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.

How The Voice explained Affirmative Action to me

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

One of my guilty pleasures is watching The Voice. You know, reality TV singing competition – it’s essentially American Idol without all the needless mean-spirited embarrassment. Anyway, so I watch this show, and there are a lot of good singers in it. And they have all sorts of musical backgrounds. Some have been doing gigs forever at local venues, others claim to have really never sung anywhere except church (or maybe YouTube). Some of these singers are really really good. So I think to myself, “Why are those people sitting in the judge’s chairs successful, and those on the stage not?”

The answer is, of course, opportunity. These judges on the show, they are very good singers and entertainers. But so are a LOT of people. But these musicians attracted the attention of people who could give them chances to be seen, chances to practice and perfect their crafts, resources for publicity and networking. The winner of this year’s Voice was a kid who lived on a farm. Without the opportunity of being on this show, he’d still be on the farm instead of being seen by millions of people.

That’s really what affirmative action is about: opportunity. Here’s the fact: for whatever school opening or whatever that is out there, there are a ton of people who are smart enough, who have enough merit. There are lots of very smart kids out there, of every race, creed, orientation, shoe size, whatever. The difference is that the opportunities are very different. A poor kid from an inner city is much less likely to have the opportunity to even be told about some of these possibilities, much less apply or work towards getting them.

Affirmative action, and social justice in general, isn’t about enforcing quotas or anything like that, it’s about looking for merit in places (and in people) that usually get missed.

Saying “These things should be based on merit” isn’t racist. But when someone says “That kid got in there because of their race and not their merit”, you aren’t championing merit; you are saying that you don’t think there are any people of that race who are capable. You are saying, “None of THOSE people could have merit.” And that is racist.

I knew all of this, but it occurred to me that this was a good way to explain it.

Human, and more

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

I am human. I am spiritual software running on the most advanced processors that my ecosphere has ever produced.

I am made of matter and energy, of tissues and bioelectric pulses. I am a robot built of a network integrated systems of mind-numbing complexity, given form through the elegant technologies of flesh and bone and nerve in dynamic protean harmony. From the molecules that form my chemical components, to the DNA that guides the growth and transformation of my cells, to the schemas and and heuristics on which my psychology is built, I am feedback loops made real. On all levels of my existence, I am self-modifying code.

I am a mechanism that builds upon layer after layer of complexity and abstraction, until something wholly new, something which is greater than the sum of its parts, appears. I create that and I embody that. I am an engine of synergy. I am emergent behavior incarnate.

I connect with others and in doing so create systems of relationships and relative frames of reference that interface with one another, that affect each other and thus influence the biocybernetic systems that are our lives. As I live, think, and communicate, I tie myself into larger and larger feedback loops, participate in systems larger than myself. I log into an abstraction layer of context that creates reality that is more than mere fact.

I co-exist in shared experiences that occur without the permission of space. I inhabit webs of causality that correspond to no actual thing in the universe, and yet exert motive force on us and the universe through us. We create places out of nothing; we create places that are nothing. We are avatars of our essential selves, living in dynamically bootstrapped multi-user virtual environments. We are virtual beings by our very nature.

I am a thing, if a smart thing. But I am also a creator of paradoxes, of things that do not exist. I create things which are beyond reality, simply by nature of the very real thing that I am.

I am human. And, I am so much more.

Seeds

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

It is the task of the mindful person to tend a garden of truth.

For our gardens, we gather seeds from life around us. In each thing is a kernel of truth, a seed from which truth may spring. They are weathered by time, ideology, passion, and apathy – but they are there. You can find them if you look.

A seed is a small thing. Your seeds will be small things: pictures, symbols, sentences, songs, stories, movements. But it is from a seed that fields and orchards are born.

Your seeds… they are your reminders of truth. They are mnemonics, ways you remind yourself of the way that you have lost. When your garden is overgrown from neglect, or destroyed by calamity – return to your seeds. Clear your garden, and grow anew.

Gather your seeds.