Constructed Languages

Constructed Languages


So let’s talk about definitions. What defines
a language? Is it just a bunch of words strung together in interesting ways? Or are there
some properties that make it special? However you define it, there’s no denying that people love getting creative with language. After all, when you use and think about words every
day, it’s not that big a leap to want to get your hands on some sounds and construct
your own. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is The Ling Space. Language is a fundamental part of what humans
do, and so is crafting things. So it’s no surprise to learn that we’ve been making
up languages for a really long time, and for a bunch of different reasons. Some medieval
examples include mystical or spiritual lexicons. Most of these stemmed from religious devotion,
but in a lot of these cases, the real reasons why they were created have been lost to the
SANDS OF TIME. Later, during the Enlightenment, some scholars
experimented with creating “philosophical languages”, all about their perfect world
of ideals. These days, though, languages are often invented just for the fun of it, or
to help flesh out imaginary worlds. We usually call these constructed languages, or conlangs
for short. Some of the most famous conlangs have been
created specifically for works of fiction. If you’ve seen any of the Lord of the Rings
or Hobbit movies, then you’ve heard J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginary languages, like the Quenya and Sindarin
spoken by the Elves. And when the movie Avatar came out, much was made of the alien language Na’vi, which was created by the linguist Paul Frommer to be as much like a natural
language as possible. Maybe the most famous conlang of all, though,
is Klingon, which was invented over the course of decades for the Star Trek universe. A pretty
sizable community has grown up around Klingon, and they’ve done a whole bunch of fun stuff,
like translating Shakespeare or the Tao Te Ch’ing into it, or even writing whole operas
in it. People have even tried raising bilingual Klingon/English kids! Conlangs invented for art and entertainment
can be really engaging, and they show just how creative and intricate human beings can get when it comes to language. But of course, not all constructed languages were created
with fiction in mind. Some aim to improve communication between people, or help
make the world become a better place. That’s the case with Esperanto, a language invented in
the late 19th century by L.L. Zamenhof. Zamenhof dreamed of a language that would
transcend borders, that would help everyone get along and create a climate of peace in Europe. When
he started drawing up Esperanto, he based it on some of the languages that were around
him, like borrowing some sounds from the Slavic languages, and a lot of the vocabulary from Romance
languages, like Spanish and French. He deliberately made the grammar as regular
and straightforward as he could, so that the language could be easily used and understood.
Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world today use Esperanto as an auxiliary language,
or one that complements the other languages that they speak. There are even thought to be about
1000 native speakers of Esperanto worldwide, or ones who’ve been learning it since birth! Another approach you might take when creating
a language from scratch is to try to remove all the vagueness and ambiguity from the way
we speak. The thing is, we tend to talk circles around each other sometimes, and maybe you
want to avoid that and be super exact. That’s what John Quijada did when he made
Ithkuil. The idea of Ithkuil is to cram as much meaningful information as possible into
the most compact bunch of sounds. It has 45 consonants and 13 vowels, and a lot of single sounds that are used to encode some meaning. It has like a million variables for building
sentences, too – well, maybe not a million, but it does have literally 92 grammatical
cases, which is pretty close. So a sentence like “azbal tui” means “I inadvertently anger someone”, whereas a sentence like “azbal toi” means “my presence makes someone angry”. Now, before you start thinking, “92 cases?
How on earth am I supposed to learn that?”, keep in mind that even the linguist that invented
the language doesn’t speak it fluently. Unlike Esperanto, the idea isn’t to have
this be a language that people use for their everyday lives. Rather, Ithkuil might be useful in
situations where you need super exact laser-like precision for your language, like legal or political debates – or, if you’re a Logic Bot. Conlangs are cool and fun and creative, and
they can help us learn about the different dimensions and parameters that human languages
can have. But the question that we want to ask, as linguists, is: are constructed languages
really languages? Well, there’s a few different ways to answer that, so let’s take a closer
look. So one popular definition of language is any
system by which humans use words to communicate. If we do it this way, then conlangs would
count, and so would things like codes and ciphers. Usually, though, linguists tend to think you
need a little more than that. For something to be a language, it needs to have sprouted from the amazing mental machinery we all have, known
as Universal Grammar, or UG. That’s because there’s a bunch of stuff
that all of the natural languages of the world do, and then another bunch of stuff that none
of them do. So since every natural language in the world follows UG, you could say any other system that follows those rules also qualifies as a language. From this perspective, a system like Ithkuil wouldn’t make the cut. After all, no language in the world encodes meaning as compactly
and complexly. What about something like Esperanto, then?
Well, when children start learning languages that originally started out as conlangs, things get
a little bit hairier. Babies are born all set to receive linguistic information and then build
a grammar out of it. So any child exposed to a constructed language from birth will try to turn
it into a natural language, just by virtue of being a human being with a regular human
brain. As we’ll see in a later episode, this is
pretty much what happened with sign languages! They might have been created from scratch
at some point, but after generations of use, pretty much any linguist will tell you that they’re
full-fledged natural languages now. So by this definition, the same thing should be true about Esperanto,
too. So at what point does something become a language?
What should we say about Quenya, or Klingon, or Na’vi? Or any other conlang that you might
be making up right now? Well, if you’re paying attention to the rules and parameters
of UG, and you’re giving it a consistent phonology, morphology, and syntax, then you’ve
probably just created a language. It’s only when your language gets processed
through the brains of babies, though, that it can cross over to become a real natural
language, with native speakers. It may change in the process, but then, all natural languages
evolve over time, too. In the end, whether it’s for socio-cultural reasons, to flesh out a fictional
world, or for the sheer fun of creation, people have been building languages from the
ground up for a long time. And if you want to make your language as realistic
as possible, knowing about linguistics is a great place to start. Understanding how human languages
work makes for an awesome foundation, and creating your own can help you learn more about Universal
Grammar, and how rich and complex a language has to be to feel real. And that’s
a solid outcome, by any definition. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you weren’t too distracted by the Klingon opera, you learned that constructed
languages, or conlangs, have been created for centuries for reasons ranging from
faith to philosophy to fun; that some of the most popular ones have been constructed to
bridge cultures, create worlds, or express a different way of thinking; that depending
on your definition of language, conlangs may or may not qualify; and that once babies learn
a conlang, they can morph into naturalized languages. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production
assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics
team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over
to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook,
and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And
we’ll see you next Wednesday. Qapla’!

Danny Hutson

68 thoughts on “Constructed Languages

  1. I really liked this episode.  Clearly we would not have been able to understand it fully if we had not been following all of the other episodes.  This one was fun.  How many conlangs have been shared with the world?

  2. What kind of features to babies add/remove to conlangs to make them more natural? Which is to say, what kind of specific features differentiate conlangs and natural languages?

    Also, I like the I <3 phonetics thingy in the background :3

  3. From my understanding, not all sign languages were actually 'created' in the way conlangs are. When a large enough community of deaf people get together in one place, a sign language emerges naturally. No one person actually creates the rules. Very cool vid though – I'm always glad to see more more ling content on YouTube 🙂

  4. I think you and I are the only people that conlang on youtube 😛 (besides those people who upload those seminars in the worst quality possible)

  5. +2sheol Sorry; we fixed this back in the extra materials, but we didn't catch the typo in time for the video. Hopefully it doesn't influence stuff too much!

  6. you made a mistake language that is made up for books movies and video games of sorts are called artlangs

  7. so when the first languages were created, do you think they followed the same processes as sign language & esperanto did?  As in, did they start out cubular in form, and then got molded to fit Universal Grammar?

  8. No mention of lojban? 🙁 It's a much better contender for an international language as it's grammar isn't based solely on European languages.

  9. Interesting, but I think Lojban deserves a spot in this video, as well as the fact that /r/Conlangs is a subreddit devoted to this pass time.

  10. I've been learning Esperanto for a couple of months now and have started to become interested in linguistics. Your channel is amazing! please keep up the good work 🙂

  11. hi! i really like your videos! 🙂 this is my invented language (doesn't have a name yet and also inspired from japanese but without symbols):
    Dasz! Kise ni Ginga!
    translation: hi/hello! i am Ginga. (Ginga means blooming flower in my language)
    Dazen! (bye)
    Also i really want an opinion on this. is it good?

  12. Every time I see the "[ai] <3 […" plaque, I think of Japanese. 愛 (pronounced あい, romaji "ai") means "love", so I basically see "love heart" when I read it in my head.

  13. Chomski's idea of Universal Grammar isn't popular in the conlanging community. We're generally more interested in the diversity of language – a popular saying amongst us is ANADEW "A natlang's already done it, except worse."

