Artificial Languages

by Robert Isenberg

taH pagh taHbe'. DaH mu'tlheghvam vIqelnIS.
quv'a', yabDaq San vaQ cha, pu' je SIQDI'?
pagh, Seng bIQ'a'Hey SuvmeH nuHmey SuqDI',
'ej, Suvmo', rInmoHDI'?

[To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea or troubles,
And by opposing, end them?]

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Translated into Klingon by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader

Introduction: The Artificial Language in Context

          The study of artificial language is not an easy one. The aims of their authors are various, sometimes admittedly inane. Most artificial systems, once generated, are never used or revealed to anyone but the creator, and even then can hardly be called languages. The distinguishing characteristics of genuine artificial languages, codes and functional systems are hazy, and identifying them is often viewed as missing the point.
          An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that although artificial languages are artificial, they do exist. To assume that an artificial language is illegitimate because a single individual or select group developed it is not only simplifying the issue but also writing off any linguistic relevance it may have. Thousands of speakers of various artificial languages would tend to disagree with that assessment.
          This study sought to accomplish two goals: first, to define and identify artificial languages, differentiating them from languages that might be thusly categorized. Second, to analyze the artificial language in terms of origin, purpose, structure, and audience.

I: Definition of the Artificial Language

          A simple definition of an artificial language is any language whose lexicon and grammar were developed from an individual source for the sake of itself. Individual source refers to either one creator or a select body of creators. Unlike an authentic language, the brunt of it emerges with relative suddenness. A great deal of time might transpire over the course of its development, but when it is released to others the language must be communicatively functional - i.e. the system can be used to convey many ideas.
          Another qualification is inferred in the definition: the system is functional before there are any real native speakers. The creator is in almost every case incapable of speaking his or her own artificial language, and creates vocabulary and grammatical systems at a much faster rate than they can be learnt and employed.
          The definition also implies that while others beside the creator are capable of learning an artificial language, the reason it is artificial is because it is functional before it is a language. To define a system as a language implies that there are more than one speaker, which suggests this type of system is strictly artificial as long as no one speaks it, and a language as soon as people do.
          For the sake of itself does not mean that the language has no purpose, but that its goal is not first and foremost an ideological one. Languages generated for ideological purposes are similar but ultimately different. In the case of Klingon and Elvish, they initially serve literary purposes, but in both cases their roles are often self-serving.

II: Identifying the Artificial Language

          Three factors determine the authenticity of an artificial language: purpose, originality, and size.
          The purpose of the language is the clearest marker. By this definition, Esperanto would not be considered a true artificial language.
          It is beyond doubt, despite the anonymity of his work, that Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof voluntarily created the language Esperanto, publishing a grammar and dictionary under the title International Language, Introduction and Complete Textbook. And although his rarely mentioned wife, Clara Zilbernik, assisted him in this venture, the language can be seen as artificial upon publication.
          It is also clear, however, that the function of Esperanto was not for the sake of itself. Esperanto began with the intention of becoming "the international language," and was tailor-made to provide easy acquisition by future students. The grammar is deliberately simple and flexible, and the words are veritably phonetic. Despite the difficulties it poses for non Europeans (such as roman letters), its purpose is to serve a real community by becoming a real language.
         The language that inspired it, Volapük, is a different case. Its creator, a Bavarian priest named Johann Martin Schleyer, "loosely based [Volapük] on Germanic and Romance languages." As far as purpose, Volapük "had a complicated grammar with endless verb forms. The alphabet had no r, but included the difficult German vowels ä, ö, and ü. Words looked clumsy and sounded harsh, frequently having been altered and shortened so they hardly resembled the natural forms they were derived from."
          But it is precisely this variance from existing languages that makes Volapük a fuller artificial language. Where Esperanto vocabulary is clearly based on Indo-European languages (e.g. Halo = Hello, grava = important, barbaro = barbarian), Volapük warps the words in order to estrange them from modern languages. The grammar patterns are complex not for the sake of the learner, but for its own sake. This is where originality plays a key role: an artificial language may be based on other languages, but not so significantly that it is perceived as either a pidgin or an artificial dialect. As for Esperanto, the system is too complex to be considered a code, but it ideally serves as a unique conjunction of pidgin and lingua franca - a mutual blending of existent languages that anyone can use. This is evidenced by its method of lexical incorporation: "One rule provides that 'foreign' words, those which most languages have taken from a common source, come into Esperanto unchanged except for spelling."
          The size of a language is also important. This does not only mean how many words exist in the artificial language, but also how much can actually be said: languages that lack number systems or rules for certain syntactic situations could make many ideas inexpressible.
          This factor is the downfall of many languages developed for literary and entertainment circles: while they exist for their own purposes and include original grammar and vocabulary, they boast only a few hundred words and an imprecise, sometimes non-existent grammar. According to Jeffrey Henning, editor of Model Languages electronic newsletter, "More ambitious still is a language that is actually meant to be used to communicate. Such a language requires a vocabulary of at least 1,000 to 2,000 words and a detailed grammar."
          He references author Harry Harrison as creating the Saurian language, which consisted of only enough words to service his novel, West of Eden. This can hardly be considered an artificial language, since it can't express any ideas except those expressed in the book. He also mentions Anthony Burgess' Nadsat, the fictive English dialect of A Clockwork Orange. "The reader finds himself learning the language as she reads each page," Henning observes. "Learning through immersion. Nadsat has about 300 words."
          Henning doesn't work with artificial languages, however: he is more interested in model languages, which are similar in the sense that Esperanto could be excused as an artificial language. Model languages, he explains, are "everything from a few words of made-up slang to a rigorously developed system of interrelated imaginary tongues." While the latter could be conceived as an artificial language, the former is probably too limited to fit the definition. The purpose of the language is not ideological, as it is more of a hobby, but the language ceases to exist once the creator loses interest.

III: Actual Artificial Languages

          In her essay on the linguistic potential of science fiction, author Suzette Haden Elgin described the genre as "a laboratory for exploring linguistic solutions...Because most experiments involving language can't be done in the real world-for ethical reasons-we're lucky to have science fiction. Sf gives us a 'thought experiment' lab where both writer and reader can try things out at length and observe what happens."
          It is easy to explain, then, why the two most popular artificial languages are science fiction derivatives: Klingon and Elvish.
          Klingon is the language of a fictional alien race in the Star Trek television series. The species is aggressive, ill tempered, and militant. While the television series ran for two decades without an official Klingon language, linguist Marc Okrand was given the challenge to develop not only enough phrases to fulfill screenplay requirements, but to design a complete vocabulary and grammar. Once finished, the language was published in its entirety as The Klingon Dictionary. According to the Klingon Language Institute, about one thousand people from over thirty nations have verifiably learnt Klingon since the publication of the dictionary in 1985.
          Elvish is actually two languages, Quenya and Sindarin, which serve as the language of the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien began creating what has been above described as model languages, his "secret vice." In elementary school he allegedly created, with the help of his friends, Animalic (a code) and Nevbosh (a model language). Nevbosh "was mainly a mixture of heavily distorted English, French, and Latin words. It did not represent a real breaking away from English or other normal languages."
          When he began tinkering with Elvish, Tolkien generated the two artificial languages over a long period of time, generating phonetic structure, writing systems, and grammar. According to Tolkien, Elvish "intended (a) to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure (not in detail); and (b) to be specially pleasant. The former is not difficult to achieve, but the latter is more difficult, since individuals' personal predilections...varies [sic] widely." Quenya and Sindarin follow Finnish and Welsh patterns, respectively, and incorporate roots from Indo-European words, but most of the vocabulary (several thousand words) is of his own devising.

