Conlanging vs. Language Death

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Musings

There is a question that comes up in almost every Q&A session after a talk about constructed languages and in the comments thread of any article on a popular website. This question is: why aren’t you spending all this time and effort saving real languages that are dying off instead of making new ones?

Honestly, this is an annoying question, partially because it is based off of erroneous assumptions. Because this comes up so often, I wanted to lay out a number of the responses.

So, why are we conlangers out there saving dying languages instead of playing with our words by ourselves? Because we can’t – we don’t know how. What people need to understand is that creating a language and preserving a language are very different activities. A skilled conlanger is not a skilled field linguist (and vice versa). Both involve linguistic knowledge, but they require different skill sets. Spending time and effort on creating a language doesn’t keep a linguist out of the field.

Next, language death is more a political problem than it is a linguistic one. Languages die because people stop using (or are forced to stop using) the language or the people who use the language die off (or are killed). This is a bigger (and more important) issue than the language itself. It’s about the death of a culture, protecting it from assimilation and destructive forces (social, economic, and political). Language preservation can be a part of that, but it can’t be the only factor.

As an aside, because language is a medium of culture, revitalizing a language by encouraging people outside that culture to speak it can very easily be an act of cultural appropriation. While that theoretically might continue the language, it’s unlikely to actually do anything to help the culture itself.

Third, there is a place for art in the world, and constructing a language is an art form. It is a method of creative expression, like painting a picture or writing a novel. You wouldn’t blame a fiction author for not spending their time for writing historical essays, would you?

Art can also happen along side of the ‘productive’ activities in the world. A number of conlangers are, in fact, trained linguists who use their training professionally in their occupations. Other conlangers have productive lives doing whatever it is that they do for a living, and they construct language for the joy of the activity. Art, and hobbies, can and do exist right along side of the ‘productive’ world. J.R.R. Tolkien did precisely that – he was a philologist, professor, and author while creating languages.

And finally, constructed language can be a gateway to the rest of the linguistic world. Learning to conlang exposes us to topics in linguistics that we might not have otherwise have encountered. This is also the case for the non-conlanger or those who are not linguistically savvy, especially for monolinguals like many modern Americans. Interaction with a language that is not our own opens our minds to the possibility of language and sometimes getting that through our entertainment is a more effective spark than other things we do.