Conlanging: An Introduction to the Art of Language

Conlanging: An Introduction to the Art of Language


Author: Don Boozer
MS Date: 05-23-2013
FL Date: 06-01-2013
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Citation: Boozer, Don. 2013. «Conlanging: An Introduction
to the Art of Language Creation.”
FL-000015-00, Fiat Lingua, . Web. 01 Jun. 2013.!

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~ Conlanging ~
An Introduction to the Art of Language Creation

Don Boozer

Hello! Guten Tag! Bonjour! ¡Hola! Konnichiwa!

No doubt many people will recognize these as ways to say “Hello” in German, French,

Spanish, and Japanese. All of these, along with lesser-known languages such as Basque,
Georgian, Quechua, and even extinct languages like Etruscan, Gothic, and Akkadian, all have
one thing in common: They evolved naturally, arising organically within a group of people
through various natural forces. No single person defined their vocabularies, designed their
grammars, or deliberately decided to create them.

Saluton! Mae govannen! nuqneH! M’athchomaroon!

Fewer people may recognize these as ways to say “Hello!” in Esperanto, Sindarin,
Klingon, and Dothraki. All of these are constructed languages. Constructed languages, or
conlangs, stand at the other end of the spectrum from languages like German, French,
Quechua, and Gothic. In conlangs, a single person (or a small group) defined the vocabulary,
designed the grammar, and deliberately decided to create a language. Why would someone
want to do this when there are so many «real» languages to learn? The reasons are many and
varied, from the simple artistic desire to play with linguistic concepts to the obsession to
provide the world with a universal language. Conlangers (those who construct languages)
bring a myriad of skills, tastes, and goals to the art and craft of conlanging. Conlanging is a
worldwide phenomenon practiced by people of all ages. Questions some may ask about
conlanging include “How do you go about inventing a whole language?” and “Why would you
want to do that anyway?”

Although not as long as naturally-occurring languages, the long and illustrious pedigree

of conlanging stretches from ancient Greece to the present-day, and the debate over language
creation as a viable endeavor can be traced back as far. Although not a conlanger, the character
of Hermogenes in Plato’s dialogue Cratylus espouses the basic concepts behind the art and
craft of conlanging by arguing that men apply «a piece of their own voice…to the thing.» Another
ancient Greek, Athenaeus of Naucratis, in Book III of his The Deipnosophists, tells the story
of two figures that could very well be called ancient conlangers: Dionysius of Sicily and
Alexarchus. Dionysius of Sicily made up words like menandros “virgin” (from menei “waiting”
and andra “husband”) and menekratēs “pillar” (from menei «it remains in one place” and
kratei “it is strong»), parthenos and stulos in standard Greek of the time. Athenaeus also
recounts the story of Alexarchus who “introduced a peculiar vocabulary, referring to a rooster


as a “dawn-crier,” a barber as a “mortal-shaver,” a drachma as “worked silver”…and a herald
as an aputēs [from ēputa “loud-voiced”]. «He once wrote something…to the public authorities in
Casandreia…As for what this letter says, in my opinion not even the Pythian god could make
sense of it.” Conlanging did not get any respect from Athenaeus.

Many religions recount spiritual or mystical origins for the creation of language. The

Judeo-Christian tradition has Adam giving “names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to
every beast of the field”. (Genesis 2:19-20) Adam could be considered one of the first
conlangers mentioned in literature. This tradition also attributes the multiplicity of languages
in existence to the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9). One of the first well-attested
conlangs also has a spiritual aspect to its origin. St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century-CE
German abbess, described a language revealed to her as a “divine revelation” in visions.
Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” in Latin) was essentially an extensive list of
words (defining concepts from the spiritual to the mundane) which she used with Latin to
compose hymns. Examples of words in the Lingua Ignota include:

● Aieganz = “angel”
● Díuueliz = “Devil”
● Vanix = “woman”
● Jur = “man”
● Lasinz = “a strand or lock of hair”
● Fugizlo = “privy-cleaner” or “filth-talker”

Along with her language, Hildegard also had a script with which to write the Lingua Ignota
known as the Litterae Ignotae or «unknown letters». Conlangs with spiritual overtones were
not isolated to the West, however, as shown by Balaibalan (or Bâleybelen) which blended
inspiration from Turkish, Arabic, and Persian in the 1500s CE.

