Friday, September 2, 2011

Fiat Lingua!

From David Peterson, President of the non-profit Language Creation Society (LCS), comes the welcome announcement of a new journal aimed at the interests of language creators.
The LCS is launching a new online journal called Fiat Lingua. A new article will appear on the first of every month. Articles will be available in PDF form on publication, and will be free to download. Articles themselves are self-selected and published with permission, with the copyright reverting to the author upon publication. On occasion, when we’ve received enough material, LCS may publish an anthology of Fiat Lingua articles in print and electronic form. Information about such anthologies will be released when relevant.

If you’d like to contribute an article to Fiat Lingua, contact us at We’re looking to include both formal academic-style papers and informal contributions (humor, news, tips, reviews, editorials, interviews, interesting works in progress, poetry, short fiction, conlang sketches, puzzles, etc.). All contributions, academic and nonacademic, should be of interest and value to a readership of people primarily interested in invented languages. You may include color, but future print anthologies will likely be in black and white. And, as publication will be online, authors will also have the opportunity to edit articles after they’ve been published. If you have a question about a project you think might be suitable but you’re unsure, feel free to send us an e-mail and we can discuss it.

The purpose of Fiat Lingua is to provide conlangers with a visible forum to publish papers related to conlanging or conlangs — especially subjects or projects which don’t lend themselves easily to listserv or forum posts.
The new journal’s first essay is “Case Marking and Event Structure: One Conlanger’s Investigations” by Matt Pearson, a professor of linguistics at Reed College. This essay is one of the “academic-style papers”, not an “informal contribution”. Some amateur conlangers may find this sort of thing a bit dense and intimidating, especially as the first half of the essay explores nominal cases systems in various real-world languages, some of them pretty obscure. It’s only in the second half that the author gets more “autobio-graphical” and talks about his own invented language. But if this essay is anything to judge by, the journal should be a valuable new venue for the discussion of artificial languages. I look forward to seeing more.

Having said that, I must now digress …

I’ve always found it interesting that the vast majority of conlangers devise complex case systems for their languages, with eight, ten, or more cases — much more complex than most real-world languages today. Seemingly, these conlangers don’t mind their languages going unlearned and unused (except by themselves), as intricate case systems are usually quite an obstacle (usually, but not always: witness Quenya and Klingon). Why do they do it? I guess I should rephrase — why do we do it — since I have been just as guilty. I haven’t worked on invented languages of my own in quite a few years, but at one time, I was simply mad for it. I was a conlanger avant la lettre. As I’ve written before, my friend Gary and I used to call them “Artificial Dialects”, and we had binders full of them. (They still exist, but they’ve been doing no more than collecting dust for what feels like a century now.)

So, why? Sometimes it’s out of the wish for “results [that] are sufficiently bizarre to satisfy my taste for the exotic”, as Pearson says. He also aims at “retaining the feel of a natural human language”, but the majority of the most widely spoken languages in the world today are shedding (or have already shed) their case systems. Of widely spoken languages that still do have case systems, real or vestigial, most are usually much simpler today than they were in centuries past. As a result, real-world languages tend to be more easily learned by wide audiences (which, in turn, often further erodes case systems and other complex grammatical features). The most successful artificial languages (like Esperanto) are usually the ones with the simplest grammatical systems.

Faced with that reality, why push on and do it anyway? Maybe your language is meant to have been spoken millennia ago, or by isolated pockets of indigenous people? Or maybe the real, secret reason is just to show off. “Look at me! Look how much I know about linguistics! I’m going to demonstrate every single oddity I’ve ever read about in my conlang, so buckle your seat-belts!” Things that are complex, it stands to reason, require more careful devising, more knowledge, more effort, and we want people to be impressed, by golly! And it’s not just nominal case systems. The same motivations apply to all aspects of conlang grammar, syntax, phonology. “Look at me! Look at this amazing inventory of sounds! I can pronounce a full range of aboriginal clicks, so you had better learn too! Look, I’ve discovered consonants for which I had to invent new glyphs! Oh, and I’m giving you tones as well. Why wouldn’t I?”

Why indeed? Such languages might be fun in theory and for study — and I don’t wish to deny anyone their fun, or their learning by doing — but with only a handful of exceptions, they will never be spoken outside the conlangers’ basements. My own invented languages certainly never got any further. :)


  1. That sounds fascinating Jason and I shall try to follow it though I doubt I have anything to contribute as I have never been a language-maker; my co-author on 'Perian's Journey' has had a stab at some bits of language for the whole (unpublished) corpus related to that novel, though, so maybe I can interest him................
    Still waiting for your book, but I do feel duty-bound always to use my excellent local indie bookshop and they have it on order - don't want to see them vanish like the one in Dartmouth (Devon) that was started by Christopher Robin Milne and is now about to close.

  2. Well done, you! I think it’s so important to support local bookshops. Sadly, we have very, very few of these left here in America.

  3. I've never done any conlanging, but between studying boatloads of languages and reading about conlanging, I've at times had the urge to. For instance, while studying Latin there were occasions when I thought, "Hmm, you know if it made this distinction everything would make a lot more sense!" Maybe I was just a bit let down after hearing about how "logical" Latin was. I think it's these things, the abstract ways of categorizing things that make languages distinct and unique, that has at least attracted me. An artificial language is in a way going to show how its deviser makes these abstractions. It will at least show some distinctions/categorizations that they have wanted to see in a language. Of course we dont' hear about this much with Tolkien though (or maybe it's just cause I mostly read about sounds). Did you read "In the Land of Invented Languages"? It's a pretty interesting new book out about artificial languages and conlangers.

  4. Jason

    Thanks for this will download and read (probably on plane back from Cyprus). I like you have dabbled in that secret vice of language construction creating a language called Lindorian (I know even the name sounds Tolkienian). I agree while it was fun to do (mostly in the back of science and biology classes) it did become a complex project with many cases, genders and I think I went to town on the subjunctive case (my fav from Latin). Looking back I think I was trying to accomplish all that Tolkien accomplished in a life time in the space of several months. It is interesting studying how Tolkien developed his language system and how this can inform language creation. Also, there is a wonderful book called Lunatic Lovers of Language that charts the history of language creation which I was fascinated to read started with Hildegard Von Bigen!!! So this has been around for quite some time!!!

    Thanks Andy

    BTW Finnished your book and actually read some of the chapters twice!!, This is a must have book for all Tolkien lovers and academics and I will do a review for Amazon this week and have also promoted on the Mythgard Institute Tolkien and Epic Doscussion board (we have been attending lectures by Tom Shippey on Beowulf). Will there be copies at the Oxenmoot later this month (23-25 September). Bravo you have written one of the most insightful and USEFUL books on how to think and work with sources materials and Tolkien and I will be using and quoting heavily from it!!!!

  5. Artur Harding12/17/2011 3:32 PM

    Many modern-day languages have complex case systems. Japanese, for instance, has:

    =ga nominative
    =no genitive
    =ni dative
    =e allative
    =made terminative
    =kara ablative
    =yori ablative of time, standard of comparison
    =to comitative
    =de locative/instrumental

    Plus combinations of some of these (e.g. =made=ni, =e=to etc.). All of them enjoy several idiomatic usages. Similar lists could be written out for just about any Asian language you name: Korean, Tamil, Hindi, Sinhala, Burmese, Tibetan, you name it. Many African languages of Ethiopia have extensive case systems, not to mention just about all native Australian and quite a few Papuan tongues.

    Case is far from an archaic "survival" in Finnish and German -- it' something that appears in countless languages around the world. Some languages lose their case marking, like English; others gain cases. Saying that language change = simplification (alternatively = the loss of morphological case) doesn't quite cut it.

  6. Hi, Artur,

    Saying that language change = simplification (alternatively = the loss of morphological case) doesn’t quite cut it.

    That is not quite what I said. It is you who is oversimplifying. :)

    You are naturally free to disagree with me; and I will reserve the right to disagree with you. In any case, the main subject of the post was invented languages. Are you trying to suggest that conlangers create complicated case systems because some real-world languages have complicated case systems? That doesn’t seem like the most common explanation to me.

  7. I was contesting this part of your post:

    "Of widely spoken languages that still do have case systems, real or vestigial, most are usually much simpler today than they were in centuries past. As a result, real-world languages tend to be more easily learned by wide audiences"

    All the Asian languages I listed are spoken by large populations and are equipped with extensive case systems. I disagreed with the assertion that the case inventories of modern-day languages are "generally simpler" when compared to the past. Modern Japanese, for instance, has a more robust set of case-markers than Classical Japanese, and in Hindi, Nepali etc. the eroded case endings of Middle Indic were enhanced by numerous postpositions becoming agglutinative suffixes. These, and many other instances, prove that case systems can gain complexity just as well as lose it.

    I'm sorry for my off-tangent ranting. I actually agree with you: conlangers (me included) have a weird fondness for noun case. You're also right that the explanation for this isn't likely to be that many real-world languages have case systems.

  8. I follow you, Artur, but while Tamil (to focus on just one example) is spoken by a large number of people, maybe 75 million or so, it is not what I would call widely spoken. Its geographical distribution (hence, its influence on processes of worldwide language interaction and change) is pretty small — certainly when compared to English, Spanish, French, etc., which are spoken both by more people and much more broadly all over the world. Even my friends who are native speakers of Tamil more often use Hindi, which says a lot. :)

    And looking at Hindi as typical of the Indo-Aryan branch today, I believe the language exhibits three cases. Compare that to its ancestor language, Sanskrit, with eight cases, and once again, you should see the point I was making about grammatical simplification.

    Tibetan and Nepali are even worse examples for you, better ones for me. They are, in fact, examples that support my generalization that widely spoken language usually simplify, while more isolated languages usually do not. And of course, the aboriginal languages of Africa and Australia support my generalization even more strongly. The same could be said of indigenous languages in the Americas.

    You may have made your best argument with Japanese, but a single counterexample isn’t enough to overturn a solid generalization. I never claimed to have discovered in invariant, incontrovertible truth, but I think the generalization is an accurate one, Japanese notwithstanding. Anyway, Japanese is anomalous in many ways, so what applies there usually cannot be taken as typical of the processes in other language families.

    But I don’t think we need quibble. As you say, we are actually in agreement about the predilections of conlangers. :)

  9. The point you're missing is the cycle of grammaticalization, which goes analytic > agglutinative > fusional > analytic. The Indo-European languages started out very fusional, so they tended to become more analytic over time (with numerous exceptions). This is not a trend that is in any way correlated with number of speakers or their geographical distribution.

    Looking at the list of the 10 most spoken languages in the world, we have Indo-European languages, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese. Chinese has very simple morphology, but it never had any complex morphology to begin with. However, Old Chinese was toneless, and tone is certainly one of those concepts that are hard to learn, possibly even harder to learn than case, for speakers of languages that lack them. Arabic has few cases but overall a very complex morphology. There is no real pattern here as to level of morphological complexity and number of speakers.

    The reason the world's most spoken languages are the world's most spoken languages are because its speakers were very good at conquering. That is how Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, French and English all spread. The Chinese were also good at conquering, as well as being the most prosperous and technologically advanced civilization in their region for thousands of years, and also the inventors of the literary tradition in the East, so that while the Chinese conquered Japan (the Mongols tried) militarily, their literary culture spread there via cultural and economic superiority.

    In short, the easiest way to spread your language is by empire building, which is completely orthogonal to the actual qualities of a language qua language.

    Perhaps the simplest objection to your argument is, why did Indo-European spread so widely in the first place? PIE itself and all its direct descendents had complex case systems. Yet IE languages spread from the British isles all the way to India and Western China before the Age of Imperialism. If it is the case that a language spreads more widely when it is "simple", surely this wouldn't be the case. These languages not only spread, they retained and even innovated on the complexity for milennia before there was any significant trend of simplification.

    Further, there have been many cases which go against that trend even within IE. Old Irish has a fiendishly complex verbal system which far exceeds what it inherited from Proto-Celtic and PIE. Germanic reinvented a mediopassive which had previously been lost, and Old Norse added fusional definiteness suffixes where Proto-Germanic had no overt marking of definiteness. Tocharian added numerous cases to the extensive list from PIE, and in fact the two Tocharian languages, Tocharian A and B, appear to have innovated the same cases from different sources.

    Today's major European languages (except Russian) have become so simple that they're starting to become more complex again, as in the cycle of grammaticalization. Spoken French is much more synthetic than written French. English has numerous compound contractions like I'd've and I'ma which are highly fusional.

    So, given that the best predictors of how widely spoken a language is, are extralinguistic; the fact that language which spread the farthest was highly complex, and its daughters remained so until it had spread across the widest geographic area of any language; and the dubious correlation between language complexity and # of speakers to begin with, I consider this position thoroughly debunked.