jump to navigation

The Wonderful World of Constructed Languages January 8, 2010

Posted by Sean Welsh in language.

I should start by defining what I mean by a constructed language as the definitions available online differ slightly along with the abbreviations.

A constructed language is one that is made up. Invented. Fabricated. Constructed by either a lone creator (in most cases) or a group (typically a mailing list). A constructed language can be contrasted to a natural language such as English.

The most famous constructed languages (by this I mean the ones I heard of or knew about before I started Googling the subject) are Elvish, Esperanto, Newspeak and Klingon. Constructed languages can be subdivided into two main kinds. There are those created primarily for artistic purposes.  E.g. Tolkein made up Elvish in Lord of the Rings, Orwell made up Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty Four.  Burgess made up Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. Klingon was made up for Star Trek. Tolkein designed the variants of Elvish to be beautiful and indeed they are. The vision of Liv Tyler speaking Elvish to Hugo Weaving in the movie is indeed a beautiful sounding (as well as looking) thing. Klingon was designed phonetically to sound warlike and alien. Newspeak was designed to make political points. But none of these artistic constructed languages are really intended to be spoken.  Though Klingon and Elvish do have enthusiasts who actually speak the languages.

Esperanto is a different beast. It was designed as an international auxilary language. You can go down to the bookshop and pick up a Teach Yourself Esperanto type book (if it is a big bookshop). There are a stack of similar type languages to Esperanto. Variants and competitors such as Ido and Interlingua and dozens perhaps hundreds more.

As one constuctor of a language put it. Supply of constructed languages is far greater than demand for them!

Some of these esoteric and (as yet) little spoken and little known languages are conceptually very interesting. Lobjan has some very “out there” features that I as yet barely understand but certainly I am interested in learning more.

International auxiliary languages seek to be everyone’s second language. There are various design considerations. Cultural and phonetic neutrality are often mentioned as desirable features along with grammatical simplicity and regularity. None of them have enjoyed success as second languages comparable to natural languages. There are way more speakers of English as a Foreign Language than there are speakers of Esperanto or Interlingua.

Then there are simplified languages. A simplified language starts with a natural language and seeks to regularize and simplify it for teaching/ease of learning purposes. Indonesian and Simplified Mandarin are examples. There have been a series of attempts to simplify and regularize English. Notably Basic English, Regularized Inglish, Simplified English and Globish.

I should also mention computer languages. Computer languages are of course entirely different animals to human spoken languages. Human languages are designed to enable emotional feeling sentient creatures to communicate. Computer languages are instructions to be obeyed by mindless number crunching machines. (I am of the view that anyone who thinks computers are intelligent clearly does not know how to write software. It is the programmer that is intelligent though there is some interesting research going on in Artificial Intelligence. That said, when you scratch AI you will find that is the code that is clever not the machine.)

Computer languages have very strict syntax rules. Omit a semi-colon at your peril. AI is often described as fast but brittle. Yes, Deep Blue can beat Kasparov at Chess but if you ask it to play Draughts or Cluedo well – it’s stuffed (unless someone installs the relevant software). Kasparov could with vastly more adaptable human intelligence deal with Draughts or Cluedo and figure out pretty much any other kind of game.

It seems to me that a next generation international auxiliary language (IAL) will draw on all these language traditions. It would import its vocabulary from natural languages. It will take its grammar from simplified and/or auxiliary languages and it will have some technologically advanced features drawn from computer languages.

Jörg Rhiemeier has a page describing the kind of features an IAL should have at this url http://www.joerg-rhiemeier.de/Conlang/auxlang-design.html.

Specifically, a next generation IAL will have the following:

Simplified English phonology
Basic ASCII character set
Syllable timed
Schwa deprecated
No irregularity
No cases
No gender
No plurals
No agreement of adjectives
No tenses, moods or aspects for verbs
No articles
No relative clauses
No phrasal verbs
SVO syntax
An official defined Core vocabulary as per Basic English/Newspeak but NOT a closed vocabulary
A posteriori / Anglocentric (or rather Globish)
Standard protocols for well-defined common situations (e.g. clear customs, catch taxi, check-in to hotel)
(Compare to SMTP in computing)
No near and close demonstratives
No older/younger pronouns
No honorific grammar (We may tolerate honorific titles)
Phonetic spelling rendered in ASCII as per Regularized Inglish but relentlessly consistent

I am working on a more detailed proposal for a hybrid constructed language assembled from simplified/auxiliary/computer language components which I shall put out in due course.

Watch this space…



1. Bill Chapman - January 10, 2010

I wish you well,but don’t rule out Esperanto too quickly. I would like to argue the case for wider Esperanto as the international language. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years. Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise.

It may not be perfect, but it does the job.

2. Sean Welsh - January 12, 2010

Hi Bill,

Thanks for the comment. I have looked at Esperanto and numerous other constructed languages (Interlingua, Lojlan and the like).

My problem with Esperanto is that it has been around for 100 years but still has a pretty low adoption rate compared to the real stars in the auxiliary language space which are the de facto leader (English) and my personal favorite (Indonesian). English is not a planned language of course but Indonesian is – well it is more a simplification of an existing language (the Riau Islands dialect of Malay).

It seems to me that an Indonesian style simplification of English would be an interesting experiment. The guys who cooked up Globish assert that English needs to be taken out of the hands of native speakers. I concur but the Globish proposal is far too mild IMHO. I think something that makes the English native speaker (the laziest language learner on God’s Earth) work harder would be a good thing 🙂

It seems to me that to succeed an auxiliary language needs political clout as well as appealing linguistic design. This is the main reason for the success of Indonesian as an interisland auxiliary language. Nothing quite like a bunch of guerrillas toting guns saying “this the language of national liberation, learn it” to give your auxlang a kickstart in the adoption stakes!



3. Brian Barker - January 13, 2010

Globish reminds me of a project called “Basic English” Unfortunately this failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use 🙂

So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.

As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

4. Brian Barker - January 13, 2010

It’s unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

After a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, WordPress and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

5. Sean Welsh - January 19, 2010

Hi Brian,

I concur with your observations about Globish. While the Globish book does lament the takeover of international meetings by English native speakers making jokes and speaking in esoteric and slang terms – basically causing the non-native speakers to stop talking, Globish does little to stop English native speakers doing this apart from prescribing a 1,500 to 5,000 word vocabulary. Native speakers tend to forget the word limit.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: