productive but the Serbs controlled the army and the state.
    People I’ve known who traveled in ex-Yugoslavia, and everyone I’ve known who grew up there, absolutely loved the place. Hopefully the situation will settle down this generation or next in its new configuration.

  78. I’m not a Yugoslavia expert at all, but it doesn’t make sense to me to blame Tito for keeping the lid on the place for 50 years.
    I do remember one structural problem in the federation, that the Croats were the most productive but the Serbs controlled the army and the state.
    People I’ve known who traveled in ex-Yugoslavia, and everyone I’ve known who grew up there, absolutely loved the place. Hopefully the situation will settle down this generation or next in its new configuration.

  79. I’m not a Yugoslavia expert at all, but it doesn’t make sense to me to blame Tito for keeping the lid on the place for 50 years.
    I don’t think David was saying keeping the lid on was a problem; rather, it was the way Tito did it, pretending “all national problems had been solved in the best possible way” and thus not allowing for any honest examination of them (leading to a gradual but real solution). Therefore the problems just festered under the floorboards until it all blew up.

  80. I only once went through Yugoslavia, in a train going to Greece when I was eighteen. It did seem like it must be several countries, because of all the different landscapes and topography that we passed. It was very pretty all the way and thanks to the wars I’ve been able to put names to some of the landscapes.

  81. DeeXtrovert says:

    I don’t think David was saying keeping the lid on was a problem; rather, it was the way Tito did it, pretending “all national problems had been solved in the best possible way” and thus not allowing for any honest examination of them (leading to a gradual but real solution). Therefore the problems just festered under the floorboards until it all blew up.
    Tito actively discouraged any examination of ethnicity (particularly in its relationship with religion), that’s true. And one could argue that he didn’t do a very good job of “diversifying” Yugoslavia in an economic sense. So yes, Serbians tended to dominate the military, and Slovenia and Croatia benefited from having better and more modern inbdustrial economies (not to mention their closer geographic proximity to the West.) So when Yugoslavia fell apart, it was obvious that some republics would come out “ahead.” Serbia (which, of course, housed the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade) tried to intervene (briefly) in Slovenia’s departure, and really went nuts when Croatia left. (Bosnia, as the joke goes, advanced directly to the finals.)
    This is a simplistic explanation, and leaves out relevant factors such as the careless enthusiasm of some nations, such as Germany, to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia without taking into account what it would mean to the other four republics (particularly Bosnia, the bulk of whose population was put in the obvious jeopardy of being made a more acute minority in a state now utterly dominated by Serbs riled up in state-sponsored nationalist fervor.) Additionally, let’s not forget that Yugoslavia was a state largely contrived – rather stupidly – by outside forces, not a nation that developed “organically,” as many do. As a Bosnian who can easily see Yugoslavia’s problems as ones which had been festering since *before* the nation existed, along at least three religious lines and numerous (Hapsburg, Ottoman, Kingdom of Serbia, etc) national lines – among many other factors – it’s tough to blame Tito too heavily for factors which were alive before he was born. He held the peace longer than anyone else in the region ever had (as far as I can tell), and he did it pretty fairly. I say this as someone with no great love for the man; my father was jailed for insulting him and Bosnian Muslims were not allowed the same recognition as Serbs, Slovenes and Croats, because our identity was “religious,” not “national” – despite “Serb” being shorthand for “Orthodox” and “Croat” being shorthand for “Catholic.” And that’s not forgetting that we all suffered daily under Tito’s Communism. I left the Macedonians and Montenegrins and numerous minorities out of it, because, how complex do you want this to be?
    I actually met a Croat who told me that the existence of a common language (Serbo-Croatian) was, if not a cause, at least an aggravating factor in the disintegration of Yugoslavia: as she argued, Serbs and Croats have radically different and incompatible national mythologies, and because of the common language the incompatibility was there for all to see: Croats could all see that Serbian national mythology depicts them as a nation of treacherous collaborators, lacking courage as well as honour, whereas Serbs could all see that Croatian national mythology depicts them as a nation of backward, violent hicks.
    She claimed that, had Serbs and Croats each had a separate language, it would have been possible for a pan-Yugoslav elite to gloss over these incompatibilies and for the average Serb and Croat to each go on leading separate but parallel cultural lives within the bosom of a common state.