The spiritual gave way to more humanistic goals in conlanging in the 17th century.
During this time, the goal of creating a “universal” auxiliary language or auxlang, which would
transcend nations and unify peoples, began to take place. As far back as the 1620s, one finds
universal language schemes proposed by authors and thinkers like Paul Guldin (who calculated
the number of possible locutions generated by 23 letters), Marin Mersenne (who considered
the idea of a universal language in his Harmonie universelle), Francis Lodwick (who
published the first full universal language scheme in 1647 in his A common writing:
whereby two, although not understanding one the others language, yet by the
helpe thereof, may communicate their minds one to another), and René Descartes
(who, in a letter to Marin Mersenne in 1629, advocated for a universal language). In 1661,
George Dalgarno, a Scottish intellectual, wrote Ars signorum which contains the first
proposed universal language based on a systematic categorization of reality from animals,
humans, and plants to thoughts, feelings, and beyond. John Wilkins would refine and expand on
Delgarno’s ideas in his 1668 work An essay towards a real character and a
philosophical language which laid out both the categorization of reality and a full-fledged
universal language based on that classification. The 19th and early 20th centuries were littered


with innumerable attempts at creating the perfect auxlang including Volapük, Ido, Ro,
Weltsprache, Solresol (a language which could be spoken, signed, sent by semaphore, and even
expressed by numbers or colors), Latino sine flexione (“Latin without inflections”), and many
others including Esperanto.

The most famous (and arguably most successful) auxlang is Esperanto and was created

by L.L. Zamenhof in the late 1800s. Born a Russian-speaking Jew in what is now Poland,
Zamenhof saw first-hand the trouble caused by ethnic and nationalistic tension. His theory was
that tolerance could be fostered by use of a language unencumbered by a connection to a
specific country, and Zamenhof dedicated himself to creating just such a language. Along with a
group of friends in school, the young idealist created a workable language, but his father
(uneasy about the reaction to a “secret” language in their contemporary political climate)
burned all of the notebooks containing the language while Zamenhof was away at the University
of Warsaw. By 1887, Zamenhof had reconstituted his work and published a textbook entitled
Lingvo Internacia under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (“Dr. Hopeful” in his new language).
The language Lingvo Internacia quickly became referred to by the pseudonym of its author,
and Esperanto was born. Over the years, the language has ebbed and flowed, but today there
are an estimated two-million Esperanto speakers worldwide. The Internet has also opened up
unlimited possibilities with lively online communities and informational websites using
Esperanto with Lernu! being a good place to start for those curious about the language.
Google and Wikipedia (Vikipedio) are even available in the language. Zamenhof’s
birthday, December 15, continues to be celebrated as Esperanto Day or Esperanto-Tago.

Returning to the 16th and 17th centuries, this time period also saw the rise of another

kind of conlang in addition to the auxlang: A language to add verisimilitude to fictional worlds.
These are often known as artlangs for artistic languages (i.e., conlangs used in or as a work of
art). One of the earliest examples of this is Sir Thomas More’s language and script which
accompanied his Utopia published in 1516. Another early artlang is the fictional language in
François Rabelais’ 1532 work Gargantua and Pantagruel. The first English-language piece
of science fiction, Francis Godwin’s The man in the moone or A discourse of a voyage
thither (written under his pseudonym Domingo Gonsales) described a “musical” Lunar
language. Other early examples of artlangs used in fiction are the snippets of Lilliputian (e.g.,
Quinbus Flestrin “Man-Mountain”, their name for Gulliver), Houyhnhnm (intelligent horses
which call themselves in their own language «the perfection of nature»), and others in Jonathan
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, originally published in 1726.

Arguably the most famous artlanger (a conlanger that creates artistic languages) was
J.R.R. Tolkien, best known for his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What
most people don’t know is that Tolkien was, first and foremost, a “language-maker”. In fact, in
a letter to his son Christopher dated Feb. 21, 1958, Tolkien says “Nobody believes me when I
say that [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language
agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many)


asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an allegory. And I said it was an effort to
create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen si-‘la lu-‘menn omentielmo [‘A star
shines on the hour of our meeting’], and that the phrase long antedated the book.” Two of
Tolkien’s “Elvish” languages, Quenya and Sindarin, are the best-known and came to even more
prominence with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings released in the
early 2000s when Jackson insisted on having dialogue in the films in Tolkien’s languages.

As entertainment diversified into new venues like television and film, conlangs began to
be utilized in those media as well. The Star Trek franchise (which began as a television series
in the late 1960s) gave the world one of the most widely-recognized conlangs: Klingon (or to
use the “native” word for the language: tlhIngan Hol). The Klingon language, designed to sound
harsh and alien, was created for Star Trek’s quintessential warrior alien species by Mark
Okrand. Using a few lines in Klingon written by James Doohan (“Scotty” on the original series)
for the first Star Trek motion picture as his jumping-off point, Okrand created the Klingon for
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The language though took on a life of its when
Okrand published several books on the language (including the essential Klingon
Dictionary). Fans of the language founded the Klingon Language Institute (KLI) in 1992.
Some of the KLI’s most memorable accomplishments are full Klingon translations of
Shakespeare plays, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and portions of the Bible. The Shakespeare
translations came about as a result of a line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
where a character states “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in
the original Klingon.” Another character then recites the line taH pagh taHbe’ “To be or not to
be.” Members of the KLI took up the challenge of “restoring” Shakespeare to its “original

And with Klingon, we arrive at the present-day. Conlangs of all kinds have proliferated,
and a vibrant community has grown up thanks to the Internet. There are a number of thriving
listservs and discussion boards including Conlang-L (founded in 1991, the oldest
conlang-related mailing list), Zompist Bulletin Board (a popular forum for discussing
conlangs, conlanging, linguistics, and more), and FrathWiki (a collaborative wiki collecting
conlang-related information). The Language Creation Society was founded in 2007 in part
to support the Language Creation Conferences (LCC), in-person conferences which allow
conlangers to present papers, hold workshops, and share ideas with other conlangers and those
curious about language creation.

So, why would someone want to create a language? What motivates conlangers? Two

pieces in particular, separated by more than 70 years, lay out a solid case for why people may
want to create languages and why this is a legitimate pursuit. The first is an eloquent answer to
these questions from an essay written in 1931 by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien himself
entitled “A Secret Vice” from the idea that language creation is a solitary effort with
practitioners of the art rarely having contact with each other. Tolkien’s fascination with
language went back to his boyhood in the early 1900s when he mastered Latin and Greek, was


passably proficient in Gothic and Finnish, and was already coming up with languages of his own.
Tolkien speaks eloquently about the “linguistic faculty” and its importance in language creation:
“The linguistic faculty … is more highly developed in others, and may lead not only to polyglots
but to poets; to savourers of linguistic flavours, to learners and users of tongues, who take
pleasure in the exercise.” He goes on to say that the “instinct for ‘linguistic invention’ – the
fitting of notion to oral symbol, and pleasure in contemplating the new relation established is
rational, and not perverted. In these invented languages the pleasure is more keen than it can
be even in learning a new language – keen though it is to some people in that case – because
more personal and fresh, more open to experiment of trial and error. And it is capable of
developing into an art, with refinement of the construction of the symbol…”

The other much more recent apologia for language creation is entitled The Conlang

Manifesto written by David J. Peterson. The “Manifesto” began as a humble post to the
CONLANG-L listserv in January of 2002. Being that Peterson is (like Tolkien) a conlanger, he
gives an impassioned defense of the craft even though to him “it seems odd to have to defend
language creation.” In addition to a well-reasoned argument as to the legitimacy of conlanging,
Peterson points out that conlangers appreciate “the multifariousness and beauty of language”
and conlanging “allows one to better understand language itself.”

With that historical background and defense of the art of conlanging, we can now take a

closer look at several language creators and examples of their work. This is only a very, very
small fraction of the possible conlangs and conlangers that could be mentioned. Some of the
following are well-known in popular culture, others are only encountered on the Internet. A
good source for conlangs used in books and movies is The Conlanger’s Library. An extensive list
of conlangs is available at FrathWiki as well. Those interested in exploring in more depth are
encouraged to check out these resources.

David Peterson (mentioned above as the author of “The Conlang Manifesto”) is best

known for being the creator of Dothraki, spoken on HBO’s Game of Thrones television series.
Arguably one of the most famous pieces of dialogue in Dothraki is the speech given by Khal
Drogo in the seventh episode of season one. Here is an excerpt from that speech (the full
transcript can be found on the Learn Dothraki Forum):

Anha vidrik khalasares anni jim, finaan nakhoe rhaesheser, majin adothrak hrazef ido

yomme Havazzhifi Kazga ven et vo khal avvos.

“I will take my khalasar west to where the world ends and ride wooden horses across the

black salt sea as no khal has done before.”

In addition to Dothraki, Peterson has created many other languages and also is currently

“Alien Language and Culture Consultant” for the Syfy Channel series Defiance. The two
languages that Peterson has created (so far) for that project are Irathient and Castithan which
also have their own native scripts.

John Quijada’s creation, Ithkuil, represents a third category of conlang (in addition to


artlangs and auxlangs), the engelang or “engineered language” which is engineered or designed
with a specific purpose in mind or to test a specific hypothesis about language. “Ithkuil’s
primary purpose,” according to Quijada, “is to demonstrate how human language could be used
to convey much deeper levels of human cognition and semantic nuance/exactitude than are
found in natural human languages.” A by-product of this purpose is a more concise language as
well. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase can be described in exacting
detail in Ithkuil with only six words:

Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu.

“An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a
staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly-integrated ambulatory bodily movements
which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent
whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically.”
Quijada and his creation was also featured in an article entitled “Utopian for Beginners”
written by Joshua Foer for the December 2012 issue The New Yorker.

Kēlen, created by Sylvia Sotomayor, is a “verb-less” conlang with fantastic writing
systems including an elaborate interlaced alphabet. Sotomayor’s creation is a blend of engelang
(Is it possible to create a language without verbs?) and artlang (with a fictional culture that
speaks the language). A number of texts demonstrating the verb-less-ness of the language are
translated at the website dedicated to Kēlen including the fable of the North Wind and the Sun:
se mūrāna masīrien; se malō; iēlte teteñ anþēŋŋeni ien la ma pa antāken anānexa makēñ:
“The north wind. The sun. Once long ago they had an argument over who had the most
strength.” What appear as verbs in these lines are actually translations of verb-less sentences
in Kēlen.

Mark Rosenfelder (aka Zompist) has created an entire world with multiple families of
languages. One is Verdurian which looks like this (as excerpted from a Verdurian newspaper

Alric Dalu miže kalloga soan rëcoran, eglérce so trastoštát nabrei Dorotáďei Müseii, ke

befelme so prosizel, er soa řavica er soi zoni facore lië. Soa ana daluy, Tilye saza, cumlädne
piro zië, er so tihy medro zië cum soen kallogin er orátin incretre soem uemem beďecië.

“King Alric addressed those present, commending the excellence of Captain Dorotáď

Müsey, the commander of the expedition, and the courage and experience of his crew. Crown
Princess Tilye accompanied her father, and her quiet dignity amid the speeches and prayers
gladdened the hearts of observers.”

Rosenfelder is also the author of the highly-influential Language Construction Kit as well

as the moderator of the Zompist Bulletin Board mentioned above.

So, how does one go about even starting to create a language from scratch? Mark
Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit (LCK) is a great place to start. The Kit goes through
the basic process of language creation step-by-step from choosing the sounds one wants to
incorporate to creating conlang dialects. But the LCK isn’t the only resource or only way to


begin to create a language. There are various levels of conlanging and some are more
entry-level than others. For example, a basic “naming language” can be constructed to provide
names to fictional characters or places. These kinds of conlangs have a very limited vocabulary,
no need for grammar, and can be a good exercise in playing with the sounds of language. At the
other end are the families of conlangs created by Tolkien, Rosenfelder, and others. These
conlangs begin with a proto-conlang from which multiple dialects can be constructed. Peterson
also began his creation process for Dothraki, Castithan, and Irathient with an earlier form of the
languages and “evolved” the version used in the television series from those. One sample text
that many conlangers use to “test drive” their language is, fittingly enough, the story of the
Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. For those curious about creating their own language, there
are several tutorials to help people experiment with conlanging at the Education page of The
Conlanger’s Library.

Even if one decides not to engage in conlanging oneself, he or she can still come to

appreciate the work that goes into creating languages like Quenya, Klingon, Dothraki,
Esperanto or any other of the myriad conlangs used in literature, movies, television, or
society-at-large. Conlanging can be appreciated as an art form the same as a piece of music or a
painting. Even if one doesn’t play a musical instrument or paint, one can enjoy the auditory and
visual pleasure of taking each of these in. When one hears or reads a conlang in a movie, for
example, if it’s well done, one can enjoy the verisimilitude it provides. Does it fit the character
speaking it well? Does the conlang convey a deeper cultural motif and add to the narrative?
Does the actor speak it fluently, giving a sense that it’s a natural way to communicate?

So, in conclusion, conlanging has a long and illustrious pedigree. While it may be an

uncommon endeavor, it is an enjoyable linguistic hobby for many people and has found its way
into many facets of entertainment. Esperanto continues to be an international form of
communication for thousands of people worldwide. As Peterson says in “The Conlanger’s
Manifesto”, conlanging helps those who create languages appreciate the “the multifariousness
and beauty of language”, but everyone can begin to learn to appreciate the multifariousness and
beauty of conlangs.

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