  14. +LingSpace The thing is, people are very good at learning by imitation, pattern recognition, and generalisation. This is just the mental toolkit we need to learn language, but it's the same mental toolkit we use to learn other cultural skills. I've never seen any convincing evidence for Chomsky's black box.

    On the other hand, consider my conlang iljena. Every iljena word is a noun and a verb at the same time. Nothing like that exists amongst human languages. Does that mean it violates Universal Grammar? And if it does, shouldn't it be unlearnable? But iljena's grammar is much simpler than any natlang I know. The idea that a brain that can learn Basque or Innukitut can't learn iljena doesn't make much sense.

  15. I've learnt a few natural and "constructed" languages by now, but I'm of the opinion that Esperanto isn't really constructed anymore, but natural. This is evident by the mutations that have occurred over the last century (example being: German-i-o (Germany) versus German-uj-o (Germany). They both are pronounced about the same (not quite), but the former is the modern usage). Esperanto is also no longer controlled by any one group, but is, like English, Mandarin, etc. prone to evolve and change over time. One would think this would kinda caŭse some problems for keeping the regularity in the grammar, but the balancing act has worked thus far.
    Meanwhile, I would still consider Lojban, which plenty of people have mentioned by now (rightly so), a constructed language, as it hasn't really changed over the last 50ish/30ish years that it has existed, and has a much stricter system for how the language is allowed to change.

    Would also like to mention that languages like Esperanto, or perhaps the logical languages (oooh those would be great 😀 ), would be great for translation purposes as they wouldn't have to worry about irregularities, and would be very precise! They would be especially good to implement on programs like Google Translate. Those are just some ideas!

    Anyway, love the channel! Wouldn't change a thing! 😀

  16. Lojban seems to have been created with a very similar goal to Ithkuil, and it has a much larger following. I was interested in trying to learn Ithkuil for a time, until I realised that it still has some ambiguity and it's not quite as logical as the author claims it is. And even the author said it takes him about ten minutes to look all the right conjugations and put them together when translating a single sentence, so the chance of anybody being able to speak it normally is pretty far fetched. I've yet to learn about anybody who can actually speak it.

  17. I've always wanted to try to learn Ithkuil, because I love the concept of a language that removes all the vagueness of natural languages. It isn't useful for everyday life, but is perfect for, say, scientific papers, legal debates or such documents that require very precise delivery. Ithkuil is practically the language of the brain.

  18. To my knowledge, sign languages are completely natural, and were not "created from scratch". Many are organic descendants of Old French SL. Others were independently born, like the fascinating origin of Nicaraguan SL.

    I suppose that in some ways, American SL was artificial, as the teachers tried to mold it to follow English grammar (ditto Irish SL), but they were never successful, even at the beginning.

    TRiG.

  19. Well, at the moment, I am working on finalising my constructed language, Slovenski. It stems from Slavic and Germanic roots, but I based most of it on Frisian and Baltic tongues._______ "Hey man, she looks lovely," would turn into, "Hij nom, ši cïst diütugel."

  20. For those who are interested in this topic, I can recommend "The search for the perfect language" by Umberto Eco. Thnak you for this video and for all the others.

  21. I'm starting the foundation of my language by eliminating any letters that could simply be substituted and are less used. Then I am going to add sounds based mostly on Latin, the romance languages, and (of course) English.

  22. Đēs lungvéjyé nâđânàsánà lus. Cådö đânàsánà đé'ségånē sĩ. Nyång Vásönēàn éyé xuår sédyé qécàfuö fångà öçdàv, éndyē đénégå’furē ĩtàl ĩtàl dĩnísàn'đuö náluut uv sédyé lusnut. Ĩtàl duösànēà fårö påsvéndà bénä dvuu véns’kēr, đâns ĩtàl duösànēà đēĩ'så vēq påsvéndà bénä dvuu. Cådö nvuu muun’så duösànēà yásàcvéns dvuu fårö skun’där, éndyē mĩlsdu qrönår muun’så nētéf lungvéjyé qåcyönä dvuu xēnēào vēēn nyéngdé, éyé đåcnà fårö  vätnēvur sĩ.  

    That's my made up language called Vasonian! It translates to this:

    This language has a future. Its future is really good. I will share Vasonian with the world one day, and hopefully it will have a lot of speakers. It should never be used for evil, nor should it be used for things like evil. Its proper use should be for sharing new ideas, and maybe those ideas can’t be said in their native language, for whatever the reason is.

    This language still needs some work. But I hope to make it great one day!

