An Exploration of Invented Languages
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone spoke the same language so there would be no unfortunate incidents in restaurants? The comedian Spike Milligan joked about being in Paris and ordering dinner in French: “I received an alarm clock in a bowl of custard.”
All languages, of course, are invented. No doubt they started out as guttural grunts and gradually took on a shape and form that allowed speakers to understand the difference between, say, “walk” and “run like hell.” Important stuff when you’re out on the plains of Africa looking for berries and a companion notices a lion in search of lunch.
What we are dealing with here though is languages that didn't evolve but were created out of whole cloth and that appear in a complete form.
In 1880, the German Catholic priest Johann Schleyer had a go at inventing an international language. He called it Volapük from the words “Vol” meaning world, and “pük” meaning speech.
Here are the opening lines of the Lord’s Prayer in Volapük:
O Fat obas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola!
Kömomöd monargän ola!”
Perhaps, not surprisingly, Volapük did not catch on. The handful of people who can speak it say “Volapük is living still, but there is no longer the great movement of former years.”
It was quickly pushed aside by Esperanto, which has a simpler grammar.
The mythical Tower of Babel is meant to explain why different languages emerged. After the great flood, so the story goes, a single language was spoken. In the Middle East the people built a city and in it they started construction of a tower that would reach to heaven. God disapproved of the project and changed their speech so they could no longer understand one another and the building was halted.
Dr. L.L. Zamenhof of Poland grew up in a community, Bialystok, where many languages were spoken. So, he devised Esperanto in order that Polish speakers could converse with those whose mother tongue was German, or people with the Russian language could understand those who spoke Yiddish.
The idea was that everybody would learn Esperanto as a second language and that its purpose was not to supplant native tongues. Supporters say it’s easy to learn because its spelling is phonetic and its rules of grammar are applied consistently.
According to Professor Sidney S. Culbert of the University of Washington, Seattle there are about two million people in the world who speak Esperanto.
Here’s the Lord’s Prayer again, this time in Esperanto:
Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo,
sanktigata estu Via nomo."
The French musician Jean François Sudre (1787-1862) got the ball rolling with "conlang," which is the shorthand used in the trade to describe artificial languages. He spent almost 50 years devising a language he hoped would aid international communication.
Omniglot.com notes that “Solresol has seven syllables based on the Western musical scale: do re mi fa so la si, though you don’t have to be familiar with music in order to learn it. The total number of Solresol words is 2,660 …”
(The current Oxford English Dictionary says there are 171,476 words in English).
Sudre spent many years travelling around Europe promoting his language. He would ask audience members to give him a phrase. He would then translate the words into musical notes and play them on a violin. His assistant, who would be kept from hearing which phrase was used, would then come onto the stage and speak the phrase, based on his reading of the music.
But, for those who don’t have perfect pitch, Solresol is fraught with dangers. Apparently, it’s quite easy to mishear “fa-la-la-sol” (asthma) as “sol-la-la-sol” (poop).
A small number of devotees communicate via the Internet in Solresol.
From Klingon (Star Trek) to Elvish (Lord of the Rings) there are many languages that have been created by fiction writers. Some of these made up languages are just gobbledygook, but some are completely and cleverly constructed.
George R.R. Martin invented the nomadic Dothraki people in his fantasy novels that morphed into The Game of Thrones. For the television series, producers turned to David Peterson of the Language Creation Society (bet you didn’t know there was such a thing).
Peterson invents languages for a living. An article in Atlantic magazine lists some of the 40 or so languages he has created:
- Kinuk’aaz is spoken by aliens in the science fiction show Defiance;
- Druids on MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles speak Noalath; and,
- Trigedasleng is an English dialect in The 100.
Paul Frommer is a linguistics professor at the University of Southern California. He developed Na’vi for the 2009 movie Avatar.
All of these invented languages have enthusiasts who have created dictionaries and translations. There are also online instruction videos.
CBS Reporter Charles Kuralt Encounters Boontling and Is Confused.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote about the Vogon people. One of their many claims to infamy was that they were the “third worst authors of poetry in the universe.”
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee ...”
It's enough to cause Spellcheck to freeze.
Stanley Unwin was a British comedian who styled himself “Professor” without benefit of the usual paperwork that goes along with such a distinction. The Guardian noted in its obituary that Unwin was a purveyor of “plausible malapropisms, grammatical distortions, and straight-faced nonsense.”
The salutation of a website devoted to Unwin’s distorted language reads “Hi ho and a jolly welcode to all you surfwide’n interwebber lopers. Here beholdy manifold things Stanley Unwinmost―all deep joy and thorkus for great laugh’n tittery. O yes.”
- In 2012, 23-year-old Jossie Sockertopp and 29-year-old Sonnie Gustavsson travelled from their homes in Sweden to attend a Star Trek convention in Britain. At the same time, the couple got married in a Klingon wedding ceremony.
- The movie La Inkubo is a 1965 film created in Esperanto. It was a low-budget horror flick starring William Shatner. It’s said Mr. Shatner chooses not to remember the epic and that Esperantists also find it objectionable because of the poor pronunciation of the actors.
- UNESCO says “At least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered.”
- There are several places in the world where whistling languages have developed. Here’s a clip from Greece.
- International Community of Friends of Volapük.
- “Solresol.” Omniglot.org, undated.
- “The Man Who Invented Dothraki.” William Brennan, The Atlantic, April 2016.
- “The Top 10: Invented Languages.” John Rentoul, The Independent, September 10, 2016.
- "Stanley Unwin." The Guardian, January 15, 2002.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor