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Invented languages: from Na’vi and Elvish to Standard English?

When you hear the term ‘invented language’, you probably think first of the famous imaginary languages of fiction, for instance, the mind-numbing Newspeak of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the Russian-based criminal argot Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or Elvish and other languages in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Or perhaps it brings to mind the feminist language Láaden in Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, or Wardwesân, the language of Frédéric Werst’s sensational Ward, published earlier this year in France, the first original work of fiction to be written entirely in an invented language, accompanied by a helpful parallel French translation — well, helpful if you happen to read French. Of course fiction extends beyond print into other media, and film and television have their invented languages, too: Star Trek in its various incarnations has Klingon, and James Cameron’s Avatar has Na’vi.

Many invented languages, however, belong to the real world and have (or have had) real speakers. Some of these are plainly utopian, international languages intended to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps that have plagued human relations, so the story goes, since the Tower of Babel, when God confounded our tongues. The most successful of these, Volapük and Esperanto, introduced respectively in 1879 and 1887 by their inventors, Johann Schleyer and Ludwig Zamenhof, are still cultivated in speech and writing. They weren’t always hothouse languages, though. By the end of the twentieth century’s first decade, there were nearly 2,000 books published in Esperanto, 350 periodicals published in 48 countries, and nearly 1,500 Esperanto societies worldwide, though the tangible effects of Esperanto have dwindled since then.

You can lead a horse to water, but that doesn’t mean it will speak Esperanto

If only we had stuck with Esperanto! But no one could agree what an international language should be, or which among the dozens proposed should rise above the others. As W. L. Alden wrote somewhat caustically in the New York Times on 15 August 1903, back when Esperanto was the next big thing, ‘Of all crazes, the scheme of inventing a new universal language is the most preposterous. It recalls those amiable persons who from time to time find the divisions of Christianity intolerable, and so start a new sect and add another to the many divisions which they deplore. There are already too many languages in the world, and it would be far better if everyone spoke the same language. How this undesirable state of things is to be cured by adding a new language to those already in existence is not clear.’ But many new languages were proposed: Ido, Rosentalographia, Spelin, Dil, Adjuvanto, Eulalia, Ariana, Geoglot — all were conceived with the best intentions, all had enthusiastic adherents, at least for a while. Mostly, however, they prove the adage that you can lead a horse to water, and he may even drink, but that won’t make him Mister Ed.

Politics, nostalgia, and revitalization

Some invented languages of the real world are revitalized and modernized versions of natural languages, like Modern Hebrew, Hawaiian, Maori, Cornish, and Néo-Breton. Though not utopian, each of these is an ongoing project towards a ‘better’ language, one that enables a ‘better’ future for the people who speak it as a national language, and often prompting argument about what better languages and better futures would be. Some such languages (Cornish, for instance), are nostalgic: they recover an ethnic past, express a historical ethnic or national identity in the present, and preserve it for the future. Others, like Modern Hebrew, are updatings: Ancient Hebrew, though a religious and literary language from Biblical times to the present day, was effectively ‘dead’ as a spoken language in the second century CE, when Jews adopted Aramaic as their vernacular. Ancient Hebrew, then, was not adequate to describe the natural and cultural phenomena of twentieth-century life. Modern Hebrew has invented words and modes of expression that make it modern, hand in hand with Zionism and the establishment of Israel.

Planning and codifying a language (that is, making up the rules and words for it and recording those rules and words in grammars, dictionaries, and the like) is a species of invention. As the leading linguist Suzanne Romaine has observed, whether an invented language is fictional, utopian, or revitalized, it ‘arises from dissatisfaction with the current linguistic state of affairs. Recognition that language can be used for promoting or changing the social, cultural, and political order leads to conscious intervention and manipulation of the form of language, its status, and its uses.’ The language we have isn’t always the language we want or need, and inventing a language or making an old language new serves ideological as well as practical purposes.

Does anyone speak Standard English?

One invented language is unexpectedly under our noses. Standard English, (whether Standard British, Standard American, Standard Canadian, etc.) is in a sense very similar to revitalized languages, not simply because it responds with solutions to what dissatisfies us about the language all around us, but because it depends on an ideology of correctness. None of us speak Standard English as it’s codified in school grammars; if we did, we’d say ‘None of us speaks Standard English,’ because none is singular.(Of course, I should say that ‘few’ of us speak Standard English, as there are undoubtedly speakers out there who follow an antecedent none with a singular form of verb.) Any variety of Standard English has to be an invented language, or, at least, an invented dialect: it imposes uniformity and consistency, even though the real language of real people exhibits a remarkable degree of variation and continual change.

When we think of invented languages, Tolkien, Klingon, and maybe Esperanto come to mind, but some invented languages are closer to home than Middle-earth or a galaxy far, far away. Standard English is no less real because it’s invented, nor is it without its uses — inventions, after all, usually serve purposes. Standard English, some argue, enables mass education. Others, like those interested in The Vocabula Review, believe that ‘A society is generally as lax as its language’, where ‘lax’ is evidently a bad thing — not easy-going, generous, or free. Unsurprisingly, Standard English is a basis for discrimination, perhaps the discrimination of ‘I have discriminating taste’, but alternatively racist or classist discrimination. One way or the other, given the social consequences, we would do well to acknowledge the imaginary aspects of English.