What I Learned from Conlangs – Part 1

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

Constructed languages are a big hobby of mine, even if I am far from the expertise of conlangers that tend to inhabit places like the CONLANG-L list. However, conlanging has taught me a huge amount about language. Here are a few things I’ve discovered.

(Hopefully, I will get the details in this post correct. Please comment with corrections.)

Linguistics is a descriptive science. Linguistics doesn’t tell you how language should operate as much as it tells you how it does operate. A lot of the structures linguistics comes up with don’t model what is actually happening, but rather the result. There is a lot of effort put into developing theories that account for that behavior, of course. But very little of linguistics is predictive.

For example, Navajo has this incredibly complex template for its verbs that has 11 slots in which affixes can appear in various combinations. But there is no evidence that any speaker of Navajo is actually conceptualizing that 11-slot template in their mind at any level.

Language is statistical. There are very few universals in language. For every rule of language, there is almost always a few counterexamples; there are outliers and exceptions all over the place. So rules in language are often tendencies and trends. Patterns are more clear when data is taken in aggregate. A single counterexample isn’t necessarily definitive proof.

Language is what you can get away with. If you talk and people understand you… ta da! You have engaged in communication! That means language is not definitive system, rather the aggregate of millions of people just winging it with the tools that they have at hand (at tongue?).

This is the reason why I am rabidly anti-prescriptive grammar and am inordinately bothered by grammar nazis. In my opinion, prescriptive rules have less to do with successful communication and more to do with cultural control and conformity. For example, English rules like the prohibition on the split infinitive, or the bias against the passive voice, are not really based in the language itself – they are cultural markers. (For frak’s sake, the passive voice has a perfectly legitimate role in language. This is why I will never be a ‘real’ author…)

Language is like an onion: it has layers and when you take it apart it can make you cry. Layers are an important metaphor for language in many ways and many areas. Language operates in several layers at the same time. Simultaneously, language is operating on the level of individual sounds, perceived sounds, syllables, words, clauses, sentences, discourse, context, and meaning. All of that, all at the same time. Several of those layers are interacting and affecting each other on the fly, as well.

To further apply the layer analogy, language evolves in layers. Each subgroup and generation of speakers is layering its spin on the language onto the previous one. Languages have built up, layer after layer, for thousands of years. This is why language, when you just look at it on the surface, seems like such a chaotic mess. When you look at a language over time, all the weird ass irregularities start to make sense – they all came from somewhere.

And that is why it can make you cry. The complexity is immense, and you have to pay attention to many different levels if you try to dissect what is going on in a language, and then deal with many things for which there are nothing but fuzzy boundaries. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of specific skills to accomplish. (I’m lucky enough that what I do with language just requires me to reap the fruits of all that labor.)

You can say anything in language. (This is also known as the “Screw Newspeak” principle.) Despite what generations of speculative fiction authors would have you believe, language does not limit your ability to think about or communicate specific concepts. Anyone can communicate any idea that they can conceive in some way in any language. A particular language may not have discrete words for a particular definition, but all the tools are there to articulate it in some manner. And words are cheap – you can create new ones when you need them, as long as you can explain them. Humans have been doing that constantly since language began.

Actually, I have a lot more to say on this. This post is getting long, so I’ll continue in another post.

Tags:

Leave a Reply