  23. Éxulånt vĩédé! Nyång nyångvà lungvéjyé tvu qécàfuö fångà!
    Great video! I hope to share my language with people!

  24. I would love to see a language like Ithkuil (having the biggest phonetic inventory possible) that fully obeys UG, with IPA (or a cursive version of it) as the writing system. Hopefully that would prevent trouble with the phonology of a(n) L2. Ooh and it should also be very agglutinative. And Onomonapedia (I'm too lazy too look up how to spell that rn) get their own symbols

  25. Why does it have to be processed by the brains of babies? The critical period hypothesis has been extensively refuted. There are no serious (only apparent, or perceived) differences between native and the so-called non-native speakers. A language is a language regardless of the age of the speaker. Other variables would make it such.

  26. I never looked at your sub count. I can't believe that someone who has such an awesome channel has >10,000 subscribers

  27. I'd be interested in Khelish. The language spoken by the Quarians in the Mass Effect franchise. It would be interesting to write song lyrics in it.

  28. Is there such things as a constructed UG? As in, someone creates a different but just as functional Universal Grammar for some made up alien species? 1

  29. 8 minutes of video and not even one mention of the most successful constructed language of all: Modern Hebrew

  30. I am fluent in 6 languages. I am 16 and i know dutch, german, english, croatian, serbian, bosnian. Lol
    I also know a little french and afrikaans

  31. This is interesting but how do we know if UG isn't caused by something like one common language that all humans spoke at one time. If all humans spoke a language at one time then wouldn't all languages have things in common with it, or could it have influenced the very evolution of our brain causing us to think like that? Also if we find aliens, what if their UG looks vastly different then ours? Do their languages count as languages?

  32. This is interesting but how do we know if UG isn't caused by something like one common language that all humans spoke at one time. If all humans spoke a language at one time then wouldn't all languages have things in common with it, or could it have influenced the very evolution of our brain causing us to think like that? Also if we find aliens, what if their UG looks vastly different then ours? Do their languages count as languages?

  33. I also made a conlang called Archecese (In archecese it is Arkesaksa) and it is already a conversational language, with a complete grammar ,phonetic alphabet and enough vocabulary to live :3

  34. Zamenhof did not know Spanish and did not derive any words from it. He did derive a boatload of words from German, which he did speak.

  35. Ave! Ej faxa a lango Salutam, e pensa sha est mabona!
    (Hi I am making the language of Salutam, which literally translates to "say hello", and I think it's really good.

  36. I'd say the standard linguistics definition of a language is: "a system of phonology, vocabulary, and syntax used by two or more people to communicate." Tolkien (and many linguistic anthropologists) would add "and has a mythology." to the definition, which is an indirect way of saying an accompanying culture and society associated with that particularly language. Na'vi is too incomplete to meet this definition; Quenya and Sindarin as well. Klingon could potentially meet this definition and Esperanto does. The languages made by enthusiasts (such as myself) on the conlangs subreddit or on various internet forums don't meet the definition at all because in most cases these languages are "sketches" rather than any realistically full systems.

  37. Good video. Just one point though; Na'vi has an apostrophe before the v and should be* pronounced with a glottal stop in between where the glottal stop is.

    *you're speaking English not Na'vi so you don't have to.

  38. Your little factoid has given me an idea….
    Step1. – Construct a language. a Constructed Language

    Step2. – Force babies to learn and use only aforementioned ConLang; most likely compromising their development irreparably.

    Step3. reap the sweet sweet rewards of magic baby “insta-naturalizing” powers when an eventual Nobel-worthy Universal language is churned out by susequently disbanded waves of communicatively exploited human larvas, as soon as all evidence revealing my conlang-refining-infant-slave-labor-dungeon is covered up.

    Everyone wins…. well, everyone WILL once the linguistically stifled butterballs have prematurely kicked the bucket of various reasons (mooostly unrelated)

  39. This is my conlang Kasparion (Kecporene)

    Housn lek vey thullbesal. Is' iihle dohvniin jo ann Conlang! iitn lek vey dohn vejin. Alkum ke' yul thallsuk dehjorriik ec' jelerne.

    Conlangs are so fun to do lol.

  40. You should have mentioned about Balaibalan. It was invented by Ottoman scholars and landholders for secretly communicating with each other. This was the first conlang and Zamenhof was influenced to create Esperanto. So, this conlang is the main reason that we are talking about the conlangs

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