Speaking in Tongues: a Brief History of Conlanging




Up until now, we at the HLC have mainly written about languages that evolved naturally out in the vast and scary place we call the real world, descending from parent languages, which descended from even older parent languages, which presumably descended from the grunts and shrieks our simian ancestors used to brag to each other about their poo-flinging prowess.

However, not all languages have evolved naturally. Some, believe it or not, have been partly or wholly created out of whole cloth by people such as hobbyists, writers, philosophers or logicians. These are called artificial languages, or conlangs (short for constructed languages), and they go waaaaay back.

Now you might be objecting: “but aren’t all languages human-created?”

Well, yes, they are. But there’s a difference between natural languages (or natlangs) and conlangs: while natural languages evolve more or less spontaneously over a span of millennia through their use in a wide community, conlangs are wholly and deliberately manufactured (and sometimes evolved) by one or more people over the course of months, or at most decades.

No hominid sat at a table (or a rock formation resembling a table) in prehistoric times and deliberately decided to create a communication system which went beyond simple mating calls and poo-flinging calls; language evolved naturally out of whatever was before it through means that are still not very clear.

Or maybe they did, and we’re all speaking the descendants of some genius hominid’s conlang. Who knows?

2. The First Age of Conlangs: 12th to 17th Centuries

Anyway, nobody knows how far back the history of language invention goes, but it’s pretty probable that the first such artificial languages were created for religious or ritual purposes, to have a secret language only the priests knew with which they could communicate with the gods. Why do we think that? Because the first artificial language ever passed down to us is just such a language: it was called Lingua Ignota, and was invented in the 12th century by St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and Christian mystic. Very little of her creation has trickled down through the centuries, but we know that she used this language to pray and to talk to the other nuns in her abbey. Her being the first known conlanger, as well as an actual Catholic Saint, earned her the moniker of Patron Saint of Conlanging.

Other mystical or magical conlangs came into existence during the 15th and 17th centuries, such as Enochian, created by the famous English occultist John Dee, who claimed it was the language of the angels. Very few actual complete conlangs have reached us from this very early period, and no one actually knows whether St. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota truly was the first conlang or, as it’s more likely, others existed before hers which simply didn’t survive the ages.

3. The Second Age of Conlangs: 18th to 19th Centuries

The second chapter in the history of conlanging began in the 18th century, when a guy named John Wilkins published his book entitled Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. In this book, he proposed a language which would divide all of human thought in discrete categories, each represented by a different sound, which could be combined to form words. His ultimate goal was to create a maximally efficient and understandable language which could be used to communicate with all of humankind. It was the first auxiliary language, or auxlang, a conlang whose noble goal is facilitating communication between different cultures, as well as being culturally and linguistically neutral. In an era of unceasing nationalistic struggle, these utopic goals attracted the attention of numerous scholars of the Age of Enlightenment.

His efforts didn’t lead to much, but his ideas exploded in the 19th century, giving birth to what can only be called an auxiliary language craze, which saw the creation of numerous languages aimed at facilitating communication between different cultures, such as Volapük (a strange mishmash of various European languages), Solresol (a language meant to be sung or played on an instrument as well as spoken), and what is arguably the most famous conlang of all, Esperanto, created by Polish optician L. Zamenhof in 1887, and which holds the distinction of being the only conlang so far to have acquired native speakers. Esperanto spawned innumerable variants and imitators, some of which are still being created today.

Ultimately, though, the great auxiliary language experiment did not succeed. Unfortunately, the very concept of an auxiliary language presents some insurmountable difficulties which make its successful application all but impossible.

Another kind of conlang which originated in this period was the engineered language, or engelang. Engelangs are conlangs created by linguists or philosophers with the goal of exploring aspects of language or human thought, sort of like “linguistic labs”, so to speak. Some of the most famous engelangs include Lojban, whose goal is creating a language which obeys the rules of formal logic; Ithkuil, a monument of engelanging created by John Quijada, whose goal was creating a language which could convey the most information with the greatest degree of clarity and economy of space (it has 92 cases!!); and Toki Pona, created by Sonja Lang, a cuddly language which tries to encapsulate human thought in just 120 words.

4. The Golden Age of Conlangs: mid-20th Century to Present

The third and ongoing chapter in the history of language invention began in the 20th century, with the rise of artistic languages, or artlangs. For the first time in history, conlangs were created with no particular goal in mind, but as a means of artistic expression. The most famous creator of such languages was English linguist and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, the Mozart of conlanging, who I hope needs no introduction. He started conlanging as a child, and called creating artificial languages his “secret vice”. His conlanging work is monumental: he created multiple languages, which he then artificially evolved to create numerous language families, each comprised of a dozen languages or so. This magnificent handiwork is so complex that there are actual linguists specialising in the study of his languages, and scholarly periodicals published regularly about them.

Another famous artistic language is Klingon, created for the Star Trek television series by Mark Okrand, probably the second best known conlang after Esperanto.

But it’s with the premiere of the TV series and cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones in 2011, which prominently features conlangs created by professional conlanger David J. Peterson, that the conlanging world truly exploded. Where once conlangers were numbered in the dozens, now they are hundreds, with forums and Facebook groups dedicated to this peculiar hobby.

This explosion of interest, together with the publication of conlanging manuals and the spread of conlanging websites on the Internet, has given the current period the name of Golden Age of Conlanging.

So, boys and girls, this is the history of conlanging. Unlike the history of natural language, this is a history of human invention and ingenuity.

Maybe the next chapter of the history of conlanging could be written by some of you guys.

Stay tuned for next week, when the astonishing Lisa will bring tae ye the historie o the Scots Leid.