If you like Borges, you’ll probably enjoy Ahua, the Water Language by “N. Aalberg” (actually Richard Kennaway). It’s my favorite kind of constructed language, the purely conceptual; if I want details of morphology, I’ll go to one of the many slow-cooked varieties proffered by actual languages that have been in use for centuries. Sample bits from the description:

As in France, so in Ahua: to speak the local language is at once compulsory and forbidden. Speaking in one’s own language one will be indifferently tolerated; speaking in Ahuan one will be even more indifferently tolerated. Either way, the Ahuans’ conviction that outsiders are forever barred from Ahuan culture by their inferior understanding is upheld. The Ahuans believe that no-one can learn the Ahuan language, and they do everything possible to ensure that this is the case.

In Ahuan, everything not absolutely essential to the meaning is omitted. That which remains is referred to obliquely, by allusion, again with the minimum of detail. The sentence “One thing is not another” may, according to context, mean almost anything; yet to an Ahuan, the precise meaning in any particular context will always be crystal clear…

The Ahuans look with mild amusement on our efforts to speak Ahua. An outsider invariably falls into certain faults which instantly mark him out, to an Ahuan, as having only a childish grasp of the language. He will attach fixed meanings to the words, and he will memorise stereotyped expressions. Ahuans take pride in the fact that their language is always changing. An Ahuan will never use the same word twice with the same meaning. There is a constant striving for unfashionability—indeed, no fashion of speaking can ever assert itself, for when an Ahuan notices that some word, or phrase, or any other feature of speech is beginning to be used with any consistency, he deliberately flouts that incipient rigidification. For this reason, no bilingual dictionary can ever be made of the language. Curiously, there are Ahuan dictionaries. They are considered to be among the greatest works of Ahuan literature. They partake of the elliptical and allusive style of the everyday language, and are more like poetic meditations on the words of Ahua than definitions. Needless to say, they are completely useless for the foreign learner of Ahua.

I enjoy very much the idea of such a dictionary, although an attempt to produce one in English would probably exhaust its interest after a quick perusal. (Via Plep.)

Addendum. Leafing through Mandelshtam’s Разговор о Данте [Conversation about Dante], I came across the following passage, which could be taken as a poetic analog of the Borscht Belt Borges essay above:

Когда мы произносим, например, “солнце”, мы не выбрасываем из себя готового смысла—это был бы семантический выкидыш,—но переживаем своеобразный цикл.
Любое слово является пучком, и смысл торчит из него в разные стороны. Произнося “солнце”, мы совершаем как бы огромное путешествие, к которому настолько привыкли, что едем во сне. Поэзия тем и отличается от автоматической речи, что будит нас и встряхивает на середине слова. Тогда оно оказывается гораздо длиннее, чем мы думали, и мы припоминаем, что говорить—значит всегда находиться в дороге.

[When we pronounce the word sun, for example, we do not toss out a prepared meaning—that would be a semantic miscarriage—instead, we experience a distinctive cycle.
Any word is a bundle, and meaning sticks out of it in various directions, rather than being concentrated on an official point. Pronouncing the word sun, it is as if we accomplish an immense journey, to which we are so accustomed that we do it in our sleep. Poetry differs from automatic speech in that it awakens us and shakes us in the middle of a word. Then the word proves to be much longer than we had thought, and we remember that to speak means always to find ourselves on the road.]

For more on the word sun in Mandelshtam, see this LH post.


  1. Sokath, his eyes uncovered.

  2. “It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial
    repositories, put together well after the languages they
    define. The roots of language are irrational and of a
    magical nature.”
    -Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to “El otro, el mismo.”

  3. Conversing in short, allusive interjections; mildly amused by other people’s vain attempts to master their way of speaking (which changes constantly) – until I got near the end, I suspected the Ahuans were a nation of teenagers.

  4. Does the waterlanguage exist
    Why is it called the waterlanguage
    Where does it come from
    Im an artist creating a new language at the moment
    relating to ice and water
    Hope you can answer my questions

  5. It occurs to me that “Ahua, the Water Language” is an obvious reference to Spanish agua ‘water’ (which can sound like /ahwa/ when the -g- is particularly weak). I don’t remember whether that occurred to me back in 2005, but I’m sure I didn’t do the further research to discover that ahua is Nahuatl for ‘someone who possesses, has control over water’ (‘water’ is atl). I don’t know whether Kennaway had that in mind, but it’s fun. I’m guessing there are language jokes involved in “N. Aalberg” and “Vrije Universiteit van Bladelberkanaard, Zwaagwester Provincie,” but if so I can’t decipher them.

  6. David Marjanović says

    As in France, so in Ahua: to speak the local language is at once compulsory and forbidden.

    For different reasons, though. As soon as the Parisians figure that your French isn’t native, they’ll speak to you in English – English in the French sound system. It’ll take you several seconds to understand it’s supposed to be English, and then you still won’t understand it. I can speak French fast now and work around the gaps in my vocabulary in real time…

    which can sound like /ahwa/ when the -g- is particularly weak

    Or indeed just like [awa], obliterating the difference between gu and hu.

  7. Sure, but I was trying to account for the name Ahwa.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    I just think Kennaway likes the sound of some Dutch or Frisian place names and made nonsense words. Aalberg is a hill overlooking the Gooimeer in North Holland. Bladel is a village in Brabant and the Beerkanaal is a waterway in Rotterdam. Zwaagwesteinde is a former name of a village in Frisia (zwaag means “meadow”–maybe related to the wei in Dutch weiland and German Weide via s-mobile?). Alternatively Bladelberkanaard = Bloody Hell barking hard (or mad?)

  9. Thanks, that all makes sense!

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