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.

Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:


wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:



“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”


Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future


  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.

Introduction to the blog and some words on Descriptivism

Hello everyone! Welcome to our shiny new blog! My name is Riccardo, I’m 25 years old, from Bologna, Italy (homeland of good food and jumping moustached plumbers) and I’m here to talk about linguistics. Well, we all are, really. That’s why we’re the Historical Linguist Channel™!

So, “what is a linguist?” I hear you ask through my finely-honed sense for lingering doubts. Well, a linguist is someone who studies language, duh. What’s that? You want more detail? I can understand that. After all, few academic fields are as misunderstood by the general public as the field of linguistics. People might think that the Earth is flat, or that aspirin turns frogs into handsome, muscular princes (or was it kisses?), but at least they know what an astronomer or a doctor is and what they do. No such luck for linguists, I’m afraid. Misconceptions about what we do and absurdly wrong notions about what we study are rife even within the academic community itself. We’re here to dispel those misconceptions.

In the series of articles that follows, each of us will debunk one myth or misconception which he or she (mostly she) finds particularly pernicious and wants out of the way immediately before we even start regularly updating the blog’s content. In this introductory article, I will explain the most fundamental source of myths and misconceptions about linguistics there is: the difference between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

But first, let me begin with an unfortunately not-so-exaggerated portrayal of the popular perception of linguists: the Movie Linguist.

Scene: an unexplored Mayan ruin, deep in the jungles of Central America. Three explorers cautiously walk in a dark hallway, torches blazing over their heads. Philip, the dashing young adventurer, leads forward, cutting the vines that grow in the ancient corridors with his machete. He is followed by Beatrice, a beautiful young woman he naturally will end up kissing towards the end of the movie. Trailing behind them is a bespectacled, nervous man, awkwardly trying to hold onto a ream of papers and charts. He is Nigel, the linguist. Suddenly, they break into an enormous room. The group leader raises his torch with a sweeping motion. The music swells: the walls of the chamber are covered with inscriptions.

Philip: My God… look at this.

Beatrice: What is it?

Philip: Look at the inscriptions on the walls.

Beatrice: [gasps] Could it really be…?

Philip: Egyptian hieroglyphs… in a Mayan pyramid!!

Beatrice: But it’s impossible! How could they have arrived here?

Philip: I don’t know. Nigel! You’ve got to see this.

Nigel enters the chamber, and immediately drops his papers in astonishment.

Nigel: I- it’s incredible! The theories of professor McSweeney on cultural cross-pollination were true!

Beatrice: Can you read it?

Nigel: Well, given the nature of the expedition, I was presumably hired for my expertise in Meso-American languages. Fortunately, I am a Linguist™, and that means I can read every language ever spoken by every human being that ever lived.

Nigel kneels next to the closest inscription. He thoughtfully adjusts his glasses.

Nigel: Hmmm… I recognise this. It’s an obscure dialect of Middle Egyptian spoken in a village exactly 7.6 km due East of Thebes in the year 1575 BC. I can tell just by superficially looking at it.

Philip: What does it say?

Nigel: Unfortunately, this dialect is so obscure that it wasn’t covered in the 72 years of back-breaking grad school every linguist must undergo to learn every language ever spoken. I will need time to decipher it.

Beatrice: How much time? This place gives me the creeps.

Nigel: Just a few hours, and I will do it with no help from any dictionary, reference grammar or corpus of similar dialects to which I could compare it. After I decipher it, I will, of course, be able to read, write, and speak it natively with no doubt or hesitation whatsoever.

A skittering sound echoes in one of the hallways.

Philip: Be quick about it. I have a feeling we’re not alone…

In the end, it turns out the inscriptions on the wall warn intruders that an ancient Egyptian god slumbers in the tomb and that he will not be appeased by anything except fat-free, low-calorie double bacon cheeseburgers which taste as delicious as their horribly unhealthy counterparts, which is, of course, a dream far beyond the reach of our puny human science. A thrilling battle with the minions of this god ensues, until the explorers come face-to-face with the burger-hungry divinity himself. They manage to escape his clutches thanks to Nigel, who now speaks the Middle Egyptian dialect so well that he manages to embarrass the god by pointing out that he ended a sentence with a preposition.

Somewhere along the way, Philip and Beatrice kiss.

Our objective here at the Historical Linguist Channel is to bring your image of linguists and linguistics as far as possible from the one I just painted above. Said image is unfortunately very prevalent in the public’s consciousness, a state of affairs which makes linguistics possibly one of the most misunderstood academic disciplines out there.

So, without further ado, I will get into the meat of my own post: the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

What is descriptivism?

Most people know at least some basic notions about many sciences: most of us know that matter in the universe is made of atoms, that atoms bond together to form molecules, and so on. Most people know about gravity, planets and stars.

Yet, remarkably few people, even amongst so-called “language enthusiasts”, know the most basic fact about linguistics: that it is a descriptive, and not a prescriptive, discipline.

What does it mean to be a descriptive discipline? As the name suggests, a descriptive discipline concerns itself with observing and describing a phenomenon, making no judgements about it. For a descriptive science, there are no superior or inferior facts. Facts are just facts. A planet that goes around its star once every 365 days is not any better or worse than one which takes, say, 220. As an academic science, linguistics merely concerns itself with studying language in all its forms and variety, without ascribing correctness or value on some forms over others. To a linguist, “I ain’t done nuffin’ copper!” is as good an English sentence as “The crime of which you regretfully accuse me has not taken place by my hand, and I resent the implication, good sir!”