IV: Klingon

          In the Star Trek mythos, the Klingon language is an ancient organism and a symbol of pride for the community. Their own culture and values constantly preoccupy the Klingons, despite their warlike tradition. Their language is guttural, choppy, and atonal. The grammar structure consists of patterned affixes; a misplaced glottal pause or an extra syllable could render a functional sentence incoherent. bel, to be pleased, changes to mubel, they please me, to mubellaH, they can please me, to mubellaHtaH, they are still able to please me, and so on. An entire sentence could consist of one word and all the appropriate affixes:

They clearly do not need to please me anymore

          Critics complain that while the language is functional, it has no aesthetic value, which, presumably, is not a concern to the Klingons. The deep throated H, Q, and q make the language unpleasant to the ear, and frequent pauses (signified by an apostrophe) slow Klingon down considerably.
          Nevertheless, Klingon has come into its own. The Klingon Language Institute puts out a quarterly journal (HolQeD) that "includes columns, articles, interviews, and letters exploring the Klingon language." Conversation tapes are available for the burgeoning speaker, as well as the (slightly satirical) Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, by Marc Okrand. The latter boasts information on "regional dialects of the Empire" and "proper verbal, physical, and cultural responses." This information is a follow-up on the Dictionary's claim that while "there are a number of dialects of Klingon...only one of the dialects, that of the current Klingon emperor, is represented in this dictionary." Of course at the publication of the Dictionary, there were no such dialects, because there were no actual speakers of Klingon. Any dialect material had to either evolve over the course of thousands of Klingon conversations, or carefully emerge from Okrand's own imagination.
          Klingon enthusiasts are now so intrigued by the language that certain webpages, such as the one belonging to ToDbaj, "an off-beat Klingon," can be viewed in either Klingon or English. Contributions are constantly being made to the Klingon lexicon, many hundred of which are listed in the Additional Canon Words section of the KLI webpage. On their own these additions provide a wealth of information about new items: butlh, or dirt under fingernails, HuchQed, or economics, and even some vulgar terms (ngech can mean either valley or cleavage, depending on its use).
          When exactly an artificial language becomes an authentic language is impossible to say. Certainly there is a comparable number of self proclaimed Klingons as there are speakers of Gaelic, but whether Klingon gains legitimacy depends primarily on whether it can be taken seriously.
          Its efforts at seriousness are summed up in the literary material speakers and translators have contributed to the Klingon world. While the television series and films provide plenty of fictional Klingons, and thereby many script opportunities to expand the wisdom and folklore of the Klingon race, several speakers have taken on translating English canons. The two most famous are the Hamlet and Book of Paul projects.
          Both translations come from Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader, who have already succeeded in publishing Hamlet in the "original Klingon" form. While this is an extended joke based on a line in the sixth Star Trek film, the project itself is taken as seriously as any other major translation project. The linguists even face problems that would effect non-artificial languages, such as how to translate the word God. The Klingons are certainly no atheists, given the high level of spiritual pride they demonstrate in the program, but an actual deity is never mentioned. Thus the translators sated the issue by calling Him joH'a' 'e', or Great Lord.
          Here again is an example of where the line between artificial and authentic becomes sketchy: Star Trek has never referred, in all its history, to Christianity or Christ. While the characters often refer to "secular" authors (Shakespeare, Melville, Goethe), religion is only touched upon in alien communities. Therefore it seems that translating the Bible is more important to Klingon speakers (that is, real world Klingon speakers) than it is relevant to Star Trek mythology.

V: Quenya and Sindarin

          While Marc Okrand was commissioned to take part in the Klingon project, Tolkien had no such motivation. His means of language construction was personal.
          In Helge Fauskanger's article, "Tolkien's Not-So-Secret Vice", he refers to Tolkien's "simulated changes within an imagined history." At first it would seem irrelevant that Okrand did not create the Star Trek universe, that the entire Star Trek phenomenon is generally attributed to writer/director Gene Roddenberry, while Tolkien fashioned his language in a world of his own making. They are both, after all, fictional worlds.
          But unlike Star Trek, where the language fits the culture, Tolkien wrote in one his letters that "Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic taste might seem real. But it is true." In his book, The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien elaborated on this point: "'If you construct your art-language on chosen principles', you can write poetry in that language - 'in so far as you fix it, and courageously abide by your own rules, resisting the temptation of the supreme despot to alter them.'"
          Thus we see not a language emerging after the fact, but a language and a culture that mature simultaneously. The peoples of Tolkien's Middle Earth, living in their various nations, each have a long history, detailed intimately in his Silmarillion. As the language evolved in Tolkien's mind, so too did the culture of Middle Earth. A smattering of Quenya and Sindarin poetry colors the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
          Again unlike Okrand, Tolkien compiled a list of etymologies but no standard dictionary or set grammar. In The Return of the King, he supplied a pronunciation guide and some remarks on Tengwar, a Middle Earth alphabet, but mostly only scattered poems reveal Middle Earthen languages in use. Pieces of other languages (more model than artificial), such as Westron and Entish, make occasional debuts, but they are not nearly so developed or significant to the Tolkien milieu.
          Another feature of Elvish is the evolution of the language within the context of the novels. Fauskanger observes that Quenya and the earlier Qenya, both pronounced the same, represent different stages in the same language. He cites an early Qenya poem and compares it to a later Quenya rendition of the same poem:

QENYA                                                  QUENYA
Man kiluva lómi sangane                    Man kenuva lumbor ahosta,
telume lungane                                      Menel akúna,
tollalinta ruste,                                      ruxal' ambonnar,
vea qalume,                                            ëar amortala,
mandu yáme,                                          undume hákala
aira móre ala tinwi                                enwina lúme elenillor pella
lante no lanta-mindon?                        talta-taltala atalantië mindonnar?
          This poem represents a sort of interior evolution, whereby the language modified itself over time, like an authentic language, as a result of fictional speakers.

VI: Quenya as Authentic Language?

          After Tolkien's death, the study of Elvish (both Quenya and Sindarin) became popular. Quenya is clearly the more popular, but speakers of both languages currently maintain chat-rooms, schedule conferences, and, as will later be discussed, create E-mail lists for the discussion of Tolkien languages.
          Several Quenya and Sindarin dictionaries have been compiled - some more authoritative than others - and posted on the Internet. Indeed, the Internet has become a forum for speakers of all successful artificial languages. Whether they can be considered artificial or not, Esperanto and the logic-based Lojban are both popularly used throughout the electronic world.
          Elvish does not have the budget and centrality of Klingon, this much is obvious. While the Klingon Language Institute offers merchandise, downloadable sound effects, and official membership, most Elvish-related sites are personal. The question is inevitable: which, Klingon or Elvish, is the more legitimate authentic language?
          Klingon, with all its publicity, pulls in new speakers by the dozens. While there is no base literature, they translate other's and develop their own.
          Quenya, meanwhile, is not nearly so prolific. One of the most popular websites, Tyalië Tyelelliéva, is the personal creation of Lisa Star, which was based on the principle that "I felt that there should be more Elvish poetry in the world." As a channel for the arts, she offers poetry prizes, E-zine-status publication, and access to the "Elfling List."
          What Tyalië Tyelelliéva proves is that contributions can still be made to the language. Study of Elvish, in spite of the conjectural grammars set up by its linguists, seems like a viable source of new literature. In Fauskanger's insightful article on the issue of copyright, he argues that use of the language (i.e. employing, critiquing and referencing it), are entirely legal. The issue was brought about by accusations to the contrary, an issue that Zamenhof expressly forbid in his introduction to Esperanto.
          But if contributions can be made, are they? This question prompted a subsequent study of the Elfling E-mail list, which was established to facilitate discussion of Tolkien's language. Over the course of a month, E mail messages were received and analyzed for content. Analysis concerned the following:

1) Did writers address one another using Elvish welcomings?
2) Did writers use Elvish in writing (poetry, messages, etc.)?
3) Did they discuss history/etymology?
4) Did they discuss grammar?
5) What gender were the writers?

The results of the survey are as follows:

Did writers use Elvish address?                   
Yes          8.77%                                                           
No          91.23%                   

Did writers discuss history/etymology?
No          68.42%
Yes          31.57%

Did writers employ Elvish?                             
Yes          14.04%
No          85.96%

Did writers discuss grammar?
Yes          87.72%
No          12.28%

          Of the messages posted, 82.46% were posted by males, 8.77% by females, and 8.77% could not be identified.
          While one E-mail list can hardly be conclusive, the results heavily indicate that Elvish is not used as a language as much as an area of study. The limited number of people actually using it suggests that writing in the language (much less speaking it) is not what appeals to most learners. Indeed, in an electronic interview with three Quenya-users, one said that he had translated Bible passages and written poetry, and could compose "without having to check any sources, dictionaries, etc." All three answered that they could read it, one of them with "some ease," but another argued that "I don't believe it is possible" to be fluent in Quenya.
          When asked if they created words themselves, all agreed that while it was common practice to fill in gaps in the language, no words were arbitrarily made-up. If new Quenya words were generated, they were based on either the older Qenya or Sindarin root-stems. Since the design of the language was intended to be poetry-friendly, users of Quenya seem open to new phrases and artful elaboration on existing words.
          Because the source text cannot be continued (Tolkien himself is dead), and the language cannot be expanded by its creator, study of Quenya seems to be not only a posthumous field in terms of Tolkien, but posthumous in the sense that Elvish behaves like a dead language. Just as Latin was modified but the vocabulary remained largely the same after the fall of the Roman Empire, Elvish seems to be more of a scholarly pursuit than a practical one. Where Klingon can serve as a communicative utility, Elvish is more of a literary window into an author's mind, much the way learning Greek is a window into the mind of Socrates, or Aramaic is a window into the Talmud.
          To say Elvish is dead is to propose that it was once living, and that seems unlikely in the real world. To Tolkien, however, the language was real enough to the residents of Middle Earth.

VII: Conclusion: The Future of Artificial Languages

          Because the phenomenon of artificial languages is so rare, there is no way to divine what is in store for them: will there be new artificial languages, given the surging interest in Klingon and Elvish? Or will people be satisfied with these alone? Will a hobbyist generate a language popular enough to be considered an artificial language, and will current artificial languages one day become authentic languages, usable at home or in the workplace?
          At this stage an artificial language is no longer an experiment or even a novelty; in the case of Klingon and Elvish, they have expanded beyond the comprehension of any one individual.
          One scholar on the Elfling list wrote this reply in answer to a question about Quenya pronunciation:

Even if Elvish were a real language, we would be unable, in absence of information from native make more than a (perhaps highly educated) guess at its phonetic detail; as it is, it's a fictional language, and questions of phonetic detail are inherently unanswerable.

         While many writers try to maintain the illusion that Sindarin and Quenya are authentic languages, the said author responded to the question with a glaring hopelessness. The feeling is undoubtedly common, given the fact that Tolkien left a more concrete legacy than notes.
          Still, the fact that a question could be asked on the subject of pronunciation reveals an underlying interest in building Quenya into a usable form by manipulating it to suit the purposes of the communicants. Whether it will reach fruition is unknown, but as the concept of artificial languages attests, what can be imagined is often realized beyond our expectations.


          Anonymous, The Elvish Linguistics List,

          Elgin, Suzette Haden, Linguistics and Science Fiction Interface, ©1999 by Suzette Haden Elgin,

          Fauskanger, Helge, Tolkien's Not-So Secret Vice,

          Henning, Jeffrey, Model Languages, ©1995 by Jeffrey Henning,

          Okrand, Marc, The Klingon Dictionary, ©1993 by Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY

          Okrand, Marc, Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, ©1997 by Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

          Richardson, David, Esperanto: Learning and Using the International Language, ©1998 by David Richardson, Orcas Publishing Company, Eastsound, WA

          Rosenfelder, Mark, The Model Languages Kit,

          Star, Lisa, Tyalië Tyelelliéva,

          Yaguello, Marina, Lunatic Lovers of Language: Imaginary Languages and Their Creators, translated by Catherine Slater. ©1991, Athlone Press, London

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