    I like the theory, but this isn’t borne out between Serb/Kosovar relations, or Hungarian/Serb relations in the area around Subotica (Serbia) or Slovakian/Hungarian relations in the part of Slovakia against the Hungarian border. I’m even astonished at the frostiness of Hungarian/Romanian relationships in big, educated cities like Cluj/Kolozsvar. The main difference between all those places and the former Yugoslavia may have a lot to do with smaller numbers . . . but it’s interesting to note that in Romania (of which I have some knowledge) there exists the frequent nationalist viewpoint, expressed openly in papers and on television, that the Hungarians are plotting to take back Transylvania. It’s absurd to anyone with any objectivity (like me!) but it also doesn’t sound any different to me than the things that were said just weeks before the war in Bosnia started.

  82. Thanks very much for that informed comment, Dee!

  83. David Marjanović says:

    The US Army used Esperanto (taught using this) as the enemy’s language in field exercises.

    How deliciously perverse! :-D :-D :-D

    YouTube of shop signs.
    Amazing—I had no idea!

    Seconded.

    Tito actively discouraged any examination of ethnicity (particularly in its relationship with religion), that’s true.

    While at the same time declaring the Bosnian Muslims a nationality – hon(n)i soit qui mal y pense.

  84. DeeXtrovert says:

    While at the same time declaring the Bosnian Muslims a nationality – hon(n)i soit qui mal y pense.
    I still think evil of it. This declaration occurred nearly halfway through Tito’s dictatorship, at a time when he was abandoning his hopes of creating a truly “Yugoslav” identity in favor of an approach which played the different ethnicities off one another when convenient in terms of holding everything together.
    It allowed Bosnian Muslims to be uniquely demonized, in part since theirs was the only “nationality” to be defined solely by religion (despite the non-practicing status of most), while the mantle of Serb or Croat “national identity” – though no less religiously uniform – had the benefit of the veneer of legitimate nationhood based in land-possession, not religion.
    You’ll recall I said “in part” above. That’s because Tito’s big mistake was to declare Serbia and Croatia to be the republics of those people. Bosnia, on the other hand, was not the republic of Bosnian Muslims (or “Bosniaks”), it was kind of a no man’s land, officially speaking. Though Bosniaks were the largest population in Bosnia, they did not have an above 50% majority.
    Consequently, a Yugoslav Muslim only had the possibility of an official nationality (outside “Yugoslav”) when they lived in Bosnia. A Muslim in Serbia, was really nothing. They weren’t Bosnian, they weren’t Serbs. They were, technically “Serbian,” but this meant to everyone, an identity framed partially in religious traditions and nationalistic ideologies they had no part in, and which often worked directly against them. They had (legally speaking) no larger group to adhere to, in the way that Serbs and Croats did, because they did not have a nationality. To align themselves with Bosnian Muslims would have been natural, but this would also have been read as “religious-based organizing” (to translate from Serbo-Croatian), which was illegal.
    In essence, (Catholic) Croats and (Orthodox) Serbs could unite across republic lines. Muslims could not.
    I should add that smaller minorities had similar problems – Hungarians, Roma, and so on. But typically, these groups were so small as to escape the sort of government-sponsored genocidal mayhem of which Muslims were the primary target. (The Roma, who were and remain pretty powerless and utterly disenfranchised, were often trotted out as “proof” by Serbs that they were not genocidal monsters. This may have saved many, and I’m grateful for that, but it shouldn’t be seen as anything but the media ploy it was.)
    All of this aside, it’s probably easiest to say that one should not mistake Tito’s official recognition of Bosnian Muslims as a nationality as any sort of sign that the examination of ethnic issues was suddenly okay. It wasn’t.

  85. Pity that “kankr” is a typo – I was about to ask if it was related to “cancer”.

  86. David Marjanović says:

    (I originally wanted to write “and thus exposing the doublethink for all the world to see”. I’m not sure why I then switched to the wise-ass phrase.)

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