by John Unger
Many of us, growing up, had great fun talking in Pig Latin – a variation of English in which the first letter or diphthong of a word was taken off and put at the end with the added suffix “ay.” So, the word “dog” was “og-day,” and the word “chair” became “air-chay.” It was simple and fun to use. This little variation of English was not, however, a “conlang,” an invented or artificial language created by a person now known as a “conlanger.” Conlangs have been created over centuries of time, usually for some scientific, cultural, or artistic purpose, and, perhaps, in a few instances, to have a secretive means of communication which “authorities” could not distinguish. Several have become well-known, although not many people actually use them for communication purposes.
Often called the language of music, Solfege originated with just 7 syllables – do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti. Each sound represents one of the white keys on a piano keyboard, but, at one time, it was used developed into a broader language, even with hand signals. For purposes of music, it was broadened into 21 syllables, so that all black keys could be represented as “sharps” or “flats,” and today it is used in many music schools, particularly in the teaching of young children.
This may be one of the most well-known conlangs, for it was the language developed by J.R. Tolkien in creating his Lord of the Rings novels. It is known as the elvish language (elves), and was developed primarily, Tolkien says, because he has always been fascinated by languages and wanted to combine the three that to him were the most beautiful – Greek, Latin, and Finnish.
This conlang may be an example of one with a conspiratorial purpose. It was developed by a nun, Hildegard of Bingen, in 12th century Germany. The “story” is that she developed this language as a means of communicating secretly to others in her order, so that they could communicate without priests or lay persons understanding what they were saying. Who knows? Maybe she was an early “women’s libber.” Anyway, she did leave a small dictionary of sorts that contains about 1000 words, but the language is little more than an old tale now.
This one will be familiar to anyone who has read Orwell’s 1984. It wasn’t so much an entirely new language as it was an attempt to remove from the English language any words that even remotely related to “free,” “liberty,” “independence,” “democracy,” and so forth. A few new words were also added, as they fit into the government’s program of total control.
Linguists study language from a variety of perspectives – its development, its cultural implications, and, of course its particular constructions. It is only natural, then, that some linguists might have interests in formulating new languages. Laadan was developed by Dr. Suzette Elgin, as she wrote a science fiction series, title Native Tongue. As a feminist in the early 80’s, Elgin was convinced that the English language did not allow women to have certain words that could express their emotions specifically. She therefore developed a new vocabulary just for women, with the theory that it would impact female culture. It never caught on.
This was created by a Canadian linguist, Sonja Lang, and was first published online in 2001. It was her goal to created a simple pidgin-like language based on universal human experience designed to express as much as possible with relatively few sounds and words - it only has 14 phonemes and 120 words, in fact. Most words have multiple meanings and context helps indicate which meaning is intended. A hundred or so people apparently speak Toki Pona fluently, and several hundred others have some knowledge of the language. It is used mainly online in forums and other groups, and on social media.
Though it sounds like it might be some new language based upon technology, this conlang was actually developed in the 1930’s by a professor – Alfred Korzybski. It really was not a new language at all, but simply the elimination of all forms of the verb “to be.” It was Korzybski’s notion that we would all communicate far more clearly and specifically without that verb. Today, it is occasionally used in college level English programs to force students to use more specific verbs.
Klingon, the language spoken by Klingons, alien characters in the Star Trek films and TV series, was created the linguist Marc Okrand. It is based partly on the Klingon phrases made up by James Doohan (Scotty) for the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a fully-developed grammar and more extensive vocabulary. There are a small number of people able to converse in Klingon, and maybe several hundred others who have some knowledge of the language.