Thoughts on conlangs

After getting stuck into David Peterson’s excellent book, The Art of Language Invention, I’ve been thinking more about the topic of constructed languages and how they fit in with the world of linguistics.

First off, whenever the subject of language creation is discussed, there’s sometimes the criticism made that people interested in language would be better off investing their time and expertise studying languages which already exist, particularly endangered, indigenous and/or understudied ones. And while I agree that much more research needs to be done on these natural languages, I don’t think language creation is sucking up the intellectual resources of the world’s linguaphiles. In fact, I think it could be a boon to them.

Conlangs aren’t stealing the show

Is language creation a privileged activity? Yes. Is creating a language likely to benefit humanity on the whole? No, not really. Certainly not in the way that writing a grammar for a previously undescribed language would. But in order to gain the depth of knowledge to do language creation well, you need to be acquainted with the structure of language and the ways languages differ, whether that’s in the realm of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, language change - you name it. And you only get this knowledge as a result of studying a wide sample of the world’s languages, including a bunch of under-researched ones.

People who take language creation seriously by definition are required to take linguistics seriously.

Of course, when it comes to learning languages, I’d much prefer people learnt, say, Cook Islands Māori or Ainu over something that’s been made for a TV series. But then perhaps the people who’ve gone to the effort of learning a conlang like Klingon or Dothraki wouldn’t have learnt a second language otherwise.

In any case, I seriously doubt the world’s language learners are eschewing natural languages in favour of conlangs. I’m not aware of any research that’s been done on the number of people actively learning conlangs, but it goes without saying that this number would be absolutely dwarfed by the number of second (natural) language learners1.

Learning by doing

If you ask a programmer what the best way to learn to code is, they’ll probably say “by starting a coding project.” Ask an author how to get better at writing and they’ll tell you to write. The benefits of working on something you’re interested in and learning along the way are well-known.

So why not use language creation as a vehicle for teaching linguistics? What better way to get across some of the abstract, esoteric and downright arcane aspects of the subject than through practical application? Even if one takes the dimmest view of language creation, the exercise is no more pointless and contrived than asking students to write an essay on [insert highly specific topic here]. I certainly would have loved doing something like this as an undergrad.

Naturally then, I was really happy to see that this is exactly what David Adger, president of the Linguistic Society of Great Britain, has already done with a group of Year 10 students in the UK. The results were overwhelmingly positive and this was just with a group of high school students. Imagine how constructive this could be at a tertiary level.

All in all, language creation seems like an untapped teaching resource to me. The fear that conlangs draw too much attention away from endangered natural languages is valid, but, I’d argue, unfounded. Getting pulled into the world of conlangs, inevitably pulls you into the world of linguistics and language diversity. And anyone interested in linguistics probably stands to gain a lot from the exercise of putting together a language or an aspect of one.

  1. Granted, most natural language learners aren’t learning endangered languages, but how many people studying conlangs deliberately chose to at the expense of an endangered language? ↩︎