Notes on Language Creation

Language creation can be a tough thing to get a hold of. There is no "How To" book for language creation. Everyone has their own opinions; everyone has good ideas. These are a few of mine (opinions, not good ideas—the latter's for you to decide).

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The Conlang Manifesto

A while back (more than a couple years now, I guess), I wrote an e-mail to the CONLANG list about my feelings about language creation. Specifically, it was my defense of language creation to those who would attack it (specifically linguists). Jesse Bangs took a fancy to my statement, and hosted it on his website. That website, while still in existence, appears to have been abandoned. For that reason, I've decided to put the manifesto up here (since I did write it). I may not agree with everything I said now (I'd have to read it again), but I did say it at one point in time, so it may as well be up here. With that said, here it is:

The Conlang Manifesto

To me, it seems odd to have to defend language creation, and yet it's been repeatedly attacked, mainly by linguists (which is the most baffling part about the whole business), and decried as a form of frivolity which should not and cannot be taken seriously by anyone, or even wicked (I've heard it). To such claims, I say the following things.

I would hope that many would agree that doing something that neither harms the doer nor anyone else is not wrong. That said, creating languages, to my knowledge, has never resulted in the harming of another human being, or of the language creator (at least, I've heard of no reports of a language creator driven insane. Though I should note that Esperantists were persecuted in Germany during the Holocaust, along with just about everyone else). Like any other hobby or activity, the only requirement is a requirement of time, and time management has nothing to do with the activity itself, but only with the one performing it. Thus, it can't be argued that language creation is "a waste of time", it can only be argued that certain people are wasters of time—how they do it is irrelevant.

The other argument—whether language creation can be taken seriously—is a bit stickier. The main problem I see that people have with language creation is that it's "weird"—that is, not usual. As such, anything that is not usual will be regarded with apprehension initially; it's as old as Copernicus—even older than that. If you point this out to the arguer, s/he will usually counter with the argument that language creation is useless, and therefore, frivolous. And, looking only at the utilitarian end of it, if the creator isn't going to use his/her language for communication, and since language can be viewed only as a means of communication, language creation is pretty useless.

But is this all language is: A method of communication? If so, what is poetry? what is literature? What possible use could James Joyce's Ulysses have? I suppose if you were on a desert island and needed to smash crabs, it would do the trick—it's pretty thick, after all. But beyond that? According to them, it would have no use. And why stop there? What good do paintings do anyone? They just sit there, after all, doing nothing for nobody. And along with this goes any other form of visual art: Pottery, jewelry, tapestry, mosaic, sculpture, animation… And what about architecture? You just need a roof over your head; no reason it needs to look fancy. So out the window it goes, too. And music?! My word! There's not even any functional value in music! So let's burn all our musical instruments and albums: Goodbye Tchaikovsky, bye-bye Beatles, see ya' Enya, aloha Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (that's the "aloha" that means "goodbye", not "hello"). Pretty soon what you're left with is a world without art.

At this point, the argument should come to an end. The rigor and usefulness of art is an argument that has been argued many times by many people much more articulate than I, and by now (I certainly hope), the whole world should have figured out that art really does pull its weight on Earth. So, let's continue from here. Any university worth its salt is going to have an art department. Millions of people every year study useless, frivolous art. So why not language creation? Nearly every serious subject has an art associated with it that's also studied: Literature has poetry and prose; computer science has computer graphics and video games (another underappreciated form of art); functional architecture has artistic architecture; art history has art; music theory has music. If you take this to its natural conclusion, is not language creation the art most closely associated with linguistics?

This is particularly why I find the condemnation of language creation by linguists so befuddling. Aside from art, though, language creation has other uses. First, creating a language allows one to better understand language itself. One who creates an ergative language is far more likely to understand ergativity in natural languages than one who does not, I say. What's more, this same understanding can ease foreign language learning considerably—not to mention linguistics itself. More importantly, it gets one thinking about the multifariousness and beauty of language, and one who can appreciate this is less likely to misunderstand, deprecate and stereotype those speaking other languages, which is one of the main causes of racism and ethnocentrism. In short, language creation is one of the keys to social harmony and world peace. If one is going to take anything seriously, certainly world peace is it, and if so, shouldn't language creation be given some credit too?

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