What is a language?
We’ll get to the hobbits and elves soon enough – let’s start with the basics!
We might posit a language to be: a commonly understood set of verbal symbols, written or spoken, that can be organized and arranged according to commonly understood rules to communicate intended meaning.
The next question then arises: where does this ‘common understanding’ come from?
How do societies arrive at such well-entrenched and expansive sets of communicative symbols and rules?
The answer for the vast majority of languages – including basically all of the languages we’re likely to think of when making a list of ‘languages’ – is a natural growth and progression, deriving from the innate human capacity to create symbolic meaning, and to express through vocalization. Simple exclamatory utterances evolve into more complex (and diverse) symbols, and patterns of combination and relation both concretize into norms and grow in newly expressive directions.
Different languages are brought together, influencing one another, sharing words. Sometimes, a single language breaks up into multiple languages (particularly when populations disperse).
Sometimes languages take mysterious, incomprehensible turns – recall our discussion of The Great Vowel Shift!
Today though, we look at a more esoteric slice of linguistic history: constructed languages.
Build it and they will come… to chat.
In a constructed language, those ‘commonly understood’ sets of symbols and rules are premeditated in an intentionally creative intent. Instead of a sort of grassroots bottom-up generation, constructed languages are created with conscious intent, a top-down creation and dissemination of linguistic patterns.
The first record of a constructed language comes from the 12th century – Lingua Ignota. Coming from Hildegard of Bingen, the abbess of Rupertsberg at the time, Lingua Ignota was purported by Hildegard to be a divine language, stemming from divine inspiration. Lingua Ignota represents one type of constructed language called a posteriori construction, meaning “from after;” an a posteriori constructed language is essentially a new set of words that are grammatically ‘mapped onto’ an existing language.
In the case of Lingua Ignota, Hildegard created (or was inspired to relate) new words that would be used within a Latin grammatical context. So, the Lingua Ignota word for ‘father’ would act grammatically identical to the Latin word for ‘father.’
Indeed, in the only written glossary of Lingua Ignota words, Hildegard gives the parallel Latin word with the same meaning. A sample of those words, with their English meanings, are:
Aigonz: deus (God)
Aieganz: angelus (angel)
Zuuenz: sanctus (saint)
Liuionz salvator (saviour)
Diueliz: diabolus (devil)
Though written records remain of just over a thousand Lingua Ignota words, evidence suggests that Hildegard had created at least several thousand words in the Lingua Ignota language. Not overly concerned with teaching others her language, however, Hildegard let Lingua Ignota die with her.
Languages built to last.
Rocketing forward in time, we come to one of the world’s most historically popular constructed languages: Esperanto.
Whereas Lingua Ignota was created with intentions of perfecting human communication with divinity, Esperanto was created in an effort to perfect communication among humans themselves.
L. L. Zamenhof grew up in the latter half of the 19th century in an area of the Russian Empire that was filled with different ethnic groups, each with their own language – and each with a firmly held disdain for every other ethnic group. Zamenhof believed that the language barriers between groups were largely responsible for the spiteful ethnic tensions, and so took on the mission of creating a politically neutral and easy-to-learn language that could unite the world’s different ethnic groups in a common mode of communication, which Zamenhof believed would be a vital ingredient in world peace.
Esperanto was the result.Whereas with Lingua Ignota Hildegard created entirely novel words to map cleanly onto a single language’s grammatical structure, Zamenhof developed a more cosmopolitan language through and through. In both vocabulary and grammar, Zamenhof combined aspects of many languages spoken throughout his contemporary Europe, drawing heavily on Romantic and Germanic roots. As such, Esperanto seems familiar to native speakers of many languages – making it easy to learn for all of them. Consider the sentence below:
La amiko povos ludi en la granda urbo: The friend will be able to play in the big city.
Esperanto gained popularity into the early 20th century, as the notions of human and social perfectibility gained prominence. Although the language’s momentum sharply waned in the mid 20th century forward, it has never slipped entirely from the international radar. In 1954, UNESCO officially recognized Esperanto as a medium for international communication. Today, there are estimated to be anywhere between ten thousand and two million fluent speakers of Esperanto.
Language born of fiction
The 20th century also saw the birth of a new type of constructed language: languages invented as parts of fictional worlds. Perhaps the most popular and highly developed of such languages is Sindarin, the language of the Elves in the fictional world of J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
A professor and professional philologist (one who studies languages), Tolkein was intimately intrigued by the notions of constructed languages. He had, for fun, developed a handful of personal constructed languages as a teen, and actually began developing Sindarin before beginning to write either The Hobbit or any of the Lord of the Rings books.. Sindarin draws from Welsh, Old English, Old Norse, and Icelandic languages; because Tolkein was so intimately knowledgeable of how languages structurally operate, he was able to create in Sindarin a language more genuinely autonomously constructed than most. That is, whereas languages like Lingua Ignota simply ‘replace’ words of one language with made-up words of another, or whereas languages like Esperanto largely combine existing languages, Sindarin is a language with a largely unique and distinct body of word-roots and phoneme constructions.
Perhaps most unique to Sindarin as a constructed language is the depth and scale of mythology and artificial evolution behind it. Tolkein not only constructed a language, but a rich linguistic history to support the language as well, tracing Sindarin through ‘older’ constructed parent languages, and noting its co-evolution with other ‘contemporary’ constructed languages in Tolkein’s Middle-earth world.
Beyond the linguistic context Tolkein provides blooms, of course, the unparalleled mythological world that nestles Sindarin. Just as any natural language is enriched by the cultural traditions and stories that infuse and nourish it, so is Sindarin fostered by Tolkein’s fictional world of Middle-earth.
So – where are we headed?
The exponential growth of constructed languages in the last half-millennium raises some interesting questions. Like never before, we as a species have the understanding to engage our patterns of linguistic communication from a theoretical, top-down perspective. Just as selective breeding long preceded outright genetic manipulation, so has centuries of linguistic self-description and grammatical prescriptivism, in the form of dictionaries and codified grammar rules, preceded a flurry of outright constructed languages.
Top-down genetic manipulation has revolutionized the world of biology – what will the coming decades and centuries bring for the world of language?
Can you think of any other constructed languages?
Do you speak any?
Join the discussion in the comments!
And if you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Wacky Vowels, Shifting Tongues – where we look at one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in linguistics!
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