Invented languages: They're not just for Klingons anymore

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In any language, Sonja Elen Kisa was depressed.

The world was overwhelming, and the thoughts that swirled through her mind in French, English, German or Esperanto echoed that.

So Ms. Kisa, 28, a student and translator in Toronto, decided to create her own language, something simple that would help clarify her thinking. She called it Toki Pona -- "good language" -- and gave it just 120 words.

"Ale li pona," she told herself. "Everything will be OK."

Ms. Kisa eventually sorted through her thoughts and, to her great surprise, her language took off, with more than 100 speakers today, singing Toki Pona songs, writing Toki Pona poems and chatting with Toki Pona words.

It's all part of a weirdly Babel-esque boom of new languages. Once the private arena practice of J.R.R. Tolkien, Esperanto speakers and grunting Klingon fanatics, invented languages have flourished on the Internet and begun creeping into the public domain.

The Web site Langmaker.com now lists more than 1,000 language inventors and 1,902 made-up languages, from Ayvarith to Zyem .

The language inventors have, of course, created a word to describe what they do -- "conlang," short for constructed languages.

Created languages may have no hope of supplanting the real thing, but for most conlangers, that is hardly the goal. Hobbyists such as Ms. Kisa find it fun or therapeutic. Linguists can use conlangs to dissect how real language works. For a select few who write fiction or work for Hollywood, conlanging can even be a moneymaker.

But to the majority of linguaphiles, conlangs are simply art. Their palette holds not paints but the buzz of the letter "z," the hiss of an "s," the trill of an Italian "r."

And sometimes the howl of a Klingon scream: "Hab SoSlI' Quch!"

"Your mother has a smooth forehead!"

In this realm of art, Toki Pona is white canvas with scattered brush strokes of primary colors.

Ms. Kisa created Toki Pona as an exercise in minimalism, looking for the core vocabulary necessary to communicate. With only 120 words, a Toki Pona speaker must combine words to express more complicated ideas. For example, the Toki Pona phrase for "friend" is jan pona (the "j" sounds like a "y"), literally "good person".

Ms. Kisa, who is studying speech language therapy, tried to focus Toki Pona's vocabulary on basic, positive concepts.

"It has sort of a Zen or Taoist nature to it," Ms. Kisa said.

Tolkien liked to call invented language his "secret vice." He spent hours at the solitary hobby, designing grammars and modifying words from Latin, Finnish, Welsh and other languages.

Eventually, his languages needed tongues to speak them, and those speakers needed a place to live. And thus Middle-Earth was born, with Tolkien's languages becoming the Sindarin and Quenya of the Elves, the Khuzdul of the Dwarves, and the Black Speech of the Orcs.

In the 12th century, the nun Hildegard of Bingen developed a rudimentary conlang she called Lingua Ignota, Latin for "unknown language" No one knows its purpose. All that survives is a short passage and a list of 1,012 terms arranged from the highest form, "God," to the lowest, "cricket."

Esperanto was created in the late 19th century by Polish doctor Ludovic Zamenhof. His dream was to give humanity a common international language that would be simple to learn. Esperanto's vocabulary is small, word order does not matter and there are no irregular verbs.

"Gi estas iom lingvo idealisma," said William B. Harris, director of the central office of the Esperanto League for North America, in California. "It's somewhat of an idealistic language."

Today, as many as 2 million people speak Esperanto, which conlangers call an "auxlang," or auxiliary language.

Learning is the easy part. Actually creating a language is a task only for the very tenacious. It took Ms. Kisa a year to put hers together, and her language was built to be basic.

It is not enough simply to replace existing words with invented ones. To a conlanger, such a construction would be a mere code.

The conlanger considers many factors, starting with the sound of the language. Linguists call it phonaesthetics; Germans call it Sprachgefuhl -- "speech feeling."

Tricky to define, it's that certain quality that makes French the language of love and German the language that "makes you want to conquer Poland," said John Quijada, a Web site developer in Sacramento, Calif., who created Ithkuil.

There are rules to this game. Human languages -- known as "natlangs," for natural languages -- follow universal linguistic patterns. For example, few human languages use the raspberry sound, but all have an "ah" sound. To create a pseudo-natlang, the conlanger also should follow those rules.

Of course, there are instances when one doesn't want to follow the rules. In creating Klingon for "Star Trek," Marc Okrand , 59, said, "I looked at all those kinds of rules and then violated them on purpose."

If a conlang is to be a language for nonhumans, the conlanger must consider their biology -- if they lack teeth or vocal cords, the language's sounds will be constrained accordingly.

The conlanger also must ponder the grammar. For example, will the word order be subject-verb-object, as in English, or perhaps object-subject-verb, following the example of Yoda?

Mr. Okrand chose the rarest of grammatical structures, object-verb-subject. A Klingon would say, "The Enterprise boarded I." He purposely picked sounds that never would be found together in the same human language.

All this has added up to one alien manner of speech.

The challenge has not deterred serious Klingonists, who number perhaps a few hundred worldwide. Djorn X. Oqvist, 33, a Swedish linguistics student and founder of the Klingon Academy, said you must be creative with Klingon's 2,600 words.

For example, he said, there is no way to say: "Park the car." No problem. Klingon speakers "dock" their vehicles.

The difference between "park" and "dock" illustrates how languages can talk about similar things but conjure subtly different images.

The phenomenon was noted by early 20th-century linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf . They proposed a theory that language had the power to broaden or constrain a speaker's thoughts. That is, it is hard to think about concepts without the specific words to express them.

In 1955, sociologist James Cooke Brown came up with an idea to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, training students in a new language and looking at how their thinking changed.

He knew he could not use a natlang -- it would be impossible to separate language from the influence of culture. So Brown invented a culture less language, Loglan -- short for "logical language."

Mr. Brown borrowed vocabulary from English, French, German, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.

Loglan was designed to be free of irregularity and ambiguity. The Loglan lexicon, containing more than 10,000 words, is made up of five-letter root words and short, one- or two-letter modifiers. The roots can be combined to make new six-letter words.



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