Conlang stereotypes and dead horses 2013-01-04 05:31:35
Head Curator of Lilitic Antiquities

Conlang stereotypes and dead horses

This has been stewing around in my head for a little while now. Seems like the sort of thing I intended to write here. Yes, the hour is odd. No, I'm not having trouble sleeping. You are.

Retrospective admission: this article is nonsense. At the time I'd only seen newbie languages and didn't realise how large the conlang community was. Ignore this.

1. Purely synthetic or minimalist vocabularies. Ithkuil. Toki Pona. If it were a good idea, humans would have thought of it already. Are you sure you don't really want to be studying Turing tarpits? I may very well swallow my tongue if someone tries to pass a tarpit off as a natural language.

The aesthetic appeal of such a language can never overcome its shameful failure to encode efficiently. Even John Wilkins's original system, most likely the most polished, by its very nature is a clumsy, wasteful choose-your-own-adventure of word assembly.

2. Sapir-Whorf busters. Láadan. Loglan and Lojban. (And Ithkuil again.) Obviously this ship by its very nature has largely sailed, but authors of such systems must come to face the unpleasant reality that they will forever be branded by their accomplishments. For some it is the awkward and more-than-slightly antisocial misgivings of one brief moment in the history of an altogether respectable activist movement; for others it is being a robot.

3. International auxiliary languages. These set out with the noble intentions of deliberately failing to comprehend how languages become popular in the first place; in retrospect, they are an abomination in the landscape of naturally evolving social trends. Furthermore, whatever you write will brand you with the stigma of the cultural biases that go into your vocabulary, just like Sapir-Whorf, hence accusations of Esperanto of being too European. If you absolutely, positively cannot accept one of the perfectly good living, natural languages that is spoken by more than a billion people on the planet (English, French, Spanish, Chinese...) then my advice is to just get it over with and bust out the Latin. No one complains about Latin.

4. Novel languages in the Romance family. This is essentially a very long-winded way of saying "I wish to learn Romanian, but if I do, then I will have only Romanians to talk to." Replace 'Romanian' with whichever Romance language yours most closely resembles.

5. Novel languages in the Germanic family. This is the same thing as the above, except it invokes additional stereotypes about Mediaeval Europe, and usually more beer.

6. Artlangs with no justification. Oh, really. You have some elves, and they talk to each other. Tell me, what did they speak before now? Do they have any linguistic influences from adjacent cultures? Do they really write those wildly cryptic and wasteful runes for every single letter, every day of their lives? ... admittedly everyone's first language probably looks like this at first, but I don't think that's the sort of thing you're supposed to share. At least make a commitment to maintaining it. Or accept criticism.

When a language is created purely for artistic expression, it needs to be handled and considered in the same sense. This can be particularly challenging for conlangs as they take a very long time to construct and are generally deeply personal, but without some critical apparatus in place to review and measure the quality of a constructed language, the notion of conlangs as art is an extremely vacuous one.

It's like Instagramming your breakfast. The artist has no pressures acting on him or her to improve in skill; no direction; no model. Perhaps we sometimes treat Tolkien as some source or measure of excellence, but that is only sufficient for examining a handful of metrics, and it is a very old design, and few conlangers have the background to really appreciate his results in the context of European philology, so what good is he as a measuring stick for something with no relationship to Indo-European in its morphology and syntax, much less a purely logical language?

I think there is nothing more frustrating than writers who toil without recognition or facilities to improve their skills; it is so very easy to write a book that no one will read. This is a problem with any and all fantasy, surely, and to a tiny extent efforts like Conlangery's interviews seem to be of value in this department, but I have still not seen an attempt to treat constructed languages en masse as works of art.

Maybe that's because they're so unwieldy to discuss; a well-developed language requires much study to learn enough vocabulary to pick up on idioms and the style of thinking involved in its communication. (I bet tools could help with that.) But there should still be many things that can be analysed, like texture and simplicity vs. precision of expression, and how well the language captures the traits ascribed to its fictional speakers by its inventor. Even if it proves humanly impossible to actually review constructed languages at a large scale, it is at least an activity we should start discussing criteria for. Without a doubt there are bad conlangs, and the conlang community sorely needs a nudge out of its isolationist, unreflective shell.
Samantics comment   8452.638 tgc / 2013.01 ce