Now, you might be thinking: Riccardo, doesn’t every scientific discipline work that way? To which I answer: yes, yes they do. Linguistics, however, is slightly different from pretty much all other scientific disciplines (with the possible exception of sociology and perhaps a few others) in that, for most of its early history, it was a prescriptive discipline.

A prescriptive discipline is basically just the opposite of what I just described. Prescriptive disciplines judge some forms of what they study to be better or “correct”, and others to be “wrong” or inferior to others. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it’s how most people approach the study of language. Since the dawn of civilisation, language has been seen as something to be tightly controlled, of which one and only one form was the “right” and “correct” one, all others being corruptions that needed to be stamped out. Another very prevalent prescriptive idea is that language is decaying, that young people are befouling the language of their parents, transforming it into a lazy mockery of its former glory, but that’s a story for another post.

Prescriptive linguistics is concerned with formulating and imposing a series of rules that determine which form of a language is correct and which forms are not (in Humean terms, descriptivism is concerned with “is”, prescriptivism is concerned with “ought”. And you thought this wasn’t going to be an exquisitely intellectual blog).

In general, if you ask most people on the street to cite a “rule of grammar” to you, they will come up with a prescriptive rule. We’ve all heard many: “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”, “it’s you and I, not you and me”, “a double negative makes a positive”, the list goes on.

If you ask a linguist, on the other hand, you’ll get descriptive rules, such as “English generally places its modifiers before the head of the phrase” or “English inflects its verbs for both tense and aspect”.

A very useful way to think about the difference between a descriptive and a prescriptive rule is comparing it to the difference between physical laws and traffic laws. A physical law is a fact. It can’t be broken: it simply is. I can no more contravene the law of gravity than I can purposefully will my own heart to beat in rhythm to Beethoven. But I can contravene traffic laws: I am absolutely physically capable of driving against the flow of traffic, of running a red light or not switching on my headlights during poor visibility conditions.

In general, if a rule says that I shouldn’t do something, that means that I am capable of doing it. Even more damningly, if someone felt the need to specify that something should not be done, it means that someone has been doing it. So, completing the analogy, the paradoxical reason you hear your teacher say that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in English is that you CAN end a sentence with a preposition in English. In fact, it is far more common than the so-called “correct” way.

What you will never hear is an English teacher specifically instructing you not to decline an English noun in the locative case. Why? Because English has no locative case. It lost it in its rebellious youth, when it went by the name of Proto-Germanic and it had just split from Indo-European because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. Finnish, which is not an Indo-European language, is a proper hoarder: it has no less than six locative cases.

Academic linguistics is exclusively concerned with the “physical laws” of language, the fundamental rules that determine how each language differs from all others. It takes no interest in offering value-judgements. Which is why a linguist is the last person you should ask about whether something you said is “good grammar” or not, incidentally.

So, are descriptivism and prescriptivism radically and fundamentally opposed?

Well, yes and no.

A limited form of prescriptivism has its uses: since languages are not uniform and vary wildly even over relatively short geographical distances, it is very important for a country to have a standardised form of language taught in school, with regulated forms so that it doesn’t veer too much in any particular direction. This makes communication easy between inhabitants of the country, and allows bureaucratic, governmental and scientific communication to happen with the greatest amount of efficiency.

The problem with prescriptivism is that it is very easily misused. Only a frighteningly short step is needed to go from establishing a standard form of language to ease communication between people in the same nation to defining all varieties of the language which do not correspond to this standard form as debased trash worthy only of stamping out, and any speakers of those varieties as uneducated churls, or worse, traitors and villains. For centuries, some languages (such as Latin) have been touted as “logical”, “superior”, the pinnacle of human thought, while other languages (mainly the languages of indigenous peoples in places conquered by Western colonialists, surprise surprise) were reviled as “primitive”, incapable of complex expression on the level of European languages.

Linguistic discrimination is a woefully widespread and tragically unreported phenomenon which is rife even in what would otherwise be socially progressive countries. In my native Italy, more than 20 local languages are spoken over the whole territory, some as different from Italian as French is. Yet, if you ask most people, even cultured ones, the only language spoken in Italy is Italian (the standardised form based on the language of Florence). All the other local languages are reduced to the status of “dialects”, and often reviled as markers of lack of education or provinciality, and described as less “rich” than Italian, or even as ugly and vulgar. The Italian state doesn’t even recognise them as separate languages.

Even comparatively minor variation is a target for surprisingly virulent hate: one need only think about the droves of people foaming at the mouth just thinking about people speaking English with the intonation pattern known as “uptalk”, characteristic of some urban areas in the USA and Australia.

Be descriptive!

So, what’s the takeaway from this disjointed ramble of mine?

Simple: linguistics is the scientific study of language, and sees all forms of language as equally fascinating and worthy of study and preservation.

In our posts and our podcasts you will never hear us ranting about “bad grammar”, or describe certain languages as superior or inferior to others. Our mission is transmitting to you the wonder and joy that is the immense variety inherent in human language.

Along the trip, you’ll discover languages in which double negatives are not only accepted, but encouraged; in which sentences MUST end with a preposition, when the need arises; languages with a baffling number of cases, baroque verb systems, and grammatical categories you haven’t even heard of.

We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do.

Tune in next Thursday for the next introductory post on the thorny question of language evolution, where Sabina will set the record straight: are youths these days ruining language?


Most introductory linguistics textbooks begin with a section on descriptivism, but if you want something free and online, the introductory section for The Syntax of Natural Language by Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch is thorough and full of examples. You can find it here: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/