I was inventing words when I was hardly old enough to know English. The evidence is right there in my 2nd grade class journal: “Sundlesey which in dannys langwidj means big rok mountan.” I kept on at it, starting on my language Angosey when I was twelve; I still use the language today. However, I’ve never tried to explainwhy someone would choose to create a language. So I think it’s high time I gave it a shot.
First off, sometimes I feel that writing in English is like being given a limited supply of certain materials, chosen on my behalf by people I don’t know, and then being asked to construct a cathedral. I’ll do the best that I can with what I have but in the end I’ll look at the stained glass and the columns and so on and my hands will itch for new tools-tools that respond exactly to what I have in mind. So that’s what my language gives me: the freedom not only to build what I want but also the power to mix my own mortar and fashion my own bricks and finally build the structure of my dreams. And if my building defies gravity well so much the better.
This perspective is in tension with another, almost mutually exclusive feeling: the sense that my language has always existed, and that I am slowly uncovering an edifice that was built long before I was born. However, as time went on I realized that I was sketching my own self in the grammar and vocabulary I had created, and that this portrait changed in step with my own heart. But every time I set my pen to paper, the portrait I draw at that instant remains frozen in time, and I can go back and reread it years later and recapture the exact thoughts I was having. I suppose a diary in English might evince a similar feeling, but the beauty of having your own language is that everything about it is yours. The words themselves are little flashes of the moment you created them. The grammar is the metronome keeping time to the changing rhythms of your life. Angosey is my soul on paper.
One of the consequences of such a specific art form is that it’s hard to share it with other people. I’ve found that my hobby is generally met with indifference, with a few people actually thinking it’s creepy and (even fewer) people finding it fascinating. Either way, your created language is not going to be the sort of thing you can just put on the wall and expect to get admiring looks. Luckily, though, there is a community of thousands of us online (for example, I belong to the CONLANG listserv), and this community is extremely supportive and knowledgeable.
The really neat thing about this community is that it is so diverse. For example, some conlangers (language creators) are seeking to invent a system of communication that the whole world over can use. Such “auxiliary languages” are meant to augment or even supplant existing languages. Esperanto is the most famous of these, and one of the very few that has seen success.
There are also conlangs (created languages) that try to push the boundaries of human thought, for example through violating known language rules or condensing words into perfect logic. If this sounds interesting check out Jim Henry’s gzb (the only conlang other than my own that I’ve ever considered learning) or John Quijada’s Ithkuil (baffling in it’s perfection-as far as I can tell from the outside-it’s far beyond my reach).
Other conlangers are interested in alternate histories. They ask questions like, “what would happen if the Aztecs had invaded Korea? What kind of language would result?” Conlangers who pursue this angle tend to be very meticulous and scholarly (as they must be) in order to create a believable result. In fact, some of their languages have actually been mistaken for real ones!
Although perhaps not an “alternate history” in the strictest sense of the word, a good example of both linguistic and historical detail can be found in Jörg Rhiemeier’s Old Albic.
Of course the worlds can be entirely invented. J. R. R. Tolkien’s languages have been famous for decades and compete with Star Trek’s Klingon for the attention of fans the world over. Add to that the Na’vi language from Avatar and the Dothraki language from Game of Thrones, and (perhaps to our surprise) we find we can name quite a few conlangs off the top of our head.
The final category of conlang is called the “artlang” and exists to be beautiful, either in the elegance of the spoken word, the structure of the grammar, the aptness of vocabulary, or all of these and more. These may exist for dissemination to whoever is interested in learning them, or they may reside close to their creator’s heart, living for one person and one person only.
My conlang is called Angosey and it belongs in the artlang category for the most part, but there is quite a mythic backstory behind it and it certainly strives to be the perfect expression of my thoughts and emotions.
I look forward to writing a series of posts on Angosey: its purpose, its history, its structure and its hitherto secret texts. Thanks